Horizontal Rule

In the Eye of the Beholder: Contemporary Perceptions of Roma in Europe

20 November 2007

Larry Olomoofe1

"Therefore, when we speak of ourselves as divided into Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace, we must be understood always to imply that within each of these classes there are a certain number of aliens, if we may so call them, - persons who are mainly led, not by class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection; and that this number is capable of being diminished or augmented. I mean, the number of those who will succeed in developing this happy instinct will be greater or smaller, in proportion both to the force of the original instinct within them, and to the hindrance or encouragement [emphasis added by author] which it meets from without."2 "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"3

In this article, I intend to present an analysis of current perceptions of "Roma" that are being deployed in a variety of ways and occasions to explain particular "cultural", "social", "political", and "behavioural" trends associated with contemporary Europe's many Romani communities. This analysis will employ theories and perceptions of "difference" and "otherness" expressed in other societies such as the United Kingdom (where there is a visible, if not significant, ethnic minority presence), in order to apply a critical lens to the situation developing regarding Romani individuals and communities across Europe. In proceeding in this fashion, the focus will be split between conducting an internal enquiry, i.e., Romani self-perceptions as well as an external one, i.e., perceptions of Romani people amongst non-Romani communities. The challenges in composing a piece on this subject are manifold. I run the danger of sliding into a purely academic discussion about perceptions and for some this would be no more than pseudo-psychobabble. I also run the danger of offending many sensibilities, both Romani and non-Romani, in the process since I will be critiquing their [self] interpretations of the social, economic, cultural, and political world they inhabit. More pertinently, I face the challenge of producing an enquiry that is not solely an abstract pontification about concepts of identities, but one that can be informative to the reader and lead to a more pronounced involvement in the struggle for social justice and equality for "Roma". In order to do this, I will rely upon some anecdotal insights that I have accrued over the past eight years as well as deploy a series of academic arguments/positions alluded to above in my introductory paragraphs. I hope to rise to these challenges and produce a piece that succinctly presents the core issues as well propose suggestions aimed at addressing the ongoing, pervasive facile and spurious perceptions of Roma in Europe and their deleterious impact upon these oftentimes desperate people.

The Chimera of Identity

At this incipient phase, I would like to posit that the lines of distinctions that demarcate the relative dynamics of influence in this process between "Roma" and "non-Roma" are arbitrary and become blurred when one accepts that the continuum of perceptions that I am assessing here is indeed contingent upon the symbiotic relationship between the two categories.4 The aim of this exegesis is to provide insights into what sociological and phenomenological factors have an impact on the variegated realities of Europe's Romani communities. To this extent, the current article will aim to address the hitherto now accepted "common-sense" notions of Roma and their attendant cultural practices and behaviour. Many examples of unreconstructed perceptions of Roma litter our daily lives and it is incumbent upon us to ask why this somewhat unreflected, retrogressive view of Roma continues to persist. It must be accepted that what I am talking about here is not an epiphenomenon that occurs at the sidelines of contemporary social and political life, but is in some cases the raison d'etre behind why millions of Romani people experience egregious forms of discrimination and eke out contingent lives at the margins of many European societies.5 I have witnessed the alchemy of race and ethnicity being used to inform policy and behaviour toward Roma in many countries by public officials and the general public alike. In many instances, I have often been shocked at the rampant racist doctrinal attitudes being expressed by people who would nominally be considered as "liberal" minded.6 On the flipside, I have also been shocked by the apparent Fetishistic attitudes displayed by those who are allegedly "sympathetic" toward Romani peoples who romanticise the experiences and "traits" of Roma into an abstracted, ethereal, profoundly definitive core that should be appreciated and deployed when developing policies and practices aimed at assisting Romani people.7 This mysticism gains currency when Roma also express these traits as inherently "Romani" and becomes the salient point of interest in Roma Rights discursive fields. Whilst gliding along the edges of the argument of the right to self-determination, we would also have to assess to what extent these expressions of "self-determination" by Roma are valid ones and how Roma fit into the overall social matrix of understanding that informs people's opinions of Roma in Europe.

