Fifty shades of racism, or the inclusion of Romani minorities in Europe

Julija Sardelić
50 shades of racism

In 1613, Miguel de Cervantes published Novelas Ejemplares, a collection of short stories. The first of these was entitled La Gitanilla or The Little Gypsy Girl. This story presented a narrative about a girl named Preciosa, who lived with the Gypsies and was considered to be the most beautiful among them. She caught the eye of a young ‘nobleman’, who falls in love with her. In short, the story has a ‘happy end’ as it turns out that there are no problems for them to get married since it was established that she is also ‘noble’, but was kidnapped from her biological parents by the Gypsies.

This short summary of La Gitanilla serves as an example how racist stereotypes on Romani minorities persist over centuries. Even at the present moment, we are able to witness such stereotypes gain prominence in response to some localised event, which then spread and almost instantly become a global media spectacle. For instance, in October 2013, the media attention fuelled by stereotypes started with reporting on a trial in Nancy (France), in which a group of Roma from Croatia were suspected of organised crime, mostly petty thefts. This attracted massive media attention on Romani minorities. Some media spiced up the story by including a detail on supposed arranged child marriages and also raised the question over the EU enlargement and migration of Roma towards the ‘wealthier’ EU countries. Another headline story also included ‘Roma migration’, or deportation to be exact, when a girl, whose father, a Roma who was born in Kosovo, was taken for deportation by the French police in front of her classmates, while on a high school excursion. This ignited student protests all over France, which mostly protested about how the police handled this particular deportation.

The most prominent story was first presented as plotted by Cervantes himself: a blonde girl Maria, dubbed a blonde angel by the Greek media, was ‘found’ in a Romani settlement in Greece during a police raid. She was taken from her caretakers, who had darker skin than hers and later a DNA analysis was conducted to prove that they were not her biological parents. Some of the headlines in Greece even stated how the DNA test proved that the blonde girl was surely not Roma.

This story, however, did not have a ‘happy ending’ as in Cervantes’ novel: the ‘blonde’ girl was not of the upper ‘white’ class, but her biological parents were even poorer Romani family from Bulgaria. In addition, Romani individuals in this story still remained suspects in a supposed case of child trafficking. And this triggered a response as a domino effect in other places in Europe, such as Ireland, where also a couple of Roma children were taken from their biological parents on the grounds of having darker skin colour compared to the children they were taking care of and because they could not produce proper documents for these children. They were returned to their parents only after the DNA analysis confirmed they were biologically related.  Commenting on these events, Jake Bowers, a Romani journalist from the UK, told the BBC that the recent events prove that racist rules apply to Roma; they are considered guilty by the wider society until proven innocent.

Since it became obvious that many of the headlines reporting on these stories were fuelled by racist discourse, the Commissioner of Human Rights of Council of Europe Nils Muižnieks as well as the European Roma Rights Centre reacted and called for more responsible media reporting on Romani minorities. As soon as it was proven that little Maria was Roma after all, and not some figure from the Cervantes’ short story, the media attention on her virtually disappeared. As Željko Jovanović, director of the Roma Initiatives Program at the Open Society Institute, noted, she became invisible once again, just like many other Roma children all around Europe who live below the poverty line and without documents, which would prove their identity and give them basic rights as citizens of their states.

In many media reports there were different forms of racist discourse, which spanned from the ‘old-fashioned’ biological racism to more sophisticated latent forms of racism-without-race, or cultural racism, to paraphrase Paul Gilroy and Étienne Balibar. All of these different shades of racism in the media were used to justify the position of Romani minorities in different states as well as Europe as a whole, and portray them as a potential danger for the majority population. However, when examining the latent structural dynamics, which were not problematised in the media, it becomes clear that all these shades of racism are present not only in the media domain, but are embedded even deeper in the tissues of the society. There was almost no discussion of why there are constant police raids in the Romani settlements in Greece, on one hand. On the other hand, only a few authors asked how it is possible that in the 21st century some people do not have access to basic documents to prove their identity and have access to their citizenship.

There was discussion on potential cases of child trafficking within the Roma community, but practically none of the media mentioned how more than 500 Romani children disappeared while being in a Greek state care facility. Furthermore, Leonarda, the high school student who was deported to Kosovo with her family to a place she had never lived, in the last month became a symbol of a student rebellion in France. However, the deportation itself was not questioned so much as the way in which she was deported in front of her classmates. Thus, there was almost no debate on thousands of individuals categorised as belonging to Romani minorities (besides Roma also Ashkali and Egyptians), who were previously deported from Western Europe to Kosovo. Likewise, there was no inquiry about the reintegration of these deportees, which  remains a big problem in the post-conflict Kosovan society or what is the position of Romani minorities in general, who remain an ‘invisible community’ in post-conflict Kosovo.

Yet, most of the commentators of these events still tiptoe around using racism(s) as an underlying cause of the positioning of Romani minorities in different European states, as if it was something that does not occur on the European continent and especially not in the European Union. Some of the scholars do point out that Romani minorities became very vulnerable to extreme rightist upheavals due to the economic crisis in most of the European states. However, although this analysis can be considered correct, it also has to be taken into account that the position of Romani minorities is not a product of societal processes occurring in the last five years. Acknowledging this, it has become a sort of a mantra by different policy makers that the position of Romani minorities is a product of a centuries-long social exclusion and now it has to be considered how to integrate them into the society. More controversial authors even begged the question whether Roma can be integrated after such a long period of social exclusion.

Framing the position of Romani minorities in terms of social exclusion usually remains undisputed. It is also not questioned that social exclusion sometimes alludes that Romani minorities are themselves to blame for their position and now the wider society as their saviours has to work out how to integrate them.  On the other hand, few intellectuals, such as Angela Kóczé, a sociologist and a Roma feminist activist, point out that the position of Roma is the product of a longstanding structural discrimination.

Paradoxically, the position of Romani minorities can be contemplated in fact as a product of social inclusion since they are never outside the society, although positioned on the margins. However, the social inclusion of Romani minorities is hierarchical and unequal, highlighted by different shades of racism present in the society. That is why it is possible that at the same time individuals belonging to Romani minorities have impeded access to basic identification documents (even birth certificates) on one hand, while on the other hand the same individuals can be constantly subject to police investigations.

Furthermore, this is also an explanation of how Romani children are ‘included’ into the segregated classes, and have, in some cases, in addition to constant bullying in schools, also separate entrances. To comprehend the complex position of Romani minorities, binary oppositions and Manichean thinking of inclusion/exclusion have to be transcended. Furthermore, there needs to be study of how different shades of racism are latently incorporated into societies to justify the hierarchical inclusions. And not least, racism needs to be named as such even if it comes in the lightest shade. Only then will it be possible to contemplate the inclusion of Romani minorities on equal grounds, as other citizens, and not some mythical characters that have come out of a centuries-old story.