The whiteness of whiteness

We recently spent another weekend on Dušan’s parent’s farm in South Bohemia. It was the time of the annual fish harvest. The region is known for raising a lot of extraordinarily good carp. In fact, carp is not a low-class fish here at all. It is the star of the traditional Christmas feast and it is delicious. I can’t get enough of the flavorful fish soup and fried fish in bread crumbs that are made at this time of year. Unfortunately, my husband and in-laws all claim to be sick of fish. Years ago, when times were tough, they could always have fish, and they apparently ate too much of it during some of the years when other meat and vegetables couldn’t be easily had. So, they have fish at the fish harvest and again at Christmas because it is traditional. They sell all the rest, while I would be happy to eat them every week of the year.

As a result, I always irrationally look forward to the fish harvest. I should know after almost a dozen years that the fish harvest is not fun for women. The men of the extended family, plus the local village fishermen and a dozen friends, harvest the fish with a giant net and while the women (i.e. my mother-in-law Marie, my sister-in-law Eva, an aunt or two and me) serve them grog and hot sausages cooked over an open fire. Then, before noon, the men are finished for the day and they return to the farm house and to the enormous feast the women have prepared, and eat and drink and revel until three a.m. the next morning. So, from noon to at least midnight we women cook, serve plates of food and drinks and wash dishes. I have been through this many times already. Always a few dozen more people show up to eat at the feast than actually helped to net the fish, so there is a lot of women’s work to do. I know almost no one at the fish harvest feasts but they all know OF me as the strange foreigner wife who somehow snared the farmer’s oldest son and so no one is introduced to me.

Last year I was able to beg off because Shaye was a small infant and wasn’t feeling well. This time, with Marie’s leg in a cast, there was no getting around it, and I wouldn’t have stayed away even if given the chance. Somehow I am drawn to the event. This time there were 70 or 80 people at the feast, which wasn’t even held at the farmhouse but in the local hunting lodge, because it was my father-in-law Josef’s 70th birthday as well as the harvest. Still, somehow I was not overburdened with work this time around because a great many women had stepped up to help, when they saw Marie’s leg. I mostly ended up doing child care for all of the dozen or so kids running around. I had brought along one big pumpkin and I showed all the kids how Americans carve Halloween pumpkins. They don’t have Halloween here, except for the Catholic All-Souls-Day, when people put wreathes on graves. But the children were delighted with the pumpkin carving and by 8:00 in the evening someone had to accompany them back to the farmhouse where most of them would sleep that night on the floor in the living room. As I am not particularly fond of copious amounts of alcohol and cigarette smoke, I volunteered to make the ultimate sacrifice and miss the rest of the feast and all the dish washing.

Back at the farm house, I got the kids organized to play a few games before bedtime and soon we were playing round after round of hide-and-go-seek in the dim interconnected rooms of the ancient farmhouse. The kids, besides Shaye (at not quite two) were between the ages of six and fifteen, so they didn’t really need much in terms of adult supervision. I carried Shaye with me and played along with them. Soon I was into the spirit of the game and transported back to my own childhood, when I had loved to hide because I was good at it and often was the last to be found. Czech children are brought up relatively strictly and they are generally quiet and polite, so there were no fights and not even much running through the rooms. But after about an hour they were starting to run out of new places to hide, particularly the younger children. I happened to be standing in my mother-in-law’s bedroom with an eight-year-old boy I didn’t know well and my six-year-old niece and I remembered that the best places to hide are always on top of wardrobes. No one here had thought of that yet, so quickly I boosted the two children up onto a large wardrobe and hurried off to hide with Shaye in one of the back rooms.

A few moments later, I dimly heard shouting through the thick stone walls of the farmhouse and I thought I heard my niece’s name in the shouting, “Evička!” Worried that she might be frightened on the high wardrobe I rushed back out of my hiding place and into the large bedroom. There stood Evička’s other grandparents, my sister-in-law’s parents, shouting and berating the two children for being so rowdy as to climb on the wardrobe. The two sheepishly climbed down and I was given a dressing down for not watching the children “closely enough” and then we were all banished to the living room for the duration of the evening. I could only think that this was indicative of the differences between Czech and American culture. It may have been a little rowdy of me to suggest hiding on top of a wardrobe in America. Here it was unheard of. I had forgotten, yet again.

On Sunday morning, after the big feast was over, we all went back up to the hunters’ lodge to wash the heavy pots and frying vats, and wipe up the puddles of spilled beer. When we returned to the farm house, we sat down to steaming cups of coffee and tea, as well as slices of the American-style coffee cake that I had brought specifically for this purpose. Marie who had directed the entire feast and washed quite a few dishes on crutches sat on the bench with her injured leg awkwardly propped up. Her sisters Aunt Jitka and Aunt Jana bustled about the kitchen and Josef sat in his traditional chair. Dušan and I sat whereever there was room.