All of the issues elucidated above crystallise around the broader social cognitive processes that ascribe value to particular behavioural practices and traits. For many Romani people, the long history of discrimination and marginalisation that they have had to endure has generated a counterfactual process within their communities, putatively in defiance to the discrimination they regularly encounter. Therefore, particular practices that are considered "traditional" and therefore central to Romani generic identity become more important due to the fact that Roma are seldom accepted by their non-Romani social peers and counterparts in society. Roma also become almost exclusively dependant upon the internal "in-community" processes of affirmation since they feel that they will never be accepted as equals by broader non-Romani society. Indeed, when Roma are invoked in the perceptions of wider society, it is almost always in oppositional terms through the positing of a juxtaposition of "them" and "us".8 This myth of definite distinctions between Roma and non-Roma sustain the manifold discriminatory practices that prevail in contemporary society and is subsequently internalised by both sets of participants thereby allowing this process to accrue efficacy and establishing the symbiotic push and pull in both directions that I mention briefly above. This is then normalised over time and becomes the modus natale operandi that governs the patterns of social interaction between the two groups. This explains why in 2003 a Romani parent at a local conference on the education of Romani children in Nis, Serbia, responded to my question about the staggeringly high rate of non-participation by Romani children in education with the words, "Romani children do not go to school. This is normal for us." Normal!?!

The statement above by the Romani parent in question indicates that widely-held perceptions of Romani participation in mainstream "conventional" society directly affects the expectations of Romani people themselves. The fact that she felt that this statement helped to both explain and justify the chronic non-participation of Romani children in the sphere of education indicates the deeprootedness of their alienation. It also indicates the self-imposing mechanisms of cognition that Roma perennially place upon themselves. Due to the practicalities of combating discrimination with pragmatic, rational choices, Roma inadvertently (in my opinion) replicate the very same debilitating processes and patterns of discrimination within their own communities, restraining the ambitions of successive generations who end up mimicking "what Roma are supposed to do/be." Those fortunate enough to break the shackles of discrimination often find themselves isolated, stuck between two worlds but not really straddling either one particularly well.9 Interestingly enough, whenever I encounter racist attitudes towards Roma by some people and counter with the examples of those Roma who do not fit the stereotype, the normal riposte is that these Roma who do not beg, steal, read fortunes, dance and have many babies are exceptions to the rule. They are not "real" Roma. Sadly, this view is pervasive and once again highlights the complex, belligerent stubbornness of an asymmetrical symbiotic process that ascribes, proscribes and at times prescribes meaning and value to particular acts and behavioural traits.

Visible Invisibility

The last point above hints at an interesting social psychological process related to our cognitive faculties. The processes of elision that we continually deploy in our interpretation of our social environment is heavily dependant upon our capacities to recognise and categorise signifiers and what is being "signified". Therefore, when people invoke the term "Roma", what does this really signify for them? Does it signify the old stereotypical nomadic chancer who is happy with her/his meagre existence? Perhaps the headscarf-wearing, wild-eyed fortune-telling banshee of lore? The welfare cheats who simply procreate exponentially and await hand-outs from social services? The smelly, unwashed nuisances who have the temerity to demand equal access to education, housing, healthcare and employment? The modern, educated, politically- and socially-aware Romani men and women struggling to get a fair opportunity to improve their life-chances? All of the above? In my experience, "all of the above" seems to fit the bill here. The reason why I say this is down to the oxymoron that is the heading of this section of my exegesis. I contend that many Romani people are rendered invisible by their audience (individually and collectively) because the observer refuses to see what is exactly in front of them and I will outline this concept in greater detail below.10

