Since most of you had yesterday off to celebrate/memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the Civil Rights Movement, I thought I would do a serious post (gasp!) on the race relations here in Bulgaria. In living here, where there is almost no desire to integrate the “minority” population, I have a much deeper understanding of the revolutionary message MLK spread. I say “minority” loosely because (a) that is not my favorite word, as minority implies minor, or less important, and (b) because, similar to California, the groups that once were considered minorities will soon be majorites here.

There are three main ethnic groups here: the Bulgarians, the Turks, and people of Roma descent, or as you know them, gypsies. Most of the Bulgarians are exactly how you would picture a person of Eastern Europe descent—white, with pale skin. As it was explained to me, the Turks are a bit darker, and the Roma have very olive skin and dark eyes. Although I still question how they know who is who just by looking at them. I mean, what if a dark-haired Bulgarian got a really great tan…would s/he be mistaken for a Roma??? They insist that they can tell the difference just by looking at them.

The Roma have long had a history of being a nomadic people who really don’t nationalize themselves into one country. They are spread throughout Eastern Europe. Their situation is a sad one, indeed. In general they are poor and live in ghettoes with no running water or electricity. Their toilets are, quite literally, a hole in the ground. They still push carts and ride on donkeys or horses. The crime rate in their neighborhoods (mehala) is high and Bulgarians themselves rarely enter them. In fact, even the Peace Corps volunteers I have met will not enter them. (Yeah, I know, perhaps they forgot the word “peace”). For centuries, the Bulgarians have mistrusted the Roma and the Roma do not trust the Bulgarians. Bulgarians often refer to them as “tzigane” which is the equivalent to the “N” word in English, though usually they do not know/understand this term is derogatory. For that matter, the word gypsy is also sometimes thought not to be the nicest word to use. The politically correct word is Roma. Likewise, the Roma do commit a lot of petty theft-like crimes and have organized bands of gangs. They take the metal off national monuments and sell it off. They have little interest in assimilating with the rest of the population.

The Turks and the Bulgarians have a similar relationship. The Turks ruled Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire for 500 years. During that time, the Turks (supposedly) kidnapped Bulgarian children and used them to serve in the military. They were overthrown over a century ago, but you would think it all happened yesterday. There is such a great divide and disdain between the two ethnicities. Like the Roma, the Turks are also often very poor.

Not to sound like all these groups exist in a vacuum. Like the U.S, there is a mixture. The Roma often identify themselves as Roma and Turkish, or Roma and Bulgarian. Regardless, the basic rule of thumb here is not to trust dark-skinned people. Period. They are not accepted into mainstream society. And this is not a secret. It is openly discussed and people will even justify their reasoning, saying things like “they are dirty, they smell, they steal, etc.” I once had someone tell me, “even the dogs here don’t trust gypsies. They bark at them and attack them”. Even when I have asked simple questions like “well, what if they take a bath? Would they still be dirty?”, the response is usually yes, that it’s more than a bath, it’s a whole lifestyle, or just who they are, or something along these lines.

In saying all this, I must also include the fact that many Bulgarians I have encountered realize this racism is a growing problem here. The Roma are having many children and the average Bulgarian family has only one. Many people here realize that this way of thinking is outdated and that, at some point, they must integrate the societies in order to keep the country fully functioning. And because they live together. Oh yeah, and because it’s just not right.

While it is shocking to me to see such overt displays of racism, I have to remember that I live just one generation removed from when this was also a way of life all over the U.S. Again, not to say that racism and inequality don’t still exist in America. But you must admit, in the last 40 years, we have made great strides. And I can truly appreciate our progress when I am living here, in a country that hasn’t even begun the struggle, that doesn’t have any MLKs or Malcolm Xs pushing people to re-think their cultural norms.

Perhaps Bulgaria made its first statement, albeit a whisper, when they soundly defeated the bid for the presidency from the Ataka party, a party whose platform relied on the idea of ridding the entire country of all Turks, all Roma, all foreigners, hearkening back to Hitler’s message. For many people of my generation, there was disbelief that Ataka even made it as far as they did—to the top two candidates. Maybe that will be the first eye-opener to spark some change. The realization that there needs to be change. And that it won’t ever be made by just whispering that things are unfair, being afraid to say it out loud for fear of what others may think of you. They need a MLK here, someone who was brave enough to shout the message out even though it cost him his life. Because really, without him (and others), the U.S. might still be today where Bulgaria is, without even a conscience that this segregation is wrong and hurtful, and ultimately leading to even more problems.

So, yes, we still have problems in America, and as a very non-Republican, I am always quick to find those. But being here, and seeing a country that is striving to develop their democracy, I can see how much we have done right back home. At least we know about the issue, and we discuss it, and we teach our students about how things once were, so they know not to repeat it, not to “judge others by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Because without MLK and the whole Civil Rights Movement, we’d be….well…right where I am today.