Interview with George Steele on December 21, 2021
My name is George Steele. I’m 62 years old and I’ve been living here in Latvia for 27 years now. I have a wife who’s Latvian, that’s the reason why I came here. We have two children. An 18-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. What I do mainly is I teach conversational English. That’s my main job, but I’m also a part-time actor in Daugavpils theater. But I also do voice-overs and I do commercial work as in advertisements. So, I’m a part-time professional actor also and I still do proofreading in English and things like that, so mostly involving language, but also involving the arts.
I was born in Cleveland. Ohio, Cleveland. The city in the United States, not the district in the UK. And yeah, as I said before, that was 62 years ago, so in 1959. Well, we actually met in Cleveland, we worked together. She was in a program that allowed her to work and study. So, the place where she worked was where I worked. We met, we fell in like and when her program finished a year later, she asked me to come here to Latvia. She thought it would be better for us to be here. There would be more opportunities. And five months after she returned to Latvia, I followed her, and I’ve been here ever since.
At the time, foreign Latvians were sending what was called humanitarian aid to local Latvians. It was right after the end of the Soviet Union, so foreign Latvians were renting these large (shipping) containers and they had boxes that they would buy (in) certain dimensions, and they would pack things inside those boxes and send them to their relatives. My wife found out about this, or at the time my girlfriend found out about this, and I bought several of these boxes. I packed most of my essential things that I thought I would need in Latvia, those things I couldn’t carry on the airplane, pots, pans, things like that, and then I shipped them to Latvia. That was the only way at the time, and it wasn’t the easiest thing. If I remember correctly the boxes actually got here a few months after I got here, maybe two months after I got here. Maybe just several weeks. But yeah, that was the only way at the time to do those things.
The actual physical move was, for me was, well, I want to say it’s not so difficult. It wasn’t so difficult, but it was the first time I was outside the continental United States in my life. I had never flown transcontinental. I never even had a passport. That’s very typical for Americans. We don’t travel that much, so we don’t have a passport. I received my passport I think a couple of weeks before I left the United States to come to Latvia. There were other transitions for me. I have children back in the United States, so that was the hardest transition for me to leave them behind with their mother, of course. But the actual physical move was not as difficult as people might think it would be. A bit similar to today.
My arrival in Latvia would have been and a bit like today (December 21, 2021). I can sum it up in two words – cold and gray. Not only about the weather, but about the people and about the overall atmosphere. Let me explain that. I got here in October, so the weather was pretty much like it is today. In fact, it was the first day of snow in Latvia when I got here, and it was cold and it was gray and bleak. And that was before the beginning of remodeling of buildings and restoration of buildings. All the buildings were still in the old Soviet or pre-Soviet colors and not restored so they were grey. At that time people dressed only in black or grey, there were no really bright and sharp colors like I’m wearing today. Of course, they existed, but people just didn’t wear them. And, of course, the streets were not well lit. They are still not very well lit, but better than before. Even the people walked around like from a Dostoyevsky’s novel. They were just kind of unhappy and not smiling, I have to remind people this was just a few months before the banking crisis, so I literally got here at the worst time a person could get here from the outside after the fall of the Soviet Union. So, it was the beginning of a very emotionally tough time for the people here, for the local people here.
The Latvian society is not welcoming to foreigners in general. But it is even less welcoming to people who are visibly different. And, of course, I mean of different geographical areas, such as the Middle East or Africa or in some cases even like Asia or South America or Central America, people who are just visibly different than the European model and therefore, no, I didn’t feel welcomed coming into (this) society, in society. My wife did her best to try to help me feel welcomed. She introduced me to her university classmates, former classmates, who were very open-minded, and so on and so forth. And that was helpful to an extent. My wife at the time was working for the United Nations and so she worked with the international group who were her colleagues. So, she introduced me to those people also. And from time to time I bumped into American ex-pats, also I think a German or two who were open to trying to become more involved in life outside of Latvia. In other words, trying to be more multicultural. Even in a less multicultural community, as Latvia is. It was tough because of the mentality towards people of color here. Also, I like to mention that Latvia had already had several people of color living here, they were former Aviation Institute students who were left over after the fall of the Soviet Union, and some of them have families and some of them were just stuck here because they couldn’t go back to the countries because their countries were involved in communist regimes, or they were not free to go back or whatever. So, these young people are mostly men, but some women were also here, and they were having a very tough time of it. The integration police or migration police, I forget the actual name, at the time, they were trying to round up these people and expelled them, just throw them out of the country as quickly as possible, and that mentality was also within (the) society, “You know, these black people are here and they need to get out as soon as possible.” And there was no differentiation between a former student or an illegal person coming across the border or, excuse me, a person coming illegally across the border or some African American who was coming in to live his life or her life here. There was no differentiation. You were all black and we don’t want you here.
