Since yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I decided to tackle an issue that has long been bothering me as a PCV in Albania- racism. For almost 2 years I’ve turned a blind eye when my students say out-and-out racist remarks for the sake “community integration” and “intentional relationship building” (key words for any PCV out there). But now that I’m in the home stretch of my service I figured, why not?
In the US I’m lucky to come from a part of the country (yeah Washington, D.C.!!) where in-your-face-racism is at a minimum and everyone is overly politically correct with everything to that point that it’s almost obnoxious. So needless to say it was rare to encounter people who threw around racist or sexist remarks without getting ostracized by the community (whether they had those beliefs and just kept them to themselves is another story though).
As you can imagine, when I came to Albania I was little taken aback by some of the blatantly racist remarks coming from seemingly educated people. That’s not to say the entire population feels this way, but after 50 years of being cut-off from the world and having almost no immigration to this day, ethnic diversity in Albania is almost non-existent. There just aren’t enough black people walking around to make tackling racism an important issue for most of them.
So I created a simple lesson plan where we talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, MLK’s brief biography, and the current state of racism in the world. And much to my surprise, everyone seemed to be right on par with me. Up until that moment in every class, I was loving it and mentally patting myself on the back at a job well done, broaching a subject never discussed and having positive results. And then it happened, like clockwork, in the last 5 minutes of class everything fell apart. In almost every class. Every time.
At the end of the activity I asked each class, “So does racism exist in Albania?” Without fail, in each class there was that one jerk in the back of class who shouted something about n—ers, smiled proudly, and proclaimed that racism isn’t an issue in this country because “we don’t have any black people.” It gets me every time. I try to keep my cool and explain how that doesn’t actually make any sense and that there are racist people all over the world regardless of the ethnic makeup of their population. Meanwhile the rest of the class breaks out laughing and high-fiving said jerk, and then the bell rings and I feel defeated. Halfway successful?
And then in one class a miracle happened
I apologize for my over-dramatization but it was a big moment for me, so listen up. One amazing teacher who I work with saw my face and heard the comments coming from the back of the class, and she just let loose. For the last 10 minutes of class she shamed them into realizing their own ignorance at the issue of racism and how they need to learn respect and act their age and use this opportunity not just to learn English from a native speaker but improve themselves as human beings and prove that Albania is just as good as any other country and not full of prejudice, backwards individuals.
Inside I was jumping up and down and screaming “yea! you go girl!” But on the outside I stuck to my tough exterior and thanked her for her support. Can’t show weakness in a classroom like that or you’ll get eaten for lunch.
So then I turned to the class and said “In honor of MLK I challenge you to stand up against the racist comments you hear from your friends and classmates this week. It’s not funny, so don’t laugh. Use your words like he did and try to change their minds, because that is the only way we will ever improve our society.” And like magic the bell rang right then and we picked up our bags, held our heads high and walked out of the classroom.
I’ve never been so appreciative of a fellow Albanian teacher in my whole life. Usually they just turn their backs as well and try not to stir the pot by correcting prejudice and racism. Albania is a tough place because of how important connections are. No one wants to offend someone else (or inadvertently call them a racist) because you never know who their parents are. But this teacher wasn’t afraid. And her mentality was miles ahead of the rest. She was right there with me the whole time.
I have no idea if those kids got the message I was trying to tell them. I have no idea if they’ll actually change their opinions or rise to the challenge. But at least I know that one more person in Albania is standing up against racism and won’t back down in the face of adversity. It’s people like her that make me feel like I’ll be leaving this country in good hands when I return to the US at the end of my service.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to you all and I hope you inspire change in the hearts and minds of racists everywhere, whether they know it or not.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”