It’s Hard to Discuss Racism in a Foreign Language, but I’m Trying to. Here’s How.

I recently had an interesting experience at Kafe na písku in Lesná, Brno. I was there to go to the dentist and had an hour to use in any way my little heart pleased before my appointment – and of course, that’s almost always by getting a coffee. (Ironic. I did apologize to the hygienist for my coffee breath, if you’re wondering.)

On my way from the train, I was thinking about contrasts. I’m fundamentally an optimistic person, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve been making a slow transition from being an all-in idealist to a more realistic understanding of how people work and our impact on each other and our world. It’s difficult for me sometimes to accept that people treat each other badly – but that it’s part of human nature just like kindness and consideration.

Does good balance out bad in our world? While walking towards the café, I passed a block of flats that had a lovely garden right in front. Whoever is taking care of this garden is trying to bring a little joy, a little color, a little light into an otherwise bland space. This is underlined by the way they’ve creatively decorated the borders of the garden with a collection of various mugs – I loved it!

You could say my first experience of the neighborhood was positive. I continued walking with feelings of goodwill towards mankind – a state of mind I try to be in most of the time. As I neared the café, I saw something that changed my mood pretty quickly.

It was a campaign sign for SPD, a party that is known to be overtly discriminatory and racist, despite the fact that its chairman is multiracial and multicultural. Their argument for why “it’s time to vote SPD into office”? Healthy schools without “inclusion.”

Incluze is the name for an educational approach that has tried, in recent years, to integrate Roma children as well as children with learning and developmental abilities into classrooms with the white, neurotypical Czech majority. It became necessary after “the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Czech Republic for discriminating against Roma children in education” in 2008. The Court found the Czech Republic guilty of routinely diverting Roma children to “special schools” (schools for children with diagnosed disabilities) even when there was no disability present – just social and cultural differences paired with teacher bias against what they judged to be these children’s potential to learn.

In the last ten years or so, special schools were legally disbanded and children integrated into mainstream schools. However, teachers are frustrated with the many challenges of catering to different learning styles, and Roma communities have not seen much improvement either. The way I see it, SPD is attempting to harness these real and valid cultural frustrations to say, Hey! No point in trying to change a system that doesn’t work. Let’s just go resign ourselves to segregating kids that are different because it’s more convenient for us. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

My mood was dampened a bit by these thoughts, but I tried to rally. Kafe na písku is called this way – Café on the sand – because their service window looks out onto a small park where they’ve set up tables and chairs using wooden crates, making it more inviting with flowerpots and blankets. Parents can have their coffee while their kids play in this vibrant outdoor space. I saw people taking their coffee from the window on bright yellow trays in reusable mugs – and they even had metal straws for the cold drinks: A surefire sign I was going to love this place.

Kafe na písku in Lesná, Brno

I stepped up to the window to order and told the man how much I loved their concept – what a great idea! He deflected, saying that they did not create it and that something was also there before them – thereby ending the conversation and going to prepare my coffee, or so I thought.

In fact, I was just thinking up a new blog for Chlohemian about how Czechs rarely accept my compliments – Alright – maybe he’s right, their concept may not be unique to the current owners. But for the love of gosh, can someone around here smile when I say something nice to them? – when he surprised me by asking something most Czechs I chat with “on the street” rarely ask.

Máte zajímavý přízvuk,” he said, “odkud jste?” (You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?)

I told him, and he complimented my language abilities. I was flattered, took my iced coffee, and went to sit down.

On the way there, a woman approached me. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” she said in Czech, “but I want to say that you really do speak beautifully.” I thanked her, and she continued. “It’s a terrible shame what’s going on in the U.S. right now…”

At first, I thought she meant with Trump and I started to agree as she started on a well-known phrase. Yup, here we go:

“I’m not a racist, but…”

…my stomach dropped as I prepared for her to decry the BLM protests. She did. She then went on to compare the situation with that of the Roma (except that’s not the word she said) in Czech Republic.

Now.

  1. Most of the time when a Czech person talks about the Roma, their motivation is to imply that this group is an “other” in society – different and hard to understand. In this case, it is also the way that the woman views people of color in the U.S. because she does not understand them.
  2. It’s one thing to view a situation from the outside and not understand it. But when people start conversations with me like this, what they are essentially doing is stereotyping a group of people as angry, dangerous, and all the other bad words the news feeds you without explaining that the protesters and their allies are fighting for the equal treatment and opportunities denied them for over 400 years. (Roma have also been mistreated for centuries. I’ll soon be posting about my visit to the Muzeum romské kultury, which I highly recommend.)

