Race and racism in Estonia

Posted: February 26th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, human rights, thoughts | 3 Comments »

Current scientific understanding based on modern genetics is that race is not a scientific category, but a completely inaccurate and useless way of distinguishing between groups of people. According to the Human Genome Project:

DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other. Indeed, it has been proven that there is more genetic variation within races than exists between them.

Therefore I might have more in common in my DNA with someone living somewhere in Africa than someone in Estonia. The European Union has already in 2000 clarified in recital 6 of the Racial Equality Directive (Directive 2000/43/EC), that “[t]he European Union rejects theories which attempt to determine the existence of separate human races.”

It seems, though, that very many people in Estonia have not yet got this message or refuse to believe it. If you read Estonian wikipedia, distinct races do exist (and are also mentioned and described in detail). The same information is still taught in schools, as I understand. In public discourse, races are usually referred to, probably due to the Soviet understanding of races and the widespread dissemination of that information.

Trying to categorise people based on their perceived race, has led to a lot of horrific events in the past, which is why using race even in sociological or self-identification way might not be the best idea. If you subscribe to the idea that distinct races exist, then it is not difficult to find people who argue that this or that race is inferior or superior. There already are a number of classifications based on which people irrationally discriminate or hate groups of people, like ethnic origin, skin colour, language, gender, sexual orientation and beliefs. Unfortunately there are people who not only believe that races exist, but also attribute specific characteristics to people belonging to these made-up races and considering them inferior, which is where racism comes from.

It seems to me that racism is alive and quite prevalent in Estonia. I do not have any substantial research on this (there is a lack of reliable research on this), but I will offer a number of anecdotal evidence, which has made me feel this way. I already mentioned that many people is Estonia react with extreme incredulity when I mention that races are not a scientific basis for categorisation of human beings.

First, there is the word ‘neeger‘ in Estonian language that many people still defend as a valid word to use for black people. It should not be used, but people still do. Second, there are the experiences of people with other skin colour. I recently read Abdul Turay’s fantastic book about Estonia, in which he describes his ordeals when crossing the Estonian border. Similar notions of racism among police and border guards seem to be quite common for asylum seekers also. At Human Rights Centre, where we work with asylum seekers, there are a number of stories of racist behaviour among officials. The final example relates to the media coverage related to the bunch Vietnamese people who were discovered illegally in Estonia, which was anything but fair.

I do not understand why pretend that there are no problems? There is racism in Estonia as well as racist hate crimes. As long as the problem is not faced, the victims of racism will remain marginalised and victimised not only due to the attacks, but also due to the attitudes of the society, which pretends that there is no problem.

3 Comments on “Race and racism in Estonia”

  1. 1 Darkhearted (JB) said at 18:23 on December 5th, 2013:

    I lived in Estonia from 2005-9 and am a male of Caribbean descent. Whilst it is definitely true that racism exists in Estonia it is a multifaceted problem there. It is a country that has had constant invasions over the last century or two and it has led to a lot of xenophobia.

    I grew up in the UK during the 70’s-80’s and racism there was far more overt. In Estonia I experienced only a few instances of racism mostly by drunken yobs and none escalated into anything physical. I am big though and one associate I had who was a petite African had many stories of physical altercations though none were serious.

    With all that said I also experienced something there that I did not see in the UK growing up and that is genuine curiosity towards me. Some people were thrilled to have ethnically diverse people to talk to and exchange ideas and culture with. I could not count the amount of times different guys offered (and bought) me drinks in bars or cafes just being friendly and chatty.

    I did see one guy who showed me a swastika tattoo on his chest. Far from being intimidated as he wanted I laughed at him because contrary to popular belief many Estonians (not all) fought along side the Germans to try and win freedom from the USSR not out of sympathy for their cause. I imagined his great grandfather spinning in his grave upset at what a brainwashed fool his offspring had become.

    The USSR was responsible for massacres, deportations and the stripping of property in Estonia. Understandably there are mixed feelings towards the Russian community from those with long memories. I did make the effort to learn a little Estonian and it instantly earned me respect from most strangers and demonstrated my respect for their country. The majority of Estonians treated me as they would treat anyone else (not always good) and some of them treated me better than they treat each other.

    I met people of all age groups including pensioners who were warm and generous. When out in the clubs young people wanted to hang out and dance and even take photos with me being different was rarely a negative thing.

    On the other hand Tartu was the most racist place I have ever visited not only in Estonia but anywhere. The staff in bars would avoid serving me people would scowl and mutter in the street and it was generally a backwards place. There is a resurgence of Neo-Nazism across Eastern Europe and I hope the infection does not take hold in Estonia and ruin a beautiful place and people. Generations have passed since the end of World War Two and it seems Europeans are still holding on to the xenophobic ideals that caused so much loss of life and wealth.

    Can’t these people let go of the misguided hate that destroyed so much and look forward to what we can do when we pool our strengths. We can achieve so much more together than alone and wasn’t that the point of Estonia joining the EU?

  2. 2 Jack said at 3:15 on May 21st, 2014:

    I totally agree. There is racism in Estonia, and people do not think they are being racist.

  3. 3 Martin said at 1:25 on June 22nd, 2015:

    Just because you used slaves in the past and feel guilty about it, doesn’t mean we have to be sensitive about simple words.
    Because we value free and open discussion more than your feelings.

    If you feel that we spew bullshit, combat our claim with well argumented and a factual response. But if you come at us with… muh sensibilities… we tell you to take a hike.

    Yes, there are racists in Estonia as there is fucking everywhere. Racism isn’t a problem here, but we aren’t denying that there is racism present.

    We deal with racists and racially motivated and/or any kind of discriminatory act and punish people appropriately.

    In closing, what comes to the word “neeger”. We look at a statement and it’s context and determine, whether it’s racist.
    A statement containing that word does not mean it is racist by default. – Simple.

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