Czech Republic: Vice-mayor says Roma must fight for respect
Oto Váradi is vice-mayor of the northern Bohemian village of Ralsko. News server Česká pozice has published an interview with him.
There are not many Romani vice-mayors in the Czech Republic - in fact, Váradi might very well be the only one. News server Romea.cz brings you the interview in translation:
Q: What is it like when the media contact you solely because you are a Romani man? It's strange, right?
A: First your self-confidence is buoyed when you are contacted, but then when you realize what's going on, it doesn't exactly please you. It doesn't really matter what I do, the main thing is that I have this label - I'm not the vice-mayor of Ralsko, but the Romani vice-mayor of Ralsko.
Q: That must bother you...
A: It doesn't bother me if something comes of it - for example, when people understand that even an ethnic Romani man can have some know-how. Even though I am still a bit of a token, and it's a bit of a performance, I'm putting up with it pretty well overall. I can take it better than having Romani people constantly shown as a faceless group who just rob and steal.
Q: Anti-Romani unrest has been spreading recently. The so-called decent citizens have also been demonstrating, it's not just right-wing radicals in the streets anymore. The notion that Romani people steal, and mainly that they are parasites living off of welfare, is somehow booming...
A: I have the feeling that it's getting worse. When I see those thousands of demonstrators in Ostrava, the chaos, the interventions by police officers... It doesn't help the psyche. Romani people's response is predictable: They are afraid. It's like they are waiting for something to happen. It's in the air, it won't be pretty.
Q: Do you believe we have some sort of calamity ahead of us?
A: This will sound crazy, but I'll go ahead and say it: The Roma must fight - and there is no revolution without blood - for a place in society, they have to fight for respect. I don't want that to sound like you win respect by beating someone up, not at all. You win respect through work, but we must never allow ourselves to be trampled on, that's just how it is.
Q: Another of the general claims going around is that this problem, which is sometimes called the Romani problem, cannot be resolved from outside, that there must be dialogue. The Romani side is allegedly missing from a full-fledged dialogue.
A: Look, the "Romani problem" would only be a real problem if all Romani people were identical. If that were true then they would all have to vote for the same party, do the same stuff, eat the same food, I don't what all else - but these are individuals, we cannot generalize! We are creating the problem when we turn the Roma into faceless people. I am Váradi, an individual. I can't bear responsibility for anyone else. I might as well say that you bear responsibility for all of the Czech murderers because you are similar to them.
Q: Well yes, but you've just said Romani people must earn respect, that they can't let people trample on them, so you do presume there is some group identity among them. Shouldn't some sort of common voice be heard from that community, a voice against generalizations, that would say: Look, we are working, it's just some individuals who don't want to?
A: Yes, fine. We should unite, look for what unites us. Find, for example, our history - it exists, but we don't talk about it. So yes, let's seek what our community has in common. However, I cannot allow these generalizing judgments that say because some Romani people did something wrong, all Roma should now be beaten up.
Q: Do you believe those generalizing judgments about Romani people are the norm today?
A: Of course. People in the pub say to me: "Well yeah, Mr Váradi, but you're completely different!" That's a horrible thing to say, by the way. It's the same as if someone said to you: "You look like a moron, but maybe you're not a total moron." The tension is rising. Someone who's your pal at the pub, who has bullshitted with you his whole life about stuff, women, whatever - suddenly you seem different to him. Why? Because they're saying so on television. He's afraid you'll lift his wallet now.
Q: Do local authority figures function within the framework of Romani communities? Some person whom all of the Romani people in a specific locality listen to and respect?
A: Authorities exist in every community, that's a natural thing, but you can't be thinking we've returned to the era of the First Republic, that there's now a vajda [chief] at every housing estate. That's crazy, it's a fallacy.
Q: When you say "don't let people trample on you" - in mainstream society the opposite claim is customary, that it is Romani people who enjoy superior rights, that there is reverse discrimination here, a double standard...
A: Reverse discrimination is nonsense. I was just at a meeting with people from the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and one of the topics discussed there was that the European Union wants to set quotas for municipal administrations to have a certain number of Romani people in them. It's the same as with quotas for women, it's nonsense. People must go for those jobs who enjoy the work, who want to do it, who are educated for it, who have what it takes. I will never go sit somewhere just because I am Romani. It's not just absurd, it's degrading.
Q: Any form of positive discrimination is bad?
A: They use it to label you. They want to help, but they are just extracting you from society, labelling you, and saying: You are here in this place only because we gave you this label.
Q: Getting back to the demonstrations, do you understand the people who participate in them? Their arguments are clear: They live in a locality and over time it has been transformed, because of local Romani people, into a place where no one can live...
A: I can imagine that the Romani way of life might bother some. I used to live in Ploužnice, my neighbors were Romani, and unfortunately I also had problems with them, but I was able to tackle that with them. They probably viewed me differently than if some majority-society guy flew in there and started banging on their door. I also thought about moving out of the apartment.
Q: Do you still live there today?
A: Not currently, but my parents do and I visit them. We live in a single-family house now, I have a mortgage. That's basically how we resolved it [laughs].
