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Roma Rights 2 2015: Nothing About Us Without Us? Roma Participation in Policy Making and Knowledge Production

7th, December, 2015

Nothing About Us Without Us?

Mária Bogdán, Jekatyerina Dunajeva, Tímea Junghaus, Angéla Kóczé, Márton Rövid, Iulius Rostaş, Andrew Ryder, Marek Szilvási, Marius Taba

Nothing about us without us? Roma participation in knowledge production and policy making was a unique three-day gathering of Roma and pro-Roma activists and thinkers.1 Held in Budapest in October 2014, this forum provided opportunity to reflect not only on the previous decades of struggle, but also to think about future directions. Looking back on the early days of the Romani Movement, activists recalled the idealism and hope of times past, which had somehow vanished. This loss of hope was attributed to lost con- nections with communities; inward-looking and narrow ideologies; and hierarchical decision-making within government and civil society structures. It was also felt that acute forms of poverty and xenophobia had done much to disempower and disenchant.

Structural racism in academia

David Gillborn, the renowned advocate of critical race theory, contends that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of society and that institutional racism is pervasive in dominant culture. At Gillborn’s public lecture held in Budapest in November 2014, Marius Taba pointed out that racism not only existed within political extremes but had entered the mainstream political agenda, adding that there was also institutional racism, including within universities. Taba asserted that if a Roma scholar makes a statement, it is discounted as subjective, but a non-Roma scholar such as Géza Jeszenszky is able to proclaim without any evidence that Roma culture sanctions incest; thus so-called institutions of knowledge production can produce racist ideas.2

In response, Gillborn agreed that in many European states mainstream politics is lurching to the right rather than facing up to racism, and there is in fact a race to compete for the reactionary vote. With regard to knowledge production, universities are some of the most racist, sexist, disabling, elitist and closed organisations you could ever invent, he claimed. “They pride themselves on how clever and meritocratic they are and it gives them the excuse not to worry about Roma, Black or women professors, they say if these scholars were clever enough we would recruit them.”

To break through as a Roma scholar and to combat being discounted one can look at the foundation of critical race theory, where people like Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado outlined how white lawyers argued that we cannot have a black judge. A black judge, they argued, cannot be impartial, unlike a white one, who does not have a racialised identity. In their minds ethnicity was something for ‘exotic’, ‘other’ people. In his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well3 Bell noted that we are judged as humans by how our ethnicity is judged and whether we are supporting or critiquing the racist status quo; so a member of the oppressed group arguing against oppression is discounted. But if as a Roma you dismissed talk of institutional racism as rubbish and stated that the problem lies in the fact that the Roma do not work hard enough, then you would be lauded on the front page of newspapers and invited to dinner with leading politicians, and foundations would offer you research money.

A key feature of the event and publication is that despite the setbacks and disappointments of the past, a new sense of idealism and optimism may be emerging. This is an invaluable resource, for without a “pedagogy of hope” the Romani Movement would stagnate. One of the most important sessions of the workshop dealt with the role of Feminism and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) minorities within the Romani movement. Feminist and LGBT activists are great resources and allies, who have developed amazing strengths in their battles to overcome not just racism but also sexism and homophobia. To be Gay and/or a Feminist and a Roma makes us realise that identity and tradition are not rigid and fixed phenomena, and therefore should not be oppressive but should be dynamic, inclusive and innovative, keeping the best of the old while reinventing and mixing identity with new outlooks and behaviour.

Such bridging and outward forms of social and cultural capital need to be reflected in the development of the Romani Movement, which should seek to build broad intersectional alliances across Roma communities and constituencies, incorporating not only interests but solidarity and altruism. There is important scope for Roma interests to link with wider social justice and anti-poverty movements. For the onward march of neo-liberalism will clearly be a prominent factor in the continuing marginalisation and scapegoating of Roma communities and must be challenged.

A desire for new directions, to give Roma a greater say in their lives, and to bring reality to the rhetoric of empowerment led participants to reflect on the need for new dynamics in power relationships within governmental and civil society decision-making processes. The old politics of tokenism and co-option need to change, otherwise there is a danger that pledges and commitments by decision-makers to co-production will be devalued and subverted. Likewise, decision-makers should champion the weak and marginalised including Roma communities, and be robust in their interventions wherever and whenever xenophobia and acute inequality threaten the cohesion and stability of society.

The old politics of the Romani Movement also needs to change, as there is a danger that different groups are becoming too factionalised and too focused on petty rivalries, impeding partnership and trust. New directions and debates are also needed in the field of knowledge production: there is a growing mood that greater emphasis should be given to research ‘for’ and ‘with’ Roma communities through community-based and participatory research. Research which facilitates community voices to be heard and actively involves them in all stages of the research process should not be derided as tainted by bias or as propaganda, for it is grounded in the reality of experience. Yet no one approach to research should dominate or monopolise - there is a need for plurality and diversity. Among all the disciplines, what has become known as Romani Studies should accept and celebrate a diversity of research approaches, and also tolerance and respect in debate.

Following the structure of the workshop Nothing about us without us? the journal issue contains critical papers by established and emerging activists and scholars in three sections: (1) activism and civil society; (2) knowledge production; (3) gender and LGBT issues.

We thank all those who have contributed to what may come to be viewed as an historic event and publication. Rather than producing a detailed manifesto, the main output may be a new spirit and attitude in the struggle for social justice, based on solidarity, diversity, innovation and respect.

Roma under erasure – note on the cover by Tímea Junghaus

The cover image is Daniel Baker’s work entitled Roma strike through.

The notion sous rature (under erasure) does not refer exclusively and literarily to the current situation of Europe’s largest minority living under the threat of being erased; it activates the concept originally developed by Martin Heidegger, and then used extensively by Jacques Derrida - which involves the crossing out of a word within a text, while allowing it to remain legible and in place.

The Roma under erasure signifies that the Gypsy/Roma/Sinti/Traveller-word/notion is “inadequate yet necessary” and that the particular Roma signifier is not wholly suitable for the concept it represents, but must be used, as the constraints of our language offer nothing better. The premise of deconstruction has the potential to offer an innovative (self-)definition for Roma by questioning the postulation that all of Western history (literature and philosophy) implicitly relies on a metaphysics of presence, where intrinsic meaning is accessible by virtue of pure presence.

The work attempts to demonstrate the impossibility of pure presence and consequently of intrinsic meaning, which leads to the conclusion that any given concept is constituted in reciprocal determination, in terms of its oppositions, and it further contends that “… we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand”4 - for example, the signified over signifier; intelligible over sensible; speech over writing; activity over passivity; majority over minority; and the Gadje (non-Roma) over the Gypsy.

The primary task of our practice for Roma-deconstruction is to overturn these oppositions, revealing their operation in visual encounters, artistic traditions, institutional histories and their produced texts.


  1. The video recordings of most of the sessions are available at: http://romaempowerment.wordpress.com.
  2. For a fuller discussion see Andrew Richard Ryder, Beáta Nagy, Iulius Rostáş “A Note on Roma Mental Health and the Statement by Géza Jeszenszky”, Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol 4, Number 2 (2013).
  3. Derrick Bell, Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
  4. Jacques Derrida, “Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta” in Positions, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 41.


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