So an African, an Indian and an Asian walk into a hospital…

Photos shock Americans, some locals just shrug their shoulders

By Amanda Morris

motol sign

Motol hospital sign points the way to the foreigner’s ward. Photo courtesy Kara McAlister.

A large-lipped, earring-clad Black woman. A Native American with a feathered headband. A yellow, slant-eyed Asian.

These illustrations – some call them racist caricatures – mark a sign in the foreigner’s wing at the prestigious Motol Hospital and have ignited a firestorm on social media and in the press over Czech political incorrectness.

A photo of the three year-old sign, which provides directions to a pediatric clinic for foreigners, went viral in February with hundreds of shares after it was posted by Kara McAlister, an American expatriate from Kansas.

McAlister said of the photo, “I took a picture because I figured no one would believe me.” The response from fellow expatriates was one of shock and disgust with reactions such as, “Oh dear. Hard to believe that attitudes like this are still around in 2016” and “That is so backwards! You forget living abroad how racist Czechs are!”

But the hospital administration, like many Czechs who shared their views online, was mystified by any negative reaction to the sign’s portrayal of foreigners.

“We do not feel that there is something inappropriate about the pictures for children which children themselves chose,” hospital spokesperson, Pavlina Dankova, said in an email. “We do not understand that someone could feel offended.”

The tension over cultural sensitivity and the hospital sign reflects a wider discussion in Czech society over how to best address minority issues more than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain opened up the region to immigration. Many Czechs tend to reject Western-style political correctness with regard to ethnic diversity as a form of thought policing, something they are keen to avoid following decades of Soviet-era censorship.

“What gives them the right to tell us what should be on our hospital signs? They should just shut up and go along with their lives.”

So it might come as no surprise that after the sign debate was picked up by national news outlets, Czech reader responses to American finger wagging ranged from annoyance to outrage.

“What gives them the right to tell us what should be on our hospital signs? They should just shut up and go along with their lives. This is our country, our rules, and some f***ing Americans can’t tell us what to put on our columns,” wrote Petr Pavlicek, in the comments section of the widely read news site iDNES.cz.

The Czech Republic is a largely homogenous nation where foreigner status still has a stigma, according to many expatriates.

Foreigners with permanent or long-term residence account for less than five percent of the 10.5 million Czech population, which is relatively low compared to many Western European countries.

But at the root of the misunderstanding over the sign, some Czechs noted, was a lack of interaction with the people at whom the sign was actually aimed.

“The problem with the Czechs is we don’t have minorities so they don’t feel like a problem,” said Drahomir Kolencik, a 22-year-old Czech medical student at Motol University Hospital.

Kolencik, who originates from Strakonice, a small southern town near the border of Germany, said that in his town “you can find examples of small racism,” such as a negative attitude towards Muslim and Arabic immigrants, but that it comes more from ignorance than from ill will.

“If they would meet people of other race or other culture, it doesn’t mean that they would be mean to them, they just don’t know better,” he said. Kolencik feels that this racism and stereotyping is due to ignorance and a lack of exposure to foreigners.

Meanwhile the artist of the pictogram, Libor Skrlik, told iDNES.cz, he could not understand how his illustrations could be viewed negatively, “Should I draw everyone the same?” he asked.

Even Czechs who have lived for long periods outside the Czech Republic might not find fault with a sign that features racial stereotypes.

Jan Purkrabek, a 30-year-old product specialist at Expats.cz, a website and media outlet for foreigners in the Czech Republic, spent nine years abroad in both Japan and the United Kingdom. Yet, he found nothing objectionable about the Motol sign.

“Knowing cartoons like Tintin and others that I read when I was small, such depictions were common and do not strike me as being racist or discriminatory,” Purkrabek said, referring to a Belgium cartoon that critics have called out for its colonial portrayal of Africans.

