Paula was hired by phone to work in a restaurant. His first day went well. Despite the difficulty of the work, she did a good job. When she finished, the director approached her and asked her an unexpected question: “Are you a Gypsy?”. She was never called back. The episode was denounced a few months ago in Madrid as a clear case of discrimination. Because if Paula had answered that question with a “no”, she probably would have kept her job. Because that question should never have been asked.
Rejecting someone simply because they are Roma, or seem to be, has a name: anti-Gypsyism (also called anti-Gypsyism or romophobia). It is a form of racism which, as defined in 2011 by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, specifically targets Roma (an umbrella term, according to the European Network Against Racism, which encompasses groups sharing similar cultural characteristics, such as Roma, Sinti, Travellers, Ashkali, Manush, Jenische, Kaldaresh and Kalé). In Europe, where they are now the largest ethnic minority with a total of around 10-12 million people, one in three Roma say they have experienced some form of harassment or discrimination in the past year alone.
Like all forms of racism, anti-Gypsyism feeds on fears and prejudices based on alleged “racial superiority” but, unlike other forms, anti-Gypsyism is still openly tolerated.
“If someone insults a black person, it’s considered racism, but a person who disrespects a gypsy [editor’s note: in Spanish, the words ‘Gitano’ or ‘Gitana’ do not have the same pejorative connotations as the word ‘Gypsy’ can sometimes have in English] is not seen in the same way. In the social imagination, unfortunately, there is always the same slogan: ‘they had to do something’”, says lawyer and Roma activist Séfora Vargas. Equal times. And the data backs him up.
Today 17% of Europeans admit – according to Eurobarometer 2019 – that they would feel uncomfortable if they had a Roma colleague and 30% say they would object to their son or their daughter has a romantic relationship with a Roma person. The percentage of these prejudices far exceeds that of any other minority – more than people of different skin color, sexual orientation, religion, age or disability. As Vargas says, antigypsyism is accepted, justified. “Society is used to seeing Roma in a negative light.”
Poverty, delinquency, conflicts: the persecution of the Roma has been built on the same stereotypes since the arrival of the first families from India seven centuries ago.
“It’s structural racism,” says social anthropologist David Lagunas, “based on the idea that Roma are a threat to others and even a threat to themselves. The idea is projected that their culture is deficient and therefore the problem lies with them.
These are the same ideas that were behind the first anti-Roma laws in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the same ideas that fueled the Holocaust of Roma and Sinti – or Porrajmos (which means “the devouring” in Romani) – during the Second World War, which claimed the lives of at least half a million people, and the same ideas which, since the beginning of this century, have led to attacks massive attacks against Roma communities in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy and Greece. Even fleeing the current war in Ukraine, Roma refugees face discrimination.
“The problem is not created by Roma culture, but by our perception of Roma. It is our society that has these demons. So much so that even people who don’t consider themselves racist are racist when it comes to Gypsies,” Lagunas explains. Despite everything, the anthropologist notes that “there is a group within the Roma population whose situation is even worse. They are the rejected of the rejected, because in addition to their Roma status, they are also migrants. They are the Romanian Roma.
They, more than anyone, are plagued by the widely held belief that they have an “innate propensity for delinquency” which, as Lagunas explains in a recent research paper, also does not correspond to reality. “Such practices are only a last resort in a desperate situation, as it is for any other vulnerable person in our society.”
A lack of trust leads to under-reporting
Anti-Roma racism ranges from direct attacks to everyday discrimination. For example, in Spain, a Roma-looking person is ten times more likely to be arrested by the police than a white-looking person.
“It’s so common that Roma don’t even think about the fact that they’re victims of crime,” says Vargas.
In Spain, the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (Gypsy Secretariat Foundation, or FSG) reports an average of 300 cases of antigypsyism each year. Roma men and women are denied employment, housing or even access to places of recreation or entertainment because they are Roma, due to the perpetual presumption of criminality. But the most frequent protests are seen on social and mainstream media, in the form of attacks and anti-Roma rhetoric, which have been heightened during the pandemic. Many media and Internet forums have established a link between the spread of the virus and the non-compliance with health rules by Roma.
The European Commission calls on States to investigate all these cases of antigypsyism as possible hate crimes, to establish specific laws for their prevention and to provide victims with easy access to justice, especially now that populist parties are using again the Roma people as the scapegoat, as seen in the recent elections in Portugal.
