GREG HOUSTON: A BLACK AMERICAN IN SOFIA

interview by Jennifer Croft; photography by Daniel Lekov

Loving one another and helping one another can be done while driving considerately in Sofia

"It's kind of hard to miss me," beams Greg Houston, in a masterstroke of understatement. Dark skinned and physically imposing, he stands out in a crowd, but even more so in a relatively homogenous society such as Bulgaria. Unlike what you would expect from someone responsible for overseeing the American Embassy in Bulgaria's crucial security, he wears a warming smile, which readily gives way to sincere laughs.

As a black American diplomat, Greg doesn't have much inclination to talk about race relations in the United States. Still, perhaps because of his good-natured candour, people inevitably ask him about his experiences at home and abroad. Mostly, people are curious to know whether he has been treated differently because of his race. His reply is affirmative, although he continues by adding that he has experienced more “incidents” in his homeland than overseas.

A self-described "child of the 1960s," Greg grew up in Houston, Texas, then left to attend a university in Tennessee. In the Deep South, he says, racism was expressed more directly. While no less prevalent in the north, bias still lurked beneath the surface. "I remember there were places where you could and couldn't go," Greg recollects of his Texas childhood. “There were places you shouldn't go after dark, or questions about why you were in a certain neighbourhood.”

In 1980s Nashville, during his third year of university, Greg and three of his roommates went to see a midnight movie screening. They arrived 10 minutes after the film started. The cashier refused to sell them tickets, insisting that they couldn't enter the theatre after the start of the film. Despite the students' persistent offer to buy full-price tickets even though they had missed the beginning, the cashier refused. "It dawned on us that it was because we were people of colour," Greg says. Rather than provoking a confrontation, he and his friends took their business elsewhere. "We chose to disconnect with her" he recalls. "The owner of the theatre lost out. The moral of the story is that in the end, bias will cost you."

While he stops short of calling racism a problem in the United States, Greg admits that it is an issue. "It's a problem if people act on their beliefs," he affirms. "It has the potential to be divisive." His belief is that racism stems from disadvantaged people who resent other groups and subsequently blame them for their own problems. "Then their views are reinforced by others like them, and become core beliefs," Greg explains. He is concerned that the United States lacks a forum for dialogue about race issues. "Nobody really wants to sit down and discuss what's beneath the surface," he says. "You have to go after core values and beliefs, but people have to be a little thick-skinned. You shouldn't get offended. You have to accept people's views as they are. Until race issues are discussed on a national level, tensions will still lurk. I hope we don't have too many situations where people's emotions explode and other people get hurt.”

In the United States, the presidential bid of Barack Obama has gone some way in bringing the country closer to those discussions, Greg believes. Obama is perceived "more as a candidate than as an African-American candidate." Unlike Obama, who has a broad support base, previous black American presidential candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes "never had enough appeal in their own group to push their agenda forward."

Greg served in the American military in Turkey, Germany and Italy. In the Foreign Service, he worked in El Salvador and Mexico. In addition to these assignments, he has spent most of his adult life travelling. "I've been to countries where people on the street want to touch my skin and rub my hair," he says. But he has also been impressed by the extent in which other countries are well informed about the cultural history of the United States. greg houston

Bulgaria compares favourably to the other countries Greg has visited in terms of racial attitudes. "There are people of colour here," he emphasises, such as those of Cuban and African descent. He acknowledges that in regions outside Sofia, locals may be unaccustomed to seeing dark skin, but he is quick to point out that in smaller towns he has been met with nothing but warmth and kindness. He does remark, however, that other people of colour have reported being discriminated against in Bulgaria, although he hasn't experienced it firsthand. He thinks his larger-than-life personality may help to deflect potential negative encounters. He has occasionally been offended by Sofia motorists, but assures that it had nothing to do with his skin colour.

Greg follows the news media to keep up to date with Bulgaria's interethnic situation. He believes that all countries grapple with problems and stereotypes, and there is always room for improvement: “Bulgaria does extremely well as far as tolerance goes.”

He recalls how he and his family were surprised at the level of friendliness and warmth they experienced when they arrived in the country. "Some of the nicest people I have met anywhere are Bulgarians," Greg enthuses. In fact, he cites the people as the thing he enjoys most about the country: “their warmth, their kindness, their beauty.” The least enjoyable aspect? The roads. Not that poor roads keep him from getting out and about. He is a firm believer that to know true Bulgaria, one has to get out of Sofia. "I like to travel to small places off the radar," he says, citing Garganitsa, Vidin, Lom, and Dupnitsa among his recent forays.

As an antidote to racism, and indeed many of the world's problems, Greg puts his hope in the philosophy: "Love one another, help one another, and be kind." It happens to be his own personal philosophy, and he strives to live it every day. But, perhaps remembering the last time a driver cut him off in Sofia traffic, he admits with a laugh that: "Sometimes, it's hard!"

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