When the performer mentioned that he thought of bringing his parents from conflict-stricken Mali to Lithuania, some of the responses from the on-line crowd were quite predictable. The musician was advised – in a less dignified manner than the word might suggest – to not only refrain from inviting his relatives, but to get the hell out himself. His response was quite original – without angry remarks, moralizing, or complaints to the authorities.
On his Facebook profile, the performer posted a number of somewhat odd-sounding comments: “I surely do not wish to get beaten up by a n***** just because I'm white in my own country” or “Yes, Lithuania needs more diawaras, Lithuania is particularly short on darkies, as they are so “hard-working,” “honest,” but above all intelligent, average African IQ is no less than 70!” The media even started speculating that Diawara might have had his Facebook profile hacked and someone else was posting the comments, as a form of revenge.
For Diawara, the politically correct way to respond would have been to swallow the insult, fume it out in the company of close friends, or, better yet, just let it go and allow the close-minded exercise their free speech in the wilderness of the internet. But the dictum “I see no problem, there is no problem” has long ceased relevance here. Diawara's response will probably not make him feel better, but it will at least make others feel worse.
In five months, Lithuania is to take its place at the helm of the Council of the European Union. Will it do so as the country which is leading in post-crisis recovery, yet one where bashing (metaphorically and sometimes literally) at someone for being different from oneself is still a regretfully common practice?
What image of ourselves are we going to give in the couloirs of Brussels as well as in the streets of Vilnius, which will be hosting an LGBT pride in July? Are we going to present ourselves as ordinary EU citizens (if not embracing, then at least not minding people who are unlike us) or deviants (waving banners with roosters, throwing stones, and shouting every filth that comes to mind)?
We still have time to rehearse being civilized. If, within six months, we manage to bring ourselves to the level, we might find that we like being that way.
A survey by the Labour and Social Research Institute has recently found that Lithuanians are most intolerant towards the Roma, former prisoners, homosexuals, and the mentally disabled. Other studies suggest that black people are not far down the list either.
When I shared the news that the Lithuanian Muslim community might be building a mosque in Vilnius with my friends, one of the comments I heard was that real estate prices would likely go down in the neighbourhood. Several weeks ago, I heard one soldier calling suicide bombers from Afghanistan “babays”, explaining his choice of words to me: “To make it more simple.”
When I expressed my indignation, the soldier explained that he did not mean ill, that it was simply a widespread word to refer to non-white people. And is it not the way that the majority of Lithuanians think? I do not beat anyone on the street, therefore I am tolerant enough – why should someone care about what I think or say? On the other hands, some insist, using “n*****” instead of “black” or “gypsy” instead of “Roma” is hardly an indication of the level of tolerance – it is the message that matters.
We pretend to be tolerant, but we fail to realize that the society is made of different people and that fair-haired Lithuanian girls (let's forget this image – it was already antiquated in the times of Antanas Vienuolis) are marrying husbands from India, Japan, or Nigeria. We are going to Egypt for holidays, eating Chinese for lunch – and I don't even want to go into the “Made in China” stuff surrounding us in our daily lives.
The Lithuanian Nationalist Youth Union, which has earned notoriety for holding nationalistically-inflected Independence Day processions on every 11 March, held a blood donation campaign last Saturday, which they called “In memory of 13 January, pure patriotic blood.”
The stated purpose of the campaign sounded noble enough – to commemorate people who shed their blood for our freedom and to draw attention to speculations that transfusion patients might be receiving diluted blood (this is how the campaign organizers explained their ill-advised use of the word “pure”). But can you not infer, between the lines, a suggestion that the Lithuanian blood should only be given to pure-blooded Lithuanians and not some muggles (as non-magicians are called in the Harry Potter series)? “Now you understand why I do not wish to bring my wife to Lithuania?” a friend of mine from Chicago wrote to me after reading about Diawara's story.
I could offer him a counter-example. I know a girl from Namibia who is studying in Vilnius, speaks fluent Lithuanian, and has only one complaint – that winters here are unbearably cold. Another African friend complains that people try to talk to her in Russian, even though she does not understand a word of it. I haven't heard newcomers from exotic-sounding countries complaining about insults or even violence – something they doubtlessly experience.
If they manage to let go of their grievances and treat their wounds (and not just spiritual), make friends with truly abhorrent Lithuanian weather, crack the conjugation of Lithuanian words, why can't we be more hospitable? If the phrase “human rights” makes us nauseous, we can at least admit that globalization is knocking on the doors of our mossy country huts – and it is not going away any time soon.
The Seimas has enough time and enthusiasm to debate whether or not MP Neringa Venckienė kicked someone. The muddy story brought hundreds of activists from around the country to Garliava last year, while legal and personal conflicts of a family have been made a matter of the state. Why couldn't sane people of Lithuania – who doubtlessly outnumber the Garliava crowd – come together and defend human rights? Let's try to be Victor Diawara, if only for a minute.