How Afro-Czechs experience racism in a country that pretends it doesn’t exist

The horrifying murder of American George Floyd by a policeman on 25 May 2020, has sparked a conversation about racism all over the world, but has much changed since then? If you think racism has got out of hand in the UK and the US in the last few years, imagine living in a country that refuses to acknowledge it.

Czech-Nigerian writer Obonete Ubam, 45, grew up in the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic. Because of his darker complexion, he was always the centre of attention when he was younger.  "I managed to forget about my childhood," he says. "Once a man chased me down with his dog, yelling that n****s should be gassed. I also learned to fight when I was quite young, and I even did karate."

Obonete now lives in Spain and would never return to the Czech Republic. He first left the country when his father, who lived in Nigeria, died and he had to take over the family business as the oldest son. "I finally realised there are countries where you can live better and have no problems with the colour of your skin," he says.

This map shows how easily White Europeans in Europe associate black faces with negative ideas. Each country's colour reflects the average Implicit Association Test (IAT) score for that country using data from Harvard's Project Implicit.
Source: Tom Stafford and Gittu George/The University of Sheffield

Between 2002 and 2015, Harvard researchers collected data from over 280,000 White Europeans in order to measure implicit racial bias - this term describes what happens when racial stereotypes affect us without us being aware of even having these thoughts. The Czech Republic and other East European countries had the highest levels of implicit racial bias in Europe, while the British had some of the lowest.

Afro-Czechs are one of the Czech’s smallest ethnic groups. Since 2020, the community has become vocal in its support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the fact that hundreds of Black Africans and Afro-Czechs lived in the country, there was little mention of them until the fall of communism in 1989. There are references to Black Africans in the Czech army or performing as jazz musicians in Prague bars in reports and documents from the time when Czechoslovakia was a capitalist democracy. After 1948, Czechoslovakia diplomatically supported the African independence movement, resulting in hundreds of African students receiving scholarships to study in the country. They learned the language there and went on to university to primarily study science, technology, or medicine.

Many returned to their home countries after graduation, but a number of them married or had children with Czechoslovak women, who gave birth to the first generation of Afro-Czechs.

Communism fell apart in 1989 and Czechoslovakia went their separate ways, splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia (also known as the Velvet Divorce), on 1 January 1993. Eventually, when the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, Czechs began to discuss previously forbidden issues of discrimination and diversity, as if there was no inequality in a communist country. A variety of factors, including the media and the arts, have aided in the integration of Afro-Czechs into society since that time. Rey Koranteng, a Czech-Ghanaian presenter who has been presenting on one of the most popular Czech channels, TV Nova, since 1994, and Ben Cristovao, a Czech-Angolan singer who represented the country at last year's Eurovision, are two of the country's most popular personalities.

There has been no research into Afro-Czechs and Afro-Slovaks. It's almost as if the Czech and Slovak governments refuse to acknowledge that you don't have to be the stereotypical white Czech or Slovak to be of these nationalities. As a result, biracial children frequently feel excluded in their home countries.

Czech-Angolian Lucie dos Santosova da Silva, 21, has been fortunate enough not to face racism on a regular basis. However, she frequently feels as if she does not belong. "White Czech people feel as if they are here alone," she says.

A young woman during a protest in Prague, Czech Republic on 13 June 2020, where hundreds of people have rallied in support of the protests in the United States against police violence and racism
A young woman during a protest in Prague, Czech Republic on 13 June 2020, where hundreds of people have rallied in support of the protests in the United States against police violence and racism. Source: Petr David Josek/AP/Shutterstock

Anakin Adekotubo Garay, an 18-year-old tourism student from Trencin, Slovakia, is of Peruvian, Ghanaian, Dine, and Maori descent. He intends to leave when he is old enough, saying: "I can't imagine living here when I'm older.

"It [racism] used to affect how I saw myself when I was younger, I'd feel dirty," Garay says. "I felt like I didn't fit in anywhere, so I tried to lighten my skin and straighten my hair.

“I feel safe when I'm with people I care about. However, when I'm walking around the city and people are shouting at me, I never feel completely safe,” he says.

Garay felt as if he grew up without being represented and "as a child, you feel a little out of place," he says. "I'd like to see someone like me in books or movies, but they don't want to do or learn new things about us...

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, recently wrote an opinion piece on the subject of racism and Afrophobia in Europe, arguing racial inequality had to be addressed. Despite the fact that equality is a central pillar of Europe's post-war order, structural and institutional racism persists in many European countries. She said that she “sees a continuity between this situation [physical and verbal violence against Black people] and the injustices that Black people in Europe have suffered for generations. Yet there is widespread denial of this problem”. She also claimed that European countries appear to be "slow to curb the di

scriminatory practices that keep Black people as second-class citizens in our societies”.

Mijatovic brought up an excellent point. White Czechs do not think racism exists, however, people of colour, whether Roma, foreigners or Afro-Czechs, have a very different take on this.

Czech-Liberian Julia from Prague also has no plans to stay in the Czech Republic. People often ask her if she wants to be white, and strangers touch her hair. "I believe that those who claim racism does not exist either do not see it or ignore it," she says.

"At school, a classmate told me that he would send his uncle, who is a member of the KKK, and they would kill me and my entire family. I didn't know what the KKK was back then, but I remember being scared to go out when I found out," says Julia.

A boy during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Prague, Czech Republic, on 6 June 2020.
A boy during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Prague, Czech Republic, on 6 June 2020. Source: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Several hundred demonstrators gathered in the old town square of Prague on June 6, 2020, to protest against police brutality and racism in the United States.
Several hundred demonstrators gathered in the old town square of Prague on 6 June 2020, to protest against police brutality and racism in the United States. Source: Xinhua/Shutterstock

The Czech president’s record won’t make her feel any safer. Milos Zeman condemned the Black Lives Matter protests that took place across the country in 2020. In George Floyd's memory, hundreds of protesters laid down across Prague's Old Town Square for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time it took Floyd to die at the hands of a US police officer. "The slogan Black Lives Matter is racist, since all lives matter," he said two years ago at the US embassy, where he was attending the US Independence Day celebrations.

