Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 13:13

Ukrainian University from Within: Anthropological Notes (Part 3, “Ordinary Racism”)

December 2014

Read Part 1 of the article here; read Part 2 of the article here.

A few years ago, at our June department meeting, we were informed of our teaching responsibilities for the coming year.  I would be teaching foreign students for the first time, lecturing in English.  This is a big honor, the department chair assured me, I’m being given access to a true treasure, “to the geese who lay our university’s golden eggs.” But this wasn’t the last of his animalistic references, as the boss conspiratorially lowered his voice: “First-years, very fresh!  Straight from Africa, straight from the palm trees!” And the department staff laughed.

Racism is common at my university, it’s like the wind – dispersed everywhere.  No one feels the need to try to find the correct term (Africans?  Blacks?  People of color?), nor do they pay attention to both open and concealed forms of contempt for these new students, even if they do “lay the golden eggs.” Racism permeates everyday life at the university, and even the deputy rector has implored the faculty at assemblies: “And don’t call the foreigners monkeys.  Even though we all know that they really are monkeys.”

How to explain racism?

The very concept of racism is not straightforward.  So, to make what I’m about to write more comprehensible, I need to add a paragraph of explanation.  In the field of contemporary studies of race – what’s called critical race theory – a distinction is made between traditional racism and modern racism.  Traditional is when scientists, with the help of biology, provide a theoretical foundation for the division of people into race groups.  They emphasize natural differences (appealing to anatomy, genetics, psychophysiology) and assert the inequality of people according to race, a sort of “natural” subordination of one race to the others.  So, calling black people “monkeys” is an example of traditional racism.

Modern racism is a more complicated matter.  Here the appeal is not to biology, but to “cultural differences.” That is to say, skin color or eye shape doesn’t matter; what matters are language, music, rituals, habitus – everything connected to a person’s symbolic world, if it’s different from your own.  Secondly, there is no open discussion of subordination, and the principle of equality is even heralded (“they’re people just like us”; “separate but equal”), but the very process of differentiation and the emphasis on differences is still key.

It’s even said that any number of “otherings” can be called “modern racism,” including on the basis of gender, age, health, or sexuality; so modern racism is sometimes called “racism without race.” As a rule, you won’t hear explicit hate speech or declarations that a certain social group is second-class, but direct or discursive othering is central.

So I will be looking at where racism functions in my university, from an anthropological perspective, trying to determine whether it’s traditional or modern.  I’m interested in how education as a whole (as a social institution) and my university in particular (as a local example of the educational system) generate racism.  Finally, I have to admit that racism is internal to me as well, it’s a part of my worldview, it’s produced by our racist culture.  So, among other things, I’ll be looking for racism in myself, and that will be particularly challenging.

“Fresh ones, straight from Africa!” (The newbies)

It was only recently that my university started to take on international students; during Soviet times there weren’t any here, in contrast to the science departments at a classical university or a medical institute.  The appearance of people from other continents at my university is connected to the expansion of the market economy.  For many teachers from the older generation, they symbolize “change for the worse” – because they are yet another marker of that same global catastrophe that ruined stable Soviet life, bringing poverty and uncertainty about the future.  This circumstance is an additional source of their irritation and dislike of international students (i.e., “before we were an elite university, and now we’re being forced to teach monkeys”).

The newbies’ journey to Ukraine usually begins in their home country, when they meet with recruiters.  These recruiting companies urge them to apply to my university and are compensated by the “head.” But it’s set up so strangely: the company doesn’t answer to the university, it’s an independent middleman, so different bizarre situations occur – and not by accident, let me tell you.  For example, one boy was assured that he could get a bachelor’s degree in subject X at our university, but after he had paid the middleman and had already flown to Ukraine, it turned out that subject X wasn’t offered in English yet.  They were maybe going to introduce it in a few years.  The guy had to start studying subject Y, and now he doesn’t know what he should do: with a degree in subject Y he definitely won’t find a job in his home country, because that industry simply doesn’t exist there!  But returning home means losing not only a year of his time, but also a not-insignificant sum spent on his ticket and the middleman company.

