Estonia's Non-Existent Color Barrier ({{commentsTotal}})

Source: Photo: 18th century portrait of Abram Gannibal

Abram Petrovich Gannibal, native of Cameroon and former superintendent of the city of Tallinn (1742-1752), must be rolling his eyes somewhere.

With due respect to the Social Democrats and other parties' gift for marketing stunts, it's bewildering for me to see articles on the "accomplishment by first black person" in Estonia, as if Abdul Turay, who has announced a bid for Tallinn city council, is the Jackie Robinson of a country that is making slow strides in dealing with a painful legacy. Here I thought global media influence was supposed to be on the wane, with talk of an Estonian buyout of Postimees, yet it seems we have fallen into the trap of looking at a development through some imported prism.

Estonia has no historical color barrier, no history of slavery (of the specific African colonial kind) or repression based on skin color. Besides noblemen from the 18th century, or Soviet-era researchers, Estonia has had many minority celebrities. Mihhail Kõlvart, current deputy mayor of Tallinn, is Korean by descent. Dave Benton is from Aruba. When he became Estonia's Eurovision representative, considerably less was made of his own racial background, and that was practically back in the last century!

Racism? It's so easy to spread rumors by repeating them, as the anonymous Estonian Moments guy does when he smirks that he "knows Estonians attitude towards black people." It's like an Estonian Moment when you realize an Estonian guy has stopped beating his wife. There are a few skinheads in Tartu, but their bark is worse than their bite, and there are losers everywhere who will embrace stupid views to compensate for their own inability. But I have always thought of Estonia as a kind of Netherlands of the East, a low-lying, freethinking, worldly commercial gateway and bridge between civilizations, and a refuge from persecution, both religious and otherwise. 

Whether for a crafty Estonian peasant or Tallinn merchant, money has always trumped big lofty ideas and theories. I leave it to you to decide whether that is just wishful thinking. But you can also run a thought experiment right now and ask yourself whether a small-town shopkeeper in the most benighted, provincial corner of Estonia would ever turn away a paying customer based on some segregation principle.

As we know, Estonia has endured so many occupations that there's not much left of the First Nation/Native Finno-Ugric stock. We're all Indo-European mongrels genetically, and there's probably even some Moor and Black in all of us by now. And as for bona fide Africans, there have always been some in Estonia, since before the age of Pushkin.

It would be a shame if suddenly we have reinvented the concept of "token minorities" when we've already been there hundreds of years ago.

Are we actually being enlightened and progressive when we make distinctions like "first black to run for city council"? Or are we talking about something that is easy to talk about for foreigners who are otherwise at sea when it comes to Estonian issues? Are we unknowingly reverse-engineering racism and racialism from a background of relative tolerance? 

Abdul Turay's candidacy is a positive thing. I can't say anything about the Social Democrats, which now seem to be trying to beat the Center Party in a competition for the most meaningless name. (After all, Turay seemed like quite the arch-conservative when he was praising Thatcher on ERR News earlier this year). But certainly more Westerners should run for city council, not just Baltic German descendants in small towns, but certainly in Tallinn and Tartu.

And, of course, if it comes down to a head-to-head with the incumbent mayor, I would vote for Turay - that's the most important, real barrier that many feel should be broken in Tallinn. 

Editor's note: The views expressed above are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of ERR News.

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