So, yeah, it was a difficult time to integrate as a person of color here also from my side, from my point of view, I had no working knowledge of any of the local languages. And a lot of people are going to jump on me when I said any of the local languages because Latvian is the language of the country. I even swore an oath to that when I got my citizenship. But there are two fully functioning or, excuse me, there were two fully functioning languages when I came here. The national language and Russian and that’s what I mean by that. And I had really no functioning knowledge. I had a little bit with me. “I literally brought Kārlis Streips’s mother’s book and cassette tapes with me and I would walk around with my headphones on, listening to her tapes every day, and then at night I would go and do (grammar) exercises in her book. But that wasn’t enough to just parrot phrases all the time. I needed more and I didn’t have that when I first got here. It made it a bit more, well, it made it very difficult to navigate the streets, navigate the society. So, all those things put together made it not very easy. I can say honestly that in the past 27 years, even though I may have felt better living here, I’ve never felt that this is my home. Even though I have citizenship. I have two children here, have a job, acquaintances, and friends. I’ve never felt welcomed here. I’ve never felt like this is a place that wants me to stay here. Actually, my first job helped me feel better. My first job was (as) a basketball coach at the Valtera basketbola skola basketball school which is now defunct. It was in Sporta Pils and Valdis Valters actually wanted me to teach his kids (basketball students) English. It wasn’t so much about basketball, and therefore I did that, and the kids, for the most part, were very open and very welcoming. And they even tried to teach me some Latvian and while was trying to teach them English. And I still have some pretty good connections with some of those kids. So that’s when I started to feel better and then as things went on with jobs and being more involved in talking about inclusion and things like that (it) helped me feel better, (it) helped me feel more release of what I felt inside of myself, as far as the tension, and helped in some cases with the loneliness. But it never translated into feeling like this is my home.
I promised not to shock you, but I am going to shock you a little bit with this because this is something that I tend to hold back when I give lectures when I give presentations when I have conversations with people. I’ll tell you about one situation. I’ll tell you about the first time I encountered racialism. If you understand the difference between racism and racialism, if you don’t understand the difference between racism and racialism, I suggest that people look up the two words because there is a difference. I will say that racialism is the system. It is systematic racism and there are the encounters we have every day. My very first encounter with racialism in Latvia was a few months after I got here. My wife and some of her work colleagues and some of their friends who were all foreign Latvians, and I went to a now-defunct club called SAKSOFONS, which was on Bruninieku street at the time (it was actually located at Stabu iela 43). And we walked into this club because these foreign Latvians, Canadians, and Americans, were actually part of a group that were playing music there that night, and they invited my wife and myself. So, we went in and as usual, I walked in last because that’s the way I grew up in the hood, you always go last not to get jumped. Also, I was walking in behind them and there was a guy kind of like leaning on the sides and as everybody walked past him, he walked in between, cutting us off. Now my wife and her friends didn’t notice that he cut us off and they kept going in and he said to me in, not great, but not terrible broken English: “Show me your documents.” And I said: “What?” I was completely shocked and I said:“My documents, why do I need to show you, my documents?“ And he reached into his coat pocket and he pulled up this little folding thing. It was paper or cardboard or something and had his picture and some words which I couldn’t read at the time. Remember, I didn’t speak Latvian or Russian. And he said: “This says I can. I can see your documents.” And I said: “Well, look, I don’t need to show you my documents.” He was wearing a dress coat or suit coat and he pulled back his coat. And there was his service gun. There was his gun there, and he said: “You see this? This means I can see your documents.” And it was obvious, that he’d been drinking. He was drunk. He was not falling over drunk, but it was obvious. Right at that moment when he closed his jacket up, my wife and her colleagues and friends came back. And she asked him, you know: “What’s the problem?” And he said something to her in Latvian. She says something and he turned to me and said: “Is this your wife?