There’s another unpleasant surprise awaiting the newbies in the dorm.  During the recruiting period, the very same middlemen show them photos of double rooms that look like they belong in a three-star hotel.  But in Ukraine the new arrivals end up in cramped four-person rooms along a corridor, with one shower and two toilets for the entire floor.  There are rats living in some rooms, in others the windows are adorned with such huge cracks that in the winter you can only manage to survive behind a barricade of blankets.  Clothes are kept in suitcases under the beds, because the wardrobe is very small; and the kitchen is ill suited to cooking…

I’m sure someone will remind me that Ukrainian students live in the exact same sort of dorms, no better than these.  That’s true.  But I still maintain that these foreigners are in a much more difficult situation.  After all, they are the same age as Ukrainian first-years, and for them too this is usually their first time away from home.  But the difference lies in the distance and the price of a ticket home, which means they can’t simply “escape” or go home frequently, to get their family’s love and support.  So when foreigners in their first year tell me about their dorms, some of them start crying.

Wait, you’ll say.  If their families are paying for their children’s education, let them rent better housing, a private room or apartment.  By the way, the rector of our university thinks the same way – not that he really cares.  At big faculty meetings the rector announces from the stage: “We don’t intend to offer the good dorms to foreigners; the best ones are for Ukrainian students.  And maybe we shouldn’t let foreigners live in the dorms at all; we all know (he lowers his voice) how they behave there – they behave badly, let’s say…”

But this is charlatanism.  The university administration and the cynical middlemen both know perfectly well how vulnerable foreign students are during the first year they’re living in Ukraine – above all because they don’t know the local language.  And they know that no amount of extra money from their parents (if they even have any) will help them get out of the cramped, dirty dorms during their first year, and that the only thing that can help is tenaciously learning our language, which they do, even though their classes at the university are in English.

So, imagine for a minute these young people from India or Zimbabwe, offered a chance to study in Ukraine.  They picture a modern university, comfortable double rooms in a dorm, and all around them a pleasant European country, clean and orderly.  For some reason when I’m talking with them the topic of Europe (as a symbol, as an emblem of a perfect world) comes up very often: they came to study and live in Europe.

Their disenchantment is deep and operates on many levels.  Their status as newly arrived foreigners and their lack of knowledge of the local language ties them to their dorm on the outskirts of the city, it narrows their movements to a closed triangle: university-dorm-cafeteria (or maybe a shop).  Six months after they arrive, almost none of the first years have seen the city center or been to a park or shopping mall.  They can’t even judge if everything looks European, because they still don’t know the city as such.

There’s another reason why the newbies don’t make it to the city center.  They’re petrified of the police; that’s the first important warning they get in Ukraine and are told to remember forever.  And not only because they won’t be able to understand and answer questions from non-English-speaking policemen, but mainly because of a feeling of helplessness in the face of likely police arbitrariness.  Even if your documents are in perfect order, avoiding the police at all costs is the number one rule of survival for foreign newbies.

Documents are another story altogether.  Students constantly complain that getting a residence permit is very slow and disorderly – so, in keeping with classic Ukrainian bureaucratic style.  One of my students recounted his meetings with bureaucrats thus: “They move their legs fast, but their hands are so slow…” Which is to say, the institutions or offices have inconvenient opening hours, you have to stand in a line in the hall outside the door, no one sets specific deadlines for documents to be prepared, and even if they happen to give a date, it’s very easily broken.  “Come tomorrow,” the person responsible shrugs his shoulders, not promising anything.

Not knowing the language in the first few months constantly creates new difficulties.  Unfortunately, for some reason the university “doesn’t notice” these problems, it doesn’t help the new arrivals to adapt more quickly and more easily – it doesn’t offer special phrasebooks or dictionaries, or offer introductory tours of nearby shops and services…It gets to the point of being comedic - one of my first-year students, from India, told me this story:

I went to the shop to buy something to eat and saw that there were no English labels on the food.  You have to go by the pictures to figure out what’s in it.  So there’s a row of cans, with pigs or chickens or cows on them.  Ok, I figure, this must be canned meat.  I picked out a can with a rabbit on it.  When I got home I opened it – and it was sweetened condensed milk!  (He laughs.)  Another time I wanted to buy regular milk, but on all the bottles there was a picture of a cat, and I was scared to buy it – I thought that it must be milk for cats, not people… (You’ve probably figured out that it was “Prostokvashyno,” one of the most common milk brands.)

