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A girl takes part in a Roma community march in Madrid, Spain, May 2019, to protest racist attacks in Spain and other European countries.
© Alberto Sibaja /ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
Throughout the world there are an estimated 15 million Romani [RO-ma-nee] people. Also known as the Roma, they exist primarily as Others in the communities and nation-states they travel through or have settled in for centuries. They are commonly called “gypsies,” a term many view as a racial slur.
Their region of origin is thought to be India. (The different Romani dialects have linguistic links to Sanskrit.) The Roma likely migrated from the subcontinent over many years, arriving in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Europeans thought the Roma had come from Egypt (hence “gypsy”) or were of Turkish origin. All agreed they were not white Europeans. As the Romani moved farther from their homeland, their language and culture evolved into multiple subgroups, and they were scapegoated, jailed, and scorned — especially in Romania, where the Roma were enslaved for five hundred years. (Romani does not mean “Romanian.”) By some estimates around half a million Roma were killed during the Holocaust, but other historians put the number as high as three times that.
Persecution of the Roma persists today in Europe, and discrimination occurs in the United States, too, where there are at least 1 million Romani Americans. The first Roma are believed to have arrived in the Americas in the fifteenth century as part of Christopher Columbus’s third expedition, and they continued to come later, either sent as slave labor by countries that had jailed them or immigrating on their own.
Many Romani people also moved to the U.S. after the Soviet Union fell, and again after Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. (The end of socialism in those countries brought a new and different wave of persecution.) Today the largest populations of Romani Americans are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, and Portland.
Margareta Matache [mah-TAK-ye] is a Romani scholar and activist and an instructor at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights. Born in Romania, she served as the executive director of Romani CRISS — the Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies, a leading Romani-rights organization in her home country. The group’s advocacy work has documented hundreds of human-rights violations and argued in courts against the segregation of Romani children in schools. Matache, along with Jacqueline Bhabha and Caroline Elkins, is one of the editors of Time for Reparations: A Global Perspective, out this month, which documents historical injustices against not just the Roma and African Americans, but people in Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, and elsewhere.
In November 2020 the FXB Center and Voice of Roma released Romani Realities in the United States: Breaking the Silence, Challenging the Stereotypes, a study that Matache and Bhabha led, documenting discrimination and prejudice against Romani Americans. A survey of 363 participants from multiple Romani communities in the U.S. painted a picture of a people who continue to be either ignored or discriminated against. Most non-Romani Americans have limited knowledge of Romani history and culture.
I spoke with Matache several times in the late spring, after she had finished teaching for the semester. She talked at length about the persecution of the Roma in Europe and her personal experiences with racism growing up. As a child during the late communist period, she was forced to deny her Romani identity, and her parents were forbidden to teach her their own language. This led to a sense of loss and shame that eventually gave way to a lifetime of activism. She says that believing what white Romanians told her about her people pushed her sometimes to “act white” just to fit in: “We need to teach our children to stay away from the racist narratives told by white people about Roma, and to not fall into a trap of shame about who we are.”
Cohen: I want to start by asking about the word gypsy and the way it has evolved. In Europe the word has negative connotations, but in the U.S. it is associated with exoticism or a bohemian lifestyle. At what point did it become a negative term to Roma around the world?
Matache: We have a language that is more than a thousand years old, and in this language we have always called ourselves Roma; there is no word like gypsy.
The term appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1500s, when British intellectuals were trying to understand where these people — who were not white and didn’t look or dress like them — were from. They decided we were Egyptians. Even after linguists and historians documented the true origins and history of the Roma, they continued to call us “gypsies.” It’s an example of the power of white voices to create a false and racist narrative about another people. I reject the term “gypsy” because it was created by white Europeans, carries painful history, and is offensive. Gypsy also supports a narrative of Romani criminality. In the United States people use the word gypped to mean “cheated.” It is a racial slur that creates justification for anti-Roma racism, including for police officers to profile Roma, to harass them.
