It’s easy to think that people different from you are all the same. It’s easy, for example, to assume that all Asians are good at math, or skinny and small, or that they all look East Asian, with narrow eyes and dark hair. It’s also easy to assume that all Christian, lower-class white suburbans who live in the south are homophobic, racist, sexist, or all of the above. It’s easy to simplify people you don’t know much about—in fact, it’s inevitable, a way for us to hold the world together in our minds without exploding from the amount of information and variety that entails.
Despite all the history and culture that Europe has disseminated across the world, I knew very little about the reality of this continent in its current state. I’ve never had much of an interest in politics—it was only after entering college in the U.S. and finding it at the center of almost all consequential discussion that I finally entered this sphere. But politics, for me, has always remained first and foremost on the ground where I stand, concerning the people I can see. I don’t know enough to begin speaking on broader scales, so my focus has always remained on what surrounds me. The national and ethnic politics of the Czech Republic were so far outside of that realm that I arrived a blank slate, expecting nothing and ready for anything.
There was not yet enough in my mind to even begin to construct what “the same” entailed for the Czech people (except a vague recall of my roommate freshman year, who had been from Prague, who enjoyed philosophy, had a rather cynical sense of humor, and of course, was Caucasian, multilingual, and fit with most expectations I had of what Europeans were meant to be). So I cannot say I was surprised by the different types of people I have encountered here—the local Czech citizens, the large Vietnamese population, and the Roma, who I have not actually met or identified, but have already heard much about.
What surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have, were the similarities between the Czech society and America. Severe cases of discrimination exist—they are as divided against themselves as they are separated by national borders, perhaps even more so. The Roma, or the gypsies, as we call them, are secluded from the “normal” population. They are seen as thieves, lazy, uneducated, are always undesirable as neighbors, and constantly under threat of being kicked out of the country. Though there have been efforts to integrate them better into the general population, Roma children are often placed in special schools for children with “mild mental disabilities” and, in regular schools, are often bullied and then blamed for provoking the unfair treatment themselves.
It saddens and angers me that people everywhere seem to have the same tendencies towards prejudice, that it is still so easy and so ingrained in people’s minds that the generalization and simplification of an entire race is natural and justified, that it does not need to be fought against. The claims are always the same: “I’m not racist. In fact, I know a few decent gypsies myself.” But just as the article identifies, what does it mean that one has to qualify gypsies with the word “decent,” as if indecent is the natural state from which only the exceptional can barely escape?
It is easy to assume and simplify, but it is also important to remember that beliefs are not the same as knowledge, and that the default exists always to be questioned and examined anew. Europeans are not all the same. The Czech, evidently, are not all the same. The Roma are not all the same, just as America, and China, and any other group or place, however big or small, are not all the same. It would be a mistake to presume that the darkness in our minds is the darkness of reality, just as it would be a mistake to presume that the darkness we perceive around us does not reside elsewhere, in undiscovered places.
- Graffiti in Karlovy Vary: Alice