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Commentary: Czech media mock UN recommendations on racism and Roma

31.8.2015 1:24
"Black Pete" in the Netherlands. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued its reports on the situation in several countries from around the world last week. The otherwise serious news server Aktuálně.cz reported the news with the headline "UN:  Czechs should stop Romani ghettos, the Dutch should stop Black Pete", and I think that by so doing they quite knowingly indicated to the reader that all of the Committee's recommendations are to be seen as absurd.  

What are we to believe about these "hypercorrect" efforts to rewrite customs and traditions? What the vast majority of Czech readers believe about such "hypercorrectness" has been amply demonstrated by the online discussions (and not just on about the recent commentary by Petra Gelbart on "Black Mugs" in the Prague metro.  

Folk traditions or racism?

"Black Pete" is a figure who, in the Netherlands, accompanies their version of St. Nicholas and helps him distribute gifts. He is usually embodied by a white person in black face paint with exaggerated red lips.  

For years there has been an argument underway in the Netherlands as to whether this is a racist stereotype that has no place in today's society. Last year a court there even banned the figure of Black Pete from being portrayed in an official parade in Amsterdam.

According to his critics, the figure of Black Pete is based on an old tradition of wealthy white people with a penchant for the exotic being accompanied everywhere by black servants. Defenders of the figure, however, claim his black color comes from soot, because Black Peter delivers children gifts by sliding down the chimney.  

Those who defend the figure also argue that it is absurd to rewrite customs and traditions. Netherlands PM Mark Rutte expressed similar sentiments after the UN published its criticism, telling journalists that "Politics, after all, is not about which Christmas songs you should sing or how you celebrate Christmas and Easter."

Such hypercorrect reworking, whether of books or traditions, seems prudish to me in principle. On the other hand, it is good to realize that these matters are not as simple as they might seem when we self-confidently view them from behind a Czech keyboard.    

In the first place, tens or rather hundreds of thousands of people are discussing Black Pete in the Netherlands, and many of them do believe this tradition simply belongs in the past. This is not, therefore, about the hysteria of a mere handful of activists.  

In the second place, while it seems absurd for people to rewrite folk customs in today's hypercorrect language, it is also logical to assume that not all customs and traditions will be maintained by modern society. Some customs will simply, for one reason or another, cease to be amusing or may even begin to cause difficulties.  

Such customs are probably on their way to the museum, not the town square. I'm not claiming here that Black Pete's time has come - I wouldn't dare cast such a strong judgment, as I don't know much about either the situation in the Netherlands or this tradition.

However, it is possible that with time, Black Pete will move into a museum exhibit. In any event, that is where Dutch people should look for him in future, because we cannot rule out the notion that some of the offshoots of this "hypercorrectness" don't just want to rewrite customs, but to erase them from memory.

"Black Mugs" in the metro

The Prague Transit Authority has responded to Petra Gelbart's recent commentary by saying that "it is regrettable that the author of the article is looking for and creating a negative attitude in an area and situation where no such thing is actually occurring". Jiří Štábl, press spokesperson for the Transit Authority, gave that response to news server

Just as in the case of Black Pete, it is good to emphasize that what is being discussed here is not rewriting or stopping drivers' slang. It is another matter, however, that hundreds of slang expressions were published on the Transit Authority's website, 15 of which began with the letter "č".

When the Transit Authority chose one expression for every letter of the Czech alphabet and had posters produced for those expressions to exhibit on mass transit, it could have chosen something besides "Black Mug" (černá huba in Czech) for that letter. Now on the one hand, this slang expression does exist, that's a fact, but there is no need to be unduly disturbed by it.

Nobody normal would want to "rewrite" slang. It is, however, another matter whether that expression in particular was a good choice for a public poster.  

It is by no means self-evident that this was a good choice. Imagine that drivers started calling a certain bus the "Heebe" because it's cheap to run, referencing the stereotype of Jewish thrift bordering on greed.  

Do you think the Transit Authority would have chosen an expression like that for a poster? Almost certainly not.

Czech Roma and the United Nations

I don't think there is any need to ironize the recommendations of the UN Committee by connecting them with the "Black Pete scandal", but I understand nevertheless that many people believe these recommendations to be abstract, formal, non-binding, and useless. The UN is not actually telling our politicians - or the rest of us - anything that we didn't already know.

The problem is that we still do not have any effective political solutions on offer. We have many recommendations from the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, nonprofit organizations, the UN and the US Government - we also have many of our own official strategies for combating social exclusion and promoting integration, and we still are not moving forward.  

According to many people - probably most people - the Roma themselves are mainly to blame for their circumstances because they have no interest in education, they do not guide their children to participate in it, and they themselves are not attempting to change their own situations. There could be thousands of recommendations and strategies, but they will always bounce off of that wall of lack of interest without having any impact.

According to others, including myself, there is a lack of actual political and societal will to solve these problems thoroughly. We are constantly working at the level of declarations, not decisions - there is a need to primarily invest a great deal of expertise and money into reforming education and the schools, into community work and social work, into designing a social housing law.  

However, as is usual, nothing is ever "black and white" (ha ha). Naturally, some Romani people are to blame for their own situations, or rather, many Romani people share responsibility for their own situations.

The claim that Romani people are only discriminated against, unable to change anything on their own, have no chances whatsoever, and that the "gadje" don't understand then and just want to oppress them - this is just as racist and stereotypical as the claim that Romani people are in principle ineducable and "incorrigible". In and of themselves these declarations, recommendations and strategies won't help us - and hypercorrectness won't for sure.

However, the well-designed reform of the education system, for example, will certainly help. We just have to finally make the attempt.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
Views: 680x

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