That being said, there are Romani groups in the United Kingdom and elsewhere who have chosen to embrace this term and call themselves “Gypsies.” To them the Roma are those Romani groups who come from Eastern and Central Europe, and “Gypsies” are born in the UK. I respect that choice of self-identification. I don’t embrace the term in other contexts, though, because I’ve seen how it has hurt Romani children in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. And I think those who are not Roma cannot use that term under any circumstances, unless they speak about Gypsies in the UK. I know that there are musicians and people in the arts in the United States who use gypsy to promote their businesses and work, and that’s just a new way of exploiting our identity.
I also want to talk about another, older, term for Roma: tsigan or tsingane or zingaro or zigeuner. There are many variations, all of which have roots in the Greek word atsinganoi, which means “impure” or “untouchable” or “pagan.” This is how the Roma were stamped upon their arrival in Europe — as untouchable, which is interesting if you think about our roots in India and the caste system there. Tsigan has also been historically used as a synonym for enslaved people in the territories of Romania, where the Roma were legally enslaved for five centuries. It carries much more painful historical weight than gypsy.
Cohen: What brought different groups of Roma to the United States?
Matache: There have been various waves of migration, most often from Europe. Usually some injustice in their country of origin pushed the Roma to emigrate: enslavement, racism, violence, the Holocaust. The first Roma who traveled from Europe to the Americas were part of Christopher Columbus’s third transatlantic trip at the end of the 1400s. In the United States, specifically, Ian Hancock, a celebrated Romani author and scholar, talks about 1661 as the earliest documented arrival of Romani people, who were brought here by force.
From the 1750s through the early 1800s there was a wave coming from Germany, where “gypsy hunts” [organized efforts to kill Roma — Ed.] and government policies were targeting Romani people. Authorities would separate Romani children from their families and place them in German homes. So, of course, many Roma had to flee to the U.S. and other places.
There were also factors pulling people here. In the 1850s a huge demand for horse traders led to another peak of Romani migration from Europe, and some of these immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio. In the twentieth century different groups of Roma came: coppersmiths or other metalworkers, animal trainers, basket makers, musicians. They were members of the Romani subgroups that we know today as the Kalderash, Machvaya, and Lovari communities. Sometimes the Roma were not allowed to enter the U.S., especially at the beginning of the 1900s. So they had to hide their identity to get in. Many American Roma now live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, speak the same Romani language, and go to Romani events and music festivals together. So there is a sense of community and belonging.
After Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, harsh anti-Roma measures also led some Roma who had a little bit of income to make their way to the U.S.
Cohen: The Harvard FXB Center and Voice of Roma study you conducted last year says that there are at least 1 million Romani Americans.
Matache: We referred to existing estimates. It’s hard to get an exact count because nobody thus far has developed a method to identify and count Romani people. The American census only lets us add our ethnicity in a category called “Other,” but the reality is that few Romani people tick that box. So the number might be higher than a million. There is a very diverse Romani population here, oftentimes speaking different dialects of the Romani language and coming from different countries. Some of our traditions and histories are totally different.
Cohen: With all the regional and linguistic differences, is there a common link among subgroups of Roma?
Matache: Romani identity is really the subject for a whole book, perhaps even a few volumes. Besides our Indian origin, our culture, and our related dialects, we share a history of anti-Roma racism that creates a link among our communities. And many of us share a common sense of Roma-ness and belonging. The way that non-Roma identify us is mostly by skin color and the traditional dress of some Romani groups. In the U.S. some Romani people are recognized by their use of mobile homes, trailers, and trucks, and by their jobs.
What I am saying is that Romani identity can be seen from two different angles: how we identify ourselves, and how others see us through cultural or racial stereotypes. We are told that we are not a people but rather a behavior. In the U.S. there’s the idea of a “gypsy” as a criminal or an exotic being, someone who reads palms or does fortune-telling. For this reason and others, a large portion of Romani people hide their identity. In my home country, Romania, research estimates that there are more than 2 million Roma, but according to the census there are only about six hundred thousand. The Roma who were deported or exterminated during the Holocaust were identified through the use of census data or other official information. That’s a lesson we learned from our ancestors and elders, who were reluctant to declare their ethnicity. There is fear of stigma and discrimination, even in the U.S. today. People are reluctant to talk openly about their Romani identity, even to friends, but they continue to teach their children about our culture and to be Roma in their own homes.
Cohen: What are some examples of discrimination in the U.S.?
