I never meant to catch his eye. I was just staring out the window, watching the crumbling train station on the outskirts of Budapest give way to crumbling homes, and generally avoiding eye contact with the stranger sitting opposite me. But in the passing shadow of another train, his reflection suddenly came into sharp focus, and our eyes met in the dirty glass.
He may have been good-looking, but if he were, it was too much so, in that way that a very attractive face becomes uninteresting in its flawlessness. His eyes were an extremely pale blue and his short, stylishly messy hair echoed the dry tops of the early-August corn stalks. He had the high, sharp cheekbones of Eastern Europe, and the I’m-trying-not-to-look-like-I’m-trying-to-look-hip feel of a college student. I glanced quickly away, not interested in chatting.
Too late. He asked something in Hungarian, then quickly translated. His English was very good, but heavily accented, like someone who has learned a language mostly from books. He turned out to be a graduate student at Central European University in Budapest. We exchanged a few more polite questions.
It wasn’t long before I was greeted with that half-incredulous, half-jeering “Really?” that I’ve come to expect when I tell people in this part of the world that I work for a Roma advocacy organization. “May I ask, eh, why?”
I gave my brief spiel: graduate student, human rights, internship. He was patient while I spoke. I’d had this conversation a million times and could tell he was less listening than he was simply waiting for me to be done so he could throw in his valuable and experience-wizened two cents. Cure the idealistic American girl of her obvious naivety.
“You know, you seem like you are smart. You study international relations. You should know better.”
I was staring down the barrel of a nine-hour train ride, so What the hell? I thought. I might as well have this debate. “Better than what?”
“Than to try to help them. You know, it’s pointless. You can’t change a thing. People hate gypsies. That’s just the way it is.” This is where I started taking notes in my head.
“You don’t think that a society, over time, can change its racist perceptions?”
“But it’s not that we’re racist. It’s not like that. In America, people are racist against blacks. But this is different.”
“Then what is it, if it’s not racism?”
“It’s not that people don’t like gypsies because of their race or something like this. It’s the way they are. They’re like…” He hesitated for a moment, and then just came out with it. “They’re the dirty people.”
Dirty people. That was a new one. “So let me get this straight. You can say that an entire group of people, based solely on their ethnicity, is dirty, and that you don’t like them. But this isn’t racism?”
“No, because it’s about who they are. Have you ever met a gypsy? They don’t want to be part of society. They just have lots of children and want to live off of everyone else, or make their children beg in the metro. It’s not racism. Hungarians don’t like them because we don’t want to support lazy people.”
This part of the argument I’d heard a hundred times, on different metros or trains, in different parks or cafes. It’s not racism; we just hate gypsies. It sounds ludicrous to an American who has been raised with a hair-trigger perception of bigotry, but to an Hungarian (even an educated, liberal Hungarian youth) or a Czech, it can be perfectly logical. And perfectly acceptable.
This form of racism is more insidious, more dangerous, than the overt, cross-burning, sheet-wearing variety that was once so prevalent in parts of the United States. This is racism in denial of itself. This man was prepared to accept in absolute terms that racism and discrimination are bad and should be rooted out wherever they take seed. But in an eerie echo of the decades-old Nazi-era sentiment, “Gypsies” are targets not because they are gypsies, but because they are anti-socials, because they somehow behave – collectively – in a way that is a general affront to society. In short, they bring it on themselves.
This terrifies me. When a society, more or less as a whole, can disavow its racism and summarily place the burden on the abused, then it loses all ownership of its crimes. Mainstream society, in this way, does not have to make excuses for its prejudice, or shyly hide its discrimination behind a thin veil of tolerance, or even acknowledge its bigotry. No, there is no need, because they are not racist. This is not a stain on their modern, progressive sentimentality. They just don’t like dirty, lazy people and criminals. And Gypsies are, of course, dirty, lazy people, and criminals.
“Seriously, it’s not a race thing. It’s a social thing. My cousin was pocket-picked by a gypsy.”
“So you assume that all Roma are pick-pockets? What about the men and women I work with? They are college-educated, hard working…”
“Oh, I’m sure there are some nice, smart gypsies. But mostly they are a problem. You Americans just don’t understand because you don’t have to live with them.”
I was getting bored and annoyed. One can only make the same case just so many times in one summer, especially when it seems always to fall on deaf ears.
The smell of urine and industry had blown off some time ago and had been replaced with the sweetness of mud and wet hay. I let the conversation go and resumed my staring out the window.
First things first, I thought, Europe must learn to admit its racism. Get down and dirty with the bigotry, acknowledge the prejudice for what it is. You don’t have to wear a hood or bic your scalp to be racist. Being able to refer to the entire Roma Nation as “the dirty people” while insisting it’s “not a race thing” is unabashed, hardcore denial. And no matter which side of the race-relations fence you might be squatting on, it’s not getting anyone anywhere.
Bottom line: You can’t fight an enemy that no one admits they see. Like a junky with an addiction, Europe has got to admit it is has the sickness.
Posted By Stacy Kosko (Czech Republic)
Posted Aug 8th, 2004