Today, April 8th, is International Roma Day. It is a day where we celebrate Roma culture and raise awareness of some of the issues faced by Romani people all over the world. In the 21st Century climate of globalisation, inclusion and respect for minorities’ rights and culture, Roma and Sinti people seem to have been forgotten, viewed with prejudice and suspicion, with stereotype still playing a large part in how Roma people are perceived.
Television shows featuring chatty girls in bridal gowns don’t help. Roma people often prefer to be allowed to follow their own practices and enjoy privacy, so much anti-Ziganist discrimination is still prevalent and often unchallenged.
There is, of course, the romantic side, the ‘Esmeralda’ image, and the idea of dancing girls lifting their skirts while dark-eyed men play violins. But in real life, while the arts are frequently celebrated by Roma people, you won’t see dancing bare legged girls. However, there are and have been many people of Romanichal descent in the arts and entertainment business: Ronnie Wood, Robert Plant, Charlie Chaplin, Tracey Emin, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins.
Outside the UK, there are many famous people of Roma descent with whom you probably would not associate Roma heritage at all, including Pablo Picasso, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner and even Elvis Presley, whose ancestors were apparently Sinti.
There is also the prevailing attitude of suspicion and mistrust of Roma people, often instilled in people from a young age. Think of the rhyme ‘My mother said…’.
Nowadays over 60% of Romanichal people live in houses made of bricks. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived in smaller communities, many may have worked in agriculture or been involved with travelling fairgrounds or circuses.
Roma language is part of wider culture: words such as pal, mush, dosh and kushti are well known words, and there are plenty more.
Roma people have lived separate lives and, for centuries, have been the target of prejudice which still goes unchallenged, even today. It makes me sad that the minute a Roma family arrive in a neighbourhood, suspicion precedes action, with calls for eviction. It is astonishing that people still pre-judge in this way. But such racism is rooted in world history and it is not sufficiently challenged.
I once asked a man who brought leaflets to my home asking to remove a local family in a caravan on a nearby disused piece of land why he thought they should be hassled to move away. He was aghast that I had challenged him. His next few words were rooted in absolute prejudice and suspicion, and sadly he assumed that everyone else would naturally share his belief. Within a fortnight the family were gone.
Racism has its roots in a culture of ongoing dehumanisation. The Roma people have a history of such abuses across the world. In the 13th Century, the Byzantines said they were ‘wizards… with satanic inclinations.’ In 1541, Ferdinand I insisted that Roma people were expelled. By the 1700s, Joseph I was hanging adult males without trial and flogging women. In 1725, Friedrich Wilhelm’s slaughter of Roma males was backed by the Lutheran Church.
Non-Roma populations have been desensitised by centuries of myths and suspicions about Roma people. Stigmatised, herded, persecuted, even called ‘vermin,’ Roma people were stripped of their humanity and targeted due to their ethnicity. In the early 20th century, in the time leading up to the Holocaust and paving the way for focused euthanasia, they were referred to as ‘Lives unworthy of life’, (Lebensunwertes Leben).
The Romani genocide, the Porajmos (the devouring), saw the slaughter of thousands of Roma men, women and children. Even now, the number of deaths is not clear, but we know the number is between 220,000 and half a million.
Josef Mengele was particularly interested in Roma children for his medical experiments in Auschwitz, apparently feeding them sweets before performing amputations and attempting to change their eye colour.
The German government paid war reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but not to the Roma people. There were no consultations at Nuremberg. Ian Hancock, political advocate and Romani scholar, said that Roma people “are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.”
Dr. Hancock is a brilliant and very knowledgeable author, and I recommend any of his books for readers who would like more background information beyond this blog.
However, this is April 8th, International Roma Day. How should we celebrate it? There are twelve million Roma alive today. There are many of us who share Roma heritage through our parents and grandparents. And there are many people worldwide who believe that intolerance is intolerable. There is much we can do, including campaigning for equal rights, asking for political support from the European Parliament, working on a local level to ask for education and change, talking to people about their lives, their culture, and their choices.
It is also important to move towards tolerance and understanding, and to seek opportunities to enable one of the world’s largest minority populations to have the same rights to dignity and justice as all other groups of people.