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Pictures in Our Heads

20 November 2007

Sinan Gökçen

Roma area diverse minority group, with members residing in different countries under similar and dissimilar circumstances, with one thing in common - they are among the most discriminated group in all societies to which they belong. They endure, in some cases, extreme economic, social and political marginalisation. Abused, bullied, discriminated, disliked, scorned, segregated, uneducated, and unemployed are the conditions that the majority of Roma happen to be familiar with. Integration into society is a hard process for Roma. The vicious circle of negative stereotyping and marginalisation, if not deprivation, is likely to cast them out of the social integration course. They are not alone in that sense: Arabs, Asians, black people, dark skinned people, 'Easterners', immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and many others have accompanied them in the same boat of racial discrimination for decades or for centuries.

According to journalist Walter Lippmann who coined the term, a stereotype is a "picture in our heads".1 Lippman also contended that our imagination is shaped by the pictures seen; "consequently, they lead to stereotypes that are hard to shake". When reflecting on stereotyping, Lippmann was referring to the rising power of the media for manufacturing consent in the 1920s. Glancing over the volumes of academic research on the history of ethnic and racial stereotyping, it is possible to state that stereotypes are sometimes centuries old. Media is a powerful agent in the creation and maintenance of racial stereotypes, but many other social factors shape the perceptions seeping into everyone's minds to slowly galvanize the pictures in our heads.

Stereotypes have a life of their own once they emerge from Pandora's box. Jane Elliot, a primary school teacher, decided to conduct an experiment on prejudice in her third grade class in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. She divided her class into two between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. Elliot then went on to tell the class that children with brown eyes were inherently inferior to the children with blue eyes and because of that they should be subject to differential treatment in certain ways, such as verbal degradation, denial of access to class equipment and social segregation. The next day the roles were reversed, with the brown-eyed children treated as the 'superior group'. The group that was defined as 'inferiorâ' had less enthusiasm and less success and showed more aggression.

Distorted perceptions are mirrored onto ethnic and racial groups and inflict psychological wounds on individuals that are cast as belonging to those groups. The end result is collective marginalisation or collective oppression.

In Charles Taylor's words, "Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if society mirrors back to them a confining or demeaning picture of themselves".2 It can be argued that in our contemporary societies, human rights advocacy, civic campaigns, equality laws and legal defense of rights measures have made racism less tolerated.

It is all the more ironic then that the last two decades have been the heydays of multiculturalism and identity politics. In some ways, belonging to a minority group has never been as accommodated and institutionally managed as it is nowadays. Indeed, there are especially relentless institutional, political and social efforts all over Europe to eradicate ethnic and racial discrimination. Nonetheless, there seem to be new discriminatory responses produced for each step taken towards more equal societies. In this issue of the Roma Rights, the ways in which Roma are perceived by others are discussed from various angles. Claude Cahn debates the implications of the perception of being Roma, and the stigma of being regarded as "Gypsy' for the Romani communities in relation to addressing human rights issues in the article Unseen Powers: Perception, Stigma and Roma Rights. András Kádár looks at the legal sphere, analysing the way Roma and their specific problems are reflected in legislative norms. He specifically looks into legislative examples from the Hungarian legal system in the article Roma and Law: A Semi-Pessimistic Overview, but his case has implications for Europe in general. On the other hand, Suat Kolukırık presents a geographically focused approach in The Gypsy Perception in Turkish Society by depicting the way Roma are perceived in Turkey, historically and in the present day. Discussing Roma in Turkey is a novelty because Turkish Roma's past and present have become sources of academic interest only recently. As far as the academic research front is concerned, Adrian Marsh confers that there are as many definitions of who the Roma are and which groups might be categorised as 'Roma' as the studies themselves. In Research and the Many Representations of Romani Identity, Mr Marsh also touches upon the historiography of the Romani past.

Climbing down from the 'ivory tower' of academic research and a discussion of the state of the art, Larry Olomoofe delves into a meticulous questioning how Roma are perceived in today's Europe as an everyday social reality. Mr Olomoofe carves deep into the heart of the matter in his article In the Eye of the Beholder: Contemporary Perceptions of Roma in Europe and hands us a mirror in retort to the quandary regarding what or who is to be held responsible for the 'pictures in our heads'. Meanwhile, Henry Scicluna discusses a very practical and very tangible side of prejudices and perceptions in Anti-Romani Speech in Europe's Public Space: The Mechanism of Hate Speech. Some quotes provided in his article are quite shocking but nevertheless very real.

Endnotes:

  1. Lippmann Walter 1992; Public Opinion. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6456.
  2. Taylor Charles 1992. Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 25.

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