Dušan must have had a talk with them about the fact that we have applied to adopt a second child and we should be on the waiting list by the end of the year. He generally fears family conflicts and would go far out of his way to avoid a confrontation over the issue, so he had not mentioned the talk to me. But it came up anyway. I gave a small groan as I got up from my tea to put Shaye on the potty and Marie remarked acidly that I would have a fine time with two children, given that one seems to be hard enough for me. I have heard it all before, so I didn’t take much notice. But then Josef spoke up uncommonly, “Why can’t you just be thankful that you have such a smart little girl and leave it at that?”

I didn’t want to go into some long justification of why I want a second child. The fact is that now that we have Shaye, I do not feel that I MUST have a second child or else I will die. But I do want a second child, much the way anyone who wants a second child does. I want Shaye to have a sibling, at least one to partially fill the void of the siblings she has lost. I would also love to care for a small infant once more in my life. Shaye was small so briefly, as she came to us at almost three months old. And I see no problem with wanting a second child. We have had some difficulties with recalcitrant bureaucrats this time around but otherwise I see no reason why we shouldn’t. I know there are far too many Romani children in need of families in this country. My question would be, “Why shouldn’t I have as much right and reason to have a second child as anyone?” But I don’t say it. I am trying to avoid the conflicts that Dušan so dislikes.

Aunt Jitka looked up from her tea and broke into the conversation. She spent a full day taking care of Shaye a week earlier, while Dušan and I were at a mandatory parenting class for the second adoption. Aunt Jitka and her twin sister Jana are both childless and it was the first time she had ever taken care of a child for an entire day. It was also the first time Shaye had been without at least one of us for an entire day, since she came to us. And she did not know Aunt Jitka well. It wasn’t an ideal situation but we were left no choice. The class was mandatory and there was no childcare available, even though it was specifically a class for families with at least one child. My family is on the other side of the ocean and Marie’s leg is still in a cast. So, Aunt Jitka had stepped up to the challenge and it had all worked out fine.

It seemed like she could not praise Shaye enough. Apparently, Shaye had been on her best behavior. She was cheerful and cooperative all day and Aunt Jitka had followed my written instructions and had no trouble. Now, she said, in an odd disconnect from Josef’s comments, “I just saw a program on TV about how the babies of drug addicts suffer so much. They just scream and scream after they are born and there is very little the doctors can do. It would really be best to ban all drug addicts from having children in the first place. I mean if a doctor found out that a person is on drugs and pregnant, they should immediately abort the child, regardless of what the woman says.”

Marie jumped in on the discussion to agree with Jitka. When I returned from taking care of Shaye’s potty, I added only that it would be pretty difficult to make such a law. The true moral considerations of Jitka’s proposal were much more than I wanted to get into at this table. Soon enough, I realized why Jitka had brought up the drug addict issue. She added that, “They said at least one in five children who are adopted are born to women who use drugs. You should really think about that. Those are children with serious problems and they can really damage a family.”

I agreed that the suffering of drug addicted babies is heartbreaking but pointed out that the effects of alcohol  exposure in utero are usually much worse in the long term. At that they started in again on our second adoption. “Why would you take such a risk? How can you justify endangering Shaye’s easy life with a sibling who could have serious problems?”  After a while, they actually stopped and waited for me to respond. But what do you say to this kind of thinking? Shaye herself was also just such a suspect child before she turned out to be their perfect little angel. In fact, Marie had said she would never accept a Romani child, period. And yet now, the whole issue was protecting Shaye.

Slowly, I tried to put in the few bits of information that I thought would actually make a difference. I knew I could not actually attack the main issue, not and avoid a major family conflict, which would definitely upset Dušan. I explained that, if the social workers suspected the child had been exposed to alcohol or drugs, they would tell us that and, if we were too concerned, we could wait for another child.

Then, I explained that in our area around Prague, I have read that actually most white children who are available for adoption have been exposed to drugs, whereas among Romani children it is only a small minority. This is not because Roma don’t take drugs. Being a marginalized and impoverished group, they have higher statistics of addiction, not lower. The reason instead is simply that while white families have the support of extended family and society to raise their children and only end up relinquishing them when the parents are completely incapacitated, Romani family structures have been destroyed by decades of forced migration and the practice of forcibly removing Romani children from their homes. Those children who have been forcibly removed can’t be adopted, but they often grow up to have children and relinquish them voluntarily as a matter of course, because they have no experience with family life, having lived their entire childhood in children’s homes. On top of that social services are much less inclined to help struggling Romani parents and much more inclined to advise them to relinquish their rights. The bitterly ironic result is that because of the racism in society, one is much more likely to adopt a healthy, unscarred Romani child than to adopt such a healthy white child.

