The Dark Side of the Moon

29 October 2003

István Fenyvesi

As this rubric has traditionally been of a personal nature, I would start with some relevant biographical information about myself. I was born and grew up in a historic place: a country which has ceased to exist and which the world knew as the Soviet Union. I spent my childhood in western Ukraine and, being an ethnic Hungarian in a country which was extremely multiethnic and multicultured, I grew up without any strong sense of belonging to a larger group. Whether this was good or bad I don't know and it does not matter, but what I do know is that this has helped me a lot to understand and become friends with people belonging to different ethnic groups, among others with Roma.

I have always known that we live in a racist society, but never faced and realised the extent of it before I joined the European Roma Rights Center in March 1998. Shortly after getting the job, I met a friend on the street and proudly shared with her the news that I would work for the European Roma Rights Center where I would have a chance to make a modest contribution to the defence of Roma rights. There was a tense silence on her part and finally she asked in a serious voice: "And is this good for you?" Needless to say, I was both embarrassed and shocked. I could read in her eyes the unabridged statement: "I cannot believe that you could not find some decent job, but instead chose to defend those Gypsies."

The real disappointment was entrenched within my own family. At the beginning, we simply had conversations in which I, naively believing in the common sense of well-educated adults with lifetime experience, did my best to argue why racist attitudes are one of the most harmful phenomena in a society, bringing examples from real life, derived from my work experience. Nevertheless, they seemed to be deaf to the facts-based arguments that Roma are systematically subjected to ill-treatment, discrimination and violence in virtually all spheres of life. As time went on, these conversations developed into heated arguments. After one such hopeless argument with my father, I ended the conversation saying: "You know what, dad, I wish the colour of your skin got brown and your name changed to Lakatos (a typical Hungarian Romani family name) at least for a month, and then you would try, for example, to find a job. Then you would know exactly what I have been talking about." That was our last major discussion of the issue.

We live in a time when many vulnerable groups make their voices heard and fight for their rights - with or without the help of activists belonging to the majority. This often irritates the majority population which, in the case of the Roma, is unable to understand why they do not simply start being decent citizens who work, abide by the law and behave. This would - in the opinion of the majority - solve all the problems. Although blind and ignorant, this is a convenient approach - no empathy, understanding, let alone help is involved. "It's up to them" types of phrases are often heard. These people, however, have never been detained and beaten by police and have never been refused entry to a public place. Their homes have never been demolished, burned and looted, and their children will never find themselves in poor quality segregated schools. And all this is for a very simple reason: they belong to the right ethnicity - to the majority. They have the right colour of skin and the right name. If we were living in a dream-world and I was the chief magician of it, I would certainly turn things upside down for a while (or permanently?) - making up for the enormous lack of empathy and understanding. I would have the "it's up to them" type of people live the situation which Roma and other vulnerable groups now experience - to make them try to survive on the dark side of the moon.


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