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Racism in Eastern Europe

Although racial incidents occur in Western Europe from time to time, for the most part they are unthreatening. Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and Amsterdam are all sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities. However, east of the German and Swiss borders skin color becomes a factor in most interactions with the native populations.

I began to have second thoughts about my 7-week jaunt through Eastern Europe soon after I left the Salzburg train station and saw the Nazi swastikas and the words “Minderheiter Verboten” (Minorities Forbidden). Here, and throughout my entire trip, I was repeatedly asked by Africans about how they could emigrate to the U.S. They told me it was hard for them to find jobs where they were and that the police constantly harassed them.

If you are a person of color considering a visit to Bratislava in Slovakia, I’d advise against it. Bratislava is a collection of abandoned factories, an industrial town with no industry. Imagine Flint, Michigan or Gary, Indiana after the Ford and GM factory closures and multiply by five.

I hadn’t intended to go to Bratislava but the train broke down on its way to Budapest. When I asked a Slovakian student if I should anticipate any difficulties, he cavalierly replied, “You are pretty big man.” (I’m not ripped like the Rock but I look like what I am: a college athlete on a regular weight-training program. That was not the last time someone referred to my physique when I asked about the safety of a particular area.)

As soon as I left the train station people stared—not just casual, furtive glances but looks of open curiosity. When I went to Tesca Square to get a bite to eat, everyone at the communal table got up and left except for one small child, who approached me apprehensively. I nodded my head, “Wus up.” So he grinned and came closer. Suddenly a frantic woman appeared out of nowhere and scooped up the child and began lambasting me in Slovakian. This incident bothered me more than anything that happened on my trip. However, my spirits rose sharply when three gorgeous Slovakian women sat down next to me.

Meeting the Mafia

The next few hours would turn out to be the most eventful of my entire seven weeks in Europe. I met a 6’8” Slovak basketball player who played for a DII school in Texas and we immediately hit if off. But when I attempted to call him later in the evening the person who answered his phone spoke no English or Russian, so I had to tackle the Bratislava nightspots he recommended on my own.

I began the evening at the trendy Fashion Bar and once again all eyes were on me. From there the “parti de Shelton” proceeded to Club Jalta. After I took a table in the corner and ordered a bottle of champagne a man came over and said: “I vant to sveak with these gurls.” I slowly took the cigar out of my mouth and replied, “These ladies chose me. Looks to me like the ladies is fine where they at. . . . If you want a drink, brusky, beverage, cocktail, or Coke and a smile, then have a seat. Don’t playa hate big dog. Participate.” The man smiled and I returned to telling the girls about the “Where My Girls At?” music video I was in.

About five minutes later the man appeared again, this time with a bodyguard on each side of him. He matter-of-factly stated “I am Albanian Mafia. I vill kill you.”

All alcohol-induced impairment quickly evaporated. And all hopes that the men were engaging in some kind of sick joke disappeared when the girls’ smiles suddenly turned to expressions of pity.

The man then frowned and asked me, “You vrom Amerika, euhh? You play basketball like Kobe? I like Kobe Brant very much. You play basketball with me and I let you live.” Sure buddy, I’ll get in black face and dance Sambo for you as long as your two meatheads keep away from me.

After I agreed to meet him the next day to play basketball against his buddies he extended an invitation that I could not refuse to join him at his table. For the rest of the night he bought drinks and made lewd comments about the anatomy of the females in our vicinity—all while constantly seeking my approval of his English language skills: “I sveakesky good English . . . yes.” Yeah man, you oughta teach comp lit in the Ivy League. After about two hours, during which he steadily drank hard liquor and I surreptitiously poured my drinks behind the sofa, I received a firm hug from my new friend, exchanged high-fives with the bodyguards, and left.

