There is no denying that social movements have changed tremendously since the invention of social media. We are now able to see live streams of bombings, demonstrations, and riots. Pictures are taken and go viral in a matter of hours. Never before have we received this much information about what is happening in the world, and we are drowning in it.
The United States are arguably one of the nerve centers of this 21st-century phenomenon of intricate global interconnectivity. The soft power that this country has and the weight of its cultural influence are conspicuous when we look at the most popular movies, the most streamed songs, and even the most followed social media profiles. It is no wonder that this summer Kazakhstani citizens, along with the rest of the world, were watching the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests unfold with a newfound strength in the States following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, and others. What surprised me personally was the level of backlash and pure disdain that the BLM movement has received in Kazakhstan.
I have had many unresolved arguments with my Kazakh relatives in a family group chat on WhatsApp. When they would side with the American police and counter protestors (i.e. the infamous couple from St. Louis defending their property with guns), I was struck with the lack of interracial solidarity. It was impossible for me and my cousins to arrive at a simple compromise that no one should die at the hands of state authorities, especially those who have been marginalized the most by the state. Shouldn’t we, as people who have been oppressed by our government for decades and colonized by white people for more than a century, understand the fight?
What is behind the rage?
If you go to the Instagram page of HOLA News Kazakhstan (@holanewskz) and go through the comments left on two different posts, one about the recent pro-democratic protests in Belarus and one about Black Lives Matter protests in the States, the difference is stark. The former has mostly positive comments encouraging the protestors to keep going, wishing them luck, and occasional pondering about when it will be Kazakhstan’s turn. The latter has most people painting late George Floyd as a drug dealer and a criminal who had it coming and resenting protestors for destroying property and looting. It seems that in the eyes of so many Kazakhstani people BLM protestors have gone too far in their fight for justice.
This reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement has been colored by myths about it, which are circulating widely. The explanation behind it could be simply summed up by racism and an all-encompassing desire for the proximity to whiteness, which can be found in every community of people of color.
Living in a world where whiteness is the standard and growing up in a capitalist system that colonizes your mind to think that structural change is not feasible make racism, colorism, and anti-Blackness ubiquitous. As a Central Asian, I will be the first one to point out how striving for whiteness is so inherent in our society that we do not even notice it.
However, I also believe that there are more layers to the contempt that BLM has received in Kazakhstan. For instance, one particularity of the post-Soviet region is that there is practically no discourse on race. The conversation usually revolves around ethnicity, even when talking about the Tsarist and Soviet colonization of Central Asia. This colonization is not seen as something done to the region by white people, but rather, by Slavic people. I argue that the rhetoric present in Russia claiming that they brought civilization to the nomadic tribes of Central Asia feeds into white supremacy and breeds interethnic tensions found in Kazakhstan today by both instilling fear among Kazakhstani people for their land and constructing a hierarchy of ‘civilized development’ among ethnic groups. Nonetheless, the understanding of racism and its immorality is surprisingly low in Kazakhstan.
As someone who wrote her graduate dissertation on the way Kazakh national culture normalizes violence against women, I recognize the same patterns in the comments made about the killing of George Floyd as in the comments made about victims of rape and domestic abuse. The notion that violence, even in its most brutal forms, could be deserved is not foreign to Kazakhstani people. Our culture is strong in its conviction that traditions and norms should be abided by, and never challenged, in order not to lose the essence of who we are as an ethnic group. The prevalent acceptance of these harmful stereotypes about victims of gender-based violence could breed acceptance of other stereotypes, such as Black people being criminals, deserving of violence and murder.
Another factor to keep in mind is that Kazakhstan does not have a protest culture. 2019 saw an unprecedented surge in peaceful protests in the country, however almost all of them were crushed by blunt military force. What many of us were hoping would become our own democratic revolution was mostly a sporadic effort, which did result in the strengthening of the civil society, but not in any long-term political change. We never had protests, similar to Black Lives Matter, that would last for months and, like so many other social movements, lead to such byproducts as property damage and looting.
