Back to Square One

By • on November 19, 2012

Those of us who reside in Prague live a pretty shielded life, especially when it comes toward attitudes about the Roma. We read and watch the national media, which generally display tolerance toward other nationalities and attack politicians and other public figures that express extremist views. Yes, there have been cases of irresponsible reporting where Roma have been unfairly accused of various crimes, but those incidents are more the result of low journalistic standards and an overall decline into sensationalism than prejudice on the part of individual editors and reporters. The Roma in Prague are also more integrated and we don’t witness the open ethnic clashes that have surfaced in a number of towns and cities over the past few years. Few of us would run into members of the far right, either.

I should say, however, that I still shake my head over anti-Roma, prejudiced comments that I hear from middle-class Czechs, people I know well and people in my community. One of my first blog posts was about a powerpoint presentation full of offensive jokes, and how many people that should know better apparently still feel no hesitation about sending such stuff around. But somehow I figured that the new generation, kids that have grown up in a different era, would be different. That’s why a recent trip that I made to Jihlava, about 90 minutes southeast of Prague, was so eye-opening and just plain depressing.

I was there for a showing of some of the videos about Roma that were produced a few years back as part our Colorful but Colorblind multimedia project. This was a special screening to a group of more than 60 high school students immediately proceeding the start of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival on 24 October. Arranged by the European Commission office in Prague, the event included an accompanying panel discussion that included me and two journalists from Czech Radio, Jarmila Balazova and Jana Sustova. Jana was the co-creator of one of the videos screened, and Jarmila is one of the leaders of Romea.cz, a TOL partner in Roma multimedia projects and one of the best Roma media outlets in Central and Eastern Europe.

The plan was to show several of the films and then answer questions about the films. The fateful decision was made to allow the students to write their comments on small slips of paper and pass them up to be read by the moderator, Jarmila. Given the still-ingrained reluctance of many Czech students to express themselves, that decision made sense if we hoped to have any kind of discussion. But anonymity undoubtedly contributed to the wave of ugly comments/questions that rolled in, which Jarmila bravely read out, gritting her teeth and trying, as we all did, to come up with some meaningful response. Here are some of the “highlights”:

I don’t mind gypsies when they work, have two children, and behave like people.”

I’m no racist but I don’t like gypsies.”

I don’t want to be a racist, but gypsies do it to themselves (violence, stealing). It doesn’t have to be every one of them, some are fine, but the great majority of gypsies are violent…Gypsies are, according to me, a lower race. What do you think?”

I can’t believe that gypsies want to get involved in politics. Gypsies aren’t Czechs so they shouldn’t get into Czech politics…Gypsies multiply so quickly that soon there will be more of them than Czechs!”

A decent Rom can be some Rom who doesn’t get used to the regular collection of social handouts. Why in some countries there aren’t such problems with Roma?

My brother was beaten by gypsies because he didn’t given them a cigarette. How can I trust gypsies when they do such stupid things?”

Another writer seemed to be suggesting that the Czech Republic had fallen into debt because most Roma didn’t want to work and only wanted handouts.

One somewhat more thoughtful student said that he didn’t want to generalize about all Roma, but asked how he could respect the Roma in Jihlava when they had attacked his young sister without reason. “Why,” he asked, “can some Roma earn money, work, and try to improve their lives, but it definitely isn’t like that in Jihlava?” He concluded by asking “Do you think that such people can improve themselves or change?”

Just as disappointing was the behavior of the teachers that were present (I believe two men and two women). It would have been hard for them to get up the gumption to interrupt the event and plead for greater tolerance from their students. But you would have figured that they might have been embarrassed enough to approach their guests — who had traveled a few hours to be there, with one of them forced to listen to such awful comments about her ethnicity — and apologize on behalf of their students. No such luck — they sheepishly filed out and we never heard from them.

These kids obviously get their opinions from their parents, teachers, and fellow students; they can freely read as much racist propaganda online as they want (in Czech and on YouTube as this article showed); they hear about or personally experience some bad incidents (apparently there have been some recently in Jihlava); and too few people are telling them not to generalize about the entire race.

Perhaps some of these youngsters were just having fun and trying to provoke us, offering up the most outrageous comments that they could think of. Kids will do that. But somehow I doubt it. They obviously had some notion that being “racist” was unacceptable (why else would they deny that they were), but little to no understanding that comments such as “I’m not racist but I hate gypsies” are, actually, racist.

This is an extremely long process, even in countries that have a much longer history of multiethnicity and desegregation. (For anyone that thinks the United States is such a glowing model of tolerance, check out this article about the racist tweets that coursed through the Internet following Barack Obama’s election victory). But if this isolated experience showed anything, it’s time to yet again go back and see what can be done, at least in the Czech school system, to counter such destructive tendencies.