A Run-In with Skin Heads

I had walked no more than five minutes when I heard the sound of crashing glass. I kept walking. But after another bottle landed dangerously close to me I looked up and saw the outline of a man. He was shouting at me. I started to say something but thought better of it and continued to walk. Two dozen men, mostly with shaved heads and dressed in black trousers and white tee shirts, come out of a nearby doorway. I tried to continue down the street but realized it was a dead end. As the men followed me they shouted racial obscenities (the n-word has found its way across the Atlantic), threw things at me, and shoved me. I finally was cornered and forced to fight my way through them. After I scaled a wall and escaped a few of the drunken skinheads tried unsuccessfully to follow me. When one appeared almost to be on the verge of climbing the wall, I picked up a slab of concrete, stood on a cement block, and took out all my frustrations of the trip thus far on the neo-nazi’s exposed hands.

When I wiped the perspiration from the back of my head, I realized then it was not sweat but blood. Some English-speaking students called the American embassy and the local U.S. Mission sent a car for me and found a doctor to sew up the back of my head. The rookie FSO gave me a lecture on how Slovakia was not safe at night for anyone, how xenophobia is rampant because the nation’s dismal economy, and how the Mafia runs most of the nightclubs in the city.

The rest of my experiences in Eastern Europe (Prague, Budapest, Krakow, and Gdansk) were much less violent, and the only other skinheads I saw were in Prague and Gdansk. (An aside: with each dollar bill that you either have, or are thought to have, the level of discrimination decreases accordingly.)

A Polish Interlude

The most amusing incident of all happened in Poland. While sitting at an Internet café I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned as I heard the young man say, “What’s Up Ni**er?” Damn. Here we go again. There was nowhere to run this time, so I fumbled through my backpack in search of the brass knuckles a Roma (gypsy) had given me in Budapest. I was surrounded by four or five grinning, stocky Poles (the men in Eastern Europe seem a little bigger than in America or Western Europe), all with shaved heads. The one wearing a red cap once again said, “What’s up Ni**er?”

I noticed that the men’s pants were baggy and that most wore a mixture of FUBU, Sean John, and urban Nike Wear. The one with the FUBU visor extended his hand to me and we engaged in the most complicated handshake in my life–complete with backhanded slaps, simulated marijuana smoking, full-body embraces, and various kinds of hand contortions. After exchanging the whack-a$$ handshakes with all the fellas, my friends launched into a recital of various hip-hop lyrics. With only modest levels of English comprehension, they demonstrated a rather uncanny grasp of American urban vernacular. When a man approached us from behind rather briskly after dark, the Pole that I perceived to have the least command of English said, “Why you creepin’.”

We hung out for a while and soon ended up in a hip-hop shop next to the UFO boutique in Krakow’s Old Town. When I asked for his name, the owner of the store replied, “T.-Killa.” Thinking I misheard, I asked him again and his reply was the same. Oohkay. So me, “T-Killa,” and the rest of the get-a-long gang mutually entertained ourselves over the next few days.

Lessons Learned

Guidebooks always describe the virtues of “going native,” “playing down your Americanism,” and “getting off the beaten path.” For a traveler of color, being recognized as an American may well be your greatest advantage. American citizenship carries with it a certain prestige and association with wealth. Since you’re obviously going to stick out, it’s important that people know that you’re a tourist as opposed to an African immigrant. But bear in mind that it not always safe to venture out from the city proper, especially on public transportation.

There are always a few Africans in every city who will be willing to show you around and explain to you where the trouble spots are in exchange for a meal or two. All Africans will speak English (as well as about five other languages), and they can show you agreeable places to cavort. Clubs played R&B and hip-hop in every city I visited, with the exception of Bratislava. It was at the clubs with predominately African and Roma clientele that my appreciation for America grew. The Africans and Gypsies all told of severe economic discrimination, along with frequent harassment and physical abuse by the police. The stories varied little from country to country.

While I treasured the company of the ethnic minorities in Europe, they were only a very small percentage of the people I socialized with. Students, in addition to speaking at least a bit of English, seemed to be more receptive to engaging foreigners.

I don’t mind attention, so I must admit it was not all that disagreeable, especially that of gorgeous Slavic women. Was most of it shallow and patronizing? Yes.

But this did not make my trip to Eastern Europe unpleasurable. Except for the attack by the Slovakian skinheads, I was in no real physical danger and had a memorable time.

SHAWN SHELTON studies international relations and economics at Columbia Univ.