This happens often. And I have to ask myself, Why does this person think she might find sympathy with me? Why does she feel the need to bring it up?

That’s why, with my limited language skills (I am not fluent), there are only a few things I can do, to the best of my ability:

I tried to tell the woman all three of these things. I will count it as a small victory that I did not validate her viewpoint, and that she did admit before we ended that TV channels like ČT1 may not have all the answers and that perhaps people are not able to see out from their “klapky” (blinders).

Judge Judy, marry me. | Judge judy, Judge judy quotes, Judge judy meme
Resources for Further Learning
Learn about police violence and brutality
Learn about the fight for Civil Rights
Learn strategies for Anti-Racism

Now here’s my TED talk.

I believe that if you don’t know every single person in a group, you shouldn’t be stereotyping them. All people are a spectrum of positive and negative, capable of great kindnesses as well as flaws and negative actions.

There is also a BIG difference between being a racist and being a person who displays racist behavior. To be clear, we all do. The key is in recognizing this behavior and working to understand and change it. I will not make that judgment about this woman, except to say that surely she is capable of change, like most of us.

The difference between using the terms “Roma” and “cikán” is not trivial. A lot of people ask me, if the ‘n’ word is so bad, why do Black people use it? Many do because they are trying to reclaim it. That is their right. It is not your right to use a word that is hurtful, derogatory, and frankly, racist. It can become your right when someone treats you like property for 400 years – but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want that. Yes, some Black people use the ‘n’ word or Roma use the ‘c’ word among themselves, and not all people from those groups agree with the use. It’s not your problem – just don’t use the word.

Try for a positive outlook, but don’t forget there are inequalities in this world worth discussing.

And what about me?

As a U.S. citizen who has up close and personal experience with the fight for equality going on in my own country, as a person who loves to travel despite the difficulties and uncomfort such conversations often have, I can only do the best I can to gently nudge people in the right direction. I hope I am making a small difference by not accepting these talking points at face value. At the same time, I know I need to improve at prepping a response because I often shy away from the tough stuff knowing what an uphill battle it can be to educate someone on another culture in a foreign language.

If I could ask Czech people one thing…

okay, all non-Americans who are watching and have an interest in eradicating racism… okay, Americans too, actually EVERYONE…

it would be this:

Be smart and do your research. Everything is a shade of gray. Do not parrot the television. Do not be content with the status quo. Talk to people that this issue concerns. Read and watch information from both sides of the aisle. Learn and decide for yourself. That sounds like a lot of things, but it’s actually all one thing. The same way that we all look and act different, but we’re actually all part of the human race.

This stuff is not simple. And that’s exactly why it’s important.

Protesting for equal rights is not a mere cultural issue or an “American problem.” We live in a diverse world. Globalization is happening everywhere, including in Europe. Europeans also need to be prepared with open minds and hearts and a willingness towards truly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

And if you happen to be in Lesná, visit Kafe na písku. If you have to have the tough conversations, you might as well do it after your coffee. ☕


Have a thought or question? Awesome, leave it in the comments! (Negative language or anecdotes will not be posted.)

Categories Brno, Culture, Czech Republic, Expat Life, Language, USA!Tags , , , , , ,

9 thoughts on “It’s Hard to Discuss Racism in a Foreign Language, but I’m Trying to. Here’s How.

  1. I have to admit the concept of racism is different for us Filipinos. The masses view foreigners, especially Americans, as superior to them – taller, better looking, having more money, etc. You could say they’re racist for not viewing them as equals, but it’s reverse racism. It’s probably due to the long years of colonial occupation in the past. We even have a term for it: colonial mentality. Broadly speaking, it’s viewing everything foreign as better than your own. 🙂

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  2. Thank you for sharing this! I definitely agree that you have to learn about racism in another culture and how to talk about it. No one wants to be stereotyped. It hurts

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  3. You are confusing ODS and SPD.

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    1. Hi Jana—thank you for pointing this out; I have fixed it.

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  4. I really liked your recent story about racism.

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  5. Great post! The current election campaign of the SPD really bugs me, and Tomio Okumura with his overt hypocrisy bugs me that much more. He runs on a populist platform and tries to get Czechs to rally behind him based on the Czech half of his ancestry and downplay the Asian part of his ancestry, though he couldn’t hide it if he tried.

