About Tereza Bottman

Tereza Bottman's background is primarily in multicultural education with an emphasis on writing and social justice. She holds a Master of Education degree from Portland State University and currently teaches elementary-level English language learners in Portland, Oregon. Tereza's passion for social & racial justice has spurred her to create various venues highlighting underrepresented voices and important, yet often sidelined issues. Her most recent undertaking is "Project Interlaced," a podcast featuring personal stories which explore the dynamics of interracial friendships. In summer 2010, she was a Peace Fellow with the Advocacy Project, focusing on human rights and the Roma in the Czech Republic, the country where she was born and raised. An upcoming project is "Parents Talk Race," a dialogue opportunity for adults interested in exploring experiences around parenting through the lens of race in our highly racialized society.

The Holy Land is Here: On the importance of reorienting the nomadic mind

You could say my Mama was a modern-day pioneer. She packed up one suitcase for the three of us — for herself and her two young daughters — and traveled West for the opportunity to reinvent herself, escaping totalitarianism through the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain. That was a quarter of a century ago. Still, after so many years, a mother myself, I have yet to truly commune with the place where I live, feeling no tangible connection to the land here.

Why so disconnected? This land seems foreign and not yet part of my “cellular memory” shaped by centuries of Central European living. It is not where my ancestors are buried. In my life, I’ve moved too many times to count, skirting the land, speeding along its slippery surface as if it were ice. Like the original pioneers, and a great many modern-day transplants and migrants, I have internalized the frontier as a state of mind, to paraphrase Native American activist Winona LaDuke. She faults our society’s culture of transience, our belief that a greener pasture lies somewhere else, calling it a psychosis, for disconnecting us from our responsibility to place.

Writer and Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel explains the underlying cause of the westward migration and transient nature of our society as the modern culture’s inability to feed the spirit world from which we come, and our failure to mourn our ancestors which includes acknowledging the damage they have done to this world. He says:

“If this world were a tree, then the other world would be the roots — the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts the sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible world — the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink, that can fail; the world that goes around in cycles; the world where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with our beauty. All human beings come from the other world, but we forget it a few months after we’re born. This amnesia occurs because we are dazzled by the beauty and physicality of this world. We spend the rest of our lives putting back together our memories of the other world, enough to serve the greater good and to teach the new amnesiacs — the children — how to remember.”

This rings so deeply true for me I weep when I think about it. I live in a new country, a land where I’ve inherited other ancestors’ pain, and I struggle with how to honor it so that I can develop a personal connection and a sense of responsibility to this place. From studying history, I know the magnitude of pain my current life is built on is unfathomable. Between 1774, the year Europeans first arrived on the Northwest Coast, and 1874, an estimated 80 percent of the indigenous population had been decimated by European diseases, including smallpox and measles. According to University of Washington’s Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, across the US, “a rough estimate holds that Old World diseases depopulated native societies by about 90% within the first century of contact.”

And the assault on native tribes and the earth continues. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, as little as three percent of old growth forest is what may be left.

“The question is: how do we respond to that destruction?” Prechtel says. “If we respond as we do in modern culture, by ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then that debt will come back to bite us, hard.”

In fact, we will literally be — and already have been — haunted by the ghosts of our ancestors if we continue not paying homage to them. “Ghosts will actually chase you,” is how Prechtel describes our predicament. “And they always chase you toward the setting sun. That’s why all the great migrations of the past several thousand years have been to the west: because people are running away from the ghosts. The people stop and try to live in a new place for a while, but the ghosts always catch up with them and create enormous wars and pain and problems, which feed the hungry hordes of ghosts. Then the people continue on, always moving, never truly at home. Now we have an entire culture based on our fleeing or being devoured by ghosts.”

He suggests that one way to honor our predecessors and repay the spiritual debt “is simply by missing the dead. . . as (expressed by) a loud, beautiful wail, a song, or a piece of art that’s given as a gift to the spirits.” If we don’t do this, we are “poisoning the future
with violence” against other beings and the earth itself because we then have no understanding of home.

