Comments on the discussion on politika.lv after the interview with George Steele
It is natural to see a person with an acid eroded face and to turn away, or to see a crowd of people on the street and to want to find out what is happening. A child who has an overwhelming desire to own, say, a pen, but does not have the money to pay for it and therefore steals it in a shop is acting naturally. He is only acting in accordance with his desires. And what could be more natural than to beat up a person who “makes the moves” on your partner or simply gets on your nerves. Freud declared that the limits set by society and culture cause irritation and discontent. At any rate, all of us have probably at some time experienced the wish to be rid of all tradition, norms, laws and to do what we want regardless of how others will react to it. On the whole, however, we do not submit to the natural tendencies in ourselves. On the contrary, life together with others, with our family, with society forces us to suppress our natural reactions. Otherwise it is simply difficult to get along. Self-control in society is considered an obligation, and although it is not difficult to understand, why, for instance, we want to say something abhorrent to a person who has publicly criticised us, lack of control in such a situation is usually regarded as condemnable, and an explanation for it is not perceived as justification.
What is racism?
I would, of course, like to add racism to the natural reactions which are worth suppressing in ourselves and others. First of all about the concept. “Racism” is one of those words whose meaning changes depending on the user. In its more narrow sense it means a hypothesis that people can be divided into a small number of groups and classified according to anatomical structure and skin colour, that a specific body of psychological characteristics and abilities corresponds to each of the groups, and that there is a certain hierarchy amongst the groups, meaning that some are to be judged higher than others. In this interpretation racism emerged in the middle of the 19th century, and a classical representative of it is Gobino. It peaked during the Nazi regime and disintegrated to a large degree after World War II. This hypothesis has many shortcomings. First of all, there is no doubt that people differ in appearance, but nothing bears witness to the idea that these anatomical differences clearly characterise, say, three races. And, by the way, have you ever met a person with white skin or noticed how black are the blacks? Secondly, even speaking of only one person’s abilities and characteristics, it is difficult to determine their causes. And even if it were possible to prove that Swedes are tight-fisted and Danes are naive, it would still not be apparent that there is a link between these characteristics and their anatomical build. Thirdly, everyone who has bothered to show an interest in the lives of other nations will have found that it is not true, for instance, that black people have a weak intellect, but a well-developed sense of smell, as Gobino declared. Fourthly, it is difficult to find reason for the hierarchy criteria, because, if, say, a criterion for excellence is a beard, then those who cannot have beards are, of course, beings of a lower category, but it is not clear why a beard should specifically be regarded as a criterion for excellence. Even if it were true that whites have intellect, but no sense of smell, and blacks have a sense of smell, but no intellect, it still cannot be concluded that blacks, therefore, should be considered higher beings than whites.
At any rate, it seems that a hostile attitude towards persons with different coloured skin is not always due to racism in this interpretation. Prejudices against persons of other races already existed before the 19th century theories, and criticism of these theories can only partly change people’s attitudes towards “strangers”. Therefore next to the “classical” definition of racism, a new definition has appeared which is mostly used by people for whom a hostile, mistrusting attitude towards a person because of the colour of his skin is not acceptable. Racism in this meaning is not a hypothesis or theory, but a prejudiced attitude. Prejudiced, because it cannot be explained rationally and usually no-one even tries to do so.
Let us use the example from the discussions of Zvaigzne’s experiences in a London hospital. She had to suffer through the careless and intolerant behaviour of the hospital staff at a time when one least of all wants to test one’s capacity for tolerance. However, the fact that the hospital staff were mostly black women still does not lead to a logical generalisation about the intolerance of blacks. It is actually very easy to imagine a situation where the same woman has ended up in a Soviet era maternity ward here in Latvia, and the staff are just as careless. But I find it hard to imagine that in this situation “Zvaigzne” would conclude that all whites are horrible and heartless, would join the “black panther” movement or do anything else so radical. In this case her glance would move past the skin colour and would stop at something else. If the nurses turned out to be Russians, she might conclude that all Russians are bad, or she might criticize the health care system or the hospital, or the specific persons. However, upon seeing a black nurse, she does not see other options, and that is significant.