“ And I said: “Yeah, it is my wife.” And he said: ”Oh, I have to go,” and he walked out. That was my very first encounter just a few months after I got here with racialism, with systemic racism (but, not my last). But actually, I’m tired of giving different examples of what I’ve been through here. Because I have given them (in other interviews and lectures). There are maybe two, or three times as many that I haven’t spoken about in public. There are so many that I’ve simply lost count. But the reason why I’m tired of it is because people here refuse to accept or even acknowledge a person’s lived experience. If you know what that means – a lived experience simply is those things that a person goes through day-to-day and affects them. And, to express those things, to talk about those things and people say: “I don’t believe that happened”. You know, one of my sons told me: “Send me pictures, if there are no pictures – it didn’t happen.” Well, that’s the mentality that people have here and it’s a form of willful ignorance, a term that I also use a lot. So, you have people who refuse to look at a person’s lived experience and refuse to become enlightened, (and) want to stay ignorant by their own choice, willful ignorance. And to share any of these things, what I just told you, means nothing to these people. They will never look at these things and even accept that they were true. I’ve had people tell me: “No, that didn’t really happen, George.” And I say to them: “But this is what happened.” “Well, you misunderstood.” What? What was there? And gaslighting, is another term that I use very often because it is a very prevalent situation when it comes to white people defending (the actions of) other white people. The gaslighting. “No, what you thought you heard or saw it didn’t really happen.” It’s just too much. I’m 62 years old. I’ve been on this planet all that time. I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night. There is no excuse. There’s no excuse for reality. There’s no excuse for not accepting another person’s life story, especially if you want someone to explain to accept your life story there’s no excuse. Not at all.
The process of learning Latvian, as I already started to tell you, was pretty much on my own shoulders. If there was a government-funded program, I didn’t know about it. There was nothing in any foreign language, there was no advertisement for that. If I remember correctly, there might have been for Russian speakers that were here at the time, but I think it was very limited and it didn’t involve me. I was a foreigner. And it’s not about race or anything like that. I was just a complete outsider and there was nothing here that pertained to me. They were like, OK, you know, if you do it, you do it. If you don’t, you don’t. But I, as I said, bought Kārlis Streips’s mom’s book and tapes (with me). And I did that. But then Kārlis Streips himself, I met him for the first time in my life here in Latvia, he was a friend of a friend of my wife, and (he) actually got a job in Lattelecom as a project manager, and he also helped me find a Latvian teacher and I still say she was the best Latvian teacher in the world. She was a lecturer at Latvian University, in Russian and in Lithuanian, because she’s part Lithuanian. She’s from Sēlija, by the Lithuanian border. And she helped me amazingly, we worked two and a half years twice a week an hour and a half each time and everything was paid out of my own pocket. Of course, my wife helped me also pay for these lessons, but everything was on me there. It was on my own shoulders, therefore I received the education of the Latvian language because I wanted to. I really wanted to. I thought it was important to respect the country that I lived in, respect the culture that I lived in, but also to be able to communicate because very often in the beginning, as I mentioned before, I would be together with my wife – girlfriend at the time, wife later – and her friends, and they would be talking about something. They would start in English and then they moved to Latvian and then they would laugh or giggle about something. I would ask, you know, what was just said and she was giving me just snippets of what was being said. Or say, “nothing”, and again, I felt left out. And so, I wanted to know what it was they were laughing about and if I would find it humorous, also if I would be able to find it interesting to (be able to) carry on a conversation. And so once again, the reasons why I learned Latvian, why I was stuck to it and pushed myself was because of wanting to fit in into society. The odd part about me learning Latvian, becoming proficient in Latvian, becoming proficient enough even to sing in the Folk Songs festival, to participate in theater in Latvian, to get my citizenship. There are people in society that don’t either appreciate or accept it. Jānis Sīlis wrote a couple of articles about me. One was involving the Song festival, but the other one was how he felt that my terrible grammar and my horrible accent was a degradation of the language. And he would rather keep my mouth shut than to ruin his mother tongue. And he’s not the only one who’s written things like that, or even said things like that to me. But it’s, you know, it’s very hurtful for me to spend all this time, and as I said before, I’ve done this out of respect for the country, for the culture, and in return, I get the negative.