Cooperation with the “locals”

If I were rector of this university and I had invited people from all over the world to study here, I would keep in mind that Ukrainian young people are very interested in learning English.  The number of ads for language courses and the prices people are prepared to pay attest to this very clearly.  So I would get the most enthusiastic Ukrainian students to accompany the English-speaking newbies right after they arrived in Ukraine.  We’d call them “guides,” or it could just be “English Speaking Club,” whatever you want.  It could be volunteer work for them (which they can put on their résumés), and the reward would be the opportunity for English conversational practice.  It seems to me that this would be mutually beneficial; it wouldn’t cost the university a cent, but it would help solve important problems.

But I’m not the rector, and so far nothing like this has been organized at my university.  I’ve talked with university officials, and they fervently raise dozens of important reasons why my idea has no hope:

- No one will work for free; volunteering is just entertainment for the “wealthy West, gone to seed”

- Ukrainian young people need proper English, not this cocktail of unintelligible dialects: “Have you heard how they talk?  That’s not English at all, it’s gobbledygook…”

- Our students don’t like foreigners; they don’t want to help them, or talk with them at all. (“And rightly so,” I see written on these officials’ faces.)

The last phrase most clearly reveals the basic strategy of the university administration: constantly and consistently separating “ours” from “not ours.” Different dorms, separate classes, a complete lack of cultural or sporting events where different students could talk or interact.  One of my Ukrainian students told me in secret about a special conversation the deputy dean had with the first years, telling them to avoid talking with the foreigners.  The reason given was apparently that the new arrivals had exotic diseases, and “who knows how they’ve transmitted.” And the girls in particular were ordered to stay away from the male foreigners, not to respond to their attentions under any circumstances.

Even at the university bosses’ most beloved cultural event – the September 1 parades – the foreign students walk in a separate line, always last, required to wear exotic national costumes.  Meanwhile the Ukrainian students are wearing t-shirts with their departments’ logos; their lines are never decked out in ethnic fashion.  You don’t need specialist training in post-colonial studies to diagnose the organizers of the parade with an imperial superiority complex and a desire to tribalize the non-white students.

So, the university administration openly demonstrates traditional racism both through the statements of the administration and professors, and through consistent racial segregation.  Sure, there aren’t signs saying “whites only,” but there is a clear division of the university space, designated for students of different races.

And what about the Ukrainian students?  They get messages from the university, the media, high politics, and mass consciousness.  So they’re not free from racism either, but there’s no place where this racism could be problematized, discussed, comprehended.  Racism is in the air.


How they study

- So, what do you think about these foreigners?  – asks a colleague in the department.

- Everything’s good, they’re smart, we get along. – I answer.

- Whatever.  Finals will come, and that will put an end to your friendship.  They’ll devour you to get the highest grade.

The above dialogue is extremely instructive: the idea that foreign students put particular pressure on their instructors during exam season has become commonplace.  According to the stories, the methods they use to try to gain influence aren’t characterized by great variety, and they usually repeat the same manipulative strategies: “playing the pity card” and asking for a top grade.  And they don’t make logical arguments for this, but rather apply emotional pressure, telling you about their grieved parents and their poverty.

I started to think about why this happens.  Why do adult men and women from other countries come for higher education at a Ukrainian institution, but prefer to communicate in a style that is reminiscent of a whining child, rather than rationally, between mutually responsible people?  What is the role of intercultural differences in this?  And to what degree is it actually the Ukrainian educational system that renders these strategies the most beneficial?  How does “submission from below” fan the teacher’s ego (and conscious or not particularly conscious feeling of racial superiority) and satisfy the desire to rule the roost, to reign supreme, to “punish or pardon?”

