Time For Uncomfortable Conversations

Americans in Slovakia celebrating 4th of July, 2020 in Slovakia.

My palms clam up as I sit at my desk, open up my computer and wait. After a week chock-full of uncomfortable but vital conversations about racial injustice, police brutality and protesting following the May 25 murder of George Floyd, I prepare for the latest conversation I will have on this topic. When I pluck up the courage to start the call, my last interviewee, a police officer in the US, answers on the first ring.

My father is nothing if not prompt.

As a generations-long conversation is being reignited back home, I am trying to find ways to hold up my end of the bargain as a journalist and use my platform to contribute to a collective solution that is way overdue. But sadly, in Slovakia, George Floyd’s name does not come up often in daily conversation, and as an American expat, it is far too easy to opt out of the conversation all together.  

Living abroad almost feels like another layer of privilege.

So in the weeks that followed George Floyd’s murder, I reached out on behalf of The Slovak Spectator to the American community living in Slovakia to hear their thoughts on what’s going on. Within a week, close to a dozen Americans had responded. Some were educators, some were parents and some had experienced an America where black and white people were segregated by law.

All of them were anxious to talk.

I spoke with Miles White, a retired black musician and writer who lived in Bratislava for close to ten years before moving to Hungary in 2019. As a young boy, White saw Martin Luther King JR. walk right past his house in Selma, Alabama during the 1965 march to Montgomery demanding the right to vote for black citizens. But in White’s eyes, the demonstrations that have erupted worldwide following Floyd’s murder are even bigger than the civil rights era. 

I spoke with educators at an American international school who are educating both themselves and their students on what systemic racism looks like in practice. They are careful to emphasise that racism happens in Slovakia too and there is an important difference between not-racist and anti-racist. 

As I listened, wrote, and listened some more, I realized that this article cannot be the only one I write about the Black Lives Matter movement, which needs and deserves continued coverage. I also realized I needed to speak to my dad, a police chief in a small town in New Hampshire.

Not for the paper – for me. 

I’m not sure why I was nervous to speak with him. I know without a doubt that you can be both a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and of police officers who do their jobs correctly – who truly serve and protect all lives. I know that trying to understand the psychology behind some of the violence occurring during protests in major American cities is not the same as condoning it. And I know what my dad does and does not stand for. 

But I felt compelled to speak with him, and I am so glad I did. 

My dad confirmed that his job is not only to serve and protect, but also to listen to voices that are too often unheard. He too had engaged in some uncomfortable conversations that week, most notably with a young black man working at the subway shop my dad went to for lunch while wearing a police shirt. The young man asked him what he thought about everything that was going on, and my dad responded that he was glad that the BLM movement has gained as much momentum as it has. The young man in turn said he didn’t like the violent nature of some of the protests, but he understood where the violence came from and was also glad the BLM movement had gained international attention. 

My dad was thankful for that conversation in the subway shop just as I was thankful for our conversation via Skype.

It takes courage to start an uncomfortable conversation and an active effort to continue it with strangers and family members alike, but it’s one of the very basic things we can do to stand together in standing up against racial injustice, regardless of our geographical position.    

Just before I published my article for the Spectator, Bratislava hosted its first Black Lives Matter gathering.

Americans, other foreigners and Slovaks participated in the demonstration, during which artistic expression took precedence. Several people of colour, some of Slovak origin, took to the stage in the public square in front of the American embassy. The music on offer was truly diverse, ranging from a French rap performance to a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by a Slovak-Canadian guitarist.

It was a beautiful demonstration and necessary reminder that in this broken but beautiful world of neighbors, we expats have a great, shared responsibility to make it better.

I think Charles King, an American teacher in Bratislava, summed it up best:

“We are ambassadors, willing or unwilling. So what should expats do? Just keep standing up.”

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Anna Fay

Anna Fay is a British-American copy-editor and reporter for The Slovak Spectator, an English-language newspaper based in Bratislava, Slovakia. She moved to the Slovak capital, a place she called home during her toddler years, in November 2017.