Prechtel’s insight, I believe, is the answer to healing and to reconnecting us to our past and the earth. In order to “be at home in a place, to live in a place well,” we must do the following, he says. “We first have to understand where we are; we’ve got to look at our surroundings. Second, we’ve got to know our own histories. Third, we’ve got to feed our ancestors’ ghosts” by grieving. We do this by using the gifts we have been given by the spirits to make beauty.”

As global nomads, globetrotters or migrants with no deep commitment to one place we inhabit and its history, we could be doomed. As LaDuke urges, our mantra should be “the Holy Land is here, not somewhere else.”

Mixed (&) nuts? A cross-cultural parenting perspective

A Czech and a Jamaican walk into a…. relationship. And BAM! There we have it — my reality in a nutshell. Building my relatively new multiracial, multicultural blended family has been quite the ride: challenging, but worth all the energy, inspiration and personal transformation that the experience has brought about.

The key to making things work has been clear, open and respectful communication and a willingness to self-examine and adjust, while staying authentic and standing one’s ground about the key values that must remain uncompromised. As my sweetie and I say, if he and I can’t work through our differences, how can we ever expect the rest of the world to do the same?

In our case, in addition to the divergent racial realities we experience in this society (he as a black male, and I as a white female), the contrast between our upbringings and home community cultural values is quite vast. Our parenting styles mirror those which guided each of us, and they are nearly polar opposite! The parenting of our children from previous relationships, in fact, has been the hottest point of contention.

My style veers towards the permissive side of the spectrum which gives the child the time and freedom to construct his own internal moral compass experientially through empathy (of course, not totally without guidance). This parenting tendency reflects how I was brought up and is, in a way, indicative of the degree of the privilege, which has applied to me since childhood, to be generally relatively safe, and sheltered from strife.

My partner’s parenting method is authoritarian, bent on instilling strong discipline and ethic as a means to survive and thrive in a sometimes harsh world. His is a form of tough, protective love, “a strict and clearly defined” style, as he calls it. You could see how these vastly different philosophies could drive us nuts, but we are on a journey together, determined to respect one another and find meeting places somewhere in the middle. In fact, an interesting pattern is developing where we, the parents, are adopting a little of each other’s tactics as we evaluate which are useful for our particular circumstances. In short, we are really mixing it up in the mixing bowl that our family is.

What I am most excited about is that we are learning from each other and drawing on not only the richness of what was passed down to each one of us, but also from each other’s worlds. My hope is that this, for our children, rather than confuse, will open new doors and encourage new ways of seeing the world and interacting with the people in it.

“Never Again,” an Apropos Motto in a Climate Increasingly Hostile to Roma

Two generations have not yet passed since ninety percent of Czech Roma, and between a half million and two million European Roma in total perished at the hands of the Nazis in The Great Devouring, or Porrajmos, the Romani word for the Holocaust. Roma, also known by the pejorative term “Gypsies,” make up the largest minority in Europe today with some 10 to 12 million members. Roma face fierce discrimination in accessing employment, education, health care, and public and social services. In spite of repetitious cases of racist violence and hate speech targeting Roma, the community continues its struggle for human rights all across the continent.

Two years ago I paid my homage to those who died in Auschwitz and Hodonín u Kunštátu, a Czech concentration camp for Roma. “Tensions in society are heightening. Perhaps the time will come again when we are sent away to designated areas,” were the words of the priest leading the commemoration service.

Today, many in the Romani community echo these fears, afraid for their safety since numerous neo-Nazi-led marches have been taking place periodically across the country, and several arson attacks at Romani residences have been perpetrated by white supremacists. Racial tensions have been growing more intense with the media printing negative stereotypes, inventing damaging reports and spreading fabricated accounts blaming criminal acts on members of the Romani community.

