neljapäev, detsember 27, 2012

that black man

Ebony and ivory.
"Daddy, who's that black man?" "Shh. Be quiet!" "But the black man?" ""That's Dave Benton." "Is he from America? He looks like Obama." "No, he's from Aruba, I think." "Aruba?" "It's an island."

This dialogue took place at a Christmas concert at the Vanemuine theater in Tartu. And, I have to say, I quieted my child, not only because the rest of the audience at the Dave Benton and Annely Peebo concert seemed stiff and conservative and not welcoming of small children interrupting Härra Benton's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but because she noted that Härra Benton is of a different race.

It was a reflex, of course and everything here is contextual. I am a product of place and time and have grown up thinking of people of African descent as being sensitive about their identity. But I am in my own way a time capsule, and little girls today don't know much about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and, of course, the Reverend Al Sharpton, nor have they seen a Spike Lee movie. Even in the US, it seems like the passions of the postmodern, post-Civil Rights political correctness identity crisis have long cooled. And the fact is that Dave Benton is a black man, especially when he's standing on stage next to Annely Peebo, who looks like the heroine of a Wagner opera.

It was a good concert by the way, a fun tribute to every stereotype about Christmas concerts -- blaring saxophone solo, anyone? -- and there was also the pleasant mismatch of Benton's smooth operator finger-snapping crooning and Peebo's scintillating soprano, which billowed up into the higher octaves like plumes of hot steam off an extinguished Christmas fire. My daughters' favorite song was "Feliz Navidad," and even the old ladies with the wooden faces were clapping along by that point, but my handling of the topic of racial identity also was turning in the back of my mind.

According to a book I have been reading called Nurture Shock, so-called white parents rarely talk about race with their children, and if they do it's usually packaged in some gunky "skin color doesn't matter, it's what's inside" gobbeldygook. I say "so-called white" because I think "white" is a bullshit term used by Americans to separate themselves from Europeans because of our/their massive hybrid inferiority-superiority complex ("I'm not a filthy cheese-eating European, I'm white"), but that's neither here nor there.

The truth is that the "we're all the same/skin color doesn't matter" argument would never pass my kids' sniff test. My eldest daughter is asking me questions all the time like, "Why are most rappers black?" And here I am, driving the road between Viljandi and Tartu, passing farmhouses and forests, wondering if I should start with slave work songs or Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" or just skip ahead to Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang. Or I could have said, "That's not true, Eminem is a fine rapper and he's not black. See, what are you talking about? Skin color doesn't matter!" Too bad Mr. Benton himself wasn't in the backseat so he could have leaned forward in his trademark white suit and answered simply, "because black people are awesome."

Usually my response to "Why is that man black?" is "Because some of his/her ancestors came from Africa." Seems like a pretty legitimate take on the question. The roots of many popular American music forms also trace back to Africa. Don't ask me. Ask James Brown. Okay, he's dead. But listen to his music. The answer is Africa. It's a way of thinking I have picked up from the Estonians, for whom nationality is a deep and meaningful construct. The very words "German," "Russian," or "Finn" are loaded with shared ideas about those nationalities related to genetics and history.

In a way, I am teaching my children to think similarly. Connect the man's blackness with Africa. Why is Obama black? Because his father was from Kenya. See, it's no lie, and it's not mixing up the message with complex concepts that little kids have a hard time grasping because they didn't grow up listening to Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. And, to compare, why is my family white? Could it be that most of our ancestors come from Europe? Sometimes the answers to the most difficult questions are as deceptive in their simplicity as the melody of a good Christmas standard.

34 kommentaari:

Martasmimi ütles ...

Sometimes simple and straight forward answers are the best.
Why is he/she dark skinned.
Because nature provided for us. Africans are dark because it's always been very hot there and nature made them dark skinned to
protect them from the sun.
People here are very light skinned and have light hair and eyes to help them absorb and store Vit D during the long cold dark winters.
Yours was a good answer too.

LPR ütles ...

Am I a racist? I know that I will stay away from this topic as long as I possibly can when it comes to my mini-me.

I am afraid of this topic more than "Daddy how did you put me inside mommy's belly" discussion.


Talk about being uncomfortable. In a polite society race is not mentioned. At all! Ever.

Like nobdoy is going to point at a giant moel on someones face. It is simply not there. When it so glaringly is.