In many cases, I have observed people explicitly "enying" the Romani person standing in front of them by claiming that these people are not really Roma and that they are unrepresentative of Romani people generally. By way of illustration, please allow me to recant a personal anecdote that succinctly captures what I am saying here. During a social event in Budapest in 2003, I was in attendance with a number of Hungarian Romani friends including four Romani women. During the course of the event, a non-Romani man approached me and started making idle conversation about the venue and some of the people present there. During this conversation, he mentioned that he found one of the Romani women particularly attractive. I concurred with his view and he went off but came by every so often to repeat that this woman was beautiful. After about an hour, he came rushing back to me and said, "She is a Gypsy. I cannot believe it. Be careful." I responded by asking him, "So now you know she is a Gypsy, she is no longer beautiful?" He simply muttered something under his breath and walked away. Once again, I was somewhat shocked by his response to this particular woman's Romani identity and the effect her ethnicity had had on his allegedly objective aesthetic judgement of beauty.

Over time, I have analysed this peculiar encounter attempting to interpret its meaning and concluded that the man in question, once he recognised that the woman was Romani suspended his objective faculties and deployed his pre-determined notions of Roma to categorise this woman. All he saw after this revelation was a "Gypsy" and he could not see beyond this. Despite being an educated professional, this woman may as well not have existed for this man. She was an apparition who did not exist. She only existed when he decided to invoke the various technologies of racism and anti-racism, which informs the way she (Gypsies/Roma) is perceived and received by mainstream society. In this event, Roma still do not exist because 'Roma' that non-Roma see in their mind's eye are "Roma" they have constructed without the participation of the Roma themselves in the process. The sheer presence of Roma (and I mean this literally) is the only thing they contribute to the 'dialogue' which the non-Romani observer(s) conduct within/amongst themselves.

Flux of Identity: Roma or Gypsy?

"In the Romani language, the word "Roma" means "people" in the plural masculine gender, with a connotation of "us" as opposed to "them". Outsiders are referred to by the general term gadje (also a masculine noun in the plural). It is my impression that calling all "others" by one name, "gadje", is a strikingly frequent conversational practice when Roma speak with Roma. This frequent reference to a generalized "other" is generally not found in any other insider ethnic discourse. This certainly reflects a high degree of "us/them" opposition that has been historically reinforced by centuries of internalized oppression and isolation."11

Ever since its inception in the mid-1990s, Roma Rights discourse has generated a number of internal critiques amongst Romani communities across Europe about the efficacy and the accuracy of the term "Roma".12 Prior to the mid-90s, the term "Roma" was not widely used to denote or refer to Romani communities. The term "Gypsy" was widely accepted as the generic term to refer to Romani communities, and due to its long, historical deployment, is a loaded term. However, currently "Roma" has increasingly gained currency as the lingua franca and is widely perceived by many as the politically correct way to refer to those people previously characterised as "Gypsy". In mentioning this, I have to stress that the term "Roma" is not wholly accepted by the group as the correct reference for them and many people still prefer to refer to themselves as "Gypsy" since this term has deeper, historical, socio-cultural roots than the term "Roma", and for them is a far more accurate and legitimate cipher for their people. I have observed on a number of occasions heated discussion between people who we would nominally refer to as "Roma" about the deployment of the term in the place of "Gypsy". Invariably, these discussions would hinge upon the legitimacy of the phrase "Roma" on the one hand, and the perceived ignorance of those who continued to call themselves "Gypsy" on the other. My thoughts while observing these differences of opinion between the two sets of protagonists was that these discussions shared similar traits with the ongoing debate across the African Diaspora about the continued promulgation of the term "Nigger" or "Nigga" by those (mainly African Americans) who insist that they do so as a mark of defiance.