MP Lubomir Volny proposed that the Chamber support the Czech president's statements. Only a few days later on 7 July 2020, Volny placed an All Lives Matter banner in front of the lectern in the Czech Chamber of Deputies, attempting to force the lower house to agree with President Milos Zeman's statement that the slogan Black Lives Matter was racist. Volny also wore a shirt that said, "Black lives don't matter as Black lives," a clear response to Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal's controversial tweet “White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives”.

Over 70% of Czechs are aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, and more than half have formed an opinion on the issue. However, they believe that the level of racism in the country is not as serious as it appears. One in five Czechs also believes the movement restricts freedom of expression, and a third associates it with violence and looting.

Twenty-year-old Tania George’s mother is Slovakian and her father is from Trinidad and Tobago. She was born in the United Kingdom and lived there until she was nine years old. She was bullied by her classmates in primary school after moving to Bratislava, Slovakia. One of them went so far as to spit on her.

Furthermore, George also had to experience objectification of her body by her classmates, which is a frequent occurrence in White Europe. Black women are often sexualised for their appearance or judged if they lack the “assets” a stereotypical Black woman should have.

"I felt extremely sexualised by them from Year 8," says George.

Lucie dos Santosova da Silva has also had her fair share of unpleasant experiences. When she was 12 years old, a man on a tram began telling her about a school cleaner who had cheated on her husband with an African student. The point of his story was that African-Americans brought AIDS into the country and infected a large number of people. "He told me I should go back to the jungle, and so on. Because I was so young, I didn't realise what had happened for quite some time.

"I also had an uncomfortable experience on a tram with a lady who started touching my hair," she says. "I tried to explain to her that it was not okay, but she became offended and called me rude."

Racist behaviour is also prevalent among athletes. Slavia Prague advanced to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, the continent's second-tier tournament, after defeating Glasgow Rangers in March last year. Near the end of an intense game in which several Slavia players were subjected to hard tackles from Rangers players, Prague's Ondrej Kudela was seen cupping his hand and whispering something into the ear of Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara, a Finnish national of Sierra Leonean descent.

Kamara became enraged and complained to the referee, while another Rangers player could be heard yelling that Ondrej called him a "monkey". Kamara later claimed he was referred to as a "f**king monkey". Kudela denied this, claiming he only called his opponent a "f**king guy".

According to Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech media coverage has focused on the word "alleged," while drawing attention to the fact that Rangers players' violent behaviour throughout the game has received inadequate attention. She pointed out, however, that the incident has not sparked a "deep discussion" about racism in Czech society.

"My peers are more open-minded, but the older generations have more to learn," dos Santosova da Silva says. "And rather than being represented in the media, I think being represented in culture and mainstream television shows more would be much better."

Plzen midfielder Jean-David Beauguel, center, jumps for the ball with Dinamo Zagreb's Amer Gojak, right, during the Europa League match between Dinamo Zagreb and Viktoria Plzen at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia, on 21 February 2019.
Plzen midfielder Jean-David Beauguel, center, jumps for the ball with Dinamo Zagreb's Amer Gojak, right, during the Europa League match between Dinamo Zagreb and Viktoria Plzen at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia, on 21 February 2019. Source: Darko Bandic/AP/Shutterstock

In June 2020, the Czech FA fined Sigma Olomouc, another premier division Czech team, after their fans racially abused Viktoria Plzen striker Jean-David Beauguel. Following the incident, he told the media that racism directed at black players in the Czech Republic had become "normal".

According to Miroslav Mares, an extremism expert at Brno's Masaryk University, racism in the Czech Republic has not worsened in recent years but remains "relatively high".  According to a 2019 Pew Research Centre survey, 64% of Czechs have negative views of Muslims, the third-highest in Europe, and 66% have negative views of Roma, arguably the most discriminated racial group in the country. 

"The problem is that many Czechs with real racist views do not accept that they are racists," says Mares.

Anakin Adekotubo Garay's past experiences with racism have left him with negative feelings toward his home country. "People here simply aren't used to people who aren't white," he says. "My worst experience was walking to the train station with my four-year-old cousin. A group of extremists jumped us and began throwing rocks at us. They cursed at us, spat on us... My cousin was hospitalised with a concussion, and I had a broken nose." Garay tried not to judge people, however, doing so must be extremely hard in such a situation.

The horrifying experiences of mixed-race people living in what is often referred to as a "white country" demonstrate that European nations continue to struggle with systematic racism. Although Germany and the Netherlands recognised these problems, the European Union condemned the existence of these issues.

A Czech-Senegalese business student, who asked to remain anonymous, has what could be described as a love/hate relationship with her home country. Her encounters with racism were frequently similar, with people shouting at her on the street and then fleeing before she realised what had happened.

"When I was about ten years old, I was in a shop when a woman began screaming racist slurs at me. It went on for a long time," she says. "I was just standing there, crying my eyes out because I was shocked and terrified. People around me just stood there and listened; no one bothered to defend me; they were just whispering about it.

"I feel different, and others quite often make it clear that I don't belong here. Everywhere I go, people stare at me weirdly. Not even my mother's family accepts me completely."

"Czech people love to hate something, but they don't think they're racist," says Obonete Ubam, who’s written a book Kalangu: African Wisdom for Every Day to help Czech people understand African culture. He believes it’s time for the community to form their own identity. "See, we’re not Africans, and we're not Czechs, we are Afro-Czechs."