Beyond Diversity: Integrating Racial Justice into REECA Studies

by Emily Couch, Independent Scholar

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy. She writes purely in a personal capacity.

It has been almost two years since I began my foray into diversity advocacy in the REECA (Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia) field. During this short span of time, I have been extremely lucky to make meaningful connections with people such as Howard University’s Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, who dedicate an extraordinary amount of time and energy to advancing dialogue on the issue. On an individual level, I have created a Twitter list called POC in Eurasia Studies, spoken at conferences, and recently gave an interview to Pushkin House on the topic. Appreciation of the urgency of this issue has increased exponentially – in no small part due to the radical rethinking and self-reflection prompted throughout society by the recent Black Lives Matter protests. What the movement has so powerfully demonstrated is that “diversity” is not enough; we must have racial justice. While diversity focuses on who is in the room, racial justice deconstructs the oppressive social structures that exclude people of color in the first place, and ensures that their voices are heard and valued. Rather than rehashing my previous statements on the topic, in this piece I offer concrete suggestions, based on the experiences of myself and other REECA students of color, of steps that institutions of education and policy can take to integrate racial justice into the teaching and study of the region.

Re-assess Methodologies and Marking Criteria
Interviews are a staple of sociological and political research. They may be used qualitatively, if semi-structured, or quantitively if standardized and viewed statistically. If a REECA student is writing a paper or dissertation, the chances are that they will be expected to use this method while they are abroad. However, in the same way that the interviewer’s identity can impact a respondent’s answers, so too can a respondent’s perception impact their experience in, or even their ability to set up, an interview. Conducting interviews is a nerve-wracking experience at the best of times, but the prospect can be even more daunting if you are anxious about the racist comments you may receive. While I was lucky to have a relatively smooth experience with academic interviewing, I encountered several uncomfortable situations when conducting interviews for my work at The Moscow Times. An example, which I also cited in my recent Pushkin House interview, is when I spoke to a drama teacher at one of Russia’s most prestigious acting schools about renowned theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky. The teacher’s inappropriate comments regarding my race made it very difficult for me to do my job, and to maintain a professional demeanor. When departments teach methodology, they should do so with an awareness that it may be more difficult for a student of color to conduct this kind of research. It follows, then, that marking criteria should also take this into account. If a dissertation by a white student contains an interview, but one by a student of color does not, markers should consider the social and emotional context of the latter before automatically assigning a lower grade.

Normalize the Discussion of Race in the Classroom
Coming from an undergraduate degree in Literature, the boundaries of acceptable discourse in REECA studies were markedly different when I began my MA. While the former field is very far from perfect, it does embrace critical theoretical perspectives – such as feminism and postcolonialism – to an extent that REECA studies generally does not.

The nature of regional studies is inherently interdisciplinary, bringing together political science, international relations, sociology, history, and cultural studies. It is, however, usually the first two that dominate. This is the inevitable result when a field is forged in the fires of the Cold War. The problem is that perspectives born of this era at best ignore, and at worst erase, the experiences of people of color both in the West and in the region itself. They valorize concepts like “great power politics,” “containment,” and “national interests,” which privilege the perspectives of elites above those of marginalized communities. These theoretical confines have ramifications in the classroom. Since they are presented as orthodoxy, or taken for granted as the “normal” lens through which to analyze the region, in class discussions it can be difficult to present perspectives that question these frameworks.

It has become commonplace to highlight that the Russian Federation contains over 180 different ethnicities, yet the country’s indigenous peoples are all too often overlooked in conventional Russia studies courses. Dana Brouillard, an undergraduate student of Inseño Chumash heritage majoring in Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Arizona, suggests that a greater emphasis upon these marginalized groups could draw more students of Native American heritage to the field, stating that “highlighting issues of indigenous peoples in the Eurasia region could be a good way to help indigenous students connect with the area.” As Brouillard notes, for many Native Americans students, “the transition from reservation life to college life can be difficult.” Mainstreaming discussions of indigenous histories and experiences would create more open environment for these students.

Despite excellent scholarship on Central Asia by academics from the region, REECA reading lists are also overwhelmingly white. In the creation of syllabi, departments should commit to including work by scholars of color on their reading lists and – in the rare cases where there are no relevant articles or books available – should make this a point of discussion in the classroom: What research forms our approach to the region? Whose perspectives have been ignored? This kind of critical approach would both help us move away from limiting Cold War paradigms and create a learning environment that valorizes the lived experiences of students of color.