By the way, my exams didn’t go by without tears and pleading, though to a lesser degree than I’d been warned.  As far as I understand it, this strategy really is more productive for foreign students in a racist climate – and it then reproduces and strengthens that racism.  And the insistent retelling of these “horror stories” among the faculty community yet again construes non-white students as immature, unintelligent, irrational – in short, inferior.  Now it’s clear why the upper-year foreign students at my university advise their newly-arrived compatriots to “never fight with your teachers.” For one thing, “submission from below” has more of an effect.  And for another thing, you have no chance of getting justice through honest dialogue, because your position is doubly weak: in addition to the a priori subordinate position of the student, you also belong to a subordinate race.  A double disadvantage.

But the thing that is most interesting is that the foreign students actually like the process of learning itself!  A certain number of them already had a chance to receive a bit of higher education in their homeland, so they can compare fairly competently:

- The educational system in Ukraine is very effective, in comparison to India, and the module-based grading system is really great!  It lowers stress and raises productivity…

- At Ukrainian universities there are a lot of practical skills taught, and that’s very good for my future career…

- I like that Ukrainian teachers know a lot and answer all our questions…

They place a high value on level of education and are ready to forgive their teachers their (usually) weak English and unfriendly manner of communicating.  At the same time, the teachers who work with foreign students at my university view their charges very critically, even hostilely.  The non-white students are often accused of unacceptable behavior (“they talk in their own language,” “they don’t listen to my remarks”) and of lower mental abilities.  “All blacks are idiots!” I was told gleefully by a progressive young professor with an EU flag on his desk.  “They don’t know really basic things.  I ask them how many bits there are in a byte – and they don’t know!!!”

It’s been known to happen that our teachers praise foreign students for their diligence, talent, persistence, or motivation.  Notably, they formulate this praise in the same racist, othering manner.  As if to say, who would have thought!  Or: what has the world come to, look how far Ukrainian education has fallen, that now foreign students are often smarter than Ukrainian ones.

Gendered specificities of racism, racial specificities of sexism

The gender breakdown of those who come from overseas to study at my university is uneven: about 90% are boys, men.  And it’s not just a matter of the subject (engineering and computer science).  The majority of countries that supply students to my university are more patriarchal than Ukraine.  For example, a female student from India explained what incredible pressure her huge extended family is putting on her parents because they allowed their daughter to travel to the ends of the earth to study instead of keeping her close to home and preparing her for marriage.  Her situation is unusual, because she is the only child of well-educated parents with doctoral degrees; many Indian girls couldn’t even think of going abroad for higher education.

How do the female students at my university feel about this?  Beyond the already mentioned complaints about the dorms and the tricks of the educational process, immediately they bring up the topic of open or veiled condescension, underestimation on account of their gender:

- The older girls say that I should stop studying so hard, because no matter what the teachers will give girls lower grades, regardless of how well they know the material… (a first-year student from India)

- I’m studying engineering and constantly have to prove that I’m not stupid.  The teachers never give grades higher than “satisfactory” and openly say that it’s because we’re girls… (a second-year student from Zimbabwe)

I haven’t done a comparative study, but I presume the faculty’s sexism towards non-white students is greater and more open, more brutal, than towards their Ukrainian counterparts.  The reason for this is skin color.  That is, the general racist notions of the mental inferiority of non-white students critically lower the level of expectations regarding the intellectual capacity of non-white women.  A triple disadvantage.

But there’s one more interesting way in which the gender of foreign students in Ukraine serves as an additional benefit or, conversely, magnifies the social tension, and it’s connected to sexuality.  And that’s the fact that there’s a widespread practice among the male non-white students to try to find a Ukrainian girlfriend.  As a rule, they’re richer men; they invite the Ukrainian women to live with them and offer complete or partial financial support.

If this works, in addition to the typical male benefits (e.g., a woman to do the household tasks and a constant sexual partner), the foreign guys also get a teacher of the local language, an interpreter, and a guide to local customs and quirks, and all of this in one person.  So, essentially they get an extremely valuable assistant – a mediator in the unendingly complicated process of intercultural interaction.

