Singing and stealing

The Czech Gypsy minority and its difficult position

A few years ago, an English friend visited my former classmate in Prague and we decided to visit a quarter in Prague called "Nusle". There are several pubs where the customers are almost all Gypsies. We bought two beers each in one of these and then left. In front of this pub there were a few Gypsies of our age or younger. One of them challenged our English friend to lift him up. He did so. The Gypsy expressed surprise that he was so strong and we walked on. Then we asked our friend to check if he still had his wallet; he didn’t. So he went back and asked the Gypsy boy to lift him up. During the lift he fortunately found his wallet in the Gypsy’s pocket and took it back. This time the Gypsy was much more surprised but recognized that his attempt had failed.

Lots of people suspect that every Gypsy wants to rob them of everything possible. For example, when I speak with my father about this problem, he says he would respect them if they worked harder, didn’t steal and didn’t shout so often. There are lots of examples of a Gypsy phoning a company to ask for a job – the "WHITES" agreed, offered the "GYPSY" some sort of job and asked him to come. When he came they refused him – it was clear it is just because of the color of his/her skin and their prejudiced belief that he won’t work well, will always feign illness and so on. It is like a vicious circle from which it is impossible to get off.

Gypsies have been living in the Czech Republic for several centuries, and the majority of people living there never respected them but more or less tolerated them. Most "whites" think that the problematic behaviour of many Gypsies shows, that Gypsies are unable to be full members of our society. The story of Gypsies who are destroying their own flats, is one reference for this statement one can often hear. But most people do not see the Gypsies’ reasons. Firstly, they were traveling beforehand, they made their fires near their maringotka (caravans), sang their songs, danced, had fun, and of course, sometimes they stole chickens and so on. They were and still are very proud that they are Gypsies (or "Romanies" in the current politically correct speech).

Communists abolished this way of life by forcing many Gypsies to move into industrialized areas, where Roma were needed as unskilled manual workforce. Other reasons why they destroyed their flats seem very strange to us. For example, there are very different communities of Romanies with mostly very antagonistic relationships, sometimes more severe than between Gypsies and Czechs in general. But it is also difficult to say "Gypsies" and "Czechs" because the majority of Gypsies (maybe 80%) registered themselves in the 1991 census as having Czech nationality.

The Velvet revolution has come to the Gypsies too. Freedom gave Gypsies a possibility to organize freely, to express their will. Maybe the greatest "popularity" of Gypsy issues in the Czech Republic came from the building of a wall between "Noisy Gypsies" and "Quiet Whites". The whole of Europe heard about this community conflict but only a few people realized this is just one example of what happens almost everywhere. For example two days ago I read one article about a pub which is divided into two parts – one for Gypsies and one for whites. And nobody from either side thinks it is bad. It sounds very silly to me. It is very clear that Gypsies have been living here for centuries but we do not understand them at all.

We don’t understand their language; instead, we force them to learn Czech. This heritage from the communist era most seriously affects the Gypsy children who don’t understand Czech well enough when they attend their school. Just because of their low knowledge of the Czech language they are still sent to special classes for mentally handicapped children. In this way the communists guaranteed the truth of "Gypsies=Diggers" or "Gypsies=Stealers" and most Gypsies ended up without any higher education beyond the 8 years of basic school.

I remember that one boy was attending our class in the school – he was a Gypsy. The rest of the class rejected him just because he was a Gypsy. Also our class teacher was prejudiced when, for example, she had to find out who was guiltier in some dispute between "him" and "one of US". She almost never protected him against us. Our parents didn’t care about it, they were just talking about how his mother was ugly – nothing else.

Now it is changing a little bit. The desire of our government to join the EU is forcing it to change first of all its own attitude to Gypsies. This is happening slowly but willingly. Also, a lot of foundations and other NGO’s are positively interested in this question. For example our Charles University has opened a course in "Roma studies" which is attended by members of both communities to learn more about Gypsy Community in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Newspapers publish more and more articles on this issue and look for a few ways to break down more and more fences between them and us.

But the mentalities of both sides will change very, very slowly, I think. My very optimistic guess is about 20-30 years. But let’s see, the future is still very difficult to foresee.

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