Wigs as shorthand for minority-majority. / Photo: Dana Moree

Red or blue, both is true

Roma discrimination in the Czech Republic has systemic forms, with 30 % of students in handicapped schools being Roma. This article describes a drama method creating a forum of dialogue and reconciliation.

In the Czech Republic, up to 3 people out of a hundred are Roma. But nearly 3 out of ten students in special schools are of Roma origin (Ministry of education, 2009).

This situation is not new. Similar numbers were found before 1989, when Roma children were put without any investigation into special schools 28 times more often than children from the majority (Barša, 1999). Charta 77 (1978, 7) showed that also during communism about 17% of Roma of ages 15 to 29 were illiterate, only half finished just the first five grades of basic school and only 15 % finished basic school.

This topic was not extensively discussed in society until 2007. This is when a group of graduates of special schools from the 90s complained that they were put in special schools for mentally handicapped children not as a consequence of any real mental handicap, but because of their ethnic background. This led to ‘Case D.H. and others against the Czech Republic’ where the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (2007) ruled discrimination based on ethnic origin of the right to equal access to education. This decision negatively influenced the Roma’s opportunities in the labour market and their lives.

Roma children labelled as handicapped

The present debate in Czech society about the number of Roma pupils in special schools was initiated by this event. As a result of international pressure the Ministry of Education conducted two actions: First, it started to analyse the situation of children with special educational needs by means of two researches (Svoboda et. al. 2009; GAC 2009). It then appealed to the schools that only children with a real mental handicap should be sent to special schools. (Letter of Minister of education, 2010).

However, teachers reacted very strongly to this requirement. According to some schools and teachers, Roma children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have special needs that cannot be fulfilled in mainstream schools and this is their reason to send these children to special schools for the mentally handicapped. The consequence is that the Roma community has limited possibilities to enhance their status in society by means of better education. (Svoboda et al., 2009; Nikolai, 2010). This situation leads to ethnic segregation (Ludvík, 2003; 2004; Nikolai, 2010). The researches mapped the situation and showed that there is a large diversity among schools. There are schools that actively look for possibilities to include all children including those from socially weak backgrounds, next to those that try not to attract attention to possible “difficult” students (Svoboda et. al, 2009).

Ethnic gap is widening

The education system is not the only space where we can see the tensions between the majority and the Roma population. What we see in the Czech Republic is an increasing number of Neo-Nazi marches against the Roma in places with higher concentration of Roma population. On the other hand most of Roma ghettos in the Czech Republic came to existence as a consequence of political and socio-economical transformation of the 90s. The main reason for the development of ghettos was that social flats did not exist anymore, many people lost their jobs and it started to be more difficult for the more disadvantaged groups to find new employment. Polarisation of society, following ethnic lines, is growing all the time.

A theatre of the oppressed

For this trend to reverse itself, several things should happen. People of majority and minority backgrounds should meet each other, but this is not enough. Both sides should be open for changing their world view (Hammer & Bennett, 2003) to increase mutual intercultural sensitivity. Integration according to Berry (1997) is then a process, where an individual is aware of his or her own roots but at the same time has enough contacts with those, who are different (represent majority/minority population). However, this kind of experience seems to be relatively rare in a society where a rhetoric of mutual dialogue is replaced by giving space even to Neo-Nazist expressions.

Against this background, a group of Roma and non-Roma students started a theatre project in 2014. This project was based on the “Theatre of the Oppressed” method.
We will first briefly introduce the method and then focus on some aspects of reflecting ethnicity and integration in this mixed group.

From spectators into spect-actors

Forum Theatre is one of the main techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed, which gives a wonderful opportunity for people from different, even opposing social groups, to meet and get to know themselves in a drama setting.

A group of non-actors first create a short drama. They record their personal stories of oppression that they would like to solve. These stories are played in front of the audience. The audience then has the opportunity at any time to enter into the story. To jump into the shoes of the protagonist and try to change what happens on the stage. This can happen by means of changing behaviour, through communication or getting a crazy idea like crying or negotiating. Therefore, the audience in the Theatre of the Oppressed is called spect-actors (Boalo, 1979). They are not just passive spectators. In The Forum Theatre the boundary between the stage and the auditorium falls. What remains is only a large area to play – for trying out what might work to change the story of the main protagonist. It is actually an experiment in theatre, a test of reality.

The above mentioned group of students from the Charles University of Prague and members of a Roma theatre group Ara art met with the aim to work on their oppression together. For several weeks actors worked on their personal issues, which were not limited to the Roma- Czech theme. The themes were varied, from the problems in public transport to labour market and relationships. They were searching for a “common oppression topic”, something that all group members could identify with. They then create this oppression scenario together, learn to recognize the process leading to it and to fight against it.

We, the authors, participated in the work of these groups. We noticed one interesting thing during the first meetings of the group. Although words like Roma and Czech are used very often in the public space and they do not necessarily need to have a negative connotations, they were perceived as something that builds boundaries among participants in the group. And these words as well as thinking in divided categories of “we” and “them” blocked the process of creating a common story of oppression. Finally the group made a decision to use red and blue wigs as a symbol of majority and minority to solve the problem. This simple decision opened space for creativity. Individuals were not bound to their original background any more, but could freely play with their experience independently on their origin. Roma actors could play non-Roma and the other way round.

From this work two theatre pieces were created. The first story was about a “blue” girl who fell in love with a “red” boy, wanted to live together, and later the girl also got pregnant. But the family and society were against it for the simple reason that the boy was “red”. The baby was born but the couple lost the fight to be together and the protagonist finally stayed with her baby alone.

In the second story, on the contrary, a “red” girl was bullied by her classmates in high school. The only exception, who did not bully was her only “blue” friend. When the girl was offered a scholarship to the USA, her friend quickly turned her back to her. This conflict culminated to the red girl hitting the blue friend. So, her journey to the American dream was over – after the violent incident, the teacher refused to sign the scholarship recommendation for her.

The stage as a laboratory

Stories of “blue and red colour” gave the opportunity to people from both cultures to peek into the life of the other. They met together – not divided into two parties, as it is so often in for instance various media debates – on the Forum Theatre to try to find a way out of these difficult situations. They were trying different ways in which stories can be executed together with the audience, which was also mixed. But in addition to this, actors as well as spect-actors could experiment with attempts not to be oppressed anymore. Here, the stage works like a small laboratory, which gives a chance to try new things, new ways of behaviour, new ideas in relatively safe environment, where everybody tries to find ways to change the reality.

This performance was played three times for the general public in a small theatre in Prague. And although the advertising and promotion was not particularly large, the theatre hall was always full. The discussions after particular performances were very lively: people of majority as well as minority backgrounds were discussing issues related not only to what was shown on stage but to their real lives. And for many of them it was the first time they met any representative of the other group and could experience a real dialogue.

When we look at this experience from the perspective of the theory on intercultural sensitivity and integration by Berry and Hammer and Bennett, we can see that when people meet each other in other than a confrontative way, when they can share their opinions and even change the boundary-creating vocabulary they use, change is possible. But this requires several things. People need an opportunity to meet each other and to communicate about difficult issues. Segregated school system or ghettos do not usually offer such a safe environment. And people, who meet, must get a chance to do something together, to find a topi, which connects them and make real contact between them possible.

This article is produced in cooperation with the InfoNet adult education correspondents’ network.


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