Roma: In Search of A Balanced Image

The image of Roma is one of the major obstacles to progress. When you think about us, say, in Slovakia, perhaps you think only of horrifying pictures of a segregated population—a people walled off from the rest of society. All Roma are portrayed as living a terrible life which, in fact, some of them do.

But you might be surprised to learn that at least half the Roma living in Slovakia are actually integrated among the majority population—attending schools, working, paying their taxes, and contributing to the society among which they live.  In Slovakia, numerous political groups frame the Roma issue in terms of problems, for example, that the Roma are dominant in using (and also misusing) social welfare provisions.

The data demonstrates the opposite—in fact, Roma are only a quarter of all people who receive social payments.  But such data rarely makes it to the first page news, buried under the anti-Roma rhetoric, not only in Slovakia but also throughout Europe.

The negative picture of Roma is the one that big international organizations too often want you to see. International bodies, like the World Bank and the UNDP, well-intentionally aim to point out the critical situation for a significant portion of Roma. The other part of the picture—that of integrated Roma, proud of their identity and valuable to society as citizens and members of an ethnic minority—is forgotten.  

But I am Roma, and I recognize that this is partly our fault. We have helped create a negative image for the community. We connect the Roma with problems, with poverty, marginalization, and discrimination in order to build a sense of urgency that will motivate governments to act.

We self-stigmatize. We self-victimize. It´s counterproductive. By problematizing the issue, we problematize our own ethnic identity. In order to regain a sense of self-respect and pride and promote a more positive picture of Roma, it is important for us to show that there are people who are happy with their identity, and who add value to their society. If we try to construct a counter-narrative based on a dignified discourse about Roma culture, everybody would benefit. 

As Roma activists, we realize our own deficiencies and challenges. We need to engage more in a process of self-reflection and self-criticism—to try to identify what has worked, and what hasn’t. Organizations working on behalf of the Roma need to evolve. Roma organizations frequently undertake the role of providing services, often substituting for the responsibilities of the state. Too often in policy consultation, Roma groups are there merely to legitimize the process, without being a critical voice and making their claims heard.

Roma organizations need to become active agents of change, guided by a strategic long-term thinking and not by the agendas marked by donors and governments.  We need strong and democratic structures to take more of a role in community building—creating a space where people can interact, network, and nurture hope. Some of the Roma organizations throughout Europe are already doing this, but it seems that everyone is working separately in their own backyard. We, as activists, need to increasingly engage in an internal dialogue where we exchange ideas, share knowledge and, most importantly, search for a common agenda and a united voice—bringing strength and a coordinated vision, to be able to speak in unison.  

Don’t get me wrong. There is discrimination, persecution. There are hate crimes perpetrated against the Roma people. And the support from big international organizations has been much appreciated—and crucial to the progress made.

But sometimes, it seems the European Union and other donors are just throwing money at the problems, without achieving real and much-needed impact. Our role, as activists and organizations, is crucial in the process of reshaping the way in which the money allocated for Roma inclusion is invested.

Our expertise and experience are invaluable, but in that we need to nurture our critical and  independent voice. We need to work for better communication between governmental bodies and the Roma locally, based on real partnership and dialogue. We need to act as watchdogs, to weigh the evidence, evaluate programs, and monitor progress in order to improve the way money is allocated for the Roma.

The problem is particularly acute during economic downturns. Poverty becomes overwhelming, and we forget about the importance of building ties with other sectors of the society and with the majority as a whole. Many of the problems we as Roma are facing are shared by other minorities, immigrant communities or socio-economically marginalized groups.

Many of the predicaments of a significant portion of Roma are rooted in structural inequalities, power-class relations, increasingly intolerant and discriminatory societies—problems that are not inherently and exclusively related to Roma. While anti-Gypsyism is a reality, we need to realize that some of this anti-Roma rhetoric is directly linked to the image of Roma—framed in terms of poverty and uselessness.

Nonetheless, Roma activists and organizations are increasingly capable of targeting these issues. Over the years, our communities and their local groups had to learn by doing. When we started out, we didn’t have the know-how we have today.

My generation can build on what has been done before, combining the experience and wisdom of the senior leaders with knowledge and energy of the youth. Yes, people have to struggle day to day just to survive, communities are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and many Roma NGOs are on the verge of closure. But with sustained support of independent donors, Roma activists can develop a vision, a plan to get beyond the day-to-day struggles. These organizations should be the source of inspiration for identity-building.