Marie, Josef and the aunts basically reacted to my explanation as if I hadn’t spoken or as if I had said something bland and unimportant. They were all turned a bit away from me. No one would look right at me. When I stopped, Marie spoke up with another apparently disconnected line of thought. “I just feel that sometimes fate would be kinder, if a person died than if they have to live with so much suffering. Those drug addicted babies, maybe. Or consider that little girl who was so badly burned. She will be in pain for the rest of her live. Her skin will never grow. Wouldn’t she be better off, if she had died in the fire?” Marie’s hand made a perhaps-involuntary gesture toward me and Shaye when she said “that little girl”. It would have been obvious what she meant anyway, but the gesture spoke its own hidden meanings.

It was April 2009. We had brought Shaye home on the first day of April and that month was like a dream. I know partly that was because I was exhausted and deprived of sleep, but also I was the happiest I have ever been. Those first weeks with Shaye were wonderful, full of soft rain showers, brief glorious bursts of spring sunlight, budding leaves and, yes, even rainbows. The wonder of a small baby is overwhelming and I was completely submerged in it… so submerged in fact that I never listened to or read any news and that was just as well.

On the 19th of April, 2009 in the early hours of the morning a group of neo-Nazis walked the streets of a small Czech town. They stopped in front of a little, drab house and lit a makeshift wick attached to a glass bottle full of gasoline. Then, one of them hurled the bottle through the window of the humble little house. The homemade bomb landed in the bed of a two-year-old Romani child and exploded. The little girl’s name is Natalka. She was burned severely over 80 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live, but after a month in an artificial coma, she awoke and survived. The rest of the family – mother, father and several other children, suffered only minor burns and smoke inhalation, but afterward they lived in fear. Even they had not believed such a thing could happen to them.

I did not hear about the attack until long after the fact and, for once, I am grateful for my ignorance. Had I known, I would have been seized by terror and grief. Clearly, a child had been horribly injured with the intent of murder, simply and only because she was Romani. She was not very different at all from the tiny, perfect baby I held in my arms in those days.

Now, a year and a half later, I was shaken by Marie’s callous use of the case to make a point. The reason it was on her mind is that the case has reentered the news. Some of the neo-Nazis are on trial for the attack and their defense is that they claim they did not believe the house was a family house. They believed it was a storage place for stolen goods. Their mention of stealing was clearly meant to garner the sympathy of Czechs, to remind them, “Roma steal.” The whole thing is so brutal and ugly I can barely stand the news even now, and this is one of the rare instances where such racist attackers are actually brought to trial.

I felt shell-shocked by the whole conversation, the way I did sometimes after too much exposure to the horrors of war in Kosovo when I was a journalist there. I said something about how we will be careful, of course, but it is our family and we have chosen to have another child. Then, I slipped out of the bench and took Shaye to get ready for her nap.

Later, while Shaye slept, Dušan and I went out to pick apples and pears for our winter stores and for Marie’s cellar from the trees behind the massive farm buildings. The sunlight was brilliant and crisp, the leaves a blaze of colors. I kept going over and over the conversation with Marie, Josef and the aunts in my head. The worst part is that I know that if Shaye or our second child ends up being even mildly troubled as a teenager, the extended family will have a tendency to jump to the conclusion that it is the bad Romani genes finally coming out or that it is because they are adopted children, perhaps even drug addicted, even if the social workers didn’t tell us. I know all the reasons that logic is faulty but in this place and time there is no argument against it. It is based on assumptions that are as good as fact here. The dangerous, branding and potentially self-fulfilling pre-judgment (prejudice) feels unstoppable.

As I hauled the last crate of apples back to our car, I reminded Dušan to look for Shaye’s missing doll. Here it is impossible to get dolls of different ethnicities. Very occasionally you can get an African doll, as a kind of exotic attraction, but we had a beautiful, lifelike doll with light brown skin, more like Romani skin, from my mother in America. Shaye loves the doll, carries it around with her, feeds it and puts it to bed, but the doll had disappeared during a chaotic weekend in which we had Dušan’s brother’s family, including my six-year-old and two-year-old nieces, as well as two families with adopted girls, visiting for two days straight. It was a wonderful time and for the first week or so, I was sure the doll would show up. I could not imagine that the families with the adopted children wouldn’t have noticed if their children took the doll and I was sure either of them would have mentioned it immediately to me. But Dušan had reminded me that our nieces had been there as well and that they had slept in a camper that Dušan’s brother had driven to our house that time. The doll could have ended up in the camper.

