Part Two in our “Do Czechs Hate Foreigners” series is all about the X-Factor – not the antics of talentless wannabes from that British TV talent show or even their counterparts from Československá Superstar – but the altogether trickier topic of xenophobia.
Is it true that Czechs are more racist than other nations? If xenophobia is more widespread here, is that simply an inevitable by-product of having been sealed off from the outside world during Communism? If you don’t happen to be Caucasian, should you think twice about making the Czech Republic your home?
Finding an objective measure of xenophobia levels in different nations on which to base a discussion is tough. However, such evidence does exist – and may surprise some. According to a 2001 study by Masaryk University, levels of xenophobia in the Czech Republic are average when compared to other European countries. While foreigner phobia is typically high in post-Communist states – Romania, Slovakia and Lithuania top the report’s xenophobia index – Czechs are more tolerant than most of the former Soviet bloc.
The report’s statistics also show Czechs to be more accepting than some in Western Europe: while 9.6% would not want to live next door to someone of a different race, 15.6% of Italians and 12.3% of the Irish would not want anyone other than white as a neighbour.
Despite these findings, there is a perceived prevalence of casual racism in the Czech Republic, which can be something of a culture shock.
When it comes to those ethnic diversity forms, I tick the plain old boring White British box. If I didn’t, I could have encountered that latent prejudice first-hand, as some of my friends have.
An Asian friend born and bred in London was yelled at in English by an elderly gentleman while taking the tram to work. His suggestion? That she go back to the Colonies. A French teacher with an Indian father I met told me she’s given up asking anyone over forty for directions in the street: they’ll just assume she’s a Roma and stride off.
However, a British friend with Caribbean roots feels she’s never experienced any direct racism while living in Prague. Although the staring can get a bit wearisome, she regards this as naïve curiosity rather than outright hostility.
During a summer weekend away in South Bohemia, being the only black girl in the village meant she quickly became the centre of attention in a positive way. My pal managed to upstage the annual tractor festival as the locals crowded around her to roadtest their English, relishing the chance to encounter someone they considered exotic.
It’s obviously true that due to their recent history, Czechs have less experience of interacting with outsiders. In the 2008 documentary, Rodina od vedle (The Family Next Door), which tracks a project where a hundred families across the Czech Republic invited a foreign family to lunch, at least one Czech participant cites the country’s isolation under totalitarianism as a reason for lingering prejudice.
However, his explanation overlooks the fact that the Soviet regime did welcome certain groups of foreigners. My Czech partner’s mother often natters about the Vietnamese who came to their small town and made hard-to-get jeans on their sewing machines — and the Cubans who stole people’s wives. The reason for xenophobia in post-Communist countries is not simply a lack of exposure to foreigners — the strongest antipathy is directed towards the Roma who are, after all, Czech citizens.
I found the intensity of negative feeling directed towards the Roma disturbing; when I had my phone stolen, however, I began to understand how these feelings might have been reinforced in the eyes of some. I’m not making a lazy assumption about who committed the theft: I know the perpetrator’s ethnic background, because after calling my number I met up with the guy responsible. He gave me back my SIM card but would only return my mobile in exchange for hard cash. I understood then how the Czech anti-Roma prejudice might be better thought of as ‘postjudice’ – an antipathy based not just on stereotypes but having those stereotypes, whipped up by the media and extremist groups, confirmed by first-hand experience.***
It can be argued though that the Roma who resort to petty crime do so because they are socially excluded. “They are at the bottom of our society and live in the worst conditions you can imagine,” says Jitka Králová, an anti-racist activist. “Yes, the lifestyle of Romas isn’t same as ours and is full of criminal activity, but that is because they don’t have any stable background or family who would encourage them not to do such things.”
When it comes to ripping off the Czech nation, the powerful white men in suits who receive mysterious wine boxes stuffed with millions of crowns are guilty of thefts far greater than those committed by any Roma pickpocket, as Miroslav Hudec argues in the provocatively titled “How to learn hatred for poor Romani people”.
According to the academic study I kicked off with, Czechs tend to divide foreigners into three categories. There’s the ‘relations’ – Slovaks and Czech émigrés – who are broadly accepted. Then there are “the most foreign foreigners”: “Arabs, Vietnamese, Chinese, people from the former Yugoslavia, Russians, Ukrainians, Blacks and particularly the Roma” who despite often having resided here for years and possessing Czech citizenship are still regarded with suspicion. The third group? So-called ‘capital’ foreigners who are seen as acceptable: “e.g Americans, French, Germans.”
No-one deserves to be the victim of racial prejudice. However, the fact remains that unlike many foreigners, most Expats.cz readers remain very privileged migrants. We also possess a powerful asset – cultural capital – which goes a long way in cushioning us from the fallout of lingering xenophobia.
Read also: Do Czechs Hate Foreigners? Part 1 - First impressions from new expats
Read also: Do Czechs Hate Foreigners? Part 3 - Or do foreigners hate Czechs?
Read also: Czech Society and its Roma Minority