peech given at Maxim Gorki Theatre on September 16th 2017
I believe in the power of narratives: discourses and stories which are the foundation of our understanding of the world, provide an interpretation for our lives, shape our values and our worldviews. I believe that compelling narratives can change the societies in which we live: think of the role compelling narratives played in the African-American Civil Rights Movement or the struggle for gay marriages. But narratives can also change the world for worse. Rhetoric of fear, threat (terrorist or otherwise) and insecurity are shaping the Europe and the world we live in today – making our societies increasingly more intolerant and radical. Despite that data shows that we live in relatively peaceful times, populism, nationalism, xenophobia and far-right are spreading like fire.
As Roma, we are well aware of how narratives can affect lives of entire communities. Narratives of who we are have been shaped by others over centuries – through scholarship, public discourse, policies, media or even artistic production. And we have been framed as “strangers”, “eternal nomads”, thieves and liars, barbarian and immoral, as a social threat to public order. The imagery of “Gypsies” created by others shaped antigypsyism – the specific form of racism and hatred against Roma. And it is antigypsyism that defined over 600 years of our presence in Europe – marked by centuries of persecution, pogroms, expulsions, forced labour and imprisonment, assimilationist policies and over 500 years of slavery. Today in many countries, we continue to be the most rejected group in Europe – more than the Black community, Muslims, LGBT or Jews.
In the aftermath of the Roma Holocaust, during which as much as 50% of entire European Roma population was exterminated, we witnessed a timid but certain awakening of Roma political and cultural movements. Through arts and politics, the Roma searched for justice and an emancipation – to be treated as conscious subjects, to regain a voice. A major part of this process which begun in the 1970s and continues until today is the need to change the discourse on Roma among the majority; to take back control over the narratives of who we are. We know that unless we challenge antigypsyism – and the stigma imposed on “Gypsiness” – all other efforts aiming at improving the situation of Roma communities will remain modest or fruitless.
We need to shift the conversation about Roma to a different, new direction: from seeing the Roma as a problem – to seeing it as a potential and an added value. This process of shifting narratives should transcend all areas of life. It should mean a paradigmatic change in how Roma are seen and treated, how they are involved in policy-making. In order to do so, we should challenge existing stereotypes and most common misconceptions about Roma.
We are typically seen as a burden for societies among which we live. Seemingly, there is a “Roma problem” – our poverty, assumed unwillingness to integrate, supposed criminality. In public and political discourses as well as in the media, we are dehumanized, we are stigmatized. As a result, antigypsyism becomes a “justified” and “reasonable” attitude towards the Roma – after all we are so different and don’t want to integrate.
We are also portrayed as “strangers” and “others”; we are the people that don’t belong. But we have been here for over 600 years! Instead, we should promote a counter-narrative of belonging and historical presence. Roma history should be incorporated into national narratives of history; our history should be acknowledged as an integral component of the history of Europe.
This process of shifting narratives on Roma also needs to have policy-implications. The existing approach treats the Roma as a socio-economic problem. But we are not a socio-economic, marginalized and vulnerable group! We are an ethnic minority with a culture, a language, traditions and a history. That’s why I believe that policies which target Roma should include two necessary elements. On the one hand, policies which target Roma need to have a cultural component, providing tools and means to develop, protect and promote our cultural heritage. There should also be an element of recognition – symbolic, institutional, affirmative – of our cultural presence and contribution. On the other hand, there needs to be a paradigmatic shift in how Roma are involved in policy-making that concerns them directly. The paternalistic approach in which Roma are consulted and invited to participate instead of enjoying a degree of decision-making and meaningful involvement, puts the future of our communities in other people’s hands. Roma need to become protagonists of their history, be in leadership positions as the drivers of change.
Arts and culture are among the best tools to promote such a counter-narrative. Indeed, as Timea Junghuas stated: “in art, Roma are always an asset”. Roma arts and culture are both a space where emancipation takes place but also a powerful tool to communicate with the majority. The Roma art is a space of radical liberation and a field which has been developing very dynamically across Europe. With the establishment of European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) – launched in Berlin in June 2017 – we finally have a place from which to support this development. With time, I trust we will succeed in showing Roma culture for what it really is – a collective, diverse and beautiful part of Europe’s cultural legacy, and a patrimony of national cultures and histories, which needs to be cherished and protected.
We need this new counter-narrative to take root for ourselves. To fight against stigma associated with who we are, to challenge phenomena of self-stigmatization, self-victimization and shame. To promote ethnic pride, build self-esteem and have the means to develop ourselves as a people – as a transnational, global diaspora – and as citizens of our countries.
But maybe more than us, it is the majority society that needs to embrace this counter-narrative!
Back in 1993, in the midst of the process of European reunification, Vaclav Havel said that the treatment of Roma is a litmus test for European democracies. Indeed, the way we treat Roma is a reflection of the condition of our democracies. It says less about Roma and more about who we are as a society; it is symptomatic and revealing – giving testimony of deeper problems affecting European democracies.
In this sense, the “Roma problem” is in reality a problem of the majority society. So, the poverty and marginalization the Roma face is not “inherent” to our culture but is a proof of increasingly unjust and unequal societies. The intensification of antigypsyism is yet another evidence of our societies growing more intolerant, radical and closed.
We, as Roma, are not the only ones who face injustice. All across the world, societies are being ripped apart by hatred, intolerance and violence. Muslims, refugees, Black community, LGBT, trans, women, immigrants, poor people….all those considered “different” are victims of proliferating rhetoric of hate.
This is why shifting the narrative on Roma is in reality more about crafting a new master-frame for European societies towards diversity and “otherness”. Because the fact is that our societies are becoming increasingly more diverse, hybrid, multicultural, dynamically-changing. Social cohesion and sustainability, and indeed peaceful development, depend on the capacity of European societies to see diversity and plurality as an advantage and an added value – and not a threat. As Europe is seemingly at a crossroads, it is now more important than ever that in the face of our collective challenges – of populism, radicalism, nationalism, xenophobia, deepening inequality – we join forces in solidarity. We need to bring ourselves together, and build alliances across social movements and struggles, build alliances around values and peoples. The future of Europe will depend on it!