Azerbaijanis and Cultural Sensitivity
Passing through Azerbaijan and hearing how people here refer to people of Asian or African descent, you could fairly easily come to the conclusion that Azeris are a bunch of racists. That’s probably a little unfair. My own manners lessons taught me that it’s not nice to make a spectacle of someone’s ethnic background. Being a relatively thin white guy, I don’t get this too much. People around here will ask me where I’m from and leave it at that. But for those of us PCVs who have backgrounds that are not so obviously white European, this is a rough place to be. You may be American, but there’s more to that story, according to many Azerbaijanis.
We have a few PCVs here of East Asian descent and we also have a PCV hailing from Africa. Myself, I at least have the possibility of avoiding a lot of the awkward ethnic heritage discussion. These folks don’t stand a chance. Part of what makes it difficult is that Azerbaijanis don’t live in the highly politically correct society we came from. Referring to a Chinese person by doing the squinting-eye thing, fingers pulling back at the sides of their eyes, is not uncommon. In fact, it’s often the first thing I get when someone is talking about my friends and wants to make sure I know they’re talking about the ‘Asian.’ And the word used for people with darker skin is ‘negro’ or its even more offensive cousin. That’s always frustrating.
I’m not into defending practices I find offensive. Yet, I think it’s important that the context I’m living in is well-considered. Every time faced with the above situations, I find it helpful to explain what is offensive and many Azerbaijanis at least seem to respect when I tell them so. But just so that people have a good understanding of what’s happening, it’s important to know why Azerbaijanis may insist on offending our politically correct American selves.
The first, and most obvious, problem is that there isn’t much ethnic diversity here. Sure, there are a few ethnic minorities, like Talysh and Lezgi. But it is rare for anyone of African or Asian descent to come here. It’s a spectacle because it is so spectacularly rare. The second factor is that many Azerbaijanis really are very curious about ethnic descent. As much as they are proud of being Azeri, Talysh, Lezgi, or whatever, they want to know what your background is. When I explain that I’m American, they always want to know the background of my ancestors. When I finally say that I’m mostly Irish, they are satisfied. Their curiosity is the same about Asians here, but I think if the interviewee is not of European descent, many Americans find that question offensive, innocent or not. Finally, speaking specifically to the ‘insensitivity’ we describe when Azeris refer to people of African descent, it’s important to know that even the school books refer to a group of people called negroids. It’s hard to overcome the use of that and similar words when it is so prevalent throughout their education.