In mid-February, the director of the European Roma Rights Center, testified that violence against the Roma is on the rise at a hearing in Washington DC held by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission).

In the Czech Republic, where I was born and raised, a study on extremism commissioned by the Czech Interior Ministry states that there are currently about 4,000 militant neo-Nazi activists in the country. Experts warn that violent crimes committed by neo-Nazis against Romani people will likely rise. The risk of race wars in some regions of the country, specifically between gangs of white Czechs and groups of ethnic Roma, looms large, experts say.

Today’s white supremacist movement is pan-European (with strong German and Italian influences), and international (namely US-inspired). Since the years 2008 and 2009 the movement has become more radicalized and organizationally sophisticated in the Czech Republic, becoming more visible in the streets and infiltrating the political scene.

In Hungary, an armed militia group has been patrolling and terrorizing a Romani village. This following a series of racially motivated murders.

“Gypsy criminality” is one of the most prevalent anti-Roma stereotypes. It permeates all parts of central European life—and can be found as commonly in the media as the local pub. The Roma are also said to abuse welfare and to not want to work. The World Bank just showed the former was absolutely untrue in Slovakia. The latter is a also a damaging myth held by the white majority. These stereotypes are all the more exaggerated in light of the economic downturn and the scarcity thinking the crisis triggers in the white majority.

What are the solutions? Many rights groups are pushing for economic betterment in the form of job creation and training. Organizations are active in producing independent media with a human rights bent, as well as waging campaigns pressuring mainstream media outlets to be accountable and responsible in their reporting. Key are also positive opportunities for cross-ethnic social interactions and education. Those aware must remain vigilant and spread the word about the threat of extremism that exists in European societies. We must never again permit another Great Devouring.

Objection! – Talking with children about cultural stereotypes

“Oh no!!! Is my son really fighting the natives? Objection!” That was my thought recently when I saw my white first-grader playing a Lego video game whose content clearly perpetuated the age-old stereotype of the monolithic mass of vicious, “savage” brown-skinned “primitives” fighting the white heroic characters on a mission to find the proverbial pot of gold.

“This cannibal is a native of Pelegostos Island where his cannibal tribe believes Captain Jack is their god, trapped inside of a minifigure! He loyally serves Chief Jack – until he tries to serve him for dinner!” reads the description of the Lego character whose portrayal appalled me. Surely enough, the very ethnic group portrayed as cannibals in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the Garinagu of Belize joined with the Kalinago (Caribs) of St Vincent, Dominica and Trinidad to send a protest letter to the executives of the Disney Corporation challenging their negative portrayal in the film, based on an ahistorical 17th century stereotype that is still very prevalent and harmful.

How to challenge destructive stereotypes present in the world around us and effectively address issues of race and racism were the topics discussed in the excellent and informative workshop I attended earlier this month in Seattle. “Talking with Children and Youth about Race,” taught by Dr. Caprice Hollins and co-facilitator Ilsa Govan of Cultures Connecting, offered the following tips I would argue work well in conversations with adults as well:
  • We don’t have to have all the answers.
  • Ask questions to see what the child is thinking and to get the child to think deeper (do not assume you know until you hear more).
  • We don’t have to be profound or “seize the moment,” as if it is the only one we have.
  • We don’t have to respond immediately. It’s okay to think, research, ask a trusted adult for input first before coming back to the conversation.
  • We can learn & explore with the kids.

Most importantly, SLOW THE CONVERSATION DOWN.

I came away from the workshop realizing that many of us, whether of color or white, are the first generation to have deep conversations about race with the younger generation, finding our way. It’s good to connect with others on a parallel journey.

Disney did not listen to the advocates from the Caribbean, but my six-year-old and I have already had a few of good conversations about problematic depictions of dark-skinned native people in the media and games. More discussions will follow.

Please share with us your stories about how you teach your kids, extended family and friends’ kids, about cultural stereotypes, via the comments section below.

Or, please share with us also your own story of intercultural effectiveness, via the form on this page.