Saturday, 12 January 2013

Will gypsies ever be Romanian and not only Roma?

What are this girl's hopes and dreams? To steal your wallet? 
This is a fair question to ask, and a serious one given the intense racism still held in the hearts of otherwise perfectly average Romanians against gypsies living in the country. Blamed for practically all petty crime in Romania, and often confused with Romanians when travelling overseas - thanks to the Roma connection - it's a complex knot to untie.

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."
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.
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.

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.


  1. The usual attitude of the Romanians toward the Roma is not really racism but rather a self-defence, at ethnic and individual level. At ethnic level because Roma, with their high natality, are seen as a threat for the demography of Romania (in fact, Roma natality rate is falling fastly to become equal with the one of other ethnic groups). At individual level, Roma are usually sly and almost everytime you deal something with them you're swindled in a way or another.

    Yes, is true that this character of Roma is partly explained by their situation of second hand people in past centuries and that if they woudn't been so antisocial they would feel somehow stronger this difference (the same thing explains probably the higher criminality among Black Americans).

    But nobody want to be hurt, so in this point don't judge Romanians too harsh. Is not only the opinion of Romanians about Roma this way but also of the Hungarians and anybody that lived along them in the same country.


  2. Hi,
    The photos you posted are not relevant to how gypsies in Romania are.
    Looking at things from a more realistic point of view, myself living close to the center of Bucharest, let me tell you that you feel liking passing trough a 20 meter wide alternate dimension when you walk/drive on a street, in front of a gypsy house and aggressive dogs start running out of the yard, barking, trying to bite you. And don't try to hit the dogs, because you get beaten by the gypsies for hitting their dogs.
    Also having gypsy neighbors (and alot of us do) means that ALWAYS you have (HAVE) to listen to their music playing at 130% volume (gypsy popular music).
    It's very hard to love or even not to dislike them.

  3. Fair point Moisuc, but that's the way it always is: when you want to hate somebody you depersonalize them (e.g. what the Americans did to the Japanese in World War II), and when you want to love somebody you romanticize them. The reality is always somewhere inbetween. In this instance, an image like that is a worthwhile contrast: for every Roma who fits the negative stereotypes, we would be able to find one who fits the romantic stereotype in the image.

    The reason I can recognise this is that it's no different in South Africa: talk to racist white people about black people, and they'll give you a raft full of stereotypes - most of which don't apply, if you happen to actually associate with black people yourself.

    In your specific case, I'd have to ask you how much you associate with 'gypsy' individuals ... you talk about 'gypsy house' and 'the gypsies', not about [insert names]? You're clearly depersonalising, and that's the first sign that you're on the other side of the fence instead of the objective centre.

    1. During my childhood, I spent summers in a village (Corbeni, Arges county), which is flanked by 2 smaller gypsy villages. All 3 villages had(and have) a good symbiotic relationship i.e the gypsies work the land(for money) from the larger romanian village, while most romanian villagers work at a nearby giant dam. Of course I`m not saying of them do X or Y, but it's mostly like that. Also alot of hate (not speaking about myself) comes from the fact that gypsies keep stealing power/phone/fiber cables or related equipment, massive stealing sewer covers, irigation pipes etc etc (everything is sold for scrap metal etc). I dont mind having a good time, sharing workplace or whatever with any culture, educated or 'normal' gypsies included, but it's hard to have good feelings about a person which acts, smells one step below an ape (all cultures in the world are included here), but most of gypsies are like that. I`m sure the problem is completly different from South Africa because here, most gypsies are taught by their parents to steal, lie, rob etc etc. Very very few exceptions. How many of your existing stereotypes are still valid in the present day ? I mean at present time, if everyone forgot all the stereotypes, how many would be remade ? if any.

    2. Hi Moisuc. I think we've got more in common in South Africa than you might think. Here the white population treats the black population with great suspicion for the most part, even though the majority of the country is black. There's a fair amount of crime - including violent crime like aggravated house robberies and hijackings - and that stokes those prejudices. At work the races get by ok, but there's still only minimal social interaction (this is changing with the younger educated generations).

      We also have scrap metal thieves in South Africa, but people almost don't mind because at least they're not hijackers ... go figure.

      I think we need to distinguish between gypsy 'culture' and a social reaction to what they may perceive as social injustice or prejudice towards themselves, and a lack of opportunities in the formal employment market.

      I have no doubt that if you or I were unemployed and faced with starvation, we'd embark on crime as well ... all that lies between humanity and anarchy is money, or rather, the hope of it. In the face of all that, can we still really talk about 'blacks are like...' or 'gypsies are all...'? If they all WERE like whatever some people claim, the problem would be exponentially worse than it is made by a handful who fit the mould.

  4. You say "to any Romanians reading this", implying that all are despising gypsies - isn't that a depersonalization / generalization as well? Not all of them are, just as not all Romanians are vampires (but psst, please don't tell that to anyone, it'd ruin our gig ;) ).

    Hypothesis: Because the urge to express (negative) emotions is much higher than stating neutrality, a loud minority (like the aggressive guy you're citing) can form biased perceptions about a silent majority which isn't bothered to react.

    Interesting article, thanks for laying your thoughts out, hope you don't mind us linking to it.

    1. Thanks Mr/Ms Vampire. You'd be surprised, from what I can see from the outside it does indeed seem that anti-Roma sentiment is common for the majority of Romanians. In fact, if as many Romanians were vampires (to us your example) as are anti-Roma, Transylvania wouldn't be the only tourism hotspot ;)

      As for the linking, go wild!