Socially Accepted Racism: How European Antiziganism Prevails

Antiziganism: racism or prejudice against Romani people. 

“The Gypsy Fortune-Teller” by Georges de la Tour (c. 1630), France, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 123.5 cm

After arriving in Europe during the Middle Ages from Northern India, Romani people faced distrust, forced assimilation, and oppression. Several states legalised the murder of Romani, and certain regions of present-day Romania only abolished Romani slavery in 1856. Together with Jews, they were blamed for nearly everything from the plague to arson, and like the Jewish people, they faced genocide under Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany, with an estimated death toll between 220,000 and 1,500,000. In Auschwitz, for instance, Dr. Joseph Mengele is said to have been particularly fond of experimenting on Romani children.

Nazi deportation of Roma & Sinti people from Asperg, 1940

Unlike the Jews, however, survivors of the Porajmos (the Romani Holocaust) received no reparations from Germany after World War II (nor did queer or disabled people). During the Nuremberg Trials, Romani justice was never an issue on the agenda. Indeed, the Federal Republic of Germany stated that everything done to Romani before 1943 were “legitimate official measures against persons committing criminal acts, not the result of policy driven by racial prejudice”, and West Germany only recognised the Porajmos as a genocide in 1982. Decades after the Holocaust, European governments (including NorwaySlovakia, and the Czech Republic) still had a policy of forced or coerced sterilisation of Romani women. The last documented case occurred as late as 2003 in the Czech Republic.

This is not a history lesson. This is a story of a continuous and appalling ethnic persecution that endures all over Europe to this day.

While “Europe” still invokes an image of old money and welfare states in the US, the continent is in fact undergoing its largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Marginalised and oppressed groups are the greatest victims of unemployment, homelessness, and the neo-Nazi and right-wing populist rhetoric that is spewing hatred across the continent. As they have for centuries, Romani people occupy the spot at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy.

With a new wave of European right-wing extremism, exemplified through the rise of parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, Romani people are increasingly harassed and discriminated against across the entire continent. However, the current persecution is not founded on these political movements, but rather on the deep-rooted and socially acceptable racism against Romani imbedded in European society.

The “Romani problem”, as Thorbjørn Jagland (Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee) refers to it as, is centered around a lack of understanding and respect for a group with fundamentally different languages, cultures, and ways of living than the rest of Europe. Governments increasingly deny any responsibility for the welfare of Romani, who face forced and illegal evictionsgeographical segregationpoor healthcare conditions, and terrible educational support. Romani children rarely attend preschool or kindergarten, often have delayed school starts, and are not offered education in their first language (Romani variants). Additionally, they face bullying and discrimination from teachers and classmates alike. As a result, they often score poorly on placement tests, and are handed over to special education schools. This effectively segregates Romani from ethnic minority children: in Slovakia, 85% of children in the special educational system are Romani, even though Romani only comprise 10 % of the population. Romani have much higher illiteracy rates than other European populations, which in turns make them more vulnerable to exploitation and oppression.

In the past four years alone, France has deported 10,000 Romani. Norway has approved legislation outlawing begging, for the explicit purpose of acquiring legal grounds to deport Romani. The Czech RepublicHungaryRomania, and Slovakia frequently send Romani children to all-Romani schools with sub-par educational quality, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Recently, it was revealed that a Swedish police department has (illegally) kept secret databases of 4,000 people, most of them Romani. More than 1,000 on the list were children. The police claims that there was no ethnic basis for the list, despite its title: “Kringresande” (“Travellers”).

Still of Esméralda & Frollo in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The issues facing Romani intersect with wider problems, such as poverty, ethnic tensions, the continued schism between Eastern and Western Europe, and the long and bitter history between Romani and ethnic majorities in Europe. However, a continued reluctance to examine the pervasive stereotypes of Romani contributes to the status quo. Divided between gleeful media reports on the “Gypsy invasion” in Western Europe and a romanticised Hollywood portrayal of freedom-loving travellers, policymakers and the public alike fail to acknowledge the complex issues facing Romani today. In the US, it seems, Romani are only known through the “Gypsy archetype”: a passionate temper, fortune-telling and magic, a love of freedom, and criminal inclinations. Cultural representation of Romani, from Carmen and The Hunchback of Notre Dame through One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Witch of Portebello are highly problematic and frequently ignore the actual and historical struggles of the group, as well as the cultural diversity within the Romani diaspora.

Romani women, in particular, are continuously exotified and sexualised in media. This ignores the fact that 61% of married English Romani women have experienced domestic violence, but lack culturally competent support and feel a strong (and justified) distrust of the police and public institutions. Romani women in the UK are three times more likely to miscarry or give birth to stillborn children than the national average, probably because of their lack of access to healthcare and sanitation. Still, Romani women are rarely — if ever — asked about their experiences or invited to create culturally appropriate or ethnically specific support programs.

The historical oppression of Romani people has yet to come to an end, unlike that of other ethnic minorities in Europe. The devastating consequences of centuries of persecution are very much seen today, and more so in the context of financial downturn. European citizens need to accept the uncomfortable truth: that the continued attempts to assimilate Romani people into domineering mainstream cultures is an act of cultural violence against a group that has experienced nothing but cultural violence from our governments, and that the extreme poverty the group faces is an ethical responsibility we must all work towards repairing.


Images Courtesy of Google Images


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