Maybe we can steer the conversation to be less about “the Roma problem” and more about the value of the Roma people—as productive citizens who maintain their culture and take pride in their roots. Of course, the picture is far from perfect, but the number of Roma attending school is growing steadily today. We are looking at the best-educated generation of Roma in history.

With increasing numbers of young, educated Roma, we are observing a qualitative change in Roma civil society.  Against all odds, I am hopeful for the future.

30 Comments

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Amazing voice for Roma humanitarian equality.

It is most refreshing to read this piece, Anna. I am sure you know that you are not the only Roma activist or Romani Studies researcher who feels the need for such a shift and I am sure that this idea will grow even further. Good work.

Yes, it is wonderful to see that a greater number of people are embracing this counter-narrative. Let´s hope that gradually such a shift will be produced on different institutional forums, in the media, in the academia...

Thanks you! This is excellent and I agree 100%, we need more of this type of info. We need positive media images. We need more of a balance to reflect this reality of the "invisible Roma" as we in France call it.

Yes, we need more transparency about such statistics.

Yes, we need to play a more active role in repeating that information, to make it is known out there, not just for the general public, but for it to be known amongst ourselves.

Yes, we need more positive images, and we need to promote success stories.

I believe Romavision and Sutka City TV, Europe's first Romani language broadcasting network can play a major role in this.

We need to tell our story about ourselves for ourselves amongst ourselves. This was recognized among African Americans and practiced through the production of films in 1914 and lasted until the 1950s in the US, when mainstream media finally began accepting to portray realistic positive images, with the full complexity of a human being. Before that, black people in Hollywood were mostly caricatured in stereotypes.

This is something we need to do, and need to continue. We must never stop.

Finally. Thumbs up.

Anna, very good piece of work!!! Well done!!! Contínua así, t'estimo molt!!!!

I modestly propose my work on romarising, now comprising 5 countries and counting. Roma who achieve

Yes! I agree, Chad's work is excellent. Romarising is a great work, and is being copied by the Council of Europe with similar works.

As a Romani woman, in my opinion, Chad Evans Wyatt is absolutely the top photographer of the Romani people currently at work in the world at this point. His work is absolutely essential to the Romani human rights genre. It does more to emphasize that we are individuals, with dreams and goals, but more to the point, the strength and the capabilities to achieve them, than anyone else whose work I have ever seen. Romarising should be viewed by all Romani people or anyone with an interest in accurately getting a sense of what we are: human beings.

Chad, I agree, your work has contributed to trying to shift the image of Roma towards a more balanced and positive narrative. Good work!

Absolutely right on the dot Anna. Many people, including Roma and Roma studies experts want to stress the negative and horrible side of Roma society. Not a long time ago I read an article from an African intellectual expressing the same idea. Visual images strongly effect all of us. And while it is important to stand by and fight for those in poverty and marginalised position, it is just as important to show Roma who are just like one of us in the academic, learned society with the advantage of knowing also about Roma culture from inside and thereby enriching our world with another old and great tradition but which also always stayed modern and part of the European society. May I just also say that many non-Roma would also need to get integrated to a 21th century society and leave behind obstructing, racists nationalistic views. They REALLY need integration, education and help to change their limited mind. Congratulation Anna and carry on the good Mirga traditions :)

Dear Ms. Mirga,

Thank you for showing the mechanism, you touched the cause we have, when we be able to control our own image then we can achieve a freedom, we will revolutionize our image.

Dear Mr. Galjus,
Your work has been essential in all this! In a way you already started such a revolution with your journalism :)

Very well said! Your refreshing, intelligent, positive voice is much needed to dispel age-old myths and stereotypes. It would be good to find other accomplished young people to add their voices and share their stories in media everywhere. Let the world see a balanced image... This would go a long way toward transforming much of negativity...

