Monday, March 19, 2007

these, too, are my people

When I think about who "my people" are, you know, the communities I identify with, the first group I'll usually list is Czechs. I am a Czech by birth and nationality. (My son is also Czech; he actually has dual citizenship.) I lived in the Czech Republic until I was fourteen. I still have close family and friends there, I'm fluent in the language, and go back frequently. So I feel close affinity with Czech people. But it troubles me deeply to know how racist my people are.

Earlier this month in Geneva, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) reviewed the Czech Republic's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The findings are devastating, yet no surprise to those of us who've been following the developments in the country's minority/majority race relations.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in the Czech Republic, whites make up about 97% of the population. The Roma (also known by the derogatory term Gypsies) are the largest group of color, who make up somewhere between 1 and 2% of the total population. The Roma people have suffered persecution for centuries. During World War II, more than 90% of Czech Roma died in Nazi concentration camps.

Today the discrimination continues. According to CERD, these are the manifestations of (institutionalized) racism against the Roma in the Czech Republic today:

- Racial segregation in education. Approximately 70% of Roma children are being categorized as mentally handicapped, and therefore receiving a substandard level of education.

- Vulnerability to evictions and segregation in housing.

- Coercive sterilizations of Romani women. Under communism, the Czech Government sterilised Romani women programmatically, as part of policies aimed at reducing the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of Romani women. These practices are still being perpetrated today.

- Racial prejudice against the Roma people. According to a recent opinion poll, 76% of the white Czech population describe persons of Romani origin as "very unlikable."

- Police brutality. Roma are common targets of violence by the police.

These are findings reported in 2007! The report inevitably concludes that "the measures taken on behalf of the Czech Government to combat racial prejudices and discrimination against Roma people currently remain insufficient."

Based on the above findings, Prague Daily Monitor reports, CERD made the demand that:

The government [must] report back to the Committee within one year – instead of the usual five - on four key areas: adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Act, reparations to victims of coercive sterilization, ending segregated education, and establishing an “institution…to receive complaints of racial discrimination.”

The full text of CERD's recommendations can be viewed here

When I think about all this discrimination taking place in my country of birth, I feel sad, angry, sick to my stomach, and sometimes very alone. Racism is so ingrained in most white Czechs that embedding in their consciousness even the idea that the Roma are people too seems farfetched.

I remember an incident that shook me to the core once. I was back in the Czech Rebublic during one summer while in college. A university professor that I had assumed was quite progressive and open-minded, told a racist joke in a group of white Czechs and my American boyfriend. I challenged the professor. He looked me square in the eyes, and in everyone's presence proclaimed: "Yeah, I am a racist. So what?"

All I could do was stare at him wide-eyed with nothing left to say for a moment. I walked away and cried, realizing people like him, too, are my people. Aware of their own racism, but indifferent to it and to the people their attitudes hurt.

What heartens me is the work of young Roma journalists and activists who are fighting to educate, organize, and reverse the discriminatory history of the country. I have met a couple of them. Jarmila Balážová, for example. You can read her bio as well as an interview about her perception of the relationship between the whites and the Roma here.

Unfortunately, I don't know many whites fighting the fight. They are out there, but I haven't met them yet. I only know of one white Czech woman, Milena Hübschmannová, who fought for and with the Roma. According to The Guardian, "She was a professor of Romany studies at Prague's Charles University, and one of the leading experts of her generation, if not of all time, on Roma culture and language." Dzeno Association, an organization serving to promote Roma human rights and an end to discrimination and racism, said of Hübschmannová: "She was well loved for her modesty and her willingness to help among Roma both in the Czech Republic and abroad. We knew her as a loving, good-hearted woman and we will remember her as such." She is one of my heroes. She died in 2005.

If I ever move back, which my family may very likely do for some time, I want to work alongside the Roma activists as a white ally. I hope I am not one of these "pseudo-humaniarian people" that Jarmila in her interview says "feel something for the Roma - even if it's compassion, admiration, or even love - as if a single mass." She says these people "love the Roma, just as foolishly as [those who] hate them." I constantly question my motives with all this anti-racist work that I want to do. I don't want to do it for the wrong reasons. But this wasn't supposed to be about me. Back to Jarmila, whom I admire because though she sometimes feels that "certain powerlessness, when you can't budge that boulder that slightest bit you'd like to," she keeps on plugging away. Bold and unstoppable, against the current of hatred spouted by people who are white and Czech like me.

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