“Yes, I’m mixed race. I have more than one million haters. How come? Read the posts.”
This is how 22-year-old Maria Magdalena Tunkara introduces herself in her Instagram account
Tunkara said she had a normal childhood until she started school. That is when she started getting picked on, insulted and even physically attacked.
Her teachers partook in the harassment as well, often asking her why her mother could not find a white Russian man to marry or if her father was Pierre Narcisse, a famous Cameroonian-Russian singer.
In high school, her friends would not stop cracking jokes about her skin colour or using racial slurs to address her. In college, she stopped talking to her best friend after he got drunk and messaged her: “Black people = slaves.”
before proceeding to bust the most wide-spread and entrenched racist and sexist beliefs in Russia.
“I think people don’t understand what they are saying when they tell me that I’m lucky to look the way I do. My appearance in Russia provokes all kinds of associations which people readily shout out in the street,” she writes in one of her Instagram posts.
“I hear all the time the following: That I had forgotten to wash up. That I am a child of the 1980 Olympic Games [in Moscow] or the 1957 Youth and Students Festival […] That my father lives on a palm tree […] That I have pubic hair on my head […] That interracial relations are not normal and mixed-race children have health problems […] That I am thinner because children in Africa are starving.”
“It’s not that cool to be different in Russia,” she concludes.
A daily blog
More than two years ago, feeling the need to share her thoughts on issues that deeply bothered her, Tunkara transformed her Instagram from a regular Russian teenager’s account into a daily blog on racism, feminism and lifestyle in Russia.
Born to a Russian mother and a Malian father in St Petersburg, the engineering student has braved online abuse to discuss topics deemed sensitive or controversial in Russia – from sexuality to hate crimes and discrimination to sexism, ethnic hair and positive body image.
“In the beginning, it was very difficult, getting hate especially from people close to me, from friends, classmates […] Then it got better – the hate started coming from strangers,” she said.
She sees her blog as a platform not just to discuss racism and feminism in Russia but also to help herself overcome the trauma of racist abuse she suffered as a child. She also wants to help others, especially people of colour and parents of mixed-race children who worry about bullying.
She never told her family about any of it as she felt ashamed.
Yet her parents never shied away from discussing racism. Her father, Aliou Tunkara, is a well-known activist who founded an organisation called African Unity to help Africans who faced racist abuse or violence in St Petersburg.
The far right
It was through her father’s work that Tunkara followed in detail the violent attacks and killings that far-right groups perpetrated against people of colour across Russia during the 2000s.
In 2007 and 2008, the violence peaked with more than 600 hate-motivated physical attacks and more than 100 murders.
At that time, the Russian authorities supported local ultra-nationalist groups, hoping they would help prevent a pro-democracy movement from emerging in the aftermath of the revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).
Eventually, the government decided to crack down on the far right, especially after some of these groups sided with the Ukrainian protest movement of 2013-2014, which brought the number of violent hate crimes down to several dozen per year.