Earlier, after I got married and we had children, I was only allowed to have my American citizenship, my citizenship, my US passport, and residency permits. At a certain point, the residency permits had to change over from temporary to permanent. I think permanent lasted 10 years if I remember correctly. Then I had to change and each time they cost money and at some point, I thought to myself, well, this is, you know, silly. I should get my Latvian citizenship. And at that time when I was thinking about it, like the citizenship, for me it cost my US citizenship. I would have to renounce like Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga did, for example. She renounced hers and I thought, well, do I really wanna do that? That’s a huge cost then. And someone will correct me, I’m sure, and I would be grateful for that. I think it was 2017 or 2015, I forget, I apologize – before that foreign Latvians were allowed to have dual citizenship, and then at some point the Latvian government stopped that. Stopped dual citizenship for many different reasons, some of them very bad and negative, but the Latvian government reinstilled dual citizenship for members of NATO, for people in those countries. As an American, a member of a NATO state, I thought, wow, you know, this is my chance to get Latvian citizenship and keep my US citizenship. But then I thought: “Do I really want it?” I mean, it won’t cost me anything but a few euros. I already expressed that I’ve never really felt like this is my home. And then I became an American. I said (to myself): “This country owes me. They owe me. After everything I’ve been through, after everything I’ve done, this country owes me.” So, I studied. I studied really hard by myself, completely by myself. The citizenship test is in two parts, the language, and the history. I passed the language with no problem. I failed the history the first time, and I had to come back, but then I passed it the second time. So, I’m a dual citizen.
Moving on to the time spent here. I’d like to say, as Latvians say, “Kā kurā dienā”. I have those days when walking down the street is tougher than others. The positive thing about the pandemic is that people are more inside of themselves, they don’t throw out their racism in my face or in other people’s faces as nearly as much as they did before the pandemic. I think the biggest regret, honestly, would be the fact that my two children, presently my two children, my daughter, and my son have gone through racism. I don’t even have words in any language to tell you how I feel about that, because these are two young people who were born here, raised here. Well, they’re bilingual. The first language is Latvian. Their basic mentality is Latvian and there are people who, through their actions and through their words, tell them no, you’re not a Latvian. Either directly or indirectly. And they use other words, of course towards them that are even more hurtful and harmful. They’re moving more and more towards the way other young people are thinking, which is – why should I be here? No, other young people here, the “regular locals” and “the normal locals”, their thoughts are “well, you know – there’s no perspective here as far as jobs and salaries” and things like that. And my children’s perspectives are – “Why should I be in this racist country?” “Why should I live in my country where people hate me because of something I have absolutely no control over?”
Continuing about living in Latvia, the first phase was when I first got here in 1994. It was quiet. The second phase was from 1999 to 2005, which I called the years of horror because it was when Neo-Nazis actually walked the streets. Skinheads walked the streets, and they were attacking people of color here in Latvia. When I tell people again, about lived experience, they don’t believe it. You can Google it, there are actually still some web pages that show that actually racial attacks have happened by Skinheads or wanna be Skinheads or Neonazis (in Latvia). And then there’s been the period after 2005 till now, more or less it has been quieter. More or less and quitter – emphasis on both of those words. I would say that the racial bigotry is now showing itself in a less vocal way, but still, to a certain point of an obvious way, and that is through microaggressions. Microaggressions such as staring, such as the little pointing and laughing, and things like that happened twice as much before the pandemic. I was taking public transportation. I got on, there were some young people there, they took a look at me, and they started to do a rap song involving the n-word. It was just automatic. It’s like – “Oh, we have to do this because he’s here.” Why? And I have told people, you know, what’s your problem? And I do it quite often now. Why are you staring? What is the problem? Why? Sometimes I feel that people are trying to say: “Hey, you know you’re black.” And my answer to this is: “Every day for 62 years I’ve known that I’m black. You don’t need to show me. I wake up, I look in the mirror and say I’m back today. I was black yesterday, I’ll be black tomorrow.” So really, no, there hasn’t been a change in attitude. Just a change in behavior. And I think the most recent research has shown that the negativity towards people of color in Latvia is still at a relatively high level. And as we know with research that’s really the tip of the iceberg. If it says 10%, it’s probably 25%. If it says 15%, it’s probably 40%. So, it’s a lot more than people know and understand.