Matache: Some of our interviewees in the study talked about the impact TV shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have had on young Roma. Children were called names or bullied by their classmates, who were influenced by the narratives that they saw on these TV shows or heard from others. This caused those children not to want to go to school. One girl said her teacher told her to sit in the back of the class because she didn’t bathe. Another said her art teacher treated her differently when she found out she was a “gypsy.” Another said she got more scrutiny than anyone else, especially if she was absent. A renowned Romani professor of gender studies, Dr. Ethel Brooks, told us about K-12 teachers in New Jersey who said Romani kids sat in the back of the room because they didn’t really care about education.
One of the greatest dangers to Romani Americans is racial profiling. Fifty percent of Romani Americans we interviewed said they had been racially profiled or threatened or discriminated against by the police. In recent decades police departments have created “gypsy” task forces to identify and monitor Romani people. The National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), an organization of law-enforcement professionals, created a database of individuals to keep an eye on, and they focused on Roma. [“Bunco,” in legal terms, refers to confidence crimes and swindles. — Ed.] One of the former presidents of the NABI even featured in his résumé that he developed a database of suspects of “gypsy” descent.
Roma who live on the road often have trouble staying in RV parks. Once the park owners figure out they are “gypsies,” they raise the rent or evict them. Sometimes they aren’t allowed to stay there in the first place. The managers see their trucks with painting equipment or paving equipment and know they’re Roma. One person told us that property managers had said, “We don’t rent to gypsies,” right to their face, too many times to count.
One of our interviewees talked about going to a concert of Bulgarian Roma musicians, and some people who came to the concert — white Americans of European descent — called her a “black cow.” Another interviewee said she was once asked if she had stolen any chickens lately — another stereotype about Roma. We made a list of 108 racial slurs that participants in our study talked about: “Dirty gypsies.” “Chicken thieves.” “Where is your crystal ball?” “Where is your wagon?” “Sweet-potato N-word,” and many more that feel embarrassing and hurtful to say out loud.
Cohen: These stereotypes seem so ingrained. I’m wondering how they get passed down through generations if there is such ignorance of Romani culture.
Matache: Since I arrived in the U.S. nine years ago, I have watched various American TV shows in which the idea of “gypsy criminality” shows up. And I keep asking, Why is this so present, given that the Roma are not a large or visible minority here? I think that many Americans are unaware that we are an actual people with a culture and a very hard history of injustice. So it is difficult for them to reconcile the abstract ideas of “gypsyness” with the actual lives of Romani Americans. At the same time, bigotry against the Roma somehow remains one of the most acceptable forms of prejudice. So you’ll see Bill Maher, on his TV show, saying President Trump is about as welcome as the “gypsy woman who wanders into restaurants and sells you roses.” Indeed some Romani women sell flowers, but the way Maher talks about them, you would think he is not bothered that such stereotypes put Romani women in danger. The ideas of “gypsy criminality” and “wandering gypsies” are also hurtful.
Cohen: I would guess that many non-Romani Americans are unaware, as you said, that this population exists, and white people have inherited these stereotypes without even realizing it.
Matache: Ever since our arrival in Europe, the Roma have been dehumanized and viewed in opposition to white Europeans. And that image, coupled with anti-Roma policies, has led to rejection, isolation, and segregation. Anti-Roma racism today in Europe is embedded in the white structures of power. It did not begin with prejudice, although prejudice was used to justify and legitimize it. It began with the deliberate intent to uphold the power of white establishments in Europe.
In the 1300s, in the territories that are now Romania, the Roma were enslaved because they were not white, they had no cultural similarities with white Romanians, they were not Christians, and most of all they did not have any power to fight back. From the 1400s until the Enlightenment, there were genocides. The Great Gypsy Roundup in Spain killed thousands of Romani people in the 1700s. There were policies prohibiting Roma from entering territories all over Western Europe, policies that ordered cutting the hair of Romani women or removing the ears of Romani people — all sorts of humiliating and brutalizing measures. “Scientific” research claiming we were biologically and culturally inferior was also used to justify oppression, including forced sterilization of Romani women and “experiments” conducted during the Holocaust.
