Culture · Expatria · Prague · Spain

Rachel Tension

Regardless of whether or not a nation or people think they have racial tension within their borders or society, they do. Many nations (and people) will say that they don’t have problems of race, but rather problems of culture, or foreigners or socio-economic status. However this is far from true and racism exists on so many levels here in Europe, in a closeted form.

For example, the Romani (“gypsy”) community in the Czech Republic: Ethnically, the Roma are much darker than their blond, blue-eyed Czech counterparts, but the logic behind forced relocations, forcible sterilizations of women, segregated schooling for Roma children is masked in the rhetoric of cultural and economic differences, not race. The only thing is, both of these rhetorics come down to the uncomfortable and inevitable fact that the discrimination against the Roma is indeed about race and ethnicity.

Another example is in southern Spain, where the slaves were brought up from Africa and then dispersed worldwide, there were a number of African townships of freed slaves who settled into communities. However, when an American scholar came to Seville to do research on the descendants of those African-Spanish communities and presented his findings, the academic institution involved withdrew his grant money once they realised that he had basically drawn a tree of descendants of African slaves that touched every family in the surrounding areas. The institution insisted that his research was flawed and that their ancestors were 100% Spanish, with no African blood mixed in anywhere in the line. Period. Full stop. Y punto final. They disregarded every shred of evidence he compiled. I’m sure the academic left with a wry smile and shaking his head at the racism masked in their scholarly discomfort.

Closer to “home,” here Czechs say that Americans are too sensitive to racial issues, we need to “lighten up” (pun intended), and that not everything boils down to racial and ethnic conflicts. Like, when a restaurant has 1920s-style poster with the little African minstrel boy, replete with exaggerated pink lips and ink-black skin, is not seen as being even the slightest bit problematic, let alone racist. In costume shops you can buy an afro wig, cool, that’s fine, it’s a costume. However, the image on the package is a white man in blackface (!!) with big pink lips painted on (!!), a la Bamboozled. That is seen as perfectly normal and acceptable here. In Spain I was shocked to actually see Spanish men in blackface during carnivale. Just walking around like it’s okay, just a costume, no historical or cultural relevance to the violent history that goes with a white man painting his face black.

This isn’t even the half of it. Recently there was an article by an American expat in Prague published in a well-known daily English-language news service called, “The Long Legacy Of Crossing Cultures: Keeping Native American traditions alive in the Czech Republic,” that discusses how groups of Czech people live in tipis in the forest, paint their faces red and live like American Indians. Just look at the title: how is it logical for Czech people to keep Native traditions alive? They, and the author of the article, don’t seem to understand that Native Traditions are more than just living in the woods and beadwork. There is a huge history of genocide, oppression, discrimination and more in which white people are the bad guys. There is a whole spiritual framework centering around respect that clearly these Czech’s are in breach of right from the get-go. Not to mention the fact that I’m 100% sure that Native Americans don’t need Czech hippies to keep their traditions alive! There are just so many levels as to why redfaced Czech people trying to play “cowboys and indians” in the woods is not just inappropriate, rude and arrogant: it’s disgusting.

Maybe it’s just me being overly culturally sensitive. That said, I do think some expats have lived abroad so long that they actually forget what is or isn’t culturally acceptable, even in their own culture. It could also be that for a person of color like me, it is impossible to not factor race and racism into the equation of daily life since it’s something that I am confronted with on a daily basis and have been since I was a child. Either way, until white Europe and Europeans understand that race is a key issue linked with economics, culture, gender and politics, racism will continue to persist, only without the language in which to discus it openly and effectively; only then will they be able to combat their embarrassing prejudices.