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‘I wrote the book you all wish you had when you were 15,’ says Afroczech Obonete Ubam

Obonete Ubam, photo by Erik Ericsson, used with permission

With nearly ten million inhabitants, the Czech Republic is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in Central Europe: Czechs make up 90 percent of its population. It was not always like that.

When the country was part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, and then part of Czechoslovakia till 1993, it hosted large groups of other ethnic groups: Germans, Jews, Poles, Roma, Slovaks and others. Today, the country's largest cities, Prague and Brno, have opened to foreign migrant workers who make up significant parts of the urban population. Yet attitudes towards non-white co-residents or co-workers are far from harmonious.

One community that has been present from the 60s is the Afroczechs, mostly the descendants of African and Afrocuban students invited by then socialist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s as part of international Communist solidarity with post-colonial countries. Global Voices spoke to one of its most prominent representatives, Czech Nigerian Obonete Ubam who credits himself with coining the term Afroczech. Ubam's latest book “Náš černobílý svět,” or “Our Black-and-White World,” came out in early October. He interviewed ten prominent Afroczechs who made it in Czech society, mostly in the areas of media, political science, business, sports and the arts.

Here is how he describes the initial idea behind his latest book, as a person who grew up in a small provincial city:

V mé generaci bylo málo Afročechů. Byli jsme asi tři v okrese. Prvního míšence jsem potkal, když mi bylo dvanáct. Pak dlouho nic. A jakmile jsem přijel v třiadvaceti letech do Prahy, najednou jsem začal poznávat lidi jako já. Potom jsem žil dlouho mimo Čechy, a když jsem se po patnácti letech zpět, tak mě fascinoval ten kontrast: když jsem předtím potkával tyto lidi, tak nás společenský handicap zasahoval. Nyní jsem však zjistil, že ti lidé jsou až tak úspěšní. Proto stojí za to ty příběhy popsat, i třeba pro lidi, kteří mají partnera z jiné kultury a mají podobné zkušenosti.

There were very few Afroczechs in my generation; there were only three of us in our entire region. I met my first mixed-raced person when I was 12. Then no one for a long period of time, and, when I turned 23, I moved to Prague and started to get to know people like me. Afterwards I was away from the Czech Republic for a long time, so when I returned after 15 years, I was fascinated by this contrast: when I had met those people, we had all been affected by the same social barrier, but now I found out that those same people had become so successful. This is why it is worth telling those stories, as it can also speak to people whose partner is from another culture and who have similar experiences.

The book covers rather intimate issues of pain and rejection in a challenging exploration of identity and positioning in a predominantly white society. Ubam explains why his idea of the book was overall well received by prominent members of the Afroczech community:

Skoro všichni byli velmi vstřícní. Polovinu respondentů jsme znal osobně, vše bylo jednodušší, když jsme řekl, že píšu knihu, kterou by si přáli dostat do ruky, když jim bylo patnáct a bojovali sami se sebou, se svojí identitou v nějakém zapadákově. U nás je ten proces složitý: hledáte svoji identitu jako Čecha, a pak jako Afričana. Spousta lidí s tím bojovalo až do svých třeba pětatřiceti let. Já jsem asi jediný z té skupiny, který to vyřešil tak, že se odstěhoval do Afriky. Rád bych věřil tomu, že v tom věku a na tom levelu kariéry člověk ví, že to není jenom o něm, většina už má děti. Tam byla snaha sdílet příběh, a tak trochu ukázat cestu. Kniha se hodně dotýká rasismu ale zároveň je inspirativní.

Almost all of them were very welcoming. I knew half of the interviewees personally, but everything became easier when I told them I was writing the book they all wished they had in their hands when they were 15, fighting with themselves over their identity in some backwater place in the Czech Republic. For us this process is difficult: you are searching for your identity as a Czech, then again as an African. Most people struggled around this till they were 35. I am the only one from this group of ten who moved to Africa to solve this. I think that at this point in life and moment in their career, people know this is no longer just about them, as many have children. Thus the aim was to share a story and thus partially show the way. This book is about racism but it is also a very inspiring one.