It’s no wonder that many of these racist ideas have migrated across the ocean. White Europeans didn’t come here only with the idea of the American dream; they also brought their racism against Romani people. I have had racist statements made to my face by first-generation white European Americans. The media and Hollywood and some literature and music in the U.S. have also portrayed the Roma as an inferior people, a criminal people. In our study we referenced two polls taken in 1964 and 1989 among Americans. The pollsters asked about the social standing of different ethnic groups in the country, and Romani people were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy in both — even below a fictional people the polls had included.
Cohen: When you were a child in Romania, were there opportunities or experiences that were inaccessible to you because you were Roma?
Matache: There are two phases of my childhood. I was born during communism in Romania, and I was there after it fell, while democracy was taking shape. Under communism we didn’t speak much about ethnicity. People will point out that, during that time, many Roma at least had jobs, housing, and access to education, which is true. But the communists also had a policy of assimilation, which meant we were not allowed to speak our language, and they denied our identity as Roma. The shallow idea that all citizens were simply Romanians didn’t work well in practice. For instance, Romani children were still placed in the back rows of classrooms, and teachers would not pay much attention to them.
After the revolution of 1989, we began to transition toward democracy, and there was a wave of anti-Roma violence. Romanian villagers were burning Romani houses and killing Roma. My father was an activist in our community, and I remember being afraid that our house would be set on fire by villagers who wanted to commit violence against Roma. I was so scared for my father because he was trying to calm the villagers down. I’m not saying everyone hated us and wanted to kill us — we grew up with white Romanians who were our neighbors and friends — but what I saw in the early 1990s stayed with me and is, I think, one of the reasons I became an activist.
Some of my most overt experiences with anti-Roma racism were when I went to a prestigious high school in Bucharest, the capital. Wealthy Romanians would send their children to this school. I’d done well in school in the village, and my friend and I passed the admission exam and got in, but we did not realize that the people, the opportunities, and the dynamics in a city school would be so different. My dad also died while I was in high school, so along with the pain of his loss, our family had to deal with a drastic decrease in our family income. I experienced many instances of discrimination based on class and race, including being called names by teachers. I wanted to drop out because I hated that place, so I do understand when Romani children can’t take the bullying and humiliation anymore and want to drop out.
But even when I was in primary school, during communism, my mother put great effort into making sure there were no reasons for other students to call me a “gypsy.” She would make sure that my school uniform was always clean. She would cut my hair short because she was afraid that if I got head lice, people would think it was because I was a “gypsy.” Anticipating racism and strategizing to prevent or diminish it have been a part of our family story. So has internalizing racism. As an adolescent I questioned my identity and was oftentimes ashamed of my Romani roots.
And I often experienced profiling and assaults on my worth. As a young adult in Romania, I had to show my purse to security guards at the mall, because they thought I might have stolen something. Or when I went to a restaurant or a nightclub with friends, we were not allowed to enter because we were Roma. So there were many instances that were overtly racist, but there were many more when the racism was covert: being underestimated, overlooked, feared, or ignored. And I think that everyday racism is harder for people to understand; you feel it, but it’s not easy to describe it.
Many Americans are unaware that we are an actual people with a culture and a very hard history of injustice. So it is difficult for them to reconcile the abstract ideas of “gypsyness” with the actual lives of Romani Americans.
Many Americans are unaware that we are an actual people with a culture and a very hard history of injustice. So it is difficult for them to reconcile the abstract ideas of “gypsyness” with the actual lives of Romani Americans.
Cohen: Have you experienced any of the same prejudice since you moved to the U.S.?
Matache: When I am leaving my house in the U.S., I don’t have to anticipate and prepare for prejudice, because there is a very low chance that people here will know I am Roma. But that is not the experience of other people of color. I’ve witnessed and read a lot about the history of injustice and the everyday experiences of racism faced by Native Americans and Black Americans. I can identify with the words of author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written about living in France and experiencing more respect there. I feel more respected in the U.S., too, because the targets of structural racism are different here, although prejudice and discrimination against Roma persist. And Coates recognizes that being a Black American in France is different from being Moroccan or Algerian or Turkish or Roma in France, and is different from being Black in the U.S. It is the same for me when I think about my experience as a Roma in the U.S. and Europe.
