Well it seems that every few months I’ve got to post a new article on Gypsies so here we go with another bit of clarification. Certainly you can find all of my previous posts on the subject by clicking here or reading all of my posts under the relevant category (articles on the main page are grouped by category).
Since I’ve met so many foreigners and visitors here over the years and been asked so many times about Gypsies, I’ve developed a kind of short-hand to simplify things. I tell people that despite outward appearances, skin color, style of dress or anything else, there are really only two kinds of gypsies: Black Gypsies and Blue Gypsies.
These two colors don’t refer to clothing or skin tone or anything else but are a reference to the Smurfs, known in French (the original language of the comic) as Le Schtroumpf, in Dutch as Die Schlumpfe, in Romanian as Strumfii and in Italian as I Puffi (my personal favorite).
I expect everyone knows that “regular “Smurfs have blue skin but only hardcore fans of the series know that there were also Black Smurfs in a few episodes. From Wikipedia:
One day, one of [the Blue Smurfs] gets stung by a black fly that turns his skin jet black, reduces his vocabulary to the single word “gnap!”, and causes him to go berserk. He bounces around and bites other Smurfs on their tail, which turns them into black Smurfs as well. Soon, almost everyone in the village has become a black Smurf.
In more modern editions, the Black Smurfs have been changed to purple in order not to offend anyone but at least now you know where the colors “black” and “blue” come from (I’ve been fascinated by the Smurfs for many, many years).
Using my shorthand, Blue Gypsies are people who are ethnically and culturally gypsies but are integrated into the larger society (in this case, Romania). A less sensitive way to say it would be “good” Gypsies – the respected musicians, craftsmen and artisans (as well as a few teachers, engineers, etc) who function just fine in the wider society.
Black Gypsies on the other hand (and again, this is a reference to the Smurfs, not some kind of racial slur) are the gypsies who aren’t integrated into society, the ones who lead lives that are sometimes criminal and sometimes just anti-social in general.
If you’re a person like me and you enjoy reading lengthy government documents from the European Union, you may be interested in this paper (PDF), which is the Romanian government’s official plan on how to integrate Gypsies (called “Roma” throughout). Once again, as with almost everything produced by the Romanian government in English, the writing is shoddy and poorly done and downright non-sensical in places.
The long and short of it though is that the Romanian government has promised the European Union that they’re going to “integrate” Gypsies into the wider Romanian society or, in my terminology, convert all the Black Gypsies into Blue Gypsies. I think that just about everybody reading this knows that there is almost no chance whatsoever of this happening.
But why? Obviously there are some quite hateful prejudices held by a lot of people, which is a barrier to some rather essential things and needs to be eradicated, but there is a much bigger problem which no one, not pro-Gypsy advocacy groups, not NGOs, not the Romanian government and not even the European Union and its attendant organizations ever want to address.
The problem is that integration is in and of itself a racist goal.
I’ve written that in bold just to emphasize it because it’s a radical statement yet one that I believe is true. There are several reasons why “integrating” Gypsies into the wider Romanian (or other European countries’) society is actually racist.
1) Respect for identity
Imagine if it were the other way around, where Romanian (and Hungarian) citizens were the minority and (somehow) Gypsies were the majority here in this country.
Would Romanians want their children to go to school for two or three years, study in the Gypsy language, then have their children drop out to work in the fields, take care of younger siblings, learn how to beg, sell flowers on the street corner, get married at age 12 and in other ways emulate the Gypsy lifestyle? Of course not. So why is it presumed to be “good” for Gypsies to adopt a Romanian lifestyle but something “bad” if a Romanian were to live or act like a Gypsy?
The only way it can be “good” for a Gypsy to stay in school, get a diploma, get a job, pay taxes and buy a house (aka live like a Romanian or Hungarian or German, etc) and “bad” for Gypsies to be illiterate, uneducated and of no fixed abode is if one culture is deemed to be better than another one.
And believing that one culture is inherently “better” or “superior” to another one is the very definition of racism!
2) Defining Culture
It’s easy enough for people to tap their feet and smile with appreciation when listening to Gypsy music and applaud Gypsies for their unique cultural musicology but what other things define Gypsy culture? Yeah, we got it that they have a rich musical heritage but what else defines Gypsy culture?
In other words, if we can agree that their music is a fine and respectable part of their culture, what can we say about their semi-nomadic lifestyle? Is that part of their culture? Is sending their kids for just a couple of years of schooling and then ending their academic studies around 8 years old part of their culture? Is learning how to beg or pickpocket part of their culture? Is running unlicensed “businesses” on street corners (like selling flowers) and not paying taxes part of their culture?
You can’t really have it both ways. You can’t say some parts (music, artisanal craftsmanship, etc) of their culture are valid and to be respected and other parts (lack of extensive formal education, begging, etc) are not. Gypsy culture is hundreds of years old and you can’t just go around summarily dismissing parts of their culture without careful consideration.
In fact, it seems pretty damned racist to