Photo: a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in another Appalachian town, Carnegie, Pennsylvania, similar to the Ukraining Church in the author's hometown
I grew up in an Appalachian mountain town with many Ukrainians. Most were actually third- or fourth generation Ukrainian-Americans, but I lived in one neighborhood where my neighbors still spoke Ukrainian in the 1990s. My hometown has two beautiful Ukrainian churches, one with gold-plated onion domes that makes one think they are in Eastern Europe.
While in college, I worked as a waiter in a banquet hall and one night we hosted a Ukrainian wedding reception. The band played a mixture of pop, rock music and polkas. The accordion player was a former English teacher of mine, who had an Irish surname.
Some years later, a Ukrainian-American friend, who I met at a Lakota sweatlodge ceremony, told me that my former English teacher, the accordion player, was married to her sister. This is a small town, where new acquaintances often ask what high school you attended, or other questions to figure out if you are related to someone they know.
I knew other Ukrainian-Americans in school, many I didn’t even know at the time were of Ukrainian descent. I took my family to the Ukrainian festival in the neighborhood, and taught my oldest daughter how to ride a bike in the parking lot of the same Ukrainian Orthodox church.
My mother’s current next-door neighbor is Ukrainian. I even know several Lenape (Algonquian Indian) people here in Lenape-Hoking (the New York City region) who are part Ukrainian.
So what do I make of the online reports of recent Ukrainian refugees acting racist to Black people in the UK and here in the US? What do I make of the reportedly pro-nazi Azov battalion in Ukraine itself that fought defiantly against Russian aggression? What about the African students who were not allowed to ride Ukrainian trains escaping the invading Russian army?
I still have to give Ukrainians the benefit of the doubt. I have to believe that most Ukrainians are not racists, and many others can un-learn racism if they try hard enough, especially if they have living examples of their own people who have thrived in multi-racial America.
I have visited the homes of Ukrainian-Americans. Enough of them have befriended me to realize that anti-Black or anti-Indian racism was not their defining characteristic. I pray that established Ukrainian-Americans can influence Ukrainian newcomers to accept the multi-racial reality of the United States, even if it’s not as common in Ukraine itself.
Ever the optimist, I believe it’s possible.
Stop The Hate.