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Opinion: George Floyd protests and Central Europe’s hypocrisy on racial justice

Bratislava, Slovakia – The current political climate in Europe and the United States is being swept up in the storm of anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests to condemn systemic racism and police overreach in many Western countries. george floyd protests

These protests sprung up after 46-year-old George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis when being arrested by local police officers for using a counterfeit bill.

George Floyd protests spark soul-searching in the US and Europe

The words he pronounced while suffocating, “I can’t breathe”, have now become known worldwide as the symbol for police brutality and, in some cases, impunity. His tragic death in police custody sparked nation-wide protests, highlighting how racially fragmented the US and American society still is more than half a century after the civil rights movement, and led to some soul-searching in many countries across Europe, including France or Belgium.

Protests spread across the globe, particularly in Europe, where several mass demonstrations were held in solidarity with the US movement as well as in reaction to their own domestic issues surrounding racism and police violence. The speed at which the protests spread across the Atlantic showed that this wasn’t just a U.S. problem, but a global one.

It also serves as a stark reminder that our societies remain mired in racism, whether institutionalized or not, and discrimination towards ethnic and national minorities. The international solidarity that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder could, from that perspective, be a source for optimism and indicate that long-overdue reforms may be around the corner.

George Floyd protests in the US, and turning a blind eye at home

But there’s a catch. While racism is a global scourge, not every country has the same definition of the phenomenon, i.e. ethnic discrimination and ethnic-based violence or prejudices take on very different forms whether you’re in Hungary or the U.S., Poland or the U.K. george floyd protests

As in other spontaneous, social media-fuelled global movements of solidarity, creeping hypocrisy is never too far away. The risk is potent, including in Central Europe, that solidarity towards the U.S. anti-racism movement may only serve as a smokescreen, or a diversion, to ignore, dismiss and turn a blind eye on the realities of racism and discrimination at home.

This phenomenon might, of course, have something to do with the US media and cultural dominance, pushing national topics on the global stage. Many people in Central Europe are also only too happy to highlight the big American brother’s problems and shortcomings whenever they get a chance. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Too many times have I, as a Slovak with Hungarian heritage, witnessed people condescendingly condemning the unfair treatment of the US’s black community and preaching for racial equality while blissfully ignoring the discrimination faced on a daily basis by Roma people in their own country, or simultaneously disseminating racial prejudices against Muslim migrants, for instance.

Being aware of and taking a stand against racial injustice in the United States does not give anyone the right to ignore ethnic discrimination at home, nor can it be used as a badge of respectability, tolerance, and open-mindedness.

Slovakia’s ethnic challenges

Let’s take Slovakia as an example, a country with many ethnicities, from Slovaks to Hungarians, Vietnamese, Roma, Rusyns and more. Depending on who you ask, some will say they face no discrimination whatsoever, while others, on the contrary, will have countless examples in mind of situations where they’ve been discriminated against, whether due to language, skin tone, living conditions, etc.

As a member of the ethnic Hungarian community, I can easily say for my part that I’ve been discriminated against in the past, especially because of my mother tongue. Slovaks could say the same if venturing into majority Hungarian regions.

That is, however, nothing compared to the prejudices faced by the Roma community, arguably the most discriminated group in Slovakia, and Central Europe as a whole.

According to the Project Implicit research done by Harvard University, which is only one of the many studies pointing to deeply-engraved racially-biased attitudes in Central-Eastern European countries and which measures people’s spontaneous and unconscious associations with various items, individuals in the Czech Republic and Slovakia – as well as Hungary and Poland to a lesser extent – are more prone to associate blackness or a darker skin tone with negative concepts such as “bad” or “evil”.

The IAT results show how the red areas are more likely to associate negative concepts with blackness, while the green areas are more positive. (Source)

Racism against Roma people in Central Europe is widespread. According to a poll, nearly 80% of respondents in Slovakia held a negative opinion towards the Roma. At the same time, a strong majority (62%) also said that they should be treated more fairly, while less than 20% would be inclined to help them. Out of all of these, nearly 64% agreed with negative stereotypes, such as that “there aren’t many decent or sensible Roma in Slovakia” – beliefs that many top political leaders are often only too happy to accentuate.

“We, too, are citizens of Slovakia”

A highly educated Roma and ministry employee from Slovakia, Mikulas details his experience as follows: “Yes, I experience discrimination on a daily basis here. Whenever I go to the local shop in sweatpants for some bread, the cashier has a noticeably worse attitude and tone towards me. People also often say that I’m different than them, or they’re surprised that I can speak Slovak at all. In Bratislava, a lot of people think that I’m a foreigner.”

Veronika, a now retired grandmother of three, shares some similar experiences as a Roma. “Even during communism, people with darker skin colour were not perceived well. This did not change with the regime change, and it might even have become worse.”

She added: “But yes, I was often called a gypsy, a thief, I was treated like a criminal in shops sometimes, and even the families of the spouses of my sons, or of my husband, who are white Hungarians and Czechs respectively, still to this day treat me as if I were a bad person just because of my skin color and ancestry. I’m not saying that there are no bad Roma people, but not all of us are like that. We, too, are citizens of Slovakia.” george floyd protests

Anjanette, a Filipina who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and now studies in the Czech Republic, also has something to say about the most common and misplaced racial stereotypes: “I was on a tram once in Brno, and was recording a short voice message for my friend in Arabic. An elderly Czech woman, who was nearby looked at me in a disgusted way and said that ‘We do not need Gypsies here in Brno.’”

“I get commonly confused for a Roma person just because my skin is darker, which is just incredibly racist, both for Filipinos and Roma people,” she added, noting that however well-behaved, educated or well-paid you are, it doesn’t really matter in the end. “Caucasians can get away with a lot more than anyone who has a darker skin tone or colour”.

Tackling racist behaviour and policies at home

It doesn’t matter that Roma people work at various state ministries or provide Slovakia with highly qualified doctors, teachers, researchers and more. The deeply-engraved belief that no Roma could ever contribute to the well-being, betterment or prosperity of Slovak society is a huge problem that should be tackled with the utmost importance.

These matters are disquieting, but sadly well-known. If Slovakia or other countries really want to express their solidarity towards anti-racism movements in the US, then surely changing one’s Facebook picture to include the Black Lives Matter hashtag won’t cut it, but concrete action needs to be taken to solve their own domestic racial discrimination and negative stereotypes.

Taking to the streets in Bratislava to protest against racial discrimination in the United States may be a welcome and appreciated gesture of solidarity, but won’t solve anything when it comes to negative attitudes experienced by foreigners or ethnic minorities in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe. You’ll find yourself in a bit of a fix in Slovakia or Central Europe to find black people, who aren’t exactly roaming the streets. On the other hand, Roma, for example, account for at least 2% of Slovakia’s population, according to conservative estimates.

By focusing on an issue in a foreign country, one can too easily forget about one’s own problems at home. Instead of blindly following US media discourse that simply cannot apply to Slovakia or the Czech Republic, shouldn’t we start by looking at our own problems and injustices straight in the eyes?

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