Behind the Iron Curtain part 7 – Racism

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

In this particular case, much of what I know now I did not even remotely see or experience as a child and I only learned about it later on. Further, I must first state my bias.

My experiences with Romani people were overwhelmingly negative throughout my life, behind the Iron Curtain as well as afterward. I am in no way an objective and dispassionate observer on this matter.

First experience was at the age of approximately 10 years when the merry-go-rounds were in town. I have met a slightly younger Romani boy who was totally downcast because he did not have money for any of the attractions. I offered to lend him 10 crowns (which was a lot). We agreed that he will give me the money back one crown at a time whenever he gets pocket-money and we went on and had loads of fun together that day. He only returned the first crown and his mother has seen him doing so. I have seen her to tell him something very loudly afterwards, but I did not hear what it was. However, next time he only offered threats of violence. After he pulled out a knife on me, I stopped politely asking and avoided him altogether. It was first time someone has betrayed my trust and I could not make sense of it.

(That same boy has tried later to rob a newspaper stand, was caught by police and subsequently beaten by his mother. Allegedly not for trying to steal, but for being caught, which given my experience I unfortunately find believable. At the age around thirteen he attempted to rape a woman near a disco club who fended him off. I have no idea what became of him afterward, I have never heard about him since.)

Second instance was the age of twenty-five. Not having learned my lesson, when a Romani employee at the company I worked for asked me if I would be so kind as to lend him some money for he had run out and he needs to buy diapers for his children, I obliged. On payday, when he was due to give the money back as agreed, he offered me threats of violence.

Third instance, at the same employer, was a conflict with Romani fork-lift driver whom I caught drunk on the job. I tried to be nice and told him politely that he cannot drive fork-lift in this state and should go home to sleep it off. He started to get agitated, my attempts at de-escalating the situation totally failed and he assaulted me. Afterward I was being told that it was all my fault for not being nice enough to an aggressive drunkard. My today position is that I should have called police straightaway and not try to pussyfoot around someone breaking the law.

And there were the all too common instances of Romani people being drunk in public and having shouting matches that can be heard for hundred meters no matter the time of day.

To be clear, I have plenty of negative experiences with plenty of people of different nationalities too. I try my best to not leave these above mentioned experiences to cloud my judgement, but I am wary around Romani people. This has to be mentioned up front for the sake of honesty.

The only people of color present in any meaningful numbers in Czechoslovak Socialist Republic were Romani and Vietnamese. An average Czech only knows other people of color from TV. An average Czech was, and is, also unfortunately very racist, as is typical of people who grow up isolated from outside world. Which makes othering an easy thing to both being deliberately done by politicians and emerging amongst the people themselves.

The official stance was that everyone is equal and racism is bad. Case closed, right? No, of course not. The Romani people were widely disliked and there was a lot of casual racism towards them. Somehow I have managed to not meet this racism until fairly late age (thus my willingness to lend money to a Romani boy), but it was there and eventually I have seen it. The mentions that I was an idiot for lending money to a G∗y, to a N∗r. The mentions how their dark skin is dirty by default and that they are disgusting no matter how well washed. The mentions how they are inherently untrustworthy and treacherous.

The regime did actually try to address the problems on both sides, but did so completely wrong. As with many other things, the regime did not approach the issue by evaluating what the situation is and trying to devise the best way to deal with it. It approached it as many other things with having an answer up front and trying to force everyone into that answer.

Nobody asked Romani people what they want. Nobody asked them how they would like to live, what they have to offer and what their needs are. The regime had all the answers remember? In this case – the best thing to live is in urban settlements and working at a factory. Therefore Romani people have been forced to abandon their nomadic life-style and were forced to live in urban settlements and work in factories. And Czechs were told that from now on everything is hunky-dory and everyone will live together in a happy ever-after. Which of course did not work.

For a societal change of this magnitude to happen first it is necessary to change people’s minds. The attitudes then follow. That takes time and cannot be done by decree, an actual work needs to be done over decades, even generations. But that is not how totalitarian regimes function, so a decree was made and it was expected of everyone to obey.

So Romani people were forced to live in communities with which they had no experience living in, and a lifestyle they did not know how to live. They were not used to eight hours work days so their work morale was terrible. They did not know how to care for an apartment. They were not financially literate so they did not know how to manage a big income once a month instead of many small incomes throughout. The communities inevitably became ghettos in an abominable state of disrepair and skyrocketing crime rates. This in turn instead of weathering down the prejudice of Czechs strengthened them, because they only saw (and see) the Romani as leeches abusing the social safety net.

The regime also knew that an ideal family has only a few children. So some Romani women were sterilized without their knowledge and their consent. An inexcusable violation of bodily autonomy if I ever saw one.

The one thing where the regime had the best chance to get a good handle at things, it bungled it too completely. As it almost always is with such things, education is the key. But Romani people were denied that too, although allegedly not completely deliberately.

Part of the problem was that many Romani children did not learn Czech at home and were not sent to kindergarten. And because the ghettos were very isolated when the time came for them to go to school, they were not able to communicate with teachers and other children properly and were behind other children. Which was of course misconstrued as a lack of intelligence and therefore Romani children were overwhelmingly concentrated in special schools whose purpose on paper was to help to educate children with special needs (mentally and/or physically handicapped). So even in this regard the regime totally failed to break the self-reinforcing cycle that kept Romani people poorly educated and socially isolated. There are Romani individuals who manage to break that cycle for themselves, but they have to beat incredible odds working against them to do so – they get obstacles on both sides of the cultural barrier, with Romani communities not wanting to let them go and Czechs not wanting to accept them.

Unfortunately with the fall of the Iron curtain the situation did not get any better. If anything, it has gotten worse and I think it will not get better during my lifetime. Czechs have proven to be way too much racist and easily manipulated with racist fear mongering, and when Romani people ceased to be a convenient scapegoat, Muslim refugees took their place as convenient boogeyman. As with many other things, the most effective Iron Curtain runs through people’s brains, not through the countryside.


  1. rq says

    Yep. The attempts to integrate them here have been limited to seminars for teachers -- targetting children’s education because integrating the adults is extremely difficult due to the low level of education, as they often drop out of school early to start working, because of their extreme poverty. A few years ago, I vaguely recall that there were efforts to develop alternate-hour school programs for children (teenagers) and adults in towns with a high proportion, to give them the opportunity to complete their education (at least elementary -- grade 9) on their own schedule, but I don’t know what happened with that (probably funding ran out, also can’t seem to find any references on the internet).
    In any case, there is a very solid Romani culture and community here -- two, actually, since there’s the Latvian Romani out west and the Belorussian Romani in the east, but ask any random person on the street and you’ll get the same old… oh, except when it comes to singing and dancing! Their fiery spirit is perfect for our entertainment, especially since it’s so opposite to the traditional Latvian stoicness! Yay!

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