August 8th 2018, I landed in the capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague, to meet up with a friend who was from a neighboring country, Slovakia. Going to any foreign country is always a culture shock type of experience, and if you’re open minded enough, you can learn something while you’re there. While it was not a major focus for myself, I’m not oblivious to the fact that me seeing someone black, even in a major city within the Czech Republic, would be extremely rare and coincidentally making it a rare experience for a Czech citizen when they see me.
Being stared at by strangers has happened to me before, and you can usually tell when it’s a stare motivated by fear or hatred. It can be uncomfortable and annoying, but it is something that you can typically ignore and usually doesn’t last long. However, when I was in the Czech Republic, the stares I felt didn’t feel the same way as it had when I was in certain places within the United States. These stares didn’t feel like it was motivated by preconceived notions or hatred, but more so stares motivated by curiosity.
I stayed in the city of Prague for three nights and though once in a while I felt a momentary stare, these stares never felt as if it came from a negative place. I took public transportation with everyone else and I stayed in an Apartment that was in a residential area and I never felt uncomfortable and was never mistreated. Coincidentally, when I had to make a grocery store run, I met a black American man who was living in Prague. Just through our brief conversation, he seemed to enjoy living there with his family. Even from my brief visit to Prague and interaction with locals, I always felt that people cared more that I was an American more than that I was black.
To clarify, I’m not trying to state that there are zero racists in the Czech Republic or to make it sound like a euphoric destination for black people, but I can only give my personal experience. There are people that hate people for arbitrary reasons everywhere, it’s inevitable, but these types of people tend to be on the extremes in the way they view the world and thankfully a minority in many places.
That trip to Prague made me realize that a type of action, like staring, can be motivated by simple curiosity, which is innocent in nature. It also made me realize that cultural ignorance is not necessarily cultural hatred. I believe we’ve been trained to not ask questions of people who are racially or culturally different from ourselves in fear of being mistaken for being something that we are not. We are all culturally ignorant about a particular group, but the questions aren’t what spreads hatred, it’s the lack of questions that do. It is the separation of people that prevents us from seeing each other just as that; people.
I’ve met people from a bunch of countries, and I always have questions for them. My questions are motivated by my curiosity and wanting to understand people that experience life differently than myself. I couldn’t imagine if I lived life not even curious about what it’s like to live in a place that is vastly different from mine or understanding how their cultural norms differ from mine.
For example, if I met someone from Germany and I have questions about what it’s like to live in Germany, I’m asking for their perspective as being a German but I’m in no way attempting to make them the ambassador for all German people, however their singular perspective is a perspective that I am lacking understanding of. If another American asks me questions about black American culture, I do not take this as them making me the spokesman for all black Americans; I take it as me giving my own perspective as someone who is black; nothing more.
We need to keep in mind the fact that most people live and work with people that look just like them or are of a similar culture as them. Even if you live in a city, you likely live in an area that represents a similar cultural, racial and economic demographic. If you keep this in mind, you’ll understand that there are lots of people that don’t understand each other and it creates a natural cultural curiosity. This curiosity is the bridge to bring people together, and we need to advocate for the continuation of this curiosity.
Being ignorant is not the problem, being unwilling to learn is. If you want less ignorant people, you have to be willing to allow people to get to know you and become forgiving if their ignorance appears appalling. Understand that they are trying to shed their ignorance, not bury themselves into it. People who hold hatred in their hearts won’t care about your perspective or feelings and aren’t interested in challenging what they believe to already know.
When we attempt to shame people for asking questions or fear that our words will be misconstrued as ill-intentioned, we are placing dynamite on this bridge. When we make people stutter over the words that are coming out of their mouth to find the most non-offensive and politically correct words, you’re ultimately disincentivizing this dialogue from occurring. Cultural cohesion at a basic level needs to start with curiosity, and if we can’t address that curiosity, it will only give credence to our ignorance and possible validation for our irrational hatred against “the other”.