In my opinion there is something natural in suspicions, distaste, and prejudice against persons with a different skin colour. It is an attitude that is very wide-spread and difficult to overcome. I don’t know how it comes into being and why it is so characteristic of people (and, of course, not only of whites). I also don’t know why racism has emerged in Latvia.
What kind of people are we?
A large part of the discussion about George Steele’s interview addressed the issue of whether Latvia is a racist country and if it is, then to what extent. First of all I want to draw attention to the fact that Steele spoke of his experience in different countries, but the headline of the article led one to conclude that he had said that “the most racist society” is in Latvia, which is not one and the same thing. However, the comparison is risky at any rate because the criteria by which we can compare are not quite clear. Is Latvia a more racist country than the USA? Well, in what sense… Not all problems which are important in the US are just as significant in Latvia and the other way round. Name calling on the street is, of course, conspicuous, but by no means the only sign of racism. Therefore, I believe that this type of comparison in this situation is unwarranted. However, the examples mentioned in the discussion, and again I must say in my opinion, show that first of all a racist attitude in Latvia is not being concealed and society is tolerant towards its manifestations. Secondly, it is difficult to say whether Latvia’s inhabitants should or should not be called racists, but racism certainly exists in Latvia. I am convinced by my own experience of the truth of both statements. For example, I have often heard Latvians speak compassionately of capitals of other countries where there are so many “blacks”. Meaning, it really is difficult for our new-found white brothers in the west.
Why there are so many people in the west who do not resemble the “northern type Arians” is a long story, but hatred against blacks among Latvians and also other Eastern European nations is peculiar, because there has been little contact and there is no specific reason for the dislike. This means that the cause of racism can be found in problems in society which are not linked directly to racism. I can only express my suspicions that one of the causes of racism could be xenophobia, which could be characteristic for many Latvians, because our historical experience is such that the protagonists of global dramas have always been careless towards the Latvian nation. We can also mention social problems and the tension which definitely exists in Latvia. For example one of the most dangerous scenarios of Latvian and Russian integration, I think, is the uniting of various nationalities to vent their discontent on the black students who have come to Latvia, or say, DJ’s.
What kind of people do we want to be?
Finally I want to stress, that the question of what Latvia is like must be separated from the question of what kind of Latvia we want. The answer to the second question is not an evaluation of facts. A choice needs to be made. Let’s imagine one of the choices: we want Latvia to be “Latvian”. Does that mean that blacks should not be allowed to cross the border? That would be strange, because not only are blacks not Latvian, Norwegians and the English are also not Latvian. Can Norwegians and the English be allowed to live and work in a “Latvian Latvia”? If we answer yes, then we need to explain why Norwegians are better than people from Sri Lanka. And as I already mentioned, the criterion could not really be race. If we want others to work in Latvia besides the existing inhabitants, and we do not want to be racists, then we don’t really have a reason to ban people of different skin colour, but if we don’t want this, then the ban should apply to Norwegians and English as well.
If blacks are allowed to cross the border of a “Latvian Latvia”, will they suddenly not become our sons and daughters-in-law? One aspect is that it is again difficult to justify why one should fear a black son-in-law, bet even more interesting is the question of who, in this “Latvian Latvia”, will control who marries whom. The Freedom Party advertisement first of all is paternalistic, as it is based on the assumption that you cannot rely on Latvian women themselves. Someone needs to protect them and keep them at a distance from black men, because they (the women, of course) may suddenly not understand what they really need. And that might be just the beginning. Soon Latvians might start listening to foreign music, eat strange food, speak loudly and gesticulate with their hands: behave like animals. It would be better for society to keep an eye on their own, and tell them whom to marry, what to sing and what to wear, wouldn’t it?
Racism, unfortunately, is natural. It is difficult to limit with reason. Elsewhere, intolerance towards racism has also often emerged not as a result of contemplation, but by way of painful experience. The incident mentioned by one of the participants in the discussion at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, when soldiers were brought in to protect black school children on their way to school, left a shocking impression on Americans who were able to watch the developments of the event with the aid of a relatively new medium, the television. It is doubtful that anything will substantially change in Latvia before we realise close-up what is so frightening about racism. But it would be nice if the discussion on politika.lvor George Steele’s interviews made at least someone prick up their ears.