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Confronting color in a world of white - Romany Women

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April 20th, 2008

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09:12 pm - Confronting color in a world of white
13 March 2007

Rebecca Houston/Prague Wanderer

Minorities say they stand out in a crowd in Prague's monochromatic population.

Seven months ago, I was in New York at an information session about the study abroad program in Prague. I was almost sold, as slide after slide of beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets flashed before my eyes. I only needed to ask one simple question, and I would buy my ticket that night.

"Have non-white students had problems living in Prague?"

The chatty adviser, an American with short blond hair and round eyes, paused. Nodding almost hysterically, she replied, "Well, Czechs tend to be pretty open-minded about other ethnicities. We've had very few problems with past students," putting stress on the "Well," and the "tend."

I didn't mind.

By my third night in Prague I came to the conclusion that I hated Czechs and their evil, evil ways. To me they were racist ex-communists who hated me just as much as I hated them. I prepared for the next four months in Prague, the land I had begun to think consisted of only miserable white people, heavy meat and sponge-like bread dishes, uneven haircuts, and elderly women who looked only a fraction more feminine than the freakishly scary, square-faced mother from The Goonies.

In the beginning, I had difficulty understanding Czech people. At times, the hair at the back of my neck would stand; my skin could sense their eyes all around me, scrutinizing me, hating me, mocking me for looking differently. I couldn't understand why. On the trams, at the grocery stores, in the restaurants, I could feel their wincing eyes, their gaping mouths, and their crooked grins all aimed at me.

All around me, there they were: this light-eyed race of white and white and more white skin. And here I was: dark and brown and yellow with slanted eyes. Here, I felt like an alien.

During one of those first few days, I stood in one of Prague's red and white tram cars next to a woman about twice my age with short blonde hair and red orange streaks dispersed randomly throughout her head and a younger woman with frizzy blond dreadlocks.

Every now and then my eyes would meet theirs and, ashamed, I would immediately turn my face the other way. In the corner of my eye, I could see them staring at me, biting their tongues as if holding back some vicious words. As minutes passed on the tram, the two women seemed to find me more and more ridiculous. Every once in a while they would burst into harsh, cruel chuckles. I ran to get off the tram that night. Alone, I sped along the wet pavement, turned the last corner and cried.

In those first couple of weeks, I became obsessively aware of the people around me. I noticed every look, every snicker and stare in order to fuel the hatred that had already begun to burst from within me. Every quick glance at me or my clothes or my shoes or my purse was a reason to "accidentally" bump into someone, to look back at them with fiery vehemence, to be as rude, as horrible, and as intolerable to them as I thought they had been to me.

More and more, these experiences made me wonder how minorities live and breathe everyday in a world like this: a world that seemed like it was still struggling to break out of out of its communist shell. I had all this pent up anger inside of me. I could hardly go a moment in public without feeling totally alienated from Prague.

Puffy-eyed and miserable, I sat in the common room of my dorm, allowing myself to sink deeper and deeper into crevices of our couch.

"Are you okay," asked my dorm's Czech Resident Adviser, Eva.

I squeaked out to her, "Eva, why do Czech people hate me?"

She turned to me and smiled. "Why would you think that? Have people been mean to you?"

"It's because I'm Asian."

Eva softly laughed and sat next to me. "They don't hate you because you're Asian. I think they just don't understand you because you're Asian," she said. "They'll stare at everyone. You're exotic. You know many Czechs still aren't accustomed to different kinds of people."

Eva was right. The Czech people had been more or less a homogeneous race for forty years before the Communist regime was ousted out of power in 1989.

"Before democracy, Czechs could not leave the country," said Ivan Vesely, founder of the Dzeno Foundation in Prague. Dzeno is one of several Czech non-governmental organizations that defend the human rights of the Roma community, sometimes known as gypsies, the largest minority group in the Czech Republic. "The borders: closed; passports: useless. All around you were white faces. All you knew were white faces."

"This mentality comes from a long history of limitation," observed Jaroslav Holy, a middle-aged man who has lived his entire life in the Czech Republic. "And for a lot of the older generation, that limitation is still there. The young ones have money to travel and get acquainted with all the differences of the world. For the Czechs who were adults during our communist days, there's less money and less will to see the world, and appreciate diversity. For them, it's still a white world."

And, for the most part, that's what Prague seemed like to me: a sea of white.

But there was this pretty young Roma woman whose face sticks out from this backdrop of white. Everyday, she hands out fliers for Peking Restaurant at a busy street corner in the center of the city. She is probably no more than 17 years old with curly, deep black hair wildly cascading down her back. She wears heaps of makeup punctuated with bright red lipstick and dons tight clothing paired with studded jeans, a white belt and knee-high boots. She was a splash of color standing out from the gray cobblestones and I could not help but look at her.