Everybody pretends and puts on a good face. Then moves their kids out of the school system without explicitly saying why. (Just came from a Christmas party where this issue came up. These people are selling their house, moving to a "whiter" area).

Race does not matter. Until it messes with your property value.

No matter how many times you listen to Steview Wonder, there is no miracle here. Black is bad for your bottom line.

There is a reason why nobody is racist in Estonia or Iceland or ... even Russia.


Am I racist? Well, I do not have a token black friend. I just have a stack of Miles Davis records. Oh, I must be safe.

Between us, I once had a black girlfriend, but it did not work out. Not because she was black. She was just nuts. But so are most women, so that does not help either ...

Wow, I am stuck.

Hah, maybe living in Estonia in itself is racist? See what I mean?

I'd strangely the guy who thought it would be such a good business idea to import people from Africa to work for them.

Idiots. Why did they not think of Mexicans? They walk faster.

I know. OK, so color me racist. I give up.

Until then, son, please don't ask me about it. Figure it out yourself. I want no piece of it. Not my problem.

LPR ütles ...

OK. That's clearly too much egg nog for this crazy uncle here, please someone walk me out of the living room before I completely speak my mind and kick over the punch bowl by accident ...

LPR ütles ...

Instead I should go out and watch a totally relaxing movie on the subject ...,0,1771716.story

Marko ütles ...

Well in America this clearly is a major issue. Where as in Britain things are not as black and white. In Britain its more about the color of your collar, rather than skin tone. Its about social mobility being restricted to a ethnic group, in America. Just as native Estonians in Estonia were once restricted. We kicked the Germans out and the problem solved itself. In Britain they made class system more accsesible yo the ethnically, and the problem solved itself. Americans just have to man up and put end the bigotry and ignorance going on over there. Simple.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Well, why should this be a difficult question? Like, well, why? People do look different, they have different cultures (that don't necessary correlate with their looks), that's how it is. Race is not very interesting even if it can be a problem with our endless silliness as a species.

Unknown ütles ...

This discussion is idiotic. What Giustino should have answered:

1) There are more black rappers because they are better at it than whites (Vanilla Ice anyone?), and because it's an expression medium they have chosen for themselves. Because race means class in the US. You do get good white rappers/hip-hoppers like the Beastie Boys, Eminem, or Cypress Hill. (Play them to your daughters so that they know they exist).

2) Black people are black not because their parents came from Africa (everyone's parents came from Africa for that matter), but because it's a trait as irrelevant as the number of freckles on your back, or rings in your fingerprint. Obama's family on his mother side are white, so Obama in some respect, is not a black person.

3) Race is self-determined. Ask Dave Benton and he might as well tell you he does not feel a black person. While you might find that many native Estonians are "non-standard Europeans", despite colour of skin.

4) The US is in such a dire mess when it comes to race relations because the angry, old, rural, and uneducated "white" people think they are the only true representation of a country, while for everyone else, it isn't an issue. If you have never traveled abroad, studied in a respected university with diverse racial or ethnical mix, lived next to people of "non-standard" appearance and customs, then you are as small-minded and narrow as to think anyone who doesn't look like you is inferior to you. The Irish were once classified as non-white.

5) Whatever, let xenophobes and people who grow their children to be xenophobes sweat in their dreams and nightmares, and froth at the mouth, and pop their veins in their heads. They are much the poorer for it, and will die out eventually.

Marko ütles ...

Sorry for the typos. Spot on Unknown! Two interesting films on the matter I've seen recently are Lakeview Terrace and Spielberg's Lincoln. The latter was interesting for the narrative being told from the 'white' perspective, which does not happen often. Its a film about triumph of human spirit and also how narrowly the Americans could have chosen to stick with their old ways.

Kids by nature are not racist. But they can be made one, by feeding into societal pressures, stereotypes and ignorance.

Christine ütles ...

Unk4) The US is in such a dire mess when it comes to race relations because the angry, old, rural, and uneducated "white" people think they are the only true representation of a country, while for everyone else, it isn't an issue.
If you have never traveled abroad, studied in a respected university with diverse racial or ethnical mix, lived next to people "

*Seriously you think that these poor rural angry white morons are the only racists in the USA...
I found out during our most recent presidential election how many closeted, well educated from well respected uni's upper middle class white people were racist.
Some would swear that they were not but it's there just below the surface.
I think it's easy to speak about race when you live in a country that is close to 100% white.

