|What are this girl's hopes and dreams? To steal your wallet?|
Acclimatizing to a new country has a number of phases: you first get off the plane and judge the country by what the airport looks like. Then you step outside and judge the country depending on how friendly your taxi driver is. Then you arrive at your apartment and judge the country based on the number of television channels you receive. And then you open your fridge and judge the country based on what you can eat.
So this process continues, right up until you start judging the country on your interactions with police officers, government officials, business owners and criminals. Maybe somewhere around this point you start noticing other minorities in the country (apart from you as an expat) and you ask yourself how well they're being treated by the majority, and what this means for the psyche of the people you're wanting to essentially become a part of.
You can't tell a South African much about racism we don't already know, that's for sure. As a white South African with my adult years post-democracy, I've had more than my fair share of introspection about race relations, analysing race as a construct at University, balancing reverse racial discrimination in the workplace (a government policy called Black Economic Empowerment) with the overwhelmingly evident need to transform an area which is still dominated by white South Africans even though we are a minority.
Maybe that's why I'm so sensitive to issues involving race, discrimination and racism in particular. I like to think, however, that regardless of my background I'd still find racism in any form despicable, and the mass stereotyping of entire groups of people into specific categories as unfair and utterly wrong. It turns out, however, it's easier to outlaw racism in countries' Constitutions than in their hearts and minds.
For anybody not familiar with the Roma, there's a decent short summary here and a lengthier Wikipedia article here. My favourite quote, however, comes from this article, where the writer puts this problem particularly succinctly:
People make it easy for themselves by blaming the Gypsies for Romania's bad image in the world, eternally bewailing the fact that people abroad are unable to distinguish Romanians (all honourable, peaceful, diligent citizens, blessed with the virtues of their forefathers) from the gypsies, this "surrogate folk," as our stupid, racist jokes will have them. In fact the Gypsy problem in Romania results from Romania's policy towards the Gypsies, and not from the "inferiority of their race."This culture of 'othering' towards gypsies in Romania isn't particular to the country, either. It's certainly not something which the 'cultured West' is immune to, even when gypsies are specifically in focus. Have a look at this textbook definition of 'othering' from that great bastion of British journalism, The Sun, or this story about France's mass deportations of Roma.
Perhaps one should recall from time to time the historical roots of the problem. The Romanians in Wallachia and Moldavia – alone in Europe – made the Gypsies their slaves, binding them to the soil. Torn from their nomadic way of life, the Gypsies were forced to put down roots on the land of their masters. Like the black slaves in America, free people were turned into workhorses – albeit rational ones.
To any Romanians reading this, despising somebody just because they identify themselves as a gypsy is wrong. I can give you a million reasons why this is, but no post is long enough. Oh, I don't know them, you might say. You don't know how they are. No, you're right, I don't, but I'm willing to wager that neither do you. I look at these photos of Romanian gypsies, and I don't see evil people there. Certainly, a different culture, but not so alien that it deserves the wrath one commentator expressed in a discussion thread:
Naturally I didn't let him get away with it. With every comment I fought him tooth and nail - indeed, I still am - but common sense is hard to impose on somebody who has grown up with various casual racial constructs an unquestioned part of life. However, it's not just about him - it's all of Romania, France, and even the UK (as my stories show).
It's wherever somebody is discriminated against with a complete lack of understanding. The solution is obvious: Romanians need to enter into discussions with Roma, both formal and informal. It's the only thing that worked in South Africa, in the US, in Germany ...where healing only came through true understanding. Instead of attributing all evil to gypsies, rather go speak to gypsies about what it's like being the outsiders in the country of your birth - through doing so, you'll be deconstructing the myth instead of reinforcing it.