On one day in October, a group of men in navy overalls covered in paint were standing at the tram stop and together stared at her, chuckling to each other and pointing to her. She would audaciously stare directly back at them, shooting a forceful, venomous middle finger. I smiled.

There was a mighty force within her that I enjoyed. She would, everyday, look onto the white faces that passed by her, ignored her, laughed at her, and she remained angry. I saw a little bit of myself in her, how we were both out of place.

As my life moved forward in Prague and as I adjusted, I started to feel a strange connection to this girl I saw everyday. I was finally cooling down.

I had met some Czechs and learned more about them. Men opened doors for me. Babies and mothers smiled. Elderly women nodded at me. I guess that was all I needed: a single smile, a little nod. A little acceptance and I could feel my defense system crumbling down. I was beginning to love Prague and respect the changing society of people within it.

I wondered if this is all the Roma girl needed as well. Would a little nod cool her fire? Could she and I ever see this city in the same way again?

After many weeks of feeling the urge, I gathered enough strength to walk up to her. She looked at me for the first time and I stopped in my tracks. Her eyebrows crunched and her eyes became small, wincing with anticipation and anger. I hurried underground into the metro.

Since I came here, I had been told over and over to be wary of the gypsies. They were dirty, tactless, lazy, emotional, dramatic, loud and problematic; they liked music, were always drunk, and would probably pickpocket you too. To the Czech people, this behavior was substandard, and the girl at the corner were all of these things. They were stock characters. They were Roma, and all Roma were the same.

"The Roma have too many problems," said Holy. "They live off the social system, have hundreds of children, and don't work."

Holy continued, "They just don't want to be normal in any way that we Czechs are. We are just two polar opposite cultures. It's hard to find that common ground. I hope someday we can, but I don't know if we ever will."

But Vesely, who is Roma, blames not laziness but another phenomenon. "We are just too hot for this cold environment!" he yelled with a burst of enthusiasm.

In his small, cubicle office, I felt at home. For hours, I spoke with this Roma man, one of the people I was told to avoid. I drank tea with him and felt more at ease with his outbursts of emotion than I had ever felt with any Czech before. I wished that the Czechs could see the beauty of their culture - their love of family, the tightness of their bonds, the happiness and freedom they enjoy.

"Not all Roma are lazy thieves," offered Vesely, "but that's how they'll always be seen. The ones that do make a good living for themselves do not make themselves known. In the end, there are no good examples, no Martin Luther Kings for the Roma, and no proof for the Czechs that Roma can be integrated into society."

Kumar Vishwanathan, an Indian immigrant who, like Vesely, works to support the human rights of Roma in the Czech Republic, agrees. "The will of the minority in this country can falter, especially when you face so much prejudice," he said. "You get so fed up, and so you give up, and then you prove them right. It's a vicious cycle in which the logic is twisted and the effects become the causes. Still, things are getting better."

In the '90s, when Vishwanathan first immigrated into the country, he says he had been attacked several times by both Czech policemen and citizens. "I walked and walked bloodied and no one offered help," he said. "For hours, no one offered help."

Now walking through the streets of the country, Vishwanathan is no longer afraid and no longer helpless. "Today I feel much freer," he continued. "I still stay alert. I am still a little self conscious. I have to be. I am dark. I am exposed, but also I have much faith in the institution, and I can stand up for myself and for others."

Today, Vesely and Vishwanathan both work to create better opportunities for the Roma people, trying to overhaul an 80%-90% unemployment rate, to fight for better housing for hundreds of displaced tenants, and to stop the allocation of healthy Roma students into schools for the mentally deficient.

There are great parallels between the Czech frustration toward the Roma and complications back home with African-Americans and Hispanics. The projects. The welfare system. The gangs. The hungry kids. The violence.

I felt myself wedged between two worlds of thought. I hated the Czechs for marginalizing the Roma, and I hated the Roma for not doing anything about it.

I could see myself and everything I thought I was beginning to understand about this new place slipping from my grasp. Could I grab hold of any one feeling, any one judgment for long before it's turned over by a nod, a smile, an outburst of laughter, a look filled with hate?

The only thing I can understand is that a country in transition will be a country of contradiction. The glimmers of hope would be shadowed by the inability of the system to change successfully. There is this constant back and forth, an unending cycle of who is right and who is wrong, no clear black and white. I felt stuck in this murky gray area, like both the Czechs and the Roma do. One group cannot understand the other because of a great cultural disconnection, because of the boundaries of speech, of culture, of miscommunication, of no communication at all.

Will anything ever change for the better? Can the Roma integrate without losing their culture? Will Czechs and Roma ever find common ground?

I asked them all, and they all replied with two simple words:

"I hope."

Milna Rufin is in her third year studying history at New York University.

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