*and yes I know that we all came from Africa... but get that we are trying to explain to a 5 & 8 year old why some people are black.
The story of the evolution of man is a bit too detailed to fly as an answer.

Unknown ütles ...

Yes Christine, I agree wholly on that. It surprised me too when I was in the US how educated, white Democrat-leaning people could be very racist, a la 'we pay lip service to their problems since we are supposed to represent them', but still feel an uncoded distinction for educated (or uneducated) whites. I think it also has to do with the US unions, who are extremely xenophobic, as in 'the whole world are stealing our jobs'. Well, perhaps they didn't deserve those jobs. I have to point out, not that Republican policies have been or would be any better.

The thing in Estonia is that even if it has a relatively high number of foreigners, it is still non-diverse, given that most of those foreigners come from one background. And there is the whole thesis here that defines Estonian existence as 'us against the rest'. In my opinion, the only hope for Estonian survival and flourishing is to have moderate diversity from several sources. In that sense, Dave Benton is probably the country's best known black person. I don't think we need extra baggage, but sensitivity. I also think it's sad he named his children with Estonian surnames. I know of several other cases where the same thing happened. That's the unofficial policy here, integrate forcefully, because we will not tolerate diversity. Officially, its: One surname for one of the parent's surnames (which is mostly the Estonian parent's surname). But unofficially, anyone with a name or surname that sounds 'exotic' is automatically taken suspiciously. They even think they can extricate the German out of themselves, which is impossible. The argument of "we are 100% Estonian", no German, no Russian, no anything, is just dumb. If anything, we newcomers are improving the race with further diversity to the gene pool.

Sorry for the rant.

Have a nice end of the old year, as they say here, and a fab New Year.

Marko ütles ...

Exotic surnames are taken with suspicion absolutely everywhere. You can't get away from that.

I agree that more diversity would do good for Estonia in the long run. But your comment on improving the gene pool, is out right offensive. I'd be careful by making these comments in public, as you only would further isolate yourself from mainstream society. And then don't come around complaining that we are pushing you lot out to the fringes. What goes around, comes around.

Christine ütles ...

Everytime someone uses the term "gene pool" someone gets all offended.
Here in New York in my little part of Long Island we have a very diverse population one larger then the entire country of Estonia.
We live in a Uni town with a top ranked Medical Center & teaching Hospital. Students come from all over the world to attend this Medical/Dental/ Engineering school, and mostly they stay here after graduation.
I feel some should go home and help their own people.
So now we are African, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, European and yes Russian too. There are people on my street from Ukraine and I am told a few Estonians too. Here when I say that my son is currently living in Estonia I rarely need to explain where it is. Many interupt me and say, it's near Finland or Russia, or that they have been or their friend or parent has been to Estonia.
I am convinced that Estonia just wants to be pure "Estonian".
They don't want what they believe to be their purity of race to be sullied by anyone who will make children who don't have blond hair & blue eyes.
They want to keep all Estonians in Estonia.
How do I know this, why would I say this you ask?
It's very simple, Estonians have said it nd quite bluntly right to my face.

Yes, "we need all Estonians to stay in Estonia" so we can keep increasing the pure Estonian population".
Too bad there isn't a vomiting icon that I could end my "rant" response to your rant with.

Christine ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Marko ütles ...

Christine, nowhere did I mentioned that Estonians have to be of some sort of 'lineage '. In fact, I said in long term Estonia, in my view, will benefit from wider diversity. What bothered me about Unknowns comment was the attitude, that's all. And we are most likely not able to even have half of this conversation in Estonian, I assume of course. And that makes me sad, as if all these guys come to Estonia for one reason only, as Unknown put it, to enrich the gene pool.

Estonia was founded as a republic. And in a republican democracy one is meant to get involved, in order to reap the benefits. Not to expect that marrying a local girl gives them automatic social status or privileges.

I live in a country I was not born in and I do know how tricky this all can be - I wasn't given any allowances, any privileges. Quite the opposite. I had to fight tooth and nail to get some sort of recognition as a member of community, just to be seen for who I am, rather than 'some sort of foreigner'. It can be done. And so long people expect me to conform, to turn down my 'Estonianess ', why am I wrong to ask the same from others?

Unknown ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Unknown ütles ...