    One thing that’s bugged me a lot over the years of living here is that the prejudice of Czechs tends to get overstated and overgeneralized. It’s there, but I often feel it’s very hypocritical to make such issue of it in the Czechs when so many foreigners here come from countries with their own share of racism going on. Like making issue of the splinter in someone else’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own.

    I think a big part of why I feel that way is that, being Canadian, I come from a country with a very carefully crafted public image of niceness, inclusion, diversity and acceptance; but it is a veneer of sorts that doesn’t hold up very well if you grew up there or spend significant time there. Canada has racists, just like any other country, so I always carefully measure my reaction when I feel I must make issue when I see some prejudice action going on.

    Racism must be confronted, but nothing will be fixed by acting like the society you come from is handling the problem any better than the society you’re critcizing.

    The only part of your post I have an issue with is this:

    “Yes, some Black people use the ‘n’ word or Roma use the ‘c’ word among themselves, and not all people from those groups agree with the use. It’s not your problem – just don’t use the word.”

    For those groups to use such words among themselves is a very big problem for everyone who is trying to stop racism, both inside and outside those groups. It’s a problem because it only serves to perpetuate racism by offering it some quarter through internalization and an “OK for us, but not for you” mentality. It has a similarity to those oppressive government regimes that subjugate their population but then say “It’s an internal matter, mind your own business” when confronted on it by others. As long as those who confront them about it are satisfied to back down when told that, the problem will have shelter and a place to continue festering.

    It is impossible to keep such things internalized and compartimentalized inside the cultural community in question. It spills out and negatively affects everyone else in society around them regardless of any attempt to keep it contained.

    I know through my own personal experience what a problem it can be for those outside the groups concerned. When I was still teaching English, I had classes that had both “Roma” and “Cikán” in them and the divide that was created between them because they were able to use the “C” word among themselves created some extra and very otherwise avoidable class management issues that disrupted other students, ate into teaching time and visibly embarrassed the students who used “Roma” for themselves.

    No problem like racism can be fully solved if given any quarter whatsoever.

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    1. Hi Kevan, thank you for reading as always and leaving thoughtful feedback. 🙂

      I want to clarify that I don’t believe Czechs are more racist than anyone else. I take issue when Americans who visit the country are surprised and even angry that Czechs are not automatically politically correct. This is still a very homogenous country that was isolated for many years under the Communist regime and it’s not a wonder that people hold xenophobic views – it takes time, and people have a natural resistance to this “cultural imposition” on them from the West. I am painfully aware that Americans don’t walk the walk as much as we talk the talk. However, since I do encounter racist behavior frequently here and this is my adopted country of choice, I don’t want to leave it “under the rug.” That said, I 100% take your point about Canada and agree with you.

      Maybe it’s because news and pop culture from the U.S. is everywhere that people all over the world feel like they own a part of it and are able to state opinions simply based on that. But I know that if I encountered an international and wanted to talk to them about news coming out of their country, I would say things like, “Is it really how it looks on the news?” or “What do you think?” I would not simply reproach a group of people when I have no real understanding of their history. This is what genuinely bothers me. Czechs and all people who are hearing about the struggle of Black Americans can do better than this- specifically BECAUSE it’s in their face all the time. No one expects me to know the history of Uighur Muslims in China, but if I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, I would do my research.

      I can also respect your opinion about a group using a negative term that has been mobilized against them among themselves. I see it as a fact, though, that in-groups will joke about themselves in a non-PC way no matter what, and they have that right because they have lived experience and we don’t, just like I can make jokes about Jews because I am a Jew, but if a non-Jew did so I would for sure stare them down 😛 (And we are a group with outsized influence for our minority status, so the comparison is not exact.)

      Your example shows what I mean – even the group has different opinions. But I also believe that’s for them to sort out among themselves. Reclaiming a word can be a powerful thing, even if the group members are not doing it consciously (i.e. those kids may not have said to themselves, hey, let’s reclaim this word; it’s something they hear and repeat, and perhaps partially as a defense mechanism towards the way others use it). As a teacher, I might open a conversation with them about that specifically. Overall, I don’t feel it’s my place to make a judgment for Black Americans or Roma about whether they should use a word or not; I only know I will not use it myself because of how hurtful it is based on my privilege.

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