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.
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:
…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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Say that, on the other hand, DJT is a proven racist and overall narcissist, and that’s the real shame of what’s going on in “America.” (Here’s a full list of the issues logical people have with him.)
- Ask people not to believe everything they see on the news, and remind them that protesters are not looters. (By the way, far-right extremists are coordinating and committing violent acts and allowing protesters to take the police and public blame for them.)
- Gently say “Romové” when someone uses the historically hurtful term “cikán” (gypsy, but worse) and remind them that we are all people who deserve respect.
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).
|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.
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.)