The question of whether Estonia is a racist place has been asked repeatedly, especially in recent times, in many online expat forums. EKRE, a national-conservative and right-wing political party, gained even more seats in Parliament following the 2019 elections, and this political development has been received with mixed emotions – from foreigners and Estonians alike.

I am of African descent, a Nigerian, and a happy and proud international student ambassador of the University of Tartu. This article has been largely inspired by the series of inquiries I receive from prospective students regarding their curiosity of the treatment of non-Estonians, particularly of “black” Africans. I can only speak mostly from my personal experience. This article does not intend to assert that other international students do not face similar or related problems. Once again, I can only really describe my experience as an African. As an African who has had the opportunity to travel to a few places, I can say for certain that if you are looking for a place where you are not considered different, or not get stared at from time to time, that place is back home in your country.

Discrimination in Educational Systems?

Do you worry that you do not stand a fair chance of being considered for a scholarship or admission into an Estonian university? I assure you that everybody, regardless of skin colour, gets an equal and fair opportunity. The only ‘language’ understood in the admission process is that of academic qualifications and the substance of your application, which are all up to you. During the course of my studies, at least here at the University of Tartu, I have never experienced any form of racial discrimination.    

International Student Ambassadors of the University of Tartu. Photo: Oliver Tompson

Are Estonians Racist?

There is no straightforward answer to this question. However, the simplest answer would be: “some people are”. Estonians are reserved people who might never approach you first but become more friendly the more you get to know them. As a foreigner in Estonia, you tend to stand out a lot, particularly if you are African; whether you walk on the street, ride a train or buy groceries. For instance, in all of my International Relations and Regional Studies class, I take courses with only two other Africans. You get the sense that there are not too many people who look like you around, subjecting you to occasional stares outside the academic environment. I do not think this stems from racism, but more from unfamiliarity. People are usually curious about you. Negative stereotyping does exist, no thanks to the media and people of the same origin as you who might have previously misrepresented your identity, making you a victim of certain perceptions by some locals.

Maybe racial bias exists, but this is not exceptional to Estonia, some locals will always be skeptical about immigrants, and will always be curious about your origins and ‘true’ intentions. Different locals will have different reasons for not renting an apartment to you or giving you a job, and addressing all of these would require writing hundreds of articles. I can tell you that there are so many international students who study and work, within the confines of the law, here in Estonia. Many live in good apartments too. You may refer to research online and investigate the prevalent challenges for yourself. The truth is that you are going to be just fine. Societies evolve/transform over time, and you have a role to play in reshaping unpleasant perceptions. Every society has its internal challenges and frictions, and Estonia is no different. The presence of foreigners just tends to broaden such debates in society.

You Have a Role to Play

I believe that people do not want to harbor negative perceptions, but we are humans and therefore we all have our biases. You cannot change things by closing yourself off and being reclusive. It is convenient to continue to blame society, which would only lead to further resentment and bitterness. I come from a culture that is characterized by warmth and being outgoing, there are days when I am just full of self-consciousness. On such days I often over-interpret the brief stare, smile or frown from individuals that I may have encountered, that perhaps had absolutely nothing to do with me! What do I do then? I have come to embrace my difference and I often have to simply wear a smile, even on days when I do not feel like it. Being in the spotlight means that I have to be more vigilant, caring and kind. Do not let one negative experience ruin the urge to go out and do some good, to be understood. Being a bubbly person works in my favour. Some days ago, while I waited by the city centre in Tartu, a very elderly Estonian woman passed by, stopped, turned and gave me the warmest smile. She tried to initiate a conversation with me, but my Estonian is far from good. Another time, I had just bought things from the store at night, and the weather was quite cold. On my way back to my residence, I saw an elderly lady waiting for the bus. I do not know what it was, but I just did the simplest thing of offering her a fruit. She thanked me and smiled so fondly. Another time, I was snubbed when I tried to offer a shopping basket to a young girl, who was waiting behind me. I think she did not know any English, but I did feel that the least she could have done was to make a gesture to show she had changed her mind or didn’t want it. Still, I could sense that she just did not know how to react in that split second, unfamiliarity at work again.

To conclude, unfamiliarity may not be an excuse for discriminatory behaviour. You will have some unpleasant days, but there will be even more fantastic ones. Estonians who do not speak English will most likely try to help you the best they can with an inquiry, even if it means making a fool of themselves through funny hand gestures, rather than brush you off. Sweeping everything under the rug of racism might seem convenient, but it does not absolve us of our roles.

We all have a moral responsibility to speak up, and encourage respectful dialogue, to end unjust discrimination to the best of our capabilities. While you are here, just stay on the right side of the law, and be very aware that the burden of how your racial identity is described/perceived is on you, especially for the next individual of the same identity. To reiterate, you will be fine. You can only do so much because the rest is not on you.

Foreigners are willing to give Estonia the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more Estonians can extend similar courtesy? Ask us questions if and when you do not understand something about us. Whatever your views are on this delicate issue, we can all at least agree that Estonia is an extremely beautiful place.

If you experience discrimination, it is possible to file a complaint at the Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner.

We are International Student Ambassadors of the University of Tartu. Through our experience, you can start planning your studies at the University of Tartu. We hope you enjoy our blog.