Putatively, black people have stripped away the negative connotations once inherent in the derisory usage of the term and, through reappropriation, have applied a more positive sanction to it, with one proviso: They are the only ones allowed to refer to themselves as "Nigger". The use of the term can be seen as a "badge" of defiance, which they can use as a "shield" against/in [white] mainstream society, a verbal reminder of the crimes committed against them.13 What was striking in the discussions that I have alluded to earlier is the emotional import displayed by those who rejected the deployment of the term Roma to characterise members of this group. This, I feel, was imbued with an intrinsic class dynamic which distinguished those who preferred to be called "Romani" from the others who still use the term "Gypsy". This internal schism in the self-perception of Roma/Gypsies indicates the vexed nature of identity ascription amongst a variegated ethnic group with nuanced and, at times, differentiated histories. Those who refuse to use the term "Roma" apparently do so simply because for them it is an "empty reference" and is mainly the result of some "educated Roma and gadje" who were struggling to develop a politically correct term for this group of people popularly known as "Gypsies". These clashing self-perceptions are further complicated by crosscutting themes such as region, religion, gender and, increasingly, sexuality which accentuates the notional differences amongst Roma/Gypsies even further. The aetiology of this internal dichotomy (which is also affected by recidivist banal external processes) is clear for those who take an interest in the plight of this group. Many years of marginalisation from mainstream activity has allowed a reactionary, counterfactual process to persist, underpinned by various claims to cultural continuity and difference.

The two trajectories intersect in the ascriptive process by mainstream participants who deploy unreconstructed, stigmatised, racist stereotypes to refer to Romani/Gypsy communities in their midst, which is subsequently internalised by the group and deployed in a caricature of itself, reaffirming much of the stereotypical perceptions that the mainstream hold of Roma.

Common-Sense Understanding: Societal Affirmation of the Hermeneutical Circle

"On October 31, 2002, the Slovak government passed a bill, which limits family allowance benefits to 10,500 Slovak crowns (approximately 250 Euro) per month, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on November 20, 2002. The bill was reportedly passed in an effort by the state to save money. While the bill is prima facie neutral, in effect, it is discriminatory towards Roma who tend to have larger families than ethnic Slovaks. RFE/ RL reported that the bill was passed following racist statements made by Mr Robert Fico, a member of Smer, an ultra-right wing party. Mr Fico reportedly stated that "The Roma found out it was profitable to have children due to family allowances. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. I would pay allowances only for up to three children. If we let it be as it is now, I can guarantee that in ten years we will have one million Roma here." Slovak public discourse frequently features similarly alarmist statements about the "threat" to Slovakia of increasing numbers of Roma."15

"The Chairwoman of the Czech Senate Human Rights Committee is under pressure to resign over her comments about Romanies, according to Prague Daily Monitor. Liana Janackova (Independents) was recorded on tape declaring herself a "racist." Speaking about plans to house Roma, she justified the choice of a certain town by stating that she opposed integration: I disagree with the integration of Gypsies so that they would live across the area. Unfortunately, we have chosen the Bedriska (colony) and so they will stay there, with a high fence and with electricity.... I don't care, I'll openly shout this to the whole world," she was recorded as saying.

Ms. Janackova had initially denied that the recorded voice was hers, claiming that it was a forgery and part of a political attack by an opponent, she now admits, "I should naturally have not reacted in such a way, it is careless and it is silly. If I insulted or harmed any Romany from Marianske Hory I will personally apologise to him." However, she rejected calls to resign, which came in the form of a letter to the Human Rights Committee from the central Bohemian coordinator for Romany issues, Cyril Koky. For Janackova to remain in a government post dealing with minority issues, Koky said, would "ridicule of the entire work of the committee.""16

Bearing all of the above in mind, where does this leave us now? Having posed a number of questions and provided a layered and at times confounding account of perceptions, what now? The exegisis above is not simply an abstract, intellectual exercise aimed at postulating a series of precepts and then simply abandoning the process once expressed. The account I present here is one that is deeply rooted in societal praxis and norms. The scourge of stigmatised perceptions held by "mainstream" actors is a real and tangible problem. It manifests itself in all spheres of social spaces and action. The quotes at the beginning of this concluding segment clearly bear testimony to the fact that unreconstructed, stigmatised perceptions of Romani people infiltrate the highest echelons of social, civil, and political life in many European societies. This is a sad fact and one that needs to be clearly defined and challenges must be mounted to arrest this insidious "social practice". This is especially tragic since the continued negative perceptions and labelling of Europe's Romani communities is an anachronistic process which is putatively out-of-step with the prevailing current of plurality that underpins much of the expansion of the European Union that has recently seen the inclusion of Eastern European countries in its membership.