Mina jälle. Probleem ongi selles. Inglismaal on palju lihtsam olla üks nende vahel. Nad on juba harjunud tuhandete aastatetega uute sisserändajatega. Ja kuigi nad on präegusel hetkel üliebatoleraantsed tänu Toridele, UKIPidele, ja BNPidele, nad suhtuvad nendesse maailma tasemel. Vaadake nende juutide kogukonna, mis on hästi asimileeritud. Nagu USAs. Aga siin, ei armastata mitte midagi võõrast. Mitte isegi Soome või Rootsi värki. Jah, ma kirjutan õudselt halvasti eesti keeles, aga mitte halvim kui teie inglise keeles.

Translation: Just taking up the challenge in Estonian. Mind you, I'm a huge Estophile and believe the positive way outbalances the negative, otherwise I wouldn't have come here. And I'm actually pretty well integrated here. Most of my acquaintances, family, and friends are Estonian. But the only sad thing is how nothing foreign is loved here, not even Finnish or Swedish, that are quite close culturally. Every foreigner here is a "tumeda inimene" (dark person), or kuumaverelise (hot blooded). Perhaps they actually like it but can't muster to say it. But until they start getting out a bit more in the global world, then any (mark - any -) foreigner here will feel unwelcome. Always surprises me how Finns and Estonians feel centuries apart, when they are the closest of brothers. Yes, history has a role, but opening your minds and hearts can only do a country good. Nii, et ainult jääb loota, et olla välismaalane siin Eestis ei jääks anekdootides, ja et võtaks vähemalt sama palju aega, raha ja pingutust saada eestlaseks nagu on saada britideks või ameeriklasteks. Siin isegi kui sa oled elanud ja töötanud Eestis peaagu kaheksa aastat järjest, räägid keelt, järgid seadused, maksad maksud, oled abiellunud ja isa väiksestele eestlastele ... ikka ei kõlba. Ja siis nõuda et eestlased oleksid vaadatud hea meelega välismaal.

Marko ütles ...

Su eesti keel on suurepärane, ning ma olen rohkem kui kindel et sind on selle eest ka piisavalt tunnustatud. On meeldiv tõdeda et oled võtnud vaevaks seda õppida. Ma tean et eestlane võib näida külmana, mu enese Inglasest partner ei väsi seda mulle meelde tuletamast, kuid see on kultuuri põhine, see tähendab et inimene eesti kultuuriruumist ei ole vastik ja õel, vaid et see võib nii näida väljastpoolt tulnuile. Kuigi aususe huvides võiks mainida et kalle inimesi on eesti natuke palju tõesti.

I would disagree on what you said about Britain. Estonia too, has seen thousand years of immigration and Estonians generally assimilate different cultures quite well. Just think of Estonian Muslims or the Old Believers who have found refuge here for centuries.

In Britain everyone lives in bubbles - social, ethnic, religious, sub-culture you name it. And interaction between these bubbles works well in big cities, but go to Yorkshire, for example, and its as if you're back in fifteen hundreds.

And like the English, Estonians too are very proud people. I gather its that pride that bothers you? Well, there's no easy way of dealing with it. You'd have to embrace it, and it will embrace you back - with a slight delay, of course.

Since I'm an immigrant myself I have given the subject great deal of thought. There are no rules as how to be a successful immigrant. We all have to find our own way. We are people after all, all very different, and that's what this comes down to, too.

Giustino ütles ...

Unknown, that's an awful lot of information to drop on an eight-year-old kid. I can just imagine the questions to follow: "What does class mean? Like school?" "Where's Cypress Hill? Is that in America" "M&Ms? I love M&Ms!" You are right that Mr. Benton probably does not identify as a "black man." I honestly don't know how he identifies. But when my kid asks me a question, and is waiting for a simple answer, Africa is what I came up with.

Unknown ütles ...

Sorry Giustino. You're right. I haven't played those bands to my sproglets yet either, even if I have their CDs. It's just that oversimplifications get us into twisting our tongues and thoughts. I know you meant well, and as a bossa nova lover, you will do fine explaining these things to your children. In fact, I highly respect your musical taste. Let's drop names like House of Pain and The Streets. Or change genre.

Marko: Thanks mate. Yes, I guess I have to chin up and bottle it in. I guess I am already. A funny thing happened when I was feeling acclimatized, useful, resourceful with less funds, self-proud and well-shaved, a bit bitter inside with a dollop of apathy, appreciation for the cold and harsh of daily life and grind, and just getting on with things and work. I think people were actually noticing me for my 'Estonianness'. A very weird but pleasant feeling. I hope I can keep it up or mutate into that. Although I will still break a smile at nothing, just to throw them off.

