Roma and the American Viewpoint: *Please Read and Comment*

The Hunchback of Notre DameMost of you probably know that a large subplot of my upcoming book (Vodnik) focuses on the main character dealing with racism in Slovakia. Although he’s only 1/4 Roma (the term “Gypsy” is a considered a racial slur, folks), he’s dark-skinned enough to run into problems in the country, which (like much of Europe) has some serious issues with Roma.

This is a subplot that’s been very difficult for me to write, for many different reasons. I went into all of that in a previous blog post. For today’s post, I want to get some ideas down in a slightly different vein.

I’ve been watching a documentary on Netflix called A Film Unfinished. It focuses on the study of a Nazi propaganda movie made in the Warsaw ghetto, detailing some of the tricks and techniques the Nazis used to portray life in the ghetto the way they wanted it portrayed. And as I watched the movie, I noticed that a lot of the rhetoric used by the Nazis against the Jews is still used today by racists. (Surprise surprise, I know.) It was argued that Jews had certain shared characteristics as a people. I have no desire to get into the nitty gritty racist claims–I have a hard time writing them down without feeling like I need to wash my hands.

In any case, I saw in the film the same words and arguments used against Roma today, being used by the Nazis eighty years ago. I’m confident if we went back in time two hundred or two thousand years, you’d find the same arguments popping up. Dehumanize a people–make the argument that they are born “different,” and that nothing they do can make them escape that difference. They’re born thieves. They inherit laziness. Argue that they prefer living in squalor. (Just this morning, my brother-in-law sent me this YouTube video of an illegally built Roma shack being destroyed.) Justify treating a people like animals by claiming that’s the way those people are made. Tell yourself and your countrymen that those people must be dealt with like animals, because they are different. Inherently, fundamentally different.

And it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deprived of opportunities, forced to live off the state, unable to get steady work and income, constantly prejudiced against–is it any wonder that human beings in that condition end up dressing and behaving different?

But all of this is documented elsewhere by people smarter and with more experience than me. And it’s just a side note to what I really wanted to address today. Until I started writing and reading about Roma, I was about as clueless as the typical American. So none of this is meant to come across as a holier-than-thou, finger-pointing sermon, that said, here we go:

I find it interesting that in a culture obsessed with political correctness, so many good people can be so unaware of the hurt their words and attitudes can cause. I think most Americans view Gypsies as characters from fairy tales and the occasional Disney movie. They tell fortunes, they steal children, they travel in colorful little huts on wheels–and they’re not real. They’re a fictional device to be joked about and used in the same way as we might make jokes about Hobbits or trolls or gnomes.

I know that I’m more aware of the issue, but I’ve been surprised how many times I see the word “Gypsy” used casually in conversation or marketing. There’s a BYU furniture company that’s trying to launch, calling itself Gypsy Modular. Really? Are we that unaware of racial slurs that we’d use one to casually brand our company?

One of the reasons might well be because Roma as a people are so splintered and spread across the world. It’s hard to even estimate how many Roma exist: even in Slovakia, the official number is about 90,000. Unofficial estimates range up to more than half a million. That’s a wide margin of error, especially considering Slovakia only has 5.5 million people total. Because Roma are so spread out, it’s difficult for them to get a unified voice that can represent them. It’s also difficult to even group them into a “them.” They have a wide variety of customs and backgrounds. Add to this the fact that many Roma in America don’t identify themselves as such–choosing instead to pass as another race with less social baggage–and what happens?

We live in a country where Huckleberry Finn gets a new edition so that the N-word won’t offend anyone. And yet we can casually laugh and joke about Gypsies coming to steal children. Does anyone else see something wrong with that? We’re outraged by the tremendous loss of life the Holocaust caused for the Jews, but we don’t realize that along with the Jews, Roma were classed as enemies of the race-based state under the Nuremberg laws. The German government paid war reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. They denied those same payments to Roma survivors. Estimates of the death toll for Roma range from 200,000 to 1.5 million (again, it’s difficult to determine exact numbers). Let’s get a bit more specific: half of the Roma in Austria, three quarters of the Roma in Germany, one third of the Roma in France, all of the Roma in Croatia and Estonia–dead. Gone. (Read more here. Ian Hancock is an expert in the field, and has written a lot of valuable information about it. I’m not trying to trivialize the loss of Jewish life. But I am trying to point out they weren’t the only group to suffer from Hitler’s rabid rhetoric.)

And we still make fun of this people? We’re still casually clueless about their plight? These are people who literally still have laws coming out that bar them from entering certain cities in Europe. This is not right.

It’s a complicated situation. I realize that. I love Slovakia, and I love the people I’ve gotten to know there. My book is based on Slovak mythology. I hope that Vodnik will help grow interest in a country that has been overlooked for years. It’s a fantastic place, with a rich and interesting history. But it also shares the same Roma racism that most of the rest of Europe has, and which we as Americans are clueless about. I hope it brings this to light as well. Because the solution to this problem isn’t going to be found in bulldozers and racist legislation. The solution is going to be found in recognizing a people as people.

If Vodnik helps with that at all, I’d be overjoyed.

Anyway. That’s enough of me speaking for now. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject. Prior to reading this post, did you have any idea about the issues I’ve discussed? What is your prior experience with Roma? Please share–it would be immensely valuable to me to hear as many opinions and thoughts as I can.

5 thoughts on “Roma and the American Viewpoint: *Please Read and Comment*”

  1. In the last six months or so (mostly since acquiring Vodnik, but also in relation to other reading I’ve done on the subject, particularly the situation in France and some books that have come out about the history of Roma) I’ve been actively trying to excise the phrase “I was gypped” from my vocabulary because of how it really is as offensive, if you think about where it came from, as saying you “J**ed someone down” in bargaining with them.

    Part of it is, I think, a lack of awareness on the part of Americans that Roma still exist–most of us know them, just as we often first experience Native Americans, through historical narratives that imply they’re not around anymore. We don’t have as large a Roma advocacy presence as Europe does, either, and they’re such a small portion of the population that you might be less likely to meet a Roma in person in the US than you are to meet a Native American if you’re white and live in an insular community with no ties to Native American communities.

    It’s a good question to be asking, though. I think the more we start thinking about diversity, the more we will (as a culture) think about including the groups that have been so marginalized we sometimes don’t even know they exist.

  2. I have done some studying about Roma issues a while back. So I was familiar with most of these. Also that none of them seem to have resolved. I saw a mass email by the Colorado Springs DA warning people of a group of people called the Travelers. This, as I know is also what some groups of Roma are called. This came from the DAs office. Not impressed with DA office right now.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Stacy, I do believe the lack of awareness is a big part of the way Americans approach the Roma issue. It’s not active maliciousness, just passive I-had-no-idea. Of course, ignorance ends up being a pretty poor excuse.

    RC–I’m curious as to why you were studying Roma. What started you on that research? Just wondering how Americans come into contact with this for the first time. And do you have a link to the article about the DA’s email? I’d be interested to read it.

  4. I am mixed breed,my mother was Romaian gypsy my father was american.I had to walk a fence, not just from being mixed, we were also carnies which in itself causes alarm. add gypsy to it and there is another discrimination. I would change any of it. i love the ole world view from being born into that life. I hurt for those that judge what they do not understand that way of life. I was once told when i was 17 that ihad done more then a woman twice my age. I know it was because of my linage that I had so much experiencesin life at such an early age.

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