At the recent follow-up to the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) meeting in Geneva in August, 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mme. Louise Arbor expressed her concern that contemporary forms of racism were of a particularly virulent nature which at times form the "raison d'etre" of some forms of actions. This was noted to be particularly so in political discourses wherein she states that;

"Tragically, racist and xenophobic views are dangerously acquiring renewed legitimacy and vigor when they are invoked to bolster the political platforms or are even the very "raison d'etre" of political leadership in some countries".

Once again, the quotes at the beginning of this section are salient examples of the very "tragic" practices Mme Arbor is alluding to in her speech. Whilst the current critique focuses upon the role played by political leaders, we should also pay attention to the role played by mainstream media agencies in perpetuating and at times peddling these stigmatised caricatures of Romani peoples. Mainstream popular television shows have propagated stereotypes of Romani "culture", "tradition", and people. Recently, The Finnish Roma Forum, an umbrella organisation for Romani advocacy groups in the country, called for the cancellation of Manne-TV, a satirical show aired biweekly by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). The show was created as a collaboration between British director Richard Stanley and Romani actor Santeri Ahlgren, who plays the main character. In the show, Ahlgren's character laughs raucously, plays cards, repairs old cars, plays music and rarely works. Mr Ahlgren defended the show as revealing prejudice, saying to the French newspaper France 24: "These stereotypes are what the rest of Finns think of us."

Mr. Ahlgren's comment accurately reveals the warped aetiology of racist logic that underpins the continued construction and maintenance of stigmatised perceptions of Romani peoples across Europe. The fact that a Romani man was caricaturing the group allegedly means that it is OK. We are not supposed to consider our social responsibility to confront the harmful promulgation of racist accounts of particular minority groups simply because the "actor" is from the group? The potential harm to the group needs to be assessed by the production company which has a responsibility not to promote racist rhetoric or acts. In this case, YLE Programme Director Harri Virtanen defended the show, noting that most of the cast and producers were themselves Roma.17

Through explicating the myriad mainstream "social" and "cultural" processes that collude to undermine the existence of Romani peoples in European societies, I hope to draw attention to the fact that we are all guilty of sustaining these mendacious practices. For many of us, the reflex is to resort or refer to these "common-sense" perceptions of "Roma". We consume and internalise the cultural products of this process and, through this, maintain the hermeneutical circle that at the same time both informs and acquires from us its valency. Increased vigilance is required to address this problem since simply pointing fingers from afar is apparently unproductive. The process of introspection and vigilance needs to occur in both Romani communities and non-Romani communities. The fact that Romani people at times promulgate these stereotypes does not legitimise the fact or absolve us of our social (civil) responsibilities. The sooner we acknowledge this duty of ours, then perhaps these unreconstructed perceptions of "Roma", "Gypsies", "Gens Du Voyage", "Traveller", "Maxhup", and "Manouche", ınter alia, will begin to have a hollow echo and disappear.