“That kind of ugly racist memorabilia that you would only find in a museum in America these days”

But Purkabek’s American colleague, Elizabeth Haas, the 39-year old content manager of Expats.cz, argued that the Motol drawings are culturally insensitive. “I think to me the issue here is that the drawings are just really crude, not to mention inaccurate in their representation of the foreigners who live here, and that is what they recall – that kind of ugly racist memorabilia that you would only find in a museum in America these days,” she said.

Foreigners have also jeered at other public information campaigns with racially tinged illustrations.

Lori Goshert-Shokirove, a Floridian living in Prague, posted a picture of a police pamphlet for foreigners seeking work visas in a Facebook discussion on the Motol Hospital sign. The pamphlet features a Black man with an afro and oversized nose as well as a yellow-washed Asian woman, both asking “How do I do this?”

McAlister, who photographed the Motol sign, commented on the image and described the figures as “South Park meets Fat Albert, without the adult irony or affirmation of experiences.”

motol police pamphlet

Police pamphlet perpetuates politically incorrect art culture. Photo courtesy Lori Goshert-Shokirov.

The issue of cultural sensitivity in the Czech Republic is not limited to police pamphlets or hospital signs, but is a pervasive theme, particularly when it comes to education and art.

However, what might seem like a caricature to some might appear to be respectful to others.

For instance, in the widely available 2015 Czech children’s book “Berta and the UFO: Extraordinary Friendship,” there are depictions of Africans with large noses wearing grass skirts and blue-faced Eskimos with slits for eyes.

New illustrations for the popular Czech children’s book, “About three letters,”which was also turned into a short film debuted in 2015, features images of people from around the world including Africans with anvil-shaped heads and ballooned lips, Arabs with long noses, and fat Eskimos with barely visible eyes.

motol children's book 1

Berta and the UFO: Extraordinary Friendship children’s book by Miroslav Adamec with illustration by Jitka Petrova shows Eskimos and Africans. Photo courtesy Amanda Morris.

motol children's book 2

About Three Letters children’s book depicts Africans with anvil shaped heads. Photo courtesy Amanda Morris.

But it is hard to miss the negative stereotyping in the work of 72-year-old artist Frantisek Ringo Cech, who recently won the President of the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit for his life’s work. His painting “German Lessons for Refugees” depicts partially clothed, completely black-skinned men with fat red lips and claw-like fingernails manhandling naked white, blonde women in the countryside.

motol racist paintin

German Lessons for Refugees painting recently won a Medal of Merit. Painting by Ringo Cech. Photo courtesy Blesk.cz.

Not all foreigners living in Prague are upset by the Czech use of caricatures.

A 69-year-old fabric shop owner living in Prague, Phan Van Dung, is understanding of these stereotypes, and argues that it’s not a uniquely Czech problem.

Van Dung is a member of the Vietnamese community, one of the largest minorities in the country, and one that has had considerable success with economic integration.

Van Dung sees racism as a problem for any country with a mostly homogenous population.

“Think about it, if you were from Vietnam or the Czech Republic and you just grew up with similar faces around you, then that is all you know,” he said. “Americans may find it offensive because they have diversity in their country. There is not so much diversity in Vietnam or the Czech Republic, so I can understand why the hospital has that image.”

Amanda Morris is in College of Arts and Sciences and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Class of 2018. Her hometown is Farmington, Connecticut.

Contributing writers:
Kevin Pham is in NYU Shanghai’s Class of 2017. His hometown is Seattle, Washington.
Esther Chao is in Stern School of Business Class of 2018. Her hometown is Pine Bush, New York.
Yuting Jiang is in NYU Abu Dhabi’s Class of 2018. Her hometown is Wuhan, China.

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Categories: News, Spring 2016 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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One Comment on “So an African, an Indian and an Asian walk into a hospital…”

  1. March 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    Seriously? Of course they are caricatures. Czech republic has very long history of caricature artists.

    Maybe that is why we do not consider using caricatures on official signs/documents/books to be a problem. But you know, that would be way to obvious, there must be some insidious motivation behind this.

    Also, you will have hard time with this “thou shall not offend me” attitude in Central Europe. Freedom of speech has and will survive this nonsense.

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