Christine: No more rants for this year, I promise.

Unknown ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Unknown ütles ...

Giustino: By the way, I really want to read Montreal Demons. I love the Beat generation stuff, and On The Road blew me away. I didn't like the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though. Maybe it was the Keelele Ei Meeldi Johnny Depp thing. Sad that a Catcher in The Rye is not taught in schools anymore.

Your Minu Eesti was great, I was laughing out loud while reading it. Same thing happened when I randomly picked up a paperback book in a Barnes and Noble in Apache Mall, started reading also at a random page and laughed loudly in the middle of the store to Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Marko ütles ...

That's the spirit, Unknown! You're on your way, what we the 'foreign born' in Britain, call the 'click'. Depending on the individual, it takes about 5-15 years to happen, but after the 'click' it all kind of clicks in place. You'll feel whole again. You will feel that you have made it and that you belong here.

Just never let that smile go ; )

Meelis ütles ...

and Estonians generally assimilate different cultures quite well.
I don't think so. Only Ingrian Finn were sucessfully assimilated.

plasma-jack ütles ...

@Unknown: the Jewish community in Estonia is also well assimilated, as you probably know.

Meelis ütles ...

"the Jewish community in Estonia is also well assimilated, as you probably know."
Yes, but most of them have been assimilated into Russian-speaking population.

plasma-jack ütles ...

Who cares who they hang out with as long as they speak the local language perfectly. And they do.

Marko ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Anonüümne ütles ...

this is EXTREMELY well written, i'm in awe!

and i agree... not that we're anywhere near discussing racial matters or birds and bees, the kid is still battling understanding simple commands like "please don't pull my hair", but she grows fast and i think i should probably start giving existential matters more thought. after all, i won't have much explaining to do if she grows up not making a big deal out of it :)

Blogeditor ütles ...

Some offensive comments from Christine and Unknown (at least the earlier ones), luckily Marko keeps things together.

Unknown ütles ...

Actually nothing of what I wrote was offensive. It is perfectly understood to my family that I am improving my race with the addition of Estonian genes, so why does the vice versa have to sound offensive to anyone?

Or are you offended by my comments on bigots? Sorry about that then. I guess they also have sensitivities that can be offended.

Or is it about native Estonian men who are great at drinking, speeding in their cars, having kids and abandoning them left, right and center, and have an IT job that allows them to be teenagers forever? Sorry again if I offended any of those.

Temesta ütles ...


Why do you have such a negative image of Estonian society? What kind of bad experiences did you have?

Marko ütles ...

Well, at least we know where Unknown stands on these things. I'm a great supporter of free speech and he has every right to express his views. Although he won't be making many friends in the process of doing so, that's also clear.

As your average Estonian from Viljandi, main thing I appreciate most in new migrants is effort. Their willingness to learn and develop. A good heart over sharp mind (as they rarely come hand in hand). It doesn't matter to me if you arrived in Estonia onboard SAS airplanes business class, or paddled your way over Narva river on an old fridge door. Numbers on your bank account or degrees from worlds top universities are meaningless to me, unless you can prove that you are of good character. And I can't give an opinion on your character unless you demonstrate it.

I don't know any of you guys in real life, but I happened to see Jõulutunnel's piece on Giuostino. Sweet and humble man. I like him, and wouldn't mind if 10 000 of likes of him would move to Viljandi tomorrow.

Oh, and on the matter of political correctness you guys should watch the latest episode of Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is in big trouble, lol, I was laughing my head off last night. There's still hope for the Americans too, I believe now.

Doris ütles ...

I recently had the "pleasure" of reading a comment "but Europe is mostly white middle class"


no. There's Eastern Europeans that are white but by European standards definitely not middle class (and even within Eastern Europeans there's a distinct difference between Romanian, Romanian Roma or a Slovenian person). there are the Mediterranian people with their cuisine and temperament which is so different from northeners, there are the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, the local yokels...

Doris ütles ...

I recently had the "pleasure" of reading a comment "but Europe is mostly white middle class"


no. There's Eastern Europeans that are white but by European standards definitely not middle class (and even within Eastern Europeans there's a distinct difference between Romanian, Romanian Roma or a Slovenian person). there are the Mediterranian people with their cuisine and temperament which is so different from northeners, there are the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, the local yokels...