Being Latvian: Discourse and Identity Among Individuals of Black African Descent

Rhodes, Lauren Monsein. Being Latvian Discourse and Identity among Individuals of Black African Descent. Diss. U of Washington, 2012.

This dissertation examines the dynamics of skin color and identity among individuals of black Africandescent in Latvia. I contend that the politics of blackness is constituted differently in Latvia by individuals of blackAfrican descent, than in the dominant literature on blackness, which is primarily derived from an Anglo-American context. I explore how the concept of blackness (and its sometimes corollary Africanness), based in 'Western' formulations of 'black' (as in 'African -') and 'Africanidentity, can or cannot be applied to the perspectives andexperiences of individuals of black African descent in Latvia. My research points to the emergence of three themes connected to this topic: (1) the concept of race or 'race' and how it is adopted into everyday and political life in Latvia, (2) the relationship between phenotype (for example skin color and hair) and sense of self, and (3) the relationship between geographic location and place of birth with sense of self. In connection to the first theme, I argue that a discourse of 'race' is still emerging in Latvia, a discourse that is shaped by their membership in the European Union, and that Anglo- American discourses and modes of analysis of 'race' are based upon a history of slavery and colonialism and therefore does not map neatly onto the Latvian context. In correlation to the second and third themes, my dissertation reveals that there is not a shared sense of identity among individuals of black African descent in Latvia - that skin color, and even connections to the African diaspora, do not define one's identity. This is particularly evident in the formation of a "flexible identity" (Vasquez, 2010) among individuals of black African descent, especially those of mixed black African and (white) Latvian backgrounds born and raised in Latvia, in that they navigate (or adapt) their identities within different social, geographic, and political locations. Ultimately, "flexible identity" also plays a role in the discourse of difference in Latvia - which engages with the portrayals and perceptions of blackness (and Africanness) among and of individuals of black African descent.

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