Despite numerous reports showing a rather high incidence of racism, there is a denial dominates any discussion about it being an issue in Czech society. Ubam provides a nuanced view on this sensitive topic:

Současná situace je horší, než byla v roce 2005, tenkrát to byl vrchol tolerance. Začaly přístupové rozhovory do Evropské Unie a museli jsme si dát lidská práva do pořádku, Václav Havel byl prezident, byl to velký humanista, ta politika fungovala. Potom přišla migrační krize před volbami a z toho se udělala volební karta. Média způsobila, že se společnost vrátila zpátky ke xenofobním základům. V Česku je problém xenofobie. Ten klasický rasismus, který vyrostl na kolonizaci, tady není. Rozdíl ten mýtus, že Češi jednají s odstupem, protože nemají tu historickou zkušenost s lidmi jiné barvy pleti. Všechno, co vypadá jinak, tak porušuje řád. Rasismus je, když vzniká legislativa na základě toho, že někdo odmítá uznávat jinou skupinu lidí jako rovnocenné bytosti. Když se vám podaří tu počáteční nedůvěru odstranit, pak může vzniknout normální lidský vztah.

The situation in 2021 is actually worse than in 2005 when we experienced the height of tolerance, because the Czech Republic had started negotiations to join the European Union and we had to clear our situation about human rights. At that time, Václav Havel was also our president; he was a great humanist, so politics worked in our favour. Yet, later came the 2015 migrant crisis just before local elections, and that was used as a voting argument. The media contributed to this return to xenophobia. In the Czech Republic we have a problem with xenophobia; we do not have that classical example of racism born out of colonization. There's also this myth that Czechs act with suspicion because they lack the historical experience of living next to people with a different skin color. Everything that looks different disrupts order. Racism is when laws are based on the fact that someone refuses to accept another group of people as equal. When you can remove the initial lack of trust then a normal human relationship can take place.

Several celebrities mention in the book that, as children, they had been misidentified as Roma by members of the white majority. This ethnic group, who originates from the Indian subcontinent, has lived in Czech lands since the 14th century. Ubam agrees that, while there is a shared experience of being visibly different and looking at non-white role models with the Roma community, there is no alliance:

Já mám osobní zkušenosti, že Romové nás vždycky nějak brali. My jsme pro ně trochu symbolizovali tu americkou hudební kulturu jako Michael Jackson, a RnB, ale vztah neexistuje, protože ještě nevznikla ta afročeská komunita, ta komunita se zakládá když soudím podle sociálních sítí.

In my experience, Roma people always considered us as fine. For them, we came to represent the US music culture associated with Michael Jackson and R&B. But there is no bond, in the sense that the Afroczech community hasn't emerged yet, it is still a work in progress as I can judge from what I see on social media.

The uncertainty about identity perception is a recurring theme in the book. Ubam explains it is still an issue for the second generation:

U většiny těch respondentů chyběl tatínek, ten tam nebyl. To znamená, že ho nahradil bílý tatínek, případně dědeček, takže ten člověk je obklopen jenom Čechy. Vy sám sebe nevidíte a zapomínáte, že jste jiný. Po nějaké době vám přijde ta česká strana bližší než vzdálené kořeny v Africe. V Praze už je to normálnější, ale těch dětí už je více, ale té xenofobie je méně. Ta druhá generace je jinak protože to měla jednodušší protože našlápnuto ale pak došlo k tomu zvratu a začali to pociťovat stejně jako my na začátku. Česká mládež není tolerantnější, jak ukazují některé průzkumy veřejného mínění.

Most of the interviewees had a missing father; he was not present. This means he was replaced by a white father or grandfather, so every Afroczech was surrounded by [white] Czech people only. You don't see yourself and forget after some time you are different, so the Czech side of you becomes closer than faraway African roots. The second generation of Afroczechs is different because it had it easier as we had paved the way, yet things changed again and they started to feel the same [discrimination] as we did in the beginning. Czech youth is not more tolerant, as was shown in certain public opinion surveys.

Perhaps this explains why many Afroczechs present in the book left the Czech Republic, for good or for for long periods of time. According to Ubam:

To souvisí s hledáním dobrého života. Češi se cítí, že nejsou rasisti, ale podle průzkumů veřejného mínění třicet pět procent Čechů odpovídá, že by jim vadilo mít sousedy jiné barvy pleti, nás je třeba pět tisíc tak těch xenofobních lidí je 350 víc než my, takže lidi se naučí jazyk a zkusí to jinde, najdou si tam vlastní identitu, ani českou, ani africkou, a najednou najdou klid, nikoho nepohoršujete, nebudíte pozornost, najednou máte šanci schovat se v davu. Což je pro nás něco úplně nového.

It is related to a search for a better life. Czechs don't feel they are racists, but public opinion surveys show 35 percent of Czechs say it would bother them to have a neighbour with a different skin color. There are perhaps 5,000 of us; this means there are 350 times more people with xenophobic views. So Afroczechs learn foreign languages, try to make it outside the Czech Republic, find their identity, which is nether Czech or African, and suddenly they find peace, not offending anyone, not attracting attention, finally being able to hide in the crowd. Which is something very new for us.

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