Sanela Diana Jenkins, misogyny and anti-Balkan racism
Sanela Diana Jenkins is a highly successful businesswoman and philanthropist, and the founder of the Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her interviewer for The Observer, Carole Cadwalladr, has this to say about her: ‘She was born Sanela Catic to a humble Bosnian family, but there’s no doubt that Diana Jenkins is a classic romantic heroine: beautiful and bright, resourceful and determined, who rises above her background through sheer grit and force of will, and whose final apotheosis is achieved by a good marriage.’
Diana’s husband Roger Jenkins, one of the richest bankers in Britain, says ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. I can do anything now. I surrender to her better judgment on people and business.’ He maintained this opinion of her even after their separation was announced, saying that if they divorced, ‘Will she take half my money? Of course. And quite rightly so. I will happily give it to her.’ In Cadwalladr’s words, ‘although he was well off by most people’s standards, when she met him he wasn’t the insanely rich mega-banker that he’s become.’ According to The Daily Mail, ‘he credited his wife with charming the Qatari royal family into parting with £7.3billion last December. The Middle East investment deal rescued his employer Barclays at the height of the credit crunch.’ Residing in California, she mixes with the highest rank of the global elite, including celebrity friends such as George Clooney, Cindy Crawford and Elton John.
Jenkins is, in short, a self-made woman and success story by anyone’s standards. However, in the eyes of the London circles to which her husband belonged, there were three things wrong with her: 1) she was good-looking; 2) she was blonde; and 3) she was from Bosnia. The Daily Telegraph paraphrased her has saying that ‘society snobs drove me out of London’. In her own words: ‘They treated me like I was an Eastern European mail-order bride. I realised that, unfortunately, with social girls, if you have a big diamond ring they will talk to you, so I wore a diamond ring. Well, actually, when we could afford it, my lovely husband bought me a diamond ring. It hurt him to see how snobbily I was treated.’
A woman who is both young and beautiful and highly successful is likely to provoke a misogynistic reaction in many quarters, including among women (you only need to read the comments of Daily Mail readers or watch the Jeremy Kyle Show to see that men have no monopoly on misogyny). But for a certain type of English person the resentment will be much greater if the woman in question comes from a ‘lowly’ background, and being Bosnian will place her some way below the working classes and below most other white foreigners, without even the guilt over racism than might at least make the resentful ones a little embarrassed if she were black or brown.
I can confirm from personal experience that anti-Balkan racism is, indeed, a relatively acceptable form of prejudice in Britain. I recall one colleague at an institution where I once worked asking me to suggest a guest speaker for a seminar programme, and sneering when I suggested a Croatian name. One young man’s first comment, when I told him at a party that I was working on the history of the Balkans, was that I must clearly have a high tolerance for blood. A Serbian friend of mine recalled to me that when she worked as a waitress, a customer asked her where she came from, and when she said ‘Serbia’, he replied ‘I’ll get my gun out, then.’ A Bosnian friend of mine used to tell people at parties she was from Belgium, to avoid the dampening of the conversation that would frequently result from telling the truth.
It is testimony to the pervasiveness of anti-Balkan racism, in the UK and the wider English-speaking world, that when the American left-wing celebrity Michael Moore gave vent to this prejudice in his international bestseller Stupid White Men, it passed virtually without comment. Moore wrote:
‘This godforsaken corner of the world has been the source of much of our collective misery for the last century. Its residents’ inability to get along – with Serbs fighting Croats fighting Muslims fighting Albanians fighting Kosovars fighting Serbs – can be traced to the following single event: in 1914 a Serb anarchist by the name of Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand. This incident kicked off World War I. Which led to World War II. Over fifty million people died from both wars. I don’t know what it is about these people. I mean, I don’t go around killing Texans. I don’t go burning down whole villages in Florida. I’ve learned to live with it. Why can’t they?’
‘Then Tito died, and all hell broke loose. Croats started killing Serbs. Serbs killed Muslims in Bosnia. Serbs killed Albanians in Kosovo. Then the United States bombed Kosovo, to show them that killing was wrong. In the past few years there has been peace, then war, then peace again, and now war again. It never stops. These people are addicts.’
Moore’s advice to the former Yugoslavia was to ‘Admit that you are powerless over your addiction to violence, and that your lives have become unmanageable.’ Had he described African Americans as having an ‘addiction to violence’, it is difficult to imagine him getting away with it, but for the Balkan peoples, such language is apparently acceptable.
Nor is Moore unique in his prejudice. The New York Times concluded an editorial in 2005 with the opinion that ‘In the Balkans, the default mode is violence.’ Julie Burchill wrote in The Guardian – yes, The Guardian ! – back in 1999, ‘Croatia’s not a country; it’s a bloody division of the German armed forces – scratch a Croat, find a Kraut.’ Nebojsa Malic of Antiwar.com described the Kosovo Albanians as ‘medieval barbarians’ – of course, Malic is from the Balkans himself, but he was published by an American website.
Many serious scholars have commented intelligently on the pervasiveness of anti-Balkan prejudice, including Maria Todorova and Tom Gallagher. Here, I would just like to add my own brief personal observations.
Anti-Balkan prejudice now means something specific for the former Yugoslav lands. Bulgarians and Romanians may be subject to anti-East-European prejudice in the UK similar to that experienced by Slovaks or Poles. Turks may be subject to anti-Muslim prejudice. I have no personal experience of how these groups fare in the US. But the prejudice directed against former-Yugoslavs is of a kind that transcends the borders of Western nations. It is related to the wars of the 1990s and to the stereotype of violence, primitivism and tribalism that that conflict rejuvenated; former Yugoslavs would not have experienced the same degree of prejudice before the 1990s. It is a prejudice for which journalists bear their share of the blame for repeating and publicising cliches, as do Balkan nationalists themselves for manufacturing negative myths about each other’s peoples – hence, the stereotypes of the Serbs as violent and nationalistic, of the Croats as pro-Nazi and of the Albanians as criminals.
However, the Bosnians in some ways come off the worst, and this is related to the perception of them as weak and pathetic; as being a people without a proper country or functioning state. Their suffering during the war of the 1990s, followed by their defeat in the war (albeit one snatched from the jaws of victory by US diplomacy), followed by the long, continuing and humiliating international supervision of their country, has cemented the stereotype of them as perpetual victims unworthy of respect; in some sense, equivalent to actual homeless people. I suspect that if Jenkins had come from Russia or Ukraine, she might still have been sneered at as a ‘mail-order bride’, but she would not have been despised as a refugee from a virtual country as well.
To end on a positive note: these stereotypes are widespread but they are not universally held. There are plenty of circles in multiethnic London that would not be snobbish about someone on account of their nationality; where someone with a background like Jenkins’s would be the norm rather than the exception. The snobs who drove Jenkins out of London may be representative of part of the London financial elite, but in cultural terms they represent a primitive, ethnically homogenous anachronism in our cosmopolitan city. They are worthy of the same sort of contempt as the average participants on the Jeremy Kyle Show. Primitivism and vulgarity span the class divide.
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