  1. Larry Olomoofe is the Human Rights Trainer at the ERRC.
  2. Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. McMillan Company: 1925, p. 107.
  3. Wittgenstein’s, [Ludwig] Ladder Introduction, Marjorie Perloff found at: http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/witt_intro.html.
  4. By this, I am alluding to the many self-perceptions of Romani people in Hungary, for example, who often refer to themselves as “Roma/Gypsy” and to non-Roma as “Hungarian”, and in other instances say that they are Hungarian themselves, indicating a process of elision that is dependant upon the contextual framework in which this self-ascription by Roma occurs. Therefore, simply accepting a “common-sense” linear, one-dimensional process of ascription, by Roma and non-Roma, would be to overlook the many nuances and layers of identity formation that this process necessarily depends upon.
  5. See, for example: Zoon, Ina. 2001. On the Margins. Roma and Public Services in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. New York: Open Society Institute.
  6. This was the main point behind my article “Why are you working for the ERRC”, wherein I articulate the mystifying contours of liberal minded people expressing avowedly, dogmatic racist epithets when talking about Roma, explicitly suggesting that their opinions were not racist since Roma themselves – because of their “cultural” traits of begging, stealing, lack of hygiene, etc – are to blame for these recidivist attitudes held by the mainstream, non-Romani population. Article available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2466&archiv=1.
  7. Any number of people may baulk at my opinion here but this is based upon formal and informal discussions with interested people and other stakeholders within the Roma Rights sphere. On these occasions, I have been astounded at the banal reassertion of racist dogma. Perhaps more worryingly, these events to which I am alluding took place in the context of discussing equal access to education for Romani children in many Central and Eastern European countries. At these fora, people would openly say that “Roma culture does not value education” or that it is “part of Roma culture to beg.” The most popular remark I have encountered in many of these settings is that “Romani people like to sing and dance so we should concentrate on developing programmes allowing them to do this.” Surely, this preposterous line of argumentation should have nothing to do with developing policies for equal access to education, even it were true. However, I am sure that Romani people are not the only ones who like to sing and dance and casting this fact as intrinsically (perhaps “innately” is a better way of describing things) Romani is flabbergasting.
  8. Which is based upon the premise of asserting an identity that revolves around the notion that “I am what I am because I am not you”; i.e., black and white, men and women, Romani and non-Romani, etc.
  9. This is particularly true of young educated Romani women who are increasingly excelling in the mainstream social sphere but are often alluded to by their Romani peers as having lost their “true” Romani identity. This sentiment is not confined to Romani women alone, but the outcry is far louder with regard to young Romani women due to the perceived loss of their true, “traditional” Romani identities as home-makers and mothers.
  10. This concept of "invisibility" is taken from the African-American writer Ralph Ellison and his book "The Invisible Man". Vintage Books: New York, 1947.
  11. Petrova, Dimitrina. "The Roma: between a myth and the future." In Roma Rights 1/2004. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1844.
  12. Petrova, Dimitrina. "The Roma: between a myth and the future." In Roma Rights 1/2004. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1844.
  13. This is allegedly emblematic of the “post-modern” identity politics wherein a previously oppressed and/or marginalised group reappropriates the language and the symbols of their oppression and deploys them against their “oppressors”. Therefore, homosexual men have reappropriated the term “faggot” and deploy it amongst themselves, in the same way that many women (feminists) refer to each other as “bitches”. This practice is consonant with the theory of “overuse” expounded by Randall Kennedy in his book, Nigger! The strange career of a troublesome word, published by Random House in 2002 where the apparent overuse of a hither-to-now acknowledged pejorative is neutralised by the “overuse” of the phrase in many cases by the group putatively oppressed by the phrase itself. This process apparently “empties” the vitriol inherent in the orignal deployment of the phrase and therefore becomes a signifer for/of the group which only they can use.
  14. Fabri Showder infamously did a show about “Gypsies” called “Roma Showder” in 2003 in which he presented a series of caricatured images of Roma/Gypsies portrayed by Roma/Gypsies themselves.
  15. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1394.
  16. Czech Press Agency, Prague Daily Monitor.
  17. Mr Virtanen said that the show would prompt people to question their views about others: “The target of the series is the population at large and its prejudices. If someone watching the series thinks ‘is that how I think?’, or ‘do I have attitudes like that?’, then we will be fairly close to the aim of the series.” According to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, changes were, however, planned for the show, including a more critical focus on revealing the country’s prejudiced views about Roma.


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