“Yeah, it was in the camper,” Dušan said casually, “under some dirty clothes. I found it after lunch. It’s in the car already.”

I carefully didn’t react and I went on to the next task, raking some leaves for Marie. I made two huge piles of leaves under the golden walnut tree in the yard of the farmhouse and I smiled to myself just a bit. I don’t want to feel good about something like this, but it is the simple truth. The doll incident is money in the bank. Shaye will inevitably take something that isn’t hers someday. I doubt there is a child who doesn’t, but, with a Romani child, there is swift and vicious judgment around this issue. It is assumed to be proof that it is the child’s inherently thieving nature showing itself. I have heard such stories and examples given with exactly that conclusion from friends and family alike. So, it is simply nice that our nieces took Shaye’s doll first. When I had asked Dušan’s brother if he thought the doll might be in there, he had shrugged evasively, refused to look at me and said it might be but he wasn’t sure. If that judgment is ever made against Shaye in our family, I will not hesitate to bring up this incident.

Now, back home and rested from that trying trip to the farm, I have found time to read and I am listening to, “Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness” by Jane Lazarre on tape. It is a fascinating and enlightening book, even for someone as experienced in crossing the boundaries of race and culture as I am. Still, I internally resist some of the claims Lazarre makes, such as the assertion that no white person can ever really understand what an African American person goes through in social situations. I don’t claim to know, not exactly, and yet I balk at her explanation that even though a white person may be socially excluded, have a disability or be Jewish or from some other minority culture, that these are much much lesser life experiences compared to the experience of black people in America. I don’t claim the opposite but I do feel attacked and belittled by that statement as undiscussable fact. I struggle every single day with the social judgments and misunderstandings around my visual disability.

This morning I taught English classes at the local community center and although I have seen most of the children half a dozen times, I still cannot tell them apart. Much the way some white people say they cannot tell black people apart, I cannot tell apart all even these little blond boys and little blond girls. I know there are three little blond girls, Amalka, Adelka and Beatka, but I can’t tell which is which to save my life. The boys are, if anything, worse, precluding as they do the difference in hair length. As usual, I asked the mother’s to identify themselves and their children at the beginning of class, and as usual there was uncomfortable silence.. So, as usual, I explained again that I really cannot see them. Again, there was silence until I asked in a childish voice, “What’s your name?” of another little girl. Finally, they started to respond but the style of their reluctance showed clearly that they do not believe that I really can’t see the children. They believe that I am simply a flaky teacher.

This is an experience I have not only in this country but also in the US. It is not merely the Czech coldness. I have been in countless social situations in which I have been accused of being rude and arrogant, when I have no sense of either.  On a few occasions when I have had the opportunity to question such assertions in detail, I was told that it is because I don’t make eye contact. My eyes seem to look passed people. And yet, I do not look visually impaired.

I know there is a mountain of history, judgment and fear that African Americans carry with them. I understand that this creates daily challenges, the burden of always being marked out with a heavy load of related prejudices, including prejudices by those of us who have tried hard to rid ourselves of all prejudice. And yet, these judgments that I deal with every day are no less debilitating, no less silently violent in their destruction of my identity. I too bare the burdens of history – forced institutionalization of people with disabilities, sterilization, the Holocaust, endless discrimination and fear. I also bare the scars of my own personal history, the countless times I have been called retarded, pushed back in line, told that a teacher did not want me in his or her class, told I could not do this or that job, should never have tried to have a biological child, should be meek and grateful. And so I still resist internally some messages in this book that I would just as soon like to believe unquestioningly.

I would like to believe all of it, because I know that I am under the spell of prejudices as well. They are essentially impossible to avoid. What white American can resist the extra flash of fear at the sight of a group of black youths hanging out on one’s path in a deserted evening park? Not I. Not any of us, I would guess, who have not lived long and closely with black people. Partly, it is simply statistics. Fair or not, statistics say, young black people in America have higher crime rates, than young white people. There are sociological reasons, which do not place white people in such a rosy light, and it is undeniable that the police are many more times likely to catch, search and prosecute a young black man than they are to do the same with a young white man. But still, some of it is simply social circumstance. Many black people are poor and poverty leads to the social phenomenon of crime. And even though the statistical difference is not great enough to justify such fear, fear comes anyway.