This is great :)

As a white Slovak woman, raised by a white Slovak family, I completely agree with your article. I believe that most Romas are integrated, but these Romas are mostly recognized as Slovak, not the Romas. The scapegoating and discrimination of the Romas in Slovakia are tremendous. Most Slovaks are convinced that they are working just to feed the Romas who live out of social support. On my last visit to Slovakia, I gave a begging Roma man 20 Eur. If I mentioned it to my friends and family members, I believe they would hang me in the middle of a city plaza...
After years of observing the life of Romas in Slovakia, I came to a conclusion that the cause of negative feelings towards the Roma is not their criminality or lack of education, but it is envy and jealousy. The Romas can afford to have ten children, which we, educated working people, believe that we cannot. They can survive with minimal or no education, which we believe that we cannot. Moreover, the Romas love music and dance...which we believe that we cannot enjoy anymore.
I love the Romas and their culture, with their differences and special characteristics. I love them because they challenge our western values and culture. We have to pay for the Roma, just like we have to pay for every other people who are different because they give us much more. They teach us tolerance, acceptance, and empathy, challenge our own life-style, and much much more.
Media should portray the Romas in a positive way...can someone make a movie about successful Romas? Or a commercial against discrimination of Romas?

Nice article. I respect and admire your point of view.
I'm currently writing my BA-project on how Roma people were represented in the news during the coverage of the case about the little girl from Greece last October.
While focusing on this issue many questions have popped out. I agree with you, Anna, about the fact that a large responsibility for changing the image of the Roma must come from the Roma themselves and according to their own terms. It is not easy, but little will change if the 'majority' keeps on leading, or setting frames.
However, I believe that a key point seems to be around identity. There is so much diversity among Roma, and probably it is more correct to begin with to let people to define themselves and not to let the majority to define them, or to follow the path that has been given.... As you mention, what many Roma has faced and still face concerns many other marginalised groups. Mine is just a reflection, but what if we put more focus on 'people' who live in an unjust way, and not on who the people are? This is just to express shortly a thought running in my mind. I hope I am not out of topic… Once again, your articles is very interesting, and I am glad that voices like yours are shared through social media. Keep it up!

Dear All, thank you for your support and for sharing your thoughts. I think it is time to engage in a wide-scale debate regarding the image of Roma, and to involve a variety of stakholders ranging from scholars, media journalists, international institutions, NGOs and especially - the Roma. It seems that the moment is right - an increasing number of people recognizes the existance of this problem and reflects on it more critically. Your support, knowledge and expertise will be crucial in this process!

Anna,
Thank you for sharing and being the voice of change. I would love to connect with you and be a part of the much needed debate you are proposing regarding the image of Roma.

Anna, nice voice from community :-) I like your example from Slovakia. As you know, 15 years we try to introduce to society Roma who are educated, to motivate young Roma people. As example I can show you https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.555101477914605.1073741829.547... project, from last year. What I see as problem is, that many people dont want present successful Roma - they want speak only about problems (include many activists, journalists... etc). There is reason for self-stigmatization, self-victimization... deprivation. In roma community is a strong power, but we need support activities, which help this power to grow...

Thanks Kristina! I absolutely love your campaign - is one of those very needed voices and images that help to restore the dignity of Roma. I congratulate you on your work and hope you can upscale it to other places too. Best!

Very important and needed message!!

Excellent and constructive point of view! I am totally convinced of the need to turn the negative image of the Roma, image that has been perpetuated for years by the media, scholars and institutions, into one that shows the diversity and vibrancy, and especially the potentiality of the Romani populations, and their contributions to what we are today. Unfortunately we also have to accept that the way is not paved, and the mentalities are difficult to change overnight. Your article brought to mind a conference from two years ago, where I conferred about the challenges in considering Roma a diasporic population (why a diaspora, since Roma have lived in Europe for centuries?). Anyway, at the end of the talk, the questions related more to the images I had presented, than to the point of my paper... It seems that for some of the scholars in the audience, my choice of showing only "good" images with Roma was unpalatable, and it made them openly question my "impartiality". So, thank you, Anna, for fighting the good fight.