But in the U.S. I think that those who are aware of my ethnicity sometimes do treat me in a manner that they would not treat white Americans. I don’t pass as white, so I can attract suspicion from police and others merely because I’m a person of color. I’ve experienced this with real-estate agents and in spaces occupied primarily by white people. But it’s not the same as what Black people or Native Americans have endured — or what I’ve experienced in Romania or other parts of Europe.
Also I’m a scholar at Harvard, living and working in a place of privilege. That is not the experience of many other Romani Americans, some of whom live in RVs or practice fortune-telling or other types of work that clearly stamp them as “gypsies.” They are harassed by the police or not given the same opportunities as white Americans to get a job or rent a home, and their children are not treated with respect in classrooms. Some of the subjects of our study said they hide their identity but still feel stigmatized when others make references to “gypsies” as inferior.
My interactions with some white Europeans in the United States have not been encouraging. Many feel no shame in telling me that the Roma have a culture of criminality, that we don’t like to work, that we are not educated. Often they will say that I am an exception, meaning it as a compliment, but in fact it’s offensive.
You might expect people who came here as immigrants to be more open-minded toward their fellow immigrants, but I think white European Americans take for granted the value of whiteness, and they use it. Many will say about the Roma or Black Americans, “They are where they are because they don’t work hard.” These white people use themselves as examples of how to succeed. Of course that shows a lack of conscious awareness of the value of whiteness or a lack of interest in giving up its benefits. Even though they are immigrants, they are accepted. They think because they have “made it,” the injustices that Black Americans go through every single day can be dismissed.
Fathia Lamorita (left) and Raphaël Santiago (right, on guitar) celebrate at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in southern France after the procession of Saint Sara. The famous pilgrimage has brought together Romani people from different European countries since the Middle Ages.© Jeannette Gregori
Fathia Lamorita (left) and Raphaël Santiago (right, on guitar) celebrate at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in southern France after the procession of Saint Sara. The famous pilgrimage has brought together Romani people from different European countries since the Middle Ages.
Cohen: As Europe has formed different borders and countries in the last century, has the approach toward the Roma there changed?
Matache: Europe has had some very paradoxical approaches to Romani people. For instance, in the early 1500s some Christian churches portrayed the Roma as a population of evil witches, because Romani fortune-tellers threatened the churches’ power and economic interests. But there were also moments when there was a strong push for forced assimilation of Romani people: during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and during the communist period, for example. In the past thirty years we’ve seen increased interest in “integrating” Roma. I put that in quotation marks because it’s a very tricky thing to do. What the Roma need is to be respected and seen as full human beings. The integration agenda doesn’t really address racism. How can the Roma be integrated when Romani children are in separate classes at school — or even in separate school buildings? Is that really integration? What’s the point of having Romani children in a mainstream classroom when the teacher constantly tells them they are not good enough, that they are inferior, that “gypsies” don’t value education?
Cohen: We’ve been talking about the history of violence and oppression that the Roma have faced, but what are some elements of the culture that should be celebrated?
Matache: In the past few decades the Roma movement has started to focus a bit more on celebrating our culture as a form of resistance. And the birth of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture is perhaps the most obvious example of this. The Roma archive (romarchive.eu) is a virtual space of memory, history, and pride that Roma themselves have created.
People often point to music as a powerful element of Roma culture, sometimes in a stereotypical manner. But I embrace and celebrate that, too, as part of our rich culture. And although gadje (non-Roma) in Europe rarely recognize our contribution, Roma music has influenced many other types of music. We see it in the work of composers like Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók, and in a lot of folk music in Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere. For a long time Romani musicians have entertained the rich and the poor of Europe, singing at celebrations like baptisms and weddings.
There are other crafts that the Roma brought to Europe. Some Romani groups were very skilled horseshoe or jewelry makers. Others were adept at working with metal or wood and would craft forks and spoons or baskets and sell them from one village to another. Some Roma would bring circuses to villages and neighborhoods. Roma brought not only skills and knowledge, but also entertainment and joy to Europeans.
Elements of Romani culture have been borrowed — and often stolen — by non-Romani Europeans. Flamenco music is perhaps the most obvious example. It became a national symbol of Spain, but there is little recognition of its origins in Romani culture and Roma suffering. Some Spanish musicians would even claim that the Roma do not sing or compose flamenco as well as they do. That is disrespectful, dishonest, and exploitative. And at the same time we can’t really talk about flamenco in Spain without mentioning Roma flamenco artists such as Antonio “El Cujón” and Mario Maya.