Besides the pragmatic benefits, there is also a symbolic value in this sort of relationship.  One of my black students talks openly about this:

For a black man, to be in a relationship with a white woman is great.  No matter what she’s like in other ways, the very color of her skin immediately raises the social status of her non-white partner.  Whatever they say about the moral aspect of partnerships like this, lots of black men are eager to marry a white woman and take her back to their country as a valuable “trophy.”  In the social hierarchy pyramid, black women are at the very bottom.  Female non-white students in Ukraine have little chance of a relationship with a non-white man (because they want white women) and even less chance of finding a white man (because for him that would mean radical, impermissible social downshifting).  So I don’t envy my black female classmates… (first-year male student from Nigeria)

So it ends up that it’s quite a bit easier for male foreign students to study in Ukraine, because of their gender:

The teachers treat them better; they don’t have to work as hard to get good grades.  Plus they can easily find Ukrainian girls, start living with them, buy them things, pay the rent or give them other financial support.  Meanwhile these Ukrainian-speaking girls help them to solve various problems, fill out documents.  One time the foreign students had a party, it got really loud, and the neighbors called the police.  But the Ukrainian-speaking girlfriends spoke with the policemen, sorted everything out, and the police went away…Well, and sex, of course.  Plus the girls cook… (second-year female student from Zimbabwe)

It goes without saying that these interracial relationships are always in one direction (white woman – non-white man), never the opposite (non-white man – white woman), and the idea of interracial same-sex couples doesn’t even exist in the discourse.  So the concept itself is far from irreproachable, and it can be treated as misogynist and heterosexist.  But at the same time these couples are always the object of open and concentrated racism, whereby each partner bears the brunt of a good share of aggression and hate: the men because they’re “ruining Ukrainian girls,” the women for betraying their nation.  This rhetoric is so widespread that my students parrot it sincerely.


I am still teaching and, when I get the chance, talking with foreign students about life, recording interviews; and all the while I marvel at this extraordinary experience.  I have the feeling that racism – both traditional and modern – is continuing undisturbed, and even flourishing, at Ukrainian universities.  But I suspect that the problem isn’t (only) individual prejudice on the part of faculty or administrators.  Racism is inherent to the ideological construction of Ukrainian universities: neoliberal in form, but post-Soviet, opaque, and corrupt in practice.  Racism is an organic component of education, where the declared principle of “equal rights and opportunities” is laughably empty.  Furthermore, the nationally-specific realities of education, and later the workplace, divide the students according to multi-level hierarchical structures, where their individual capabilities or dedication to studying have little influence on the ultimate outcome.

I’m bothered by the lack of a theoretical conceptualization of the problem of racism in Ukraine, as well as the lack of open societal discussions on this topic (especially in the field of education).  Maybe my anthropological explorations will finally kick this conversation off?


My students talk about the lack of honest human respect towards them on the part of the university; they feel neglected and disrespected.  How typical is this – are there universities in Ukraine with a different attitude towards foreign students?  This piqued my interest, and I immediately found a shining example online: yes, somewhere there’s concern for foreigners, especially for their spirituality.  What follows isn’t a made-up joke, but a real news report from February 5, 2014, recounted word-for-word from the original.  It seems extremely fitting as a postscript…

“A group of first-year Indian students at Luhansk State Medical University visited the Church of the Tenderness of Mary (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate), where they learned about the traditions of Orthodoxy.” This headline appeared on the official site of the university.

“A new aspect of the work of the department of foreign languages is the spiritual education of foreign students and familiarizing them with sacred culture.  The first-year students visited the Church of the Tenderness of Mary.  They met with the priest Oleksandr, who gave them a tour and told them about the traditions and particularities of Orthodox services.  The students were shown an English-language film about the adoption of Christianity in Kyivan Rus,” the site writes.

“This was the kick-off of the new project ‘Foundations of Orthodoxy for foreign students,’ led by the Intercession Orthodox spiritual education center.  Lessons on Orthodoxy will be held in the recently-constructed church complex on the territory of the regional children’s hospital, dedicated to the icon of the Tenderness of the Mother of God.” 

KRYTYKA is deeply grateful to Kate Younger for her volunteer work in translating this article from Ukrainian.