Larry Olomoofe

01 February 2006

Why Are You Working for the ERRC?

"Why did you decide to work with Roma?" This is a question that I perennially get asked by groups of Romani activists in Europe. Though the question has at times been formulated differently, however the essence has remained the same. Why Roma? At these times, I tailored my answers to address the basic fundamentals immanent in the query and tell my inquisitors that I have always had a passion for social justice, equality and equity, etc, and that if I were true to the principles and values that shape my life, then living and working in Budapest, one could not be happy to see the existence of a number of Romani communities barely existing at the margins of society. This conviction of mine, therefore, led me to seek ways in which I could make a positive contribution to the Roma people in Hungary, initially, and Europe generally. This normally satisfies the questioner(s) curiosity, but oddly enough, not my introspection. Far from being a purely existential question, I need to ask myself why, exactly, am I working in the field of Roma Rights. Whilst my drive for social justice and equity remains true, it is surely not the full picture. If it were, then I could/should be working with any number of disadvantaged groups in society (and I may well do so one day). However, no other issue holds the seductive sway and passion for me as the plight of Romani communities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and their quest for equality and social justice. In answering the question, I can even say that my blackness allows me to fully understand the processes of discrimination that Roma experience and that this provides a bridge between both my experiences of racism and theirs and therefore I can use my understanding to shape action that may help relieve the plight Roma face in some way. That too would only partially answer the question and I think that the deeper personal introspection that I continually conduct has allowed me to come closer to really answering the question of why I decided and continue to work with Roma.

I came to Budapest in March, 1999 one day before the NATO and allied bombing of Serbia began. My reason for coming here was professional. I was coming to offer an MA course on Race, Politics and Social Theory at the University of Budapest (ELTE) funded by UNESCO. The course explored patterns of racial discrimination in the United Kingdom and United States respectively and I instructed students on the course to apply particular themes covered in the course to local situations, thereby making the topics less abstract and disconnected therefore making the material more pertinent to their social realities. It was during this course that I observed the complex and arcane nature of the discrimination faced by Romani communities in the CEE region. My students would often provide useful analyses of the plight faced by blacks in America and Britain, providing solid moral and political arguments denouncing the abhorrent practices that many of these people were forced to experience because of discrimination. In my attempts to draw analogous connections to the experiences of blacks from those scenarios with the experience of Roma in this region, I would instruct my students to apply their own analysis to the situation of Roma. It was only then that the Janus face of discrimination revealed itself. My liberal minded students suddenly displayed a form of racist denial that would make any antebellum southerner feel proud of. "Oh the Roma. YOU don't really know how these people are. They are like savages. They are not like you (blacks in UK and USA). They are crooks, thieves, lazy, etc.," Every single racial stereotype and epithet was deployed to explain to me how Roma deserved to be at the margins of society. Their marginal position was, according to my students, directly proportional to the recidivist nature of Roma culture, tradition and practice. According to the collective logic of my class of students, Roma people were the main architects and arbiters of their own fates. If they eke out a meager existence on the edges of society, this was their own fault. It had little or nothing to do with racism or discrimination, and if it did, it was because Roma were unsociable and uncivilised people. Besides, they (the Roma) were happy with their lives.

To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. So, being a black person in Budapest and suffering racial discrimination was a bad thing that my students could understand and adopt a moral position on. For them, the processes that outlawed the discriminatory practices that I had been exposed to were clear and prescient. This clarity, however, disappeared when the "victims" were Romani and was replaced by the obscure vicissitudes of racist logic. This led me to ask the question of how two supposedly antithetical processes could be embodied in one place (person) without negating each other. Whilst I am still struggling to understand how this is possible, my experience there did reveal the deep-seated nature of the discrimination Romani people and communities face. The people who espoused these unreconstructed views of Roma were part of a supposedly Liberal/Left intellectual nomenclature who should be "naturally" sympathetic towards Roma and their underdog position in society. That many of them tried to justify their racist opinions of Roma through the acts that Roma displayed only served to show that there is much work to be done. Regrettably, many of these people felt that they were enlightened enough and viewed their renunciation of Roma as legitimate because they were "not racist". I mean how could they be? They deplored the racist experiences of black people in the UK and USA, which proved they were not racist. They were simply being honest when offering their appraisal of the situation of Roma in contemporary CEE countries, and therein lies the problem and one of the biggest challenges we face in Roma Rights. People who share this view are delusional. They feel that they share very different values and principles from avowedly "racist" people and therefore work in the best interests of Roma people as "experts" and other highfalutin posts within the Roma Rights discourse and the sphere of social and civic development. This approach, however, leads to paternalistic and patronising interpretations and practices that only exacerbate the marginalisation of Roma people because they are seen as the problem and the necessary changes need to be made within the Romani communities with little remedial work needed in broader society. This is a delusion that will lead a number of them into policy-making positions for governments, NGO's, think tanks, etc., all of which will allow them to promulgate this more sophisticated form of racism that is still premised upon blaming the Roma for their own suffering. I ask any number of the readers of this piece to review their experiences with supposedly "sympathetic" non- Roma people who are working for the supposed improvement of the Roma and think about the number of times they encountered some racially backward explanation of phenomena affecting Roma in these circles. Simply think about it! I have and I shudder when I remember experiences with officials and activists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Sweden, to name a few countries, where this logic has been evident in their contributions.

This is a somewhat depressing scenario. The supposed "friends of the Roma" are as equally racist as the "enemies of the Roma". The intensity of their racism may differ, i.e., this intellectuality does not manifest itself in skinhead attacks etc, but it is equally mendacious and debilitating to contend with. This is where my personal challenge lays. I have to devise a method of articulation and insight that reveals these opaque patterns of discrimination and bring it to broader attention. I feel that I have only been able to see this because of the peculiarity of my situation here in Hungary. I am a black man providing a number of courses on human rights, educational methods and tools, and nationalism, race and ethnicity. My blackness has allowed me to be seen as an exotic interloper who has legitimacy because of similar social and political issues as Roma, but one who is not from this place and is therefore in equal need of local education, an education that is often provided by those who feel that we share the same principle, goals and values. Whilst what I articulate above is not a completely conscious factor of why I work for the Roma, my continuing desire to make a positive contribution to the situation is undiminished and remains the drive behind what I do. It is this desire that has led me to continually reassess why I am doing what I am and if it serves any practical and positive utility. One day, soon perhaps, I may be asked the same question and really have no answer to it. Then, I think, it will be time to move on and leave the next phase of the task for someone else to complete.


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