But in all these instances and many others, Roma contribution to Europe’s cultures, economy, and history has most often been disregarded.
Cohen: Who are some well-known Romani artists?
Matache: Too many to count, but I will give you a few examples, starting with music. Guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s developed a spectacular new style of jazz called jazz Manouche, also known unfortunately as “gypsy jazz.” And around that time, the famous Romen Theatre was born in Moscow. Diego El Cigala and Dorantes from Spain are fabulous artists of Romani origin. El Cigala won several Grammy and Latin Grammy awards. He is a genius who beautifully mixes flamenco with other genres. And Dorantes is both an extraordinary pianist and composer. And there are so many other talented Roma musicians. Esma Redzepova was known as the “queen” of Romani music. Upon her death in 2016, The New York Times wrote, “Battling prejudice against her culture, Ms. Redzepova was a pioneer in bringing wider recognition and respect to Romany music.”
Also, in the past few decades, many Romani film directors and actors have told our stories: Toni Gatlif on the Holocaust; Alina Serban narrating the history of Roma enslavement; and Roma Armee telling antiracist, queer, feminist Roma stories. Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter is working on a documentary about her family’s Romani roots. When famous Romani people are celebrated, their ethnicity is often ignored, and thus their Romani identity fades away. Ethnicity is emphasized when it comes to negative stereotypes, but when members of the same ethnic group become respected and well-known, they are presented just as human beings.
Cohen: That reminds me of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. There’s a conversation between a Black character played by Lee and a racist white character. Lee’s character asks the white one who his favorite basketball player, movie star, and rock star are. He names Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince. When Lee’s character points out that all his favorite people are Black, the white character replies, “It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince . . . they’re not Black.”
Matache: Yes, the dehumanization does not always apply to those who attain fame. Yet famous Roma do suffer so-called jokes in interviews about “gypsyness” or criminality, and often their path toward fame is a struggle to overcome injustice. There are many famous Romani soccer players who are applauded when they score, but if they make a mistake, the spectators yell racial slurs. This is how oppression functions: extract as much as you can from people who are exploited, and when you don’t need them, ignore their humanity.
Cohen: There’s a 2006 novel called Zoli, by the Irish author Colum McCann, based on the life of the Polish Romani poet known as Papusza. It was an international best seller. McCann spent time in Romani settlements and leaned heavily on research by Romani scholars. How do you feel about a non-Romani author attempting to tell a Romani story?
Matache: I think that Roma should be the bearers of our own stories. But Roma scholars, activists, and artists have little access to institutions of power. To make our way into those spaces, we need support from and collaboration with non-Romani allies. The question is: What kind of allies are we talking about? So, to answer your question, I’d say that it really depends on the context and the ally. Some fail. You may be aware of the nonfiction book Isabel Fonseca wrote, Bury Me Standing. She spent time with Roma in various communities before writing the book, but when I read it, I thought she disrespected the people she’d lived with. She took their story but didn’t seem to fully understand them. It’s important, of course, for people to read about the Roma, but it matters what they are reading. If they read that “gypsies” lie a lot, which is what Fonseca put in her book, that’s not accurate, and it’s not helpful. So I personally don’t seek such partnerships.
But other allies have contributed and helped us tell our stories. I have worked with some who are respectful and genuinely interested in working with the Roma on equal footing. For instance, a documentary called Our School, which was produced in Romania and got a lot of awards, was made by a white Romanian woman. [The 2011 film, directed by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma, followed three Romani children who were sent to public schools in a rural Transylvanian town after the European Union had provided the funding. By the end of the film, we learn that all the Romani children were “integrated” into schools for students with mental and physical disabilities. — Ed.] She consulted with many Roma activists, and she partnered with a Roma nonprofit organization. I think she did justice to the people and their story. She also returned to the community after she finished the film, and the people who were in the documentary got to go to the cinema together and see it. It didn’t feel like she used or disrespected us. But that unfortunately has not been my experience in working with non-Romani people who tell stories about us: many take and extract information but give no acknowledgment in return.
