The shopping center swarms with activity. People go back and forth from store to store, eat in the elaborate open-plan restaurants that here pass as a food court, then head out to another European or American brand-name store, or go to see a subtitled American movie.
When they leave the buildings completely, they congregate right where I and my grou pare standing—at the public transport. Everyone ehre takes the buses and trams, because none of us want the hassle of a car.
As we stand waiting for the bus, the tour guide spots something. He bends a bit close to us and surreiptiously mutters “Gypsies” as a group of laughing young brown boys passes us.
It’s not the fact that he said at all this which strikes me as odd. We are on an “Off the Beaten Path” tour, and we had just been asking him what the Roma look like, of which none of us were sure.
What’s odd about this moment is the tone of voice, the tilt of the head, those unspoken and not-quite describable pieces of human behavior. Out tour guide, whose tour was sold as taking us to a “Roma” neighborhood, finds these kids distasteful. And everyone around us avoids them.
It’s a rare moment of seeing a class in action. I’ve been taking a seminar about contemporary Czech society, designed to help some of us volunteer with Czech organizations. And we had just finished a session a few days before, which has involved modern prejudice against gypsies.
The Gypsies have been in Bohemia for over a thousand years, but not these gypsies. The dark brown men, women, and children in the streets of Prague are overwhelmingly recent immigrants, who have come within the last two generations.
The Gypsies position as the “other” inherently twisted, inhuman race in the Holocaust is often overlooked, but that does not make their experience less horrific. Of the several hundred thousand Roma living in Bohemia in 1938, some 800 survived the Holocaust.
Thus, Roma are both an ancient and a very modern “problem” in Czech society. Dark-skinned men and women find that jobs they apply for have “just been filled,” are targeted by insults on the streets, are isolated from society.
A difficult situation, and one that to an American of my particular type seems utterly alien. Two or three generations are enough to make someone unquestionably American. A hundred years are usually enough to flawlessly integrate a group into society. And though we have our own issues, and many race-based problems of our own, they have been proved by group after group to be surmountable.
So when I heard about community service taking Roma children to the zoo, I jumped at the chance. My bleeding heart syndrome flared up, and I went with a few other students to meet the kids.
And what walked up to us were not the underclass, discriminated against, displaced people I had expected. Instead, a bunch of girls and a few boys, linked arm-in-arm and chattering at the top of their lungs, practically ran up to us. None of them looked particularly dark, and any of them would have blended into America in a heartbeat.
None of them were wearing dirty clothing, none of them looked undernourished or abused or any of the stereotypes floating around about Roma.
But more importantly, they had the same combination of obnoxiousness and gregariousness that I’ve seen in most kids of their age I’ve ever met. They were here to have fun, and we were strictly optional.
When we got to the zoo, we were paired with one kid each. I ended up with a chubby nine-year-old named Natalka. Through an interpreter who soon wandered off, I managed to find out that she had never been to the zoo before.
I have never seen a child as un-awed by cool animals as this little girl. You see, upon realizing that I had no idea how to speak Czech (and therefore that I was rather dense) she appointed herself my teacher and became the bossiest mother hen I have ever met. I was directed to remember different words for animals, nature, and adjectives. I was led around pointedly, as Natalka wandered across playground equipment and gestured me to follow her on the structures designed for ten-year-olds (I will never admit how many times I bumped my head). I was to follow her words and her steps, and nothing else.
Eventually, the lessons ended and the kids had to get home. Some of the girls and boys hugged their partners, some extended hands to be shaken. I gave the somewhat reluctant Natalka a quick hug and thanked her for her help.
There is nothing for shattering stereotypes like spending some time with people, but there are also dangers in making assumptions about other people. I discovered a few days later, while reading a book about Eastern European Roma, that traditional gypsies have strict laws about contact with gadje, outsiders. I have no idea if that was why some of the kids, including Natalka, were reluctant to make physical contact with us. I still feel bad when I realize it probably was, and that some of us failed to respect that, applying American ideas of casual childhood affection. Especially myself.
White guilt is the facetious way white American refer to their fear of accidental racism, or of being considered racist for things beyond their control. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it makes us aware of our behavior in a way that is probably for the better. But issues of race and ethnicity are a lot more complicated than rather simplistic phenomena like white guilt trick us into believing. They don’t apply to everyone.
In Europe, many gypsies don’t want help. They don’t want outside interference, because they remember all the times that interference has devastated their community. Outsiders are not to be trusted. And a couple of naïve Americans taking kids, kids whose lives are both universally similar and, perhaps, intensely different, out on a trip to the zoo? Maybe it’s good, but it’s probably just making us feel good.