Q: Did you basically separate yourself from the community when you moved away, or not?
A: It's about development, not separation. My wife found a job, I work,and we were able to live in our own place, we didn't have to rent anymore. It wasn't a separation. If the anti-Romani demonstrations were to be held there, I would stand in the front line against the demonstrators.
Q: I often hear a lot about Romani culture being special. There are even festivals being held, people dance, sing and I don't know what else at them, but isn't Romani culture just a chimera? Isn't it dead? Don't Romani people live just like the mainstream today, just in a more impoverished way given their social status?
A: There are just fragments of Romani culture here. We all attended Czech schools, we all studied the same textbooks. We automatically accepted, and had to adopt, majority culture. I basically don't know whether we can view anything as authentically Romani. Nothing is authentically Czech either. There have been wars here, Bohemia is a crossroads of all possible influences. Everyone came here and left their offspring here. Who is Czech? What is Czechness?
Q: Recently I have been startled to see that the concept of a "white gypsy" is spreading even more here. It's as if the word "gypsy" is a label for something repugnant, a norm for distaste, and when you are member of the majority society who behaves in an asocial way and doesn't work, you get the epithet "white gypsy".
A: Whenever people don't know how to behave, this society has a tendency to excluded them from its midst, to have nothing to do with them, and so they're giving such people to the "gypsies", but they're white - I don't know, maybe the word "white" means a better sort, a higher level, a "gypsy" elite or something. It's all really hard. Naturally it's true that Romani people don't have to like the rules established by the majority society, and some behave differently because they don't like them. Clearly rules exist to be followed, but if we are always strict, if all we do is say "You can only go this far and no farther, or we'll kick you out", then what am I supposed to say? Well, kick me out, then. It doesn't bother me.
Q: When you mention this aversion to rules, to following them strictly...
A: It's not aversion. Romani people avoid the social rules, at least in my opinion, because they just don't know how to fulfill all the demands placed on them from day to day. The pressure is extreme, for example, when it comes to getting a job or not, and Romani people need to relax from the stress of the outside world, so they flee into their families. They aren't "Romani" there anymore. In my family I am not a Romani man, I'm just Ota, and that's where I can rest. Sure, I admit, not everything there goes according to the rules, but I feel good there.
Q: Sometimes we also hear that Romani people are badly off because their natural way of life, traveling, was taken away from them - to repeat one of the favorite clichés.
A: That's all coming from television, not real life! Who has seen "gypsies" living on the road in the 21st century? I haven't seen it. You mean we start smelling the grass, the swallows take off, the sun rises and the "gypsies" hit the road? I like going for walks, but after two kilometers I say to myself: "Man, turn around, you've gone too far!" Im not familiar with any instinct telling me I can't stay in my seat, that I have to go out into the world. That's nonsense. When it's Christmas, I look forward to potato salad. There's nothing more to it.
Q: It's often said that Romani people need to return to the traveling culture and then everything will be good...
A: That sounds like a good [American] Indian story. The wind in your hair, Vinneta galloping along the prairie. His back doesn't hurt and neither do his feet - but our feet do hurt in the 21st century, definitely.
Q: The organizers of the anti-Romani demonstrations are basically saying one more thing: We are demonstrating because we don't feel safe. Romani people steal but no one punishes them. Romani people are noisy, we can't sleep at night. Romani people are aggressive, we're afraid to send our children outside to play...
A: Look, we do have some sort of legal environment here, after all. We can hold some people criminally liable and others not - that is determined by age and mental competence. If people are complaining about feeling unsafe, then the state administration is dysfunctional, that's all there is to it. Romani people are not the problem.
Q: People attribute their sense of danger to the Roma, though. You've certainly heard those tales in the pub, that when you walk down the sidewalk at night and a group of Roma is coming toward you, it's better to cross to the other side of the road - you're afraid of them. When you take the night tram home, you're afraid when a group of Roma gets on...
A: I understand that those people have concerns, but why do those Romani people behave that way? Why do they want people to fear them on the night tram, or on the sidewalk? Whenever someone begins to behave aggressively, it is because he is the one who is afraid. The Roma are also afraid! No one is aggressive by nature. Were all afraid, that is the state of óur society today. Romani people also say to themselves, when they see someone "white" coming toward them at night along the sidewalk: "Are there too many of us? Am I looking in the right direction? Are my hands held in such a way that he knows I don't want to rob him? Should I put them in my pockets, or should I raise them over my head?" There is fear coming from all directions, today's society produces paranoia. I was walking around Prague once and there was a lady walking her dog. I needed directions and had the stupid idea of asking her for them. The lady rolled her eyes at me, grabbed her purse and told me she doesn't speak Czech. Fine, she doesn't understand Czech. Then five meters down the street she tells another grandma, in Czech, "Hey, that one there probably wanted to do something to me!" That's what our life is like now - insanity. Was I supposed to feel like I had done something wrong? Was I wearing the wrong kind of coat? Did I look at her the wrong way? You either let it go, or you do your best, within the realm of possibility, to do something about it. That's how it is.
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