Loyal to the capitalist system, in which material prosperity is seen as the end goal, Kazakhstani people seem to be particularly outraged by looting. This myopia makes more sense when I think about the narratives that are being sold to people by the Kazakhstani government. Economic prosperity and the move away from a broken socialist system toward a bright new future of capitalism are often invoked as primary goals of our newly independent country. Strategies Kazakhstan-2030 and Kazakhstan-2050 and events like EXPO 2017 are all done in the name of stimulating the economy, creating jobs, and bridging the gap between us and the “developed” world. For a long time, arguably until the last undemocratic presidential elections in June 2019, the social contract between Kazakhstani people and the government was that economic prosperity would be traded for democratic freedoms.
What can we learn?
Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, shows us that the capitalist system has failed, that with economic prosperity will not necessarily come justice for all.
In the comments section of HOLA News, many insist that Black people deserve police brutality since they are overrepresented in the criminal population. Few show an understanding of the broken educational system and the prison industrial complex. What we have been seeing in the States for decades shows us that the system that was built to work against you will continue to do so, regardless of the GDP per capita of the country.
BLM dares to look for alternatives to this system, which so many of us have not allowed ourselves to think of yet; hung up on the promise of prosperity as our pass to the better, “developed” world.
The Black Lives Matter movement also challenges our ability to discern when a problem is a matter of individual occasion or systemic oppression. Police brutality in the United States is a symptom of a larger disease that BLM seeks to expose and to end. Are we looking away because we are afraid to understand what this says about the capitalist world we live in? Are we also afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that we have a similar fight ahead of us if we want a true “peaceful sky above our heads”, for which Nursultan Nazarbayev so often insists we should be grateful?
Black people, Black women and Black trans people especially, have always been at the forefront of demanding change and imagining a better world for everyone. It is scary but necessary to realize your compliance, your privileges, and what needs to change. It is easier to turn away and put your belief in the capitalist order rather than do the hard work of decolonizing one’s own mind. Other factors also do not help with the task, such as the lack of education about these issues and historical contexts, as well as the phobia of the West.
For instance, the sentiments of “there must not be much to a democracy if it looks like this” are also present among the reactions to Black Lives Matter protests in Kazakhstan.
BLM becomes weaponized as a proof of democratic failure in the West, encouraging people’s complicity with the regime we have in Kazakhstan. The United States is by no means a model democracy. But its failure as a democratic state should be judged by the deep-rooted social inequalities rather than by the way American citizens choose to protest said inequalities.
In the most turbulent period of last year’s protests, as people became increasingly disillusioned with the state’s ability to take care of its citizens, the Kazakhstani government’s propaganda seemed to have centered around the “start with yourself, do not wait for the government to do everything for you” narrative. The aim of this was taken from the neoliberal playbook and is about taking away responsibility from the government and the powerful elite that controls it and reflecting it back at the people who claim they have nowhere to work and nothing to feed to their children. Whether or not people bought into this narrative could be judged by the fact that the democratic opposition in the country has yet to gain significant power.
I believe that we have a lot to learn from the Black Lives Matter movement both in terms of the way we talk about racial injustice and the ways we can fight it and other injustices. I believe that if we stand for change in Kazakhstan, so that everyone can be protected and supported, we should support similar movements across the globe. We should also be open to the reality that racism is not just happening somewhere across the ocean, but it is also relevant to Kazakhstan today, as ethnic minorities are being killed and attacked. It is not up to us to decide how certain groups choose to fight for justice and their lives. The least we can do is express solidarity with their struggle.
While it may seem like this solidarity could be one-sided with Black Lives Matter being a globally known movement and Kazakhstan’s struggle left largely unknown to anyone outside of the region, it is important to remember that the fight against fascism, white supremacy, capitalist oppression, and patriarchal violence is universal. Any community that seeks to reimagine the world can only find success if we work together to achieve this goal across all cultures. After all, in the words of Emma Lazarus and Maya Angelou, which remain true to this day: “None of us are free until all of us are free”.
Written by Aizada Arystanbek, an intersectional feminist and a young activist and academic specializing in gender-based violence, gender and culture, and nationalism, who believes in the decolonization of academia and overthrowing of the patriarchy. Illustration by Amanda Sonesson.