Roma associations try to support this process. One example is the Federation of Roma Women’s Associations (Kamira), which has created a mobile phone application, Kamira SOS, to report cases of anti-Roma racism. “Thanks to your mobile phone, you can take photos, locate where the events occurred, see where the nearest police station is,” explains Carmen Santiago, its president. The application was launched by a women’s association because it is women who suffer the most from this type of delinquency. “They suffer from multiple forms of discrimination, based on the fact that they are women, gypsies and, in many cases, poor.”
However, it is rarely reported – barely 10% of all cases. “There is a lot of under-declaration”, confirms Mari Carmen Cortés, spokesperson for the FSG. It is a fear of reporting, distrust of police and officials, lack of knowledge of pathways, but also low expectations. “There are very few positive decisions in the courts and that is a deterrent,” says Cortés.
“I myself reported a case of racism when I was studying at university and it was put aside,” says Vargas. “This is why the penalties must be reinforced and the offenses clearly defined. Otherwise, the Roma will continue to be easy targets.
A transverse wound
Stereotypes affect not only the current situation of the communities that have to endure them, but also their future. This can be seen in schools where, despite progress in schooling, 68% of Roma pupils drop out before the end of secondary school and only 18% go on to higher education. And it has always been blamed on families, on culture.
“It is widely accepted that the Roma do not want to go to school, that we do not want to integrate, but these are statements that we would never make about other social groups”, denounces Fernando Macías, professor at the University of Barcelona. and founder of Campus Rom, the first Roma university network in Spain. “The family obviously has a role to play, but research has shown that success does not depend on people’s culture, but on the type of child-rearing practices.”
One such practice that is still in place today, although clearly discriminatory, is the segregation of Roma students into different schools and classes.
About 46% of Roma children in Europe are concentrated in the same schools and institutes, which, according to Macías, also falls under anti-Gypsyism.
The education of Roma children has improved, but not enough. Nor is there any plan to facilitate access to employment, health care or housing for their parents. Even today, 80% of Roma in Europe live at risk of poverty, and the reason – as the European Commission itself has acknowledged – is that the cross-cutting problem of discrimination has not yet been solved. The overly paternalistic policies put in place since 2011 have forgotten the essential: the fight against racism.
In February 2022, Spain took a step forward in the fight against anti-Roma racism. He incorporated the history of the Roma people into secondary school textbooks. The idea is to teach young people about past episodes of persecution and the keys to their culture, their symbols, their language and their contribution.
“It’s a great achievement,” Cortés said. “We need to start talking about the history of the Roma people as real and shared history.”
It took them years to achieve this: “visibility”, something that has not yet been achieved in other areas such as popular culture.
This is what the activist Vicente Rodríguez supports. Passionate about comics since childhood, at the age of seven, he discovered “that Magneto, an antagonist of the X-Men, was a gypsy and a survivor of the Holocaust”. Since then, pop culture has been the realm he has moved into to help break away from anti-Roma discourse.
He sparked a lot of interest at Comic Con 2016 in New York when he asked a group of cartoonists “why the Roma community isn’t better represented in comics”.
“We ask for the inclusion of more Roma authors and characters, like other minorities, but above all recommendations so that we are not always portrayed as thieves or sorcerers”, he said. he told Equal Times.
Representation matters, as movements like Black Lives Matter, LGBTI Pride and #MeToo know. Estefanía Ruiz also knew it when, tired of designing t-shirts with logos for others, she decided to create Mil Duquelas, the first clothing brand that appropriated Roma symbols, references and slogans.
“I imagined what it would have been like if, throughout my life, there had been a mark that reflected everything that is part of my identity. I imagined girls wearing a Papusza t-shirt – the first Gypsy poet – to go to school without any fear”, says the designer. “The brand seeks to end the silence that surrounds our people. We give people the opportunity to wear clothes that reflect the fact that we are proud to be Roma.
Attempts to dismantle one of the most enduring forms of racism are now building on the words of these young men and women – 60% of the Roma community is under 30 and they are ready to reclaim their roots. But they still have to deal with all those empty stereotypes that have forced them to be judged, condemned and discriminated against more than any other demographic group in Europe.