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How to Be a Better Ally for Roma People

Part 1

6 Ways to Be a Better Ally for Roma People[1]

I was born in Sibiu, Romania, in the 1980s, at a time when the socialist welfare state determined to provide “stable, if inadequate, jobs and social services to the Roma community” as Oana Oprean suggests. Part of the socialist solution was to integrate the Roma children into Romanian state schools. My primary school classroom was as diverse as one would have it: Romanian, Roma, Saxon, and Hungarian children all came together as they learned to spell and count. However, the marginalization and bullying of Roma children by the Romanian student majority took place every day under the ignorant eyes of teachers, who did not want to understand this kind of practice as an early exercise in prejudice against the Roma. They usually turned a blind eye to incidents of violence against Roma children, and when they didn’t, they relied on stereotype and accused the persecuted child of instigating turbulence.

I was a quiet witness, buying into this brutality against my Roma colleagues for fear of being beaten, and thus reinforcing the cycle of harassment through silence. After the fall of Communism in 1989, a revival of the open prejudice and persecution of the Roma in Romania led to their bearing the blame for Romania’s failure to reconstruct a collapsed economy and to address social injustice in general. Carol Silverman writes that “Since 1989, progrom and mob attacks against Rom neighborhoods have been reported in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics, coupled with deliberate non-intervention by authorities.” The normalization of anti-Roma attitudes not only in Romania but across Central and Eastern Europe as demonstrated by numerous polls continues in the 21st century. One day in the early 1990s, a playmate in our neighborhood started calling me “Gana,” a name derived from the Romanian word for Roma woman or girl. She explained in childspeak that compared to her blonde hair, my brown hair and summer tan translated into ethnic markers. Gana became my nickname until we all left home for college. At that time, I resented the nickname not only because I did not want to be affiliated to a community I was learning to stigmatize, but also because, perhaps, in a way, it may have spoken of some hidden ancestry, one that my family could never trace back. Surely the nickname strengthened my decision not to say anything about the bullying in school because I did not want to become the target of bullies by affiliation.

Although it is impossible for me to undo my childhood years of silence, I write this short guide in hopes not only of unveiling a shameful part of my past and reclaiming my nickname, but also of guiding my fellow Romanians and anyone willing to lend an ear towards the lessons I learned in my journey of becoming an ally for the Roma people. In order to undo a history of injustice, we must act now.

Here are a few things you should do as an ally for Roma people:

  1. Recognize your own privilege

The term “privilege” refers to one or more advantages, benefits, degrees of respect a person has as a result of belonging to certain social groups that have historically maintained dominance over others; these social groups have been able to dominate others precisely because others have been suppressed, oppressed, colonized, or enslaved. A guide on privilege and intersectionality by Melissa A. Hofmann at Rider University offers examples of such privileged groups: whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians, the wealthy. The contemporary concept of privilege was first theorized as such by Peggy McIntosh, and you can read her 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” here. It is important not only to recognize if you belong to a privileged group, but also to seek ways in which you can use your privilege to help others who do not have it.

  1. Educate yourself[2]

At the turn of the 20th century, the biologization of national belonging was used as an explanation for the need to rejuvenate the Romanian nation, and served as a pseudo-scientific reasoning for the marginalization, oppression, and murder of minority groups, among which were the Roma. Scholars such as Maria Bucur and Marius Turda study this phenomenon. Based on their work, one could suggest that these attitudes have not disappeared but have transformed into contemporary means of injustice, and Ioanida Costache brilliantly addresses these in her contributions to DoR. You must commit to discovering the ways in which mainstream history obscures marginal histories, especially when these chip at the moral integrity of a certain regime, nation, or coalition.

woman reading

To learn more about biopolitics that informed national politics in Romania, I recommend:

Today, little remains known about the Roma in Romania and elsewhere, other than what the sensationalist media depicts. Academic departments for Roma Studies are still not given the attention they deserve. Roma scholars and scholars of Roma Studies remain understudied and unread. For these reasons, I recommend that you begin perhaps with the following readings.[2]

  1. Listen to and include Roma voices

It is important to include Roma voices in any research, artistic, social, political, etc. project you undertake. Read, watch, and listen to Roma voices. The list below is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather offers you a starting point for learning about the international Roma artist community.

  1. Have difficult conversations

It is important to engage in dialogue and conversations on topics that make you uncomfortable. That the fear of saying the wrong thing keeps people from engaging in hard conversations should not prevent these conversations from happening. If you happen to belong to a group whose social identity garners a certain amount of privilege, it is important that you do the leg work to understand how this privilege shapes your worldview. Here are some steps to take if you want to engage in difficult yet meaningful conversation: Acknowledge that it is hard to have difficult conversations and validate your interlocutor’s emotions; Be an active listener and ask open questions to better understand your interlocutor’s perspective; Be mindful of your use of language and know that some words or formulations could be misinterpreted or hurtful; Lastly, seek out opportunities to engage in conversation with Roma people, scholars, artists, activists, and educators.

social justice conversation

One such opportunity took place on February 19, 2021, when the American Romanian Coalition for Human and Equal Rights (ARCHER) organized an online public event called “Remembering Roma Enslavement.” This dialogue stemmed from the importance of recognizing Roma ostracization and marginalization by understanding some of the community’s history and traumas. The event included both the screening of “Letter of Forgiveness,” a short movie offering a glimpse at Roma history in Romania and directed by Alina Serban; and a conversation between Dr. Otilia Baraboi, Executive Director at American Romanian Cultural Society, Dr. Margareta (Magda) Matache, Director of the Roma Program at Harvard FXB, Alina Serban, director, actress, and Roma activist, Dr. Marius Turda, Professor in 20th Century Central and Eastern European Biomedicine, Oxford Brookes University, Adrian Nicolae Furtuna, MA in Advanced Sociological Research, University of Bucharest, Mihaela Campion, clinical psychotherapist, and Creative visionary of ARCHER, and Andreea Mottram ARCHER co-founder.

  1. Donate

Join groups working for social justice for the Roma and promoting Roma culture and awareness. Commit to financially support them if you are able.  While you may be familiar with some of the most well-known international organizations, such as European Roma Rights Centre, Roma Education Fund, and International Romani Union, there are other smaller organizations whose work have a valuable and visible impact that are able to operate because of the support from donors. These are the entities that need your support perhaps more so now. I encourage you to learn more about and support the following such organizations:

Roma People’s Project at Columbia University

E-Romnja

Voice of Roma

  1. Intervene

Intervention can happen in a number of ways. Here are a few. When a Roma person is being verbally, physically, or otherwise abused, intervene. But do so only with their permission. By seeking permission, you ensure you are responding and supporting the person targeted by violence. Otherwise your reaction only engages the aggressor. If someone says something ignorant about the Roma, call them out on it. Silence leads to complicity. Don’t be afraid to speak about justice. However, if you are the one being called out on something you said or did, do no get defensive. Rather, listen actively and carefully, apologize, and change your behavior.  Show up for Roma people in ways that matter: attend protests and marches, sign petitions, stay involved.  But most importantly, don’t be a silent witness.

As my one-year old’s favorite song suggests, “sharing [speaking with, acting with] is caring.” Only with love and care can we build a better tomorrow not only for the Roma people and their children but for everyone.

Nota Bene: Please keep an eye out for Part 2, an interview with Roma People’s Project founder, Cristiana Grigore. Thank you.

[1] All errors and omissions are my own.

[2] Because I am not a Roma Studies expert, I suggest this list of readings only as a starting point. I urge you to seek out and consult other sources. This list is not meant to suggest a hierarchy or to be exhaustive.

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