Another example, uncomfortably closer to home, also plagued me today. I have read, in books and articles by Romani authors, that historically, because the Roma felt so irrevocably outcast by white society, they made a kind of sport of shaming and tricking white people. Sometimes Romani women, who were expected to be covered in long skirts when among the Roma, would flip up their skirts to flash white people. This led to a stereotype of Romani women being lewd and sexually free, when the opposite is generally true in their own communities. Similarly, even or perhaps especially Roma who had plenty of gold stored for their long-term security would beg, in a flamboyant, wheedling way, to get a non-Romani person to give them money. They would then make fun of this gullible stranger. I have seen incidents that appeared suspiciously like this in my time in Romani neighborhoods.

I am reticent to give anyone money, regardless of their background. I am not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, and I get along as well as I do, largely through frugality. I am a stay at home mom. My husband has a low-end professional job. My vision impairment ends up costing us a lot of money. I do give to beggars in specific types of situations. Once in the past few months, I bought a train ticket for a young Romani man who asked me for help at the train station and afterwards I got the impression that he was making fun of me and that he would sell the ticket later. I didn’t blame him really. I know the realities of Romani life here, and I brushed it off, hoping he would put the money to some reasonably good use. But today was different.

A young man called me after many months without contact between us. He spent his entire childhood in a children’s home and he helped me with a documentary film about Romani children in the segregated schools ten years ago. He is really the only Romani acquaintance I have who has been open to some long-term contact with me. I have found forming friendships of depth across the divide between my whiteness and my Romani acquaintances exceedingly difficult. In any case, my young friend or acquaintance – I cannot even be entirely sure which to consider him – is now finishing up his teaching degree through a distance learning program that often helps less-fortunate students. He is living with a long-term girlfriend who has two children from a previous relationship. She has in the past refused to meet me on several occassions and this has made me somewhat suspicious of her motives towards my friend and her prejudices about me as a non-Romani person.

Today, he called me and we chatted uncomfortably for a few minutes, while I pushed Shaye’s stroller back from teaching our English class with the look-alike blonde children. I could hear voices in the background until he asked me to call him back in a few minutes. I did so and he said he had gone outside to get a better phone signal, although the signal had seemed fine before. Then, his tone changed completely. He said things were not as good as he had described them before. He had lost his previous job at a school and been unemployed for a time. Now, he had found another job, where he has been working less than a month. He and his girlfriend had had to move three times, around through different apartments, because every place they rented suddenly hiked the rent. It is a common enough story. A lot of times, Roma will rent an apartment through someone else or in some way that hides their identity and then when the owner finds out that there are Roma living in the apartment, they cannot by contract throw them out, so they simply raise the rent to ridiculous levels.

In any case, my friend said he had run out of all reserves and now he didn’t have enough to pay the rent. He said he wouldn’t get a full salary this month, because of how he had started the job but that he will have the money for the rent next month. He said he is trying to find someone to borrow the money from.

Salaries here are still much lower than in the US, while food, clothing and housing costs are, if anything, higher. This pinch includes Dušan and me. We don’t have much to spare, but many of our expenses are long term expenses – contact lenses, business supplies, tickets to see family far away, car repairs. I have a reasonable fund to cover these things, hidden away. I had the money. And I know this young man to be a good and thoughtful person. But I also know that he once lied to me and his favorite teacher in a significant way, it was understandable given his age and desperation at the time. Still he never really had the chance to live in a family and with family identity  to be tied by some sense of moral identity. I have to wonder. I don’t really know him that well. Our tenuous friendship has never been tested. And I have to wonder about his girlfriend, who is fully steeped in Romani culture, appears to have some prejudices against me  and who could theoretically be playing some sort of manipulative game with me through him.

In the end, I loaned him a good chunk of money. I did so because I desperately hope this young man can find some stability and because I know full well how hard his situation can be and because I was once young and penniless and many generous people helped me. And because I hope against hope Shaye and our next child will have Romani friends and acquaintances. And the truth is that the knowledge of a real friend, one who feels close enough to me to genuinely ask for a loan, is worth the risk. Damn the money, even if I may be sorry later.

But what stood out to me throughout the incident is that I simply do not know enough about Romani culture to know if I should be worried about this issue I read about. I have very little defense against internalizing prejudices because I have no guide to the culture, no one close enough that I could ask for explanations and advice in situations like this. And yet, our family is part Romani. When we end up with a second child, our family will be half Romani and yet we will face hard and potentially impossible struggle to come into any real contact with the Romani culture.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. BopBop
    Nov 10, 2010 @ 02:21:04

    I’m glad you decided to loan him the money. I think you just have to go with your gut instincts in cases like this. Even if he doesn’t pay you back, you may never know what all the mitigating circumstances were. You should trust that your intentions were right. You are doing a good job all the way around!

    Reply

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