Cohen: I recently watched Our School and was reminded that these policies of assimilation and integration are created by governments or bureaucracies. Is this the type of assimilation the Roma desire?
Matache: Roma do not desire assimilation. We have a culture and a language that we want to preserve. What many of us desire are antiracist policies and practices. We want justice and equality. But Roma activists and scholars are generally only superficially involved in developing and writing Roma policies in Europe.
So far, most Roma policies at the national and European levels have focused on the oppressed, not on the oppressor, meaning these policies are creating the framework for equal access and individual human rights, but not ensuring justice. There is no interest in focusing on racism as the main problem that leads to structural inequalities. How do you make sure that doctors treat Roma the same as the majority population? How do we make sure that hospitals don’t place Romani patients in rooms that are less equipped, where the medical treatment they receive is poor? The EU sees the Roma as a problem, as opposed to looking at the problems that Romani people face, which are caused by a history of injustice and violence and the present reality of anti-Roma racism.
The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union has conducted research into how these integrative policies have been implemented. The participation of Roma children in compulsory education, for example, has increased. Today, across the EU, nine out of ten Romani children are enrolled in compulsory education. That’s definitely a result of these national strategies for Roma integration. But the studies also found that segregation of Romani students increased from 10 to 15 percent between 2011 and 2016. So there’s more progress to be made.
The existing policies are not creating the foundation for Romani children to thrive and go on to higher education, which is one reason why only 1 percent of Romani young people in Europe make it to college. Europeans are teaching Romani children only how to read and to write, because in the eyes of white Europeans that’s all Roma need to learn to become “civilized.”
It remains acceptable in Europe to be racist against Romani people. Nobody sees that as a moral question. And the Roma do not have access to where history is written; where movies are made; where literature and narratives are created. We don’t have a Roma museum, for instance, in Romania, where the Roma were enslaved for five hundred years. White Romanians rarely talk about that history of enslavement, and oftentimes they deny that it existed.
The concept of assimilation may be embraced in the United States, where people immigrate to become Americans. In Europe — at least, in post-communist countries — we have a different idea of assimilation. In the case of European Roma, we don’t want to be assimilated if it means we will become only Romanian or Serbian, having to erase our identities. There should be opportunities for us to live both as Roma and as citizens of the countries we come from.
Cohen: Is the history of the Roma in Europe not taught in schools?
Matache: No, with a few exceptions. Some history textbooks briefly mention the Roma as victims of the Holocaust, perhaps in a sentence or a couple of paragraphs. In Romania nongovernmental organizations have supported the development of optional courses on Romani history and language. But mainstream textbooks fail to accurately tell the history of the enslavement of the Roma or the Holocaust. There is shame and reluctance to tell the truth about this history of injustice, and not just in Romania, as it affects the image of other countries, too. Denial and distortion are powerful mechanisms of anti-Roma racism. We don’t have history books, theaters, statues, memorials, museums, or even streets named after celebrated Romani figures. Erasure of history, culture, and grievance is a key pillar of anti-Roma racism.
Cohen: The Roma have been described as a people without a country. Many other oppressed peoples — the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Rohingya — still have some sort of homeland that they can claim. What effect does it have, psychologically and emotionally, not to have that idea of home?
Matache: It’s hard for me to imagine how it feels to have the idea of a homeland. My identity has always been split: I am Romanian. My first language is Romanian. I grew up thinking in Romanian. I celebrate Romanian holidays. At the same time I’m Roma, and I’m a woman, and I’m a researcher. I have so many other pieces of my identity. But it is my Romani identity that calls out for recognition. As for not having a homeland: There is a country of origin — India — but there is no story around India as our homeland. I think it is fascinating how the Roma, a people who have continuously moved or been expelled from one country or another, and who have been often denied the use of their language, have managed to hang on to a sense of Roma-ness, if you will.
There’s another part of our identities that also has to be discussed: What does it mean for Roma to be citizens of their own countries? What does it mean for me to be Romanian or European and to love a country and a continent and peoples that have historically rejected and hated me and my people? How we have managed to continue to be hopeful and to love where we grew up, and the people that we share those places with, I think, speaks a lot about our humanity, but also about the lack of humanity that we see around us.