By Navya Khanna
Otto Müller, Fairuza Balk, Ronald Lee and Rita Hayworth are prominent public figures in the field of art, cinema and academia. All these people have two things in common. They are extremely successful in their professions and belong to the Romani community.
Who are Romani people?
The Roma community have their origins from Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of India and live mostly in Europe and the United States. According to Open Society Foundations, Roma is a diverse group of peoples including Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; Travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others.
However, they are tied together by a common wordbook in Rromanës. This language has its roots in Sanskritic languages. Rromanipé refers to the Roma worldview which means their notions of justice, dignity and honour. They do not follow a single religion and adopt the dominant religion of the country where they are living. As they live in different parts of the world, their culture gives great importance to family values. Traditionally, Roma women read palms, cards, and tea leaves, and were dancers. The men in the community were warriors. Metalworks and craft production has also been part of their traditional occupations.
Since their migration from India to Eastern Europe, they have faced discrimination of every sort: economic, political and social. Under the reign of Nazi Germans, Roma community was subjected to forced labour, humiliation and were considered ”racially inferior”. “German authorities murdered tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial, Nazi Germany and Axis powers are guilty of the extermination of up to 250,000 Romas. Even after the end of the war, the new government of Germany gave the verdict that the mass killing of Roma Community was done as part of official state measures and not motivated by racial discrimination. It was in 1979 that the German government recognised Roma extermination was influenced by racial prejudice. This helped the survivors to apply for compensation for their loss under Nazi occupation. Unfortunately, most of them had decreased at that time.
In European countries, Roma people continue to be discriminated against on a daily basis by majority groups and police authorities as well. They are subjected to hate speech which is often disguised as political speech. They are perceived as a threat to law and order, security and public health of a nation. A research was conducted by the Open Society Institute in Central Europe revealed that “non-Roma respondents consistently expressed negative views of the Roma, describing the Roma as dishonest, aggressive, unhygienic, lacking work ethic, unemployed, poorly educated, and prone to criminality”.
Due to these inherent false beliefs and bigotry among the citizens and political leaders, Roma community like other minority groups in other parts of the world has been further isolated in the COVID-19 pandemic. Without any proof of the spread of the virus in the community, Roma people are barred from leaving their neighbourhood in Bulgaria.
There is a tendency of many nations to use the Roma community as scapegoats at a time of economic and political uncertainty or crisis. According to a report by the Commission For Human Rights(2010), there is a lack of implementation concerning the human rights situation of the Roma community. The Roma population are the most disadvantaged minority group in Europe in sectors such as education, health, employment, housing and political participation.
The European Roma Rights Centre indicated that 64% of working-age Roma have experienced discrimination in employment. Anti-Gypsy rhetoric is normalised so much that the Roma students in Slovakia’s schools are segregated and school authorities arbitrarily categorise them as children with “mild mental disabilities” and are forced to study in special schools. This form of systemic discrimination is not just limited to one nation. Roma students more often than not face bullying from their peers in school. Continuous harassment and attacks on their identity discourage them to attend school. This is why they have the highest rates of absence and are 10 times less likely to get into university than their peers.
Jezmina Vonthiele is a writer and educator, art model based in the States. She has a mixed Sinti heritage and loves to try her hand at all things artistic. Fortune telling and healing are her side hustle which she learned from her grandmother who grew up in Germany. Jezmina tells that her mother and grandmother had warned and sworn her to not reveal her identity. But, as a six-year-old, unaware of the negative consequences, she accidentally told her classmates. From that moment on, she was subjected to discrimination and exclusion by her peers and their parents and teachers as well. Kids threw stones at her and she received detention for “giving the evil eye.”
This is one of the examples of many shameful stereotypes that exist about the Roma community. As Jezmina grew up, her relationship with her Roma identity has deepened. She has found more people like her who are doing great things for the community.
Lolo is an International Politics student and an activist for Romani Rights. She loves writing poetry, k-dramas, listening to music (usually Joji or EtnoRom). She grew up in the Midlands in the UK.
She comes from a mixed family of Gadje and Romanichal people and got to know about being Romani when she was 11 years old. She was often called “pikey” in a contemptuous manner at school. Like many Romas, Lolo grew up in an intergenerational household. She was strictly instructed against revealing her identity, not even to her closest friends. Her parents were worried that it might cost them their jobs and her education.
When Lolo was growing up, she did not have any popular figures to relate to. There was either no representation or misrepresentation of the Roma community. Shows like Big Fat Weddings made lives even more difficult for Lolo and other Roma students like her. Due to the prevalent environment of normalised discrimination against her community, she internalised shame about her Roma identity.
Many Roma students including her are additionally responsible to help their parents navigate the system including the task of explaining the formal paperwork, communicating with citizens’ advice banks. As she completed her high school graduation, she decided to embrace her Roma identity.
Jezmina and Lolo grew up in different parts of the world but had similar experiences when it came to people’s beliefs and reactions to their Roma Identity. Both of them are aware of their privilege as compared to other members of the community, who are not fluent in English and are not light or medium skin.
However, they couldn’t help but notice the unfair treatment imposed on them by other members of society. Today, they take pride in their identity and work towards creating awareness and celebrating Roma lives and experiences. According to them, education institutions can become an inclusive place for Roma community by making small yet impactful reforms such as decolonising curriculums to include Romani history and the contribution made by Romani people in different fields all across the world. There is also a need to address and dismantle systemic racism in policy surrounding education.
Too often, education was made to exclude students whose families are still nomadic, with a lack of appreciation for non-formal methods of education due to generational inaccessibility to educational spaces. It is also essential to appreciate Romani labour and intellectualism. Their contribution through arts, culture, feminist thought should be highlighted. This will encourage Roma youth to take pride in their culturally rich and diverse identity and break the false notions about the community.
Roma community should be made comfortable to voice their experiences so that the real Roma who has multiple identities like all of us can be understood and celebrated. Racist tropes and slurs such as “exotic Gypsy,” “fantasy Gypsy wanderer,” “mystical fortune teller” are dangerous as it overwrites centuries of slavery, displacement, genocide, and persecution. It drowns out their continued struggle for rights and recognition.
There is also a need to support Roma-led initiatives for education and equality. Jezmina and Lolo are optimistic about the future status of Romani people because of the commendable work done by young Romas for the community. One such initiative is Get The Heck Back To School by Selma Selman. This foundation was started by her in 2017 in her hometown, Bihac, Bosnia to encourage Roma girls to enrol in school.
A holistic approach needs to be developed and implemented by national governments and international organisations to make a positive change in the lives of Romani people. The policies shouldn’t only address the social and economic problems of the community but also tackle the instances of microaggression and hate speech against them.
This post was first published here.
About the author: Navya Khanna is a student of Political Science from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University. She is the Founder and President of Diversity Dialogue.