I made the comments below to the EU State of the Union meeting in Florence. They derive from lengthy discussions with Roma families with whom I work. These families explain that when they lived in caravans in the open air they did not get TB. They object to being forced to sleep on the hard streets in the rain in Florence, having been evicted with bulldozers from camps where they did not have water or rubbish disposal and which were overrun with rats. They do not accept being in muddy camps in Rome. In Romanian social housing with concrete they get TB. Instead housing with outdoor space for children to play and sleeping verandahs (their culture is from India) is what they could accept.
Here in Florence, every Sunday I have alphabet school for Roma families as most have had no schooling. The women now come because the men explained Roma women won't accept being in the same room with men not their husbands. So we place the men under the arch, the women in the library with their babies and children, and it works. We have sent 'library schools' to Romania for six young mothers and a widow with children, paying each a stipend so they can pay their rent, instead of having to leave their babies with grandmothers in Romania and to beg on the streets of Florence, annoying tourists, for their families' suvival. I give Roma work restoring this historic anti-slavery cemetery and they do so extremely well but on their own terms, in groups, speaking Romanì with each other. If isolated on their own they quickly leave. If ordered about they lose energy. But given responsibility they are brilliant at solving problems holistically, thinking things through, repairing essential tools, and I find are very cost effective workers. We integrate well, sharing in each others' cultures, respecting each others' religion (Catholic/Orthodox/Islam). But to do this there needs to be a welcoming space, with dignity and stimulation, positive photographs of Roma families, art books, simple tools, needles and thread, rakes and hoes, and access to land. These are people with valuable skills, but who are not allowed work, not allowed to sell items, only allowed, in Florence, to beg, and who steal for survival from people who clearly hate. But if allowed access to water, to an electric outlet for recharging cell phones, to a sharing of used clothing, from which they can choose what they would like, and to an environment that seeks to preserve their families, working with parents so they do not lose their babies to Social Assistance for lack of documents, and that helps them repair their houses in Romania with temporary work in Florence, they become one's greatest friends. Patterns of reciprocity and trust must be worked out on both sides. The same could work with Palestinian and Israeli.

Debate Question: EU Labour Market and Migration Policy:

Could the European Union in this time of austerity and scapegoating racism restore hope by responding to its EU citizens' needs for work and housing by enabling 'green' garden cities, like Florence's Isolotto? With housing and landscaping to be built and maintained in part by EU citizens currently out of work and homeless, including nationals and Roma/Traveller EU citizens, western and eastern EU citizens, working and living side by side? Garden cities that would have space for children to play and learn, with bicycle and bus transportation, workshops for craftspeople and apprentices, vegetable gardens and farmers' markets, libraries and orchestres. Priority for work and housing to be for EU citizens. Non-EU citizens could have dormitories, the right to study, to make and sell artefacts, to grow and sell garden produce, to share their skills with citizens, eventually themselves to achieve citizenship, but not factory or construction work needed by EU citizens. Land could be obtained by raising taxes on abandoned industrial properties, then re-zoned as residential with lowered taxes where 'green' garden cities are being built. One member to be guaranteed work to house, educate and receive medical care for his or her family, achieving this through fair taxation, while reducing EU bureaucracy that currently does not reach its increasingly impoverished EU citizens?

Thank you Julia for your comment and for adding to the discussion your constructive feedback. I agree that we need to search for sustainable, innovative and structural solutions, that will bring benefit not only to Roma but to other sectors of the population. Your on-the-ground perspective is very much needed also to shift the discourse on Roma in the most problematic places - in order to show that solutions are possible if the approach adequately takes into consideration the needs and but also the capacities of Roma families.

New Roma Image

Thanks for the great article Anna! As a M.A. student of Roma ancestry I thank you! too often I sense the Roma are perceived as being complacent victims and here in the US we hold to the misconceptions of Roma people as being "free spirits" and etc. I am currently working on my thesis on the options for Roma agency building and the need for a paradigm shift focusing on local approaches instead of large scale policy initiatives which seem to yield small intangible results.

thanks for the inspiration!

I enjoyed reading this article and its followed conversation!

Believing that economic marginalization, social exclusion, persecution, and other forms of discrimination represent only one side of the negative picture, I also think that the other side, victimizing, is hardly recognized, but extremely counter productive towards a "change" of the picture of Roma society.

This victimization takes place when we talk about the "poor" Roma and the society´s failure of what we call "integration" and usually mean adaptation of a minority or a foreigner. Giving Roma a voice, therefore, means to me also to consider them as capable acting people, who take their own decisions (within there limited opportunities). That does not mean at all, that they choose to be poor and neglected, quite the contrary they put effort into making the best out of it. And as the article shows, there are many Roma who are already many steps further!

I hope that we could set up such a platform you are talking about and I am looking forward to the Conference of Gypsy Studies in Bratislava this September.

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