A carnival parade held last week in the Russian city of Sochi ahead of this month’s Fifa confederations cup has dredged up fresh concerns about racism within Russian society.
The government sponsored carnival which was led by Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov had some of the revelers decked in different regalia meant to represent the nations expected at the event. According to the Guardian, while Mexico was represented by a man wearing a sombrero wrapped in the Mexican flag, Cameroon was portrayed by some marchers who wore afro wigs, painted their faces black and carried bananas.
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Photos from the event show a carnival goer wearing a Cameroon jersey with his face and arms painted black while beating a drum. A man standing behind him is also in blackface and carries a drum in addition to bananas on a string.
The pictures from the event which expectedly sparked online outrage, have reawakened concerns about Russia’s readiness to host a global event of the magnitude of the world cup without the tournament being marred by issues of racism.
In its response to the media backlash that followed the carnival portrayal, Sochi city officials on Tuesday issued a statement refuting allegations of racism describing the parade as a “celebration of the different continents and a testimony of Russia’s open attitude toward traditions from around the globe.”
“By no means did the carnival parade intend to insult anyone,” the statement said. “On the contrary, it was organized with the friendliest of goals in mind: to create a positive atmosphere. We look forward to warmly welcoming the Cameroon national team and its fans, as well as the representatives of all other countries, during the FIFA Confederations Cup.”
The Fifa confederations cup typically serves as a dress rehearsal for the Fifa World Cup and it features all champions from continental football associations and the host country.
Russian officials have repeatedly said that racism would not be an issue at the football fiesta, although concrete action continues to be lacking. In February, the Russian Football Union appointed Alexei Smertin as a special anti-racism and discrimination inspector. The Guardian observes that Smertin was a curious choice as he had said as recently as 2015 that “there was no racism in Russia because it does not exist.”
Some have argued that the Russian carnival goers indeed acted in innocence and did not understand that their portrayal would be considered offensive. Lolade Adewuyi, a Nigerian journalist who attended the parade explains that the marchers were clueless about the hurtful racial stereotypes and were simply unaware of the impact of their actions.
The argument however rings hollow because as many have pointed out, on the many occasions where black or colored players are targeted by football fans because of their race, a shameful scenario which is not uncommon in the Russian football, the infamous ‘monkey chant’ is inevitably accompanied with the throwing of bananas. So ignorance here is hardly an excuse.
Though widely grown and consumed across Africa, the banana can in no way be considered a staple and it is certainly no emblem of sorts for the continent’s more than 1 billion people. And there are only a handful persons who can genuinely claim ignorance of the fact that the banana is a favorite treat for monkeys whether in captivity or in the wild.
The implicit message couched in the actions of the carnival marchers is not lost on anyone. The Russians would do well to admit their wrong doing, apologize and take concrete steps towards tackling the issue of racism in Russian football in particular and the larger population in general.