In 1996 I worked in Linz, Austria as an English teaching assistant. The main job was at the BORG (Bundes-Oberstufenrealgymnasium), a high school for advanced, mostly college-bound students. On one of my first days at work–I was twenty-three years old and without any idea of what to expect–a certain Herr Professor put me up in front of his English class, about sixteen pupils. He introduced me as the new teaching assistant, then moved to the side and left me up at the board. In a matter-of-fact tone, he belted out instructions, “Our class has been reading about the civil rights era in the United States. I’d like for you to explain to us why America is so racist.”
The experience taught me about problems in any discussion or accusation of bigotry, especially across groups that have very different sensitivities. Is America racist? Well…yes, quite. But the Herr Professor’s question was also bigoted, loaded with idiotic assumptions, including the belief that it’s somehow fair to ask a single representative of a community or group to first speak in its name, then explain something notable about its sociology. The pupils and instructor seemed ready to draw very serious conclusions from my answers, and the class turned into the interrogation of a twenty-three year old, almost a test. Would you marry a black girl? Do you have any friends who are black? Would you work for a black boss? Do you believe black people are as smart as white people? The Herr Professor, much to my shock, did nothing to reposition or edit the self-incriminating questions.
This is exactly the sort of self-incrimination coming from those who have rushed to the defense of Petras Lescinskas, the unfortunate Lithuanian basketball fan found guilty of a racially aggravated offense at the Olympics. Among the defenses is this misguided juxtaposition of hand gestures separated by over 70 years of history. In Facebook discussions, and in the comments under articles covering the arrest, you’ll find all sorts of banter. A faction claims that Lescinskas didn’t mean to be racially offensive and, therefore, wasn’t. He was just a passionate fan, and the British cops perceived him as racist. He should have freedom of speech. The apologists also claim that the hand gesture means all sorts of things.
Well, yes. It does and has, most likely dating back to the dawn of civilization. The raised arm on this man is honoring Shiva, and these elementary school pupils are posing for a stock photo. Lescinskas, however, had something very different in mind from Rowan Atkinson or even the Olympic statue (that predates WWII). Few people see a Lithuanian saluting with the arm and imagine him imitating the statue, paying tribute to Shiva or asking for Herr Professor’s attention.
Lithuanians have earned a reputation for tribalism, small-mindedness, drink and boisterous non-sense, especially at sporting events, concerts and festivals. The behavior of Lescinskas and his entourage, bigotry and all, makes far more news than Lithuanian efforts toward sustainability, for example, which many countries could learn from. But Lithuania could do well to start taking cues from European neighbors like the United Kingdom when it comes to points of view on race and ethnicity.
The bigotry expressed by this basketball fan and his apologists does not exist in a sub-culture. Conversations about race with Lithuanians–even those who have lived abroad for decades, or others who are quite well educated–are often tedious. I’ve met plenty of Lithuanians who look at race and ethnicity as absolutes, not social constructs; they’d think me insane, for example, if I suggested that a Nigerian could become a Lithuanian or vice versa. But ask for a definition of “Lithuanian”. Four nationalists will give you four definitions, each one vehemently dismissing the others. You realize how delusional and isolating it is to believe ethnicity is the sun at the center of an identity system.
Consider the photograph posted below, Lithuanians in blackface. At one point the performance had been available on YouTube but has since been taken down for copyright infringements. It is from a television show called Chorų Karai (Choir Wars), one of these live competitions. The show aired in primetime, the summer of 2006, on national Lithuanian television. It showed Lithuanians in blackface–some dressed as maids, others in odd adaptations of traditional African garb–all of them dancing about while, at the piano, a man in blackface (not pictured) led a version of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack”. I told my friends, all of them college-educated, that this was rather offensive. They told me I was taking it too seriously; I was being American. Americans see racism everywhere. When I pointed out the history of the minstrel show, they all waved it off. These people don’t know anything about that. They’re just trying to have a good time with a song. They’re not trying to insult anyone. It’s a performance. They’re just acting like blacks.
Second City’s ETC, the training ground for the comic troupe, has a rule about writing comedy and satire. You’re not allowed to make fun of or represent a group unless you are a member of that group. I don’t necessarily agree with it but understand the reason for it. It helps to keep the proper sensitivities and perspectives in place.