Race and Identity

01/02/2011 by Christopher Buxton

Is Barack Obama American? Is Ashley Cole English? Is Sophie Marinova Bulgarian? Is Dimitur Berbatov Bulgarian? Is Spaska Mitrova Bulgarian? Should Bulgaria open its EU borders to all those living in Albania,Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia and former Russian Republics, who claim Bulgarian ethnicity?

Can a nation be represented by someone whose very appearance runs counter to national stereotype?

I remember being told by American liberals that there would never be a black American President. But the Berlin Wall fell! We are in a world of realised “impossibilities”. Some Americans find the reality so traumatic that they are scrabbling to prove Obama is not American, without appearing to be racist. The birth certificate that places Obama’s birth in Hawaii is being hotly disputed by a considerable section of the American population – as though by a legal stroke, Obama could be wiped from official American history. Anti Obama fervour is being fomented by populists who evoke a cleaner frontier world, where white men and their feisty women in white hats shoot Indians and illegal immigrants.

In England, the extreme Fascist right question the presence of black players in the England football team. But for most people Ashley Cole is a stereotype footballer, skilful, materialistic and about as admirable as John Terry in his private life.

The sensitive Berbatov is a less stereotypical footballer, he’s as Bulgarian as Christo Stoichkov, but he refuses to play for the Bulgarian team.

Sophie Marinova, arguably one of Bulgaria’s greatest popular singers, did want to represent Bulgaria in the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest. Her Roma origins provoked such a backlash that she was rejected. The veteran pop journalist Toma Sprostranov commented that she should have represented gypsies, reflecting a common view that gypsies are not Bulgarian though they have lived in Bulgaria since at least the thirteenth century,.

The following year, after a great deal of soul-searching, Bulgaria was represented by Aziz, a Roma transvestite.

There is much more sympathy for Spaska Mitrova who asserted her Bulgarian ethnicity in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. There local nationalist passions erupted. She was denounced as a traitor and a personal custody battle became the pretext for locking her up in a Skopje gaol. Since then others who have claimed Bulgarian ethnicity have found themselves at best jobless and at worst imprisoned, tortured and driven from their homes.

While many young Bulgarians leave Bulgaria to find more lucrative jobs in the west, at least a million people now living in Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and former Russian republics claim Bulgarian ethnicity, speak Bulgarian and uphold Bulgarian traditions.

European border rules make it difficult for these Bulgarians to migrate to the homeland. This migration is seen by many in Bulgaria as the solution to the ticking demographic time-bomb – where low birth-rate and emigration of the dominant population is paralleled by high birth-rates in the gypsy, Turkish and Pomak populations.

Today we are greeted by the shock headline that this year 48% of the Bulgarian Primary School intake did not have Bulgarian as their mother tongue. Bulgarian Education Minister Sergei Ignatov sought to quell anxiety by stating “We’re all Bulgarian citizens and it’s the job of education to instil national consciousness and a new European identity.” This form of political correctness will not gloss over the realities of educational provision in areas where the majority population speaks Turkish or Roma. Neither will it still the fears of nationalists who yearn for the simplicities of a time when Bulgarian heroes proclaimed their ethnic pride in the face of alien subjugation.