Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijanis and Cultural Sensitivity

with 3 comments

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.


Written by Aaron

May 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. well said, Aaron. It is a topic that I thought a lot. In Azerbaijan nationality and race is less important than ethnicity. Also, people are less politically correct, at least because there is no context for or awareness of that. Authorities do whatever they want without much concern for justification. People did not experience slavery and certain words, including N word, as Americans did. So the word does not have derogatory connotation in general.
    In that context, to call someone Black or Asian (or as Azeris call Chinese, Mongolian etc) indicates exotic quality of people rather than racist approach of labeling one.
    Of course, it does not deny the fact that some people in Azerbaijan can be very racist without being aware of it. But even that racism is different from American kind. People in Azerbaijan did not have KKK, did not read, learn or widely circulate elaborate theories on what race is superior and what race is inferior and what this has to do with public space or segregated public education. So, in that country people are aware of race as a biological part of us rather than ideological, culturally elaborated philosophy-attitude.

    Movie-ing Maniac

    May 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    • Aaron, though I have a somewhat different take on this topic, I appreciate your observations. I have been living and working in Baku for nearly 18 months now. I am also an Black American woman with close cropped gray hair. Do you want to guess how much I stick out?
      Of course, I understand it is “spectacularly rare” to see someone of African heritage on the streets especially in western garb. Heck, upon those rare occassions when I’ve seen another person with a hue as brown as mine, I stare back too but in hopes of making the subtle human connection that binds strangers in all of us. But I am not from the Congo, Nigeria, Angola or any of those countries. So I understand that the ties that bind Black Americans to Africans is complex and complicated…so no harm in not making eye contact when we pass.

      When the stares from Azerbaijanis come my way, I use my filtering system. To the obviously curious I say “salam” and smile, to others who seem less hospitable, I rapidly utter some unrecognizable statements. But at all times inspite of there being nearly 20 million other African Americans, I remember that I am likely the first one many have even seen in person, up close and in their neighborhoods. That gives me incredible strength. Keep up your blog…you might find mine interesting too…http://www.janiceinbaku.blogspot.com


      May 18, 2010 at 6:44 am

      • Glad to hear you find it interesting–I’m interested to hear more about your take on the subject. Especially from someone who is in Baku. Can you add more?


        May 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

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