There’s nothing that can be done in this society. I’ve already talked about willful ignorance. If you choose not to accept another person’s lived experience, how can you make a change towards being more inclusive, being more accepting towards another person that is different than you? But I always find this question interesting and, pardon me, ludicrous. And let me explain – a famous black British actor did a podcast in the United States, on a black and African American podcast, and he was explaining the fact that someone asked him: “Well, what do you think we can do? How can we solve this racism stuff?” And the actor said: “Why are you asking me?” Understand that racism is a black person issue created by white people. And he went on to use an analogy of a house being robbed. And I’m not going to go that deep into this house being robbed, in the cops and everything, but I want to give a more understandable analogy. If you were in front of a person who was a victim of rape. Would you ask that person: “Well, why do you think rape exists? Why? What do you think will solve rape?” It’s a ludicrous question. If you don’t ask the person that’s the victim, you ask the person who’s the victimizer. And it’s the same thing for racism. Well, it’s like saying, “You created this problem for yourself. Tell us how we can fix it.” Uh-huh. I was born a certain color. I was born with certain physical features. That’s a problem for me(?) and therefore I have to tell you how to fix that problem. Ludicrous. My suggestion is to read. Now everybody knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech or at least small parts of it. “Jews and gentiles.” And so on and so forth “My children … by the content of their character”, and so on. And whenever some white people want to prove that “I’m not a racist”, they’ll throw these little quotes that are always used. But, (my question is) have they really read all of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words? Have they read “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? Have they read the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech.? Have they read anything by Malcolm X? By James Baldwin? By Ta-Nehisi Coates? By Gwendolyn Brooks? By Maya Angelou? Have they read anything by Alice Walker? Educate yourself. Now I know people are lazy nowadays. Most of the people that I mentioned also have videos online, That people can just go to YouTube, and find and watch these people speak. But the one book I want to suggest right now is “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person” by Frederick Joseph. That’s the last book I read. And the title says: “Wait a minute, George, why did you read on being a better white friend?” Because I never suggest something bad, I wouldn’t read myself and I think that the content of this book helps not just white people have a better conversation with black people, but black people have a better conversation with white people about how to solve this situation. But in reality, this is a situation that white people need to solve. Because we did not bring it.
Why am I giving this interview in my mother tongue and not Latvian? As I mentioned before, I’ve sworn an oath to support Latvian as the one and only national language, and I believe that. I wouldn’t have worked so hard on perfecting if I could use that word and it’s still far from perfect, but I’m making my language tolerable enough to receive Latvian citizenship. So many times I’ve given my life story in Latvian, and people tend to gravitate more towards my accent and my sometimes incorrect usage of grammar and I want to make sure that my words were clear, my words were understandable and my words are my words. So that there is no ambiguity about what I’m trying to say, and there’s no focus on how I’m saying it. I’m happy that you allowed me to do this in English. And that’s the reason why I wanted to do it in English because I wanted my actual story to come out. And I also believe that this is probably the last time I will give such interviews. For posterity, I want this to be it if this is the last time, then the last real-time.
I know that usually, the professionals will always leave with a well wish or something like that. I’ve done that, in the past I have. I don’t feel like it anymore. Again, I’m tired. It’s something like – well, you behave in this way, but I’m telling you, it’s OK. I forgive you. I don’t. I don’t forgive the racism that I’ve experienced over the past 26 years. I don’t think I forgive you for the racism that you’ve thrown on my children who are only Latvians who would happen to be of mixed parentage. I don’t forgive you. I mean no ill will towards anyone. But I can’t forgive you.
And, that’s it.