The black experience in the Czech Republic

In the past 20 years, the number of foreigners living in the Czech Republic has increased dramatically as a consequence of the opening of the Iron Curtain. Still, the country is far from being as diverse as most other European nations, for example France or Germany, and the vast majority of the Czech population remains Caucasian. During communism, the few black people who lived here stuck out like a sore thumb. Nowadays, their number has of course increased, but the size of the black community is still quite small.

In this episode of Czech Life, we talk to three blacks who live in the Czech Republic about their experiences, if they have ever felt discriminated against here and how they perceive the country.

Our first interviewee is Martin Kříž, the son of a Czech mother and an African father, who was born and raised here, and remembers being pretty much the only black child in his native Teplice.

“I really did not feel so different growing up, because a lot of Roma and Vietnamese lived in that area, in Northern Bohemia, at the time. But in the 1980s, we moved to Prague and at that time, the population was practically exclusively white.”

Martin Kříž, who runs an NGO called čokoládové děti, or chocolate children, says that he has rarely encountered direct racism. But Czechs, he says, are quite conservative and do not regard being different as positive, which can be a problem. His NGO aims to help black and Asian children in orphanages across the country.

Our second guest is Tinuola Awopetu. She has lived in the Czech Republic for over five years. The daughter of a diplomat, she was actually born in China, later lived in her family’s native Nigeria and eventually moved to the United States, to New York City, with her parents and siblings. She first came to the Czech Republic on a birthday trip.

Photo illustrative: Jana Šustová,  Radio Prague International
“I have to admit that prior to that first trip I did not know about Central and Eastern Europe. I had a preconceived notion of what a former communist country would look like. Grey, blocky, depressing. Which is exactly what it looked like when I first landed here that day in January. Very cold, very gray and people were staring at me rather strangely. At the time, 2006, there weren’t a lot of black people walking around. So I was a bit apprehensive but people were polite, distant. And then I met this other person…. and…. Let me put it this way: Love can motivate people in the strangest ways, so a couple of months later, I was considering moving here.”

Once she had settled in the Czech Republic, Tinuola also started a blog titled “Black Girl in Prague” – though she says that recently, she has been focusing more on other projects. So what is it like to be a black girl in Prague?

“What is it like to be a black girl in Prague? The interesting thing is, I don’t see my color. I grew up in Nigeria, surrounded by other black people. So color was not an issue. Of course, when I went to a foreign country, I noticed that I was different. But in my consciousness, my skin tone was never a prominent or all-consuming thing.

“When we moved to America, my family and I, I actually became aware of this racial consciousness, the color of one’s skin having an impact on how you are perceived or treated. And I had to grapple with that for quite a time. And ironically, coming to the Czech Republic, where I am distinctly in the minority, I’m not sure how that happened, but I don’t often think about my skin color.”

I asked Tinuola if she has ever encountered outright racism in the Czech Republic and if it does happen that people stare at her in the streets or on public transport.

“I would think it’s more of an aesthetic. People look at me because I look different. I wouldn’t say that I have been treated differently because I am black. I am not aware of that. I take the position that I am not Czech. I am an English-speaking foreigner. So that affects my interaction with Czechs much more. Every once in a while I get stared at, but treated differently, I am not so sure…”

While she does remember two incidents when she felt discriminated against here – once a man yelled a racial slur at her on the street and another time a saleswoman at a well-known American-run store in Prague ignored her completely as she was placing an order and addressed her friend instead – but overall, Tinuola says that racism has not been an issue for her during her time in the Czech Republic. So does she feel fully integrated into Czech society?

“I wouldn’t even consider myself all that integrated, because my life is still restricted to what some of my friends have called the expat ghetto, mostly due to the language barrier. I interact with other international people and the thing we have in common is that we are not Czech and communicate in English. The language continues to make it a challenge to really understand the culture. Even after three or four years of Czech lessons, a lot of nuances completely go over my head. The Czech friends I have are also quite international, a lot of them have studied abroad or travelled a lot, so they also have a different perspective. So what real Czech culture is or what it means to be really Czech, I’m not sure I’m there.”

Tinuola, though she has lived here for more than five years, is not a hundred percent sure whether she would like to settle down in the Czech Republic.

“I didn’t think I would be here that long. It has been five-and-a-half years, and when I came here, I thought I’d be here for six months to a year. What I appreciate about the Czech Republic and living in Prague is the quality of life. It is far better and more attractive than what I have had in New York. That is what has kept me here this entire time. I am assuming I will continue enjoying this lifestyle, and in that case, I would stay here or go somewhere similar.”

Our third interviewee in this episode of Czech Life is Bernard Tecquim – though he actually goes by his last name, Tecquim. He moved to the Czech Republic from his native Ivory Coast to study in 1998, on a Czech government scholarship. What did he know about the country prior to moving here?

“Before I came, I tried to study and read some books about the Czech Republic, because I was applying to a scholarship to go there. And I knew the country from their performance in the Europe Cup, in soccer, so I knew a little about it. But when I was looking to buy a plane ticket, the people from the airline were not talking well of the Czech Republic. They said it was in the East and close to Moscow, that it is communist. So that was not so encouraging but I was also curious.”

Photo: European Commission
Tecquim says that he has also been spared any harsh discrimination and overall, finds Czech people quite tolerant. Sometimes, he says, older people will stare at him in the metro or avoid sitting next to him. While that is unpleasant, Tecquim believes it is not so much related to actual racism but rather to the fact that the majority of Czech senior citizens grew up without ever seeing a black person.

Since having moved here in 1998, Tecquim has become fully settled down. He is married to a Czech woman and, after 11 years of living here, has even become a Czech citizen himself. Of course, the culture has rubbed off on him.

“To tell you the truth, I cannot live somewhere for 13 years without adopting. And even if I don’t realize it all the time, I do sometimes stop and think: I’m Czech. For example when I go back to Africa on holiday. I like being on time, and now I don’t like how noisy Africa is. Cars driving everywhere, that annoys me. I felt that it was so disorganized. And also, that people spend a lot of time solving issues that are not important, total nonsense.”

What are some of the areas where he feels things are better in his native country?

“What I like in Africa? How warm people are and that they stick together. Here, you sometimes see 80-year-old women doing their own shopping. That does not happen in Africa, there, the grandchildren shop for their grandparents, and grandma and grandpa stay at home. So that is one thing about Africa that I find positive.”

Illustrative photo: Radio Prague
And, by contrast, which things does he really enjoy about the Czech Republic?

“What I like here is the good infrastructure, health insurance, the roads, and those are the main things that I perceive as positive and think we should improve in Africa.”