The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary

Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho

In 2020 a renewed wave of protests broke out in the United States with the aim of spreading awareness about social injustices against people of color in the country and bringing about major changes. The massive movements were first provoked by the murder of George Floyd, an African American man suffocated by a police officer’s knee. The case was not unprecedented; however, a video recording was made of the incident and uploaded to the internet. It is not surprising that the visual proof of such a brutal killing shocked and outraged many people, and not only in the States. Movements in support of Black Lives Matter have arisen around the world, including in Hungary. But are they productive?

Black people in America have a history that the country is not proud to look back at. The institution of slavery was only abolished in 1865, after a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives, only to be succeeded by a century of strict racial segregation. By 1965 (only 55 years ago) the country finally truly complied with its own constitution, and granted equal laws for all of its citizens, no matter their race. But as one would imagine, transition in practice is not smooth at all. Black people still face discrimination on a daily basis: no equal opportunities in terms of schooling and jobs, lower living standards — not to mention stereotypes and prejudice that are deeply rooted in societies and cannot be eliminated from one day to the next. Oftentimes such prejudice leads to unfair treatment from not only individuals, but also large institutions — like the police.

Now let us look at racism in a much smaller, European country: Hungary. According to a survey conducted in 2016*, about 53% of Hungarians are xenophobic, even though many Hungarians think of their people in general as “vendégszerető”, meaning “loving of guests” and, all in all, welcoming and eager to befriend newcomers. But what if the newcomer is not only a guest, but someone permanently residing in the country? What if this person is planning to steal our job? And most importantly, what if the person’s skin is darker than ours? Well, it is certain that this person is armed with bombs and could blow us up any second. At any rate, that’s what the right-wing government propagated for years during the European migrant crisis. In truth, most Hungarians (outside of Budapest) have not yet encountered people from the Middle East or Africa. So, if a black person were to walk through a village, all eyes would be upon them, but solely out of unveiled curiosity and shock. If a 75-year-old lady were to call them Satan himself, it would most likely be a result of folklore and being of an older generation who has only seen white people. Unless the lady were truly xenophobic, she would probably offer the black person some gulyás and be nice to them, after getting to know them. This is not to say that calling someone the devil and calling them out for their race is acceptable, but such incidents are not worth taking seriously. In contrast, the incoming wave of immigrants to Europe and the surrounding deterrent campaign has had a great impact on Hungarians, hence the drastic shift in the percentage of xenophobic people in the country (moreover, the propaganda was primarily aimed at people of Muslim faith, who are often associated with darker skin colors). Yet even this affects few individuals in Hungary itself.

If we talk exclusively about black people, very few of them choose to live in Hungary, and of those that do, the majority reside in Budapest (not a high number of them here either). Budapest, being the capital and by far the largest city with its two million inhabitants, is far ahead of the rest of the country: a diverse and much more accepting place in terms of ethnicities. Thus discrimination based on origin is uncommon there. The number of non-white, non-Hungarian people in other Hungarian settlements is so small, that institutional differentiation against them is unable to become large-scale or a significant problem, even if the inhabitants are far less tolerant than those in Budapest.

This, however, is absolutely not the case when it comes to the situation of the Roma people. They make up for the largest ethnic minority in Hungary, and everyone is familiar with them. If Hungarians are serious about addressing racism in the country, tackling Roma conditions and relations must be a priority for them.

The BLM movements of the USA have never been greater than this year, and so they had an impact on many other countries with or without black minorities. Protests broke out across Europe as well, and Hungarians soon joined in. In the summer of 2020, about a thousand people gathered for a peaceful demonstration in front of the US Embassy of Budapest. 

The primary aim of the movements is to bring fundamental changes to a faulty system. What was the aim of the Hungarian demonstration? To try to have an impact on the government of the country where it all started, to try to make a change in American politics and everyday life? Or to alter the Hungarian system’s way of treating black people? Naturally, both would be noble goals, though not very achievable, nor—arguably—too relevant to an average Hungarian. A third reason for these gatherings remains the likeliest and most logical possibility: people wanted to show solidarity for the protesters trying to bring actual changes. Thus the “Black Lives Matter” signs and the BLM-themed Artwork in the 9th District—a nice gesture of sympathy. 

So, which of these reasons predominates? The paramount goal of the movements’ participants must not have been the expression of solidarity (after all, many terrible, constant things are present in the world, even closer to us than America, that people do not go on the streets for). So trying to open people’s eyes and making a difference remains as the primary aim. If that is the case, why do these people not protest for the equality of Roma people? Why wouldn’t these people try to help them obtain equality in employment opportunities or, more importantly, help Roma children get proper education, if they are so keen on bringing social justice? Segregation of these kids is an everyday phenomenon in Hungarian education, beginning in first grade, even though it is looked upon by everyone as something normal. How does one acknowledge racism against black people in the United States but not realize how flawed the situation of Roma people in one’s own country is? Speaking in general, Hungarians oftentimes have a reason to be scared of gypsies, as the Roma people have a reputation, often justified, for being uneducated and aggressive. However, this is largely a result of a decades-long marginalization. They often face derogatory treatment from others and are deprived of proper quality education from an early age. A cycle like this is hard to break out of, and so is defying the expectations.

People go around assuming gypsies’ inferiority all day, just to go home and share a post about racial discrimination in the U.S. in their Instagram story and feel proud for “raising awareness”. Here’s the point: Black Lives Matter movements have become something trendy and ubiquitous, something to hop on, something to show how socially aware you are; perhaps most importantly, they are something American. It has become pretentious and attention-seeking to claim to be fighting for social justice, because being a social justice warrior nowadays is just like wearing the most recently stylish outfits: incredibly popular and just a trend. Following a trend with good intent behind it is not harmful — but ignoring actual problems in your own country is.