Illustration by Mariko Kuroda/TheGazelle

Eastern European Pride: Saying No to Internalized Discrimination

Only after studying abroad did I realize that those who I’d normally recognize as Eastern European back home would usually freak out if I defined them ...

Illustration by Mariko Kuroda/TheGazelle
Only after studying abroad did I realize that those who I’d normally recognize as Eastern European back home would usually freak out if I defined them as such here. In fact, if you’re ever keen on pissing off someone from the Czech Republic, simply insist on them being Eastern European. I learned this through trial and error, though it took me a while to understand where this resistance was coming from.
In my mind, defining someone as Eastern European is not about politics and geography, but rather about the way people live. Do you have lace curtains and tablecloths at home? Do you avoid sitting at the corner of a table because your grandmother told you that this means never finding a husband? Does your name have 12 consonants and two vowels, and does the concept of definite and indefinite articles remain forever obscure to you? Good — in my mind, you and I both come from Eastern Europe.
So what do we do with this label? Since the world has a low opinion of Eastern Europe, let’s try denying it. Khalas, solved. But what’s up with that one giveaway: those hard T’s and D’s that our tongues can’t make any softer? Well, we can try practicing them in front of (the) mirror and saying thank you instead of thanks, because the T sounds better that way. At least, that’s what I did until this spring break.
As a student from a developing country, it was overwhelming to come to this school and dive into its sea of opportunities. Many doors opened, and I was suddenly aware of the strong sense of idealism that I’d possessed coming into the experience. I carried inside of me a sense of having to prove something. An ambition that was more than ambition, it was almost a flame, lit by a desire to help my family and community, to be the one who goes out and comes back to change things for the better.
The shine of this flame is idealism — maybe it comes from the last remaining bit of childhood, or it’s something that is universal among all those who leave a less developed environment to live abroad. During this journey, I have changed my direction, exchanging thank you for thanks, becoming step by step more westernized.
The reason for the prevalence of such a phenomenon can be found in internalized discrimination. Internalized discrimination is a common experience for people who were either oppressed or discriminated against. I guess that the term is self-explanatory; it is a process by which a member of a discriminated group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate prejudices and stereotypes applied to their group.
Society seems to have put forth the idea that being Eastern European is bad and, as a response, I internalized that opinion and tried to get rid of anything Eastern European in me.
I am not ashamed of my country; I am ashamed of the way people see it: Eastern European women are often portrayed as gold diggers who are ready to steal your husband with their tight leopard dresses and lots of shiny accessories. If you are not aware of what the Eastern European woman stereotype is, or you just want to have some fun, watch this. This image is exactly what I want to escape.
Funny thing though: no matter how tamed my T’s and D’s have become, I still feel unutterable happiness when I recognize an Eastern European on the street or on campus. We play trashy turbo folk in our dorms, knowing how poorly Westerners, or even we ourselves, think of that particular remnant of pop culture. We don’t care because it’s the only thing we can relate to, and the only way we can feel at home.
When I hear an Eastern European accent on the streets, I cannot help but ask that person where they’re from. Many times these strangers and I get into long conversations, talking about how we miss the food and the people, after which they usually tell me: “But you know, you don’t really sound Serbian. I thought you were one of them — American or something.”
My response: “Oh, really? Thank you.”
Thank you? Seriously? In those moments, I had been happy for a success I now acknowledge as my greatest failure. A failure to realize that I had turned the experience of stereotyping inward, and had become worse than those who start discriminating in the first place. I was now an active perpetuator of the stereotypes that had been used against me.
What do you do when you realize such a thing? Your T’s and D’s do not roll the same way once you have to try and get them back. The only way out is through self-reflection. Paulo Freire, who wrote the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, once observed that people like me can change their circumstances through praxis, a combination of reflection and action that involves honesty with oneself and setting aside internalized discrimination. Although I have been harsh on myself, no one should be blamed for having been affected by internalized discrimination. It happens all the time.
It is true that many things back home don’t function well, and that some stereotypes are rooted in truths. Yet if you absorb them, you will never make them disappear; you will just spread them further. As someone who was affected by this vicious phenomenon, I now realize that we have the ability to recognize why people may want to create certain images of our countries.
We can fight against this, make a change. But we must start small.
A senior from Bosnia and Herzegovina inspired me to take action by coming back home and going into social entrepreneurship after graduation. A sophomore from Croatia also inspired me by writing academic papers and creating art that speaks about the image of our region in the world. All those with whom I sing turbo folk inspired me to admit that I do, shamelessly, sing turbo folk.
At the end of the day, people are people and places are just places. And yes, some of us were really born in the wrong ones. But in most cases, it is simply that we are taught to regard living abroad as an escape that will make all of our dreams come true. It is not; your dreams are wherever you decide to make them happen.
gazelle logo