Offer Dedicated Psychological Support
Every student of color who studies abroad in the region experiences racism, whether in the form of outright abuse or microaggressions. While REECA programs may prepare students for the general experience of living outside their home country, there is little to preparation offered specifically to students of color, despite the fact that they will undoubtedly face challenges that their white peers do not. Former Middlebury student Toni Cross, who majored in International Global Studies focused on Russia and Eastern Europe, also found this to be a glaring omission in her college’s study abroad preparation, stating: “I asked them to put me in touch with other people of color [who had studied in the region] but they could only find four, only two of whom responded.” Instead of putting the onus on students, departments should actively facilitate the creation of these connections. Since REECA faculties are predominantly white, such networks would offer students of color a point of contact who has a direct understanding of the challenges they may face.

A distinction should be made here between people of color who are or are not the ethnic majority in their home countries. In my MA program, for example, a substantial number of students were from China. I am ethnically East Asian, but have lived my whole life in the United Kingdom. My experience in Russia was markedly different from that of my Chinese counterparts, since I came to the predominantly white city of Moscow already having lived in a country where my right to belong has been questioned.

Psychological support requires not only faculty, but also white students to understand the emotional strain that students of color experience. From one student telling me that I “asked for racism by choosing to study in Russia,” to another saying that he did not want to be seen with me in public on a certain day “in case extreme Russian nationalists attack,” it was clear that this understanding was totally absent from my cohort in Moscow. The psychological strain resulting from daily micro-aggressions, as well as explicit abuse, from the local population, is only made worse by a lack of empathy from one’s peers. Prior to students going abroad, REECA departments should hold compulsory sessions that make white students and faculty aware of this issue. In addition, they should also work with the university’s counselling service to offer sessions specifically for students of color while they are abroad. Without dedicated mental health support, students of color face isolation and emotional trauma that may discourage them for building a career in the field. UPenn PhD student Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon’s experience with her advisor Serhii Plokhy, which she recounted in the August 2020 NewsNet, confirms this point.

Institute Robust Reporting and Accounting Mechanisms
Psychological support can only exist in conjunction with robust reporting and accountability mechanisms. While the former will provide students with coping mechanisms and emotional support, only the latter can ensure the gradual elimination of the toxic environment that make such support necessary. My own experience with trying to report this kind of incident highlights the importance of such a system. In the first year of my Master’s degree, I experienced racial profiling in class from my Russian language teacher. When I reported this to the Russian language director, they themselves racially profiled me, automatically taking the teacher’s side. The Student Union, in turn, did not reply to any emails about the issue. The development of robust reporting and accountability mechanisms would require REECA departments to work with their university’s student union and counselling services to ensure that there is a clear system to which students can turn to confidentially report instances of racial abuse.

Implement Affirmative Action in Panel Selection
As the President of the NAACP Sherrilyn A. Ifill wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, “affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color.” In my experience of the DC policy world, the main questions that occur in the panel assembling process are: Who knows the most about this topic? Who do we as an organization already have a relationship with that we can invite? Who is the most prestigious expert who could plausibly participate? These questions may seem reasonable – after all, what is the point in having a panel discussion if the participants are ill-informed? – but they in fact perpetuate entrenched racial hierarchies. Knowledge is the product of privilege, since it requires time and money to acquire – resources which, statistically, white people are more likely to have. So too is insider access to a think tank or university’s “go-to” speaker list. Too often – whether in relation to gender or racial representation – I have met the attitude of “We would like to have more women / people of color on the panel, but we have to choose the most qualified participants.” Ultimately, if an institution truly believes in racial justice, and not just lip service, it must make the conscious decision to include people of color – even if they appear less qualified on paper than their white counterparts. In terms of effort and dedication, a degree from a community college achieved by a person of color who grew up with socioeconomic challenges could well be the equivalent of an Ivy League degree achieved by a middle-class white student from an affluent background.

This suggestion will likely be met with indignation or claims that such a move would dilute the ‘quality’ of events. While tokenism is a danger, ultimately the only way to show young people of color that there is a place for them in this field is spotlighting people who look like them. Institutions should be required to disclose their thought processes in the selection of participants so that, if there is truly not a person of color who is an expert in the panel topic (highly unlikely), others can check whether they have undertaken due diligence in coming to this conclusion.

It is clearer now more than ever that REECA departments – like higher education as a whole – must integrate racial justice into their practice and philosophy or risk an ever-shrinking student pool and intellectual stagnation. The points presented here are far from exhaustive. It was beyond the scope of this short piece, for example, to do justice to Central Asian studies, in which many scholars and experts are already deconstructing the theoretical and methodological assumptions that center whiteness and western expertise. My hope is that this short piece will prompt discussion and action by those with greater practical knowledge of the workings of higher education. One thing, however, is clear: there can be no progress in REECA studies – or in any other field – unless departments, whether in universities or think tanks, prioritize racial justice above short-term reputational fallout.

Emily Couch is a Program Assistant at the Europe program with the National Endowment for Democracy. She was previously a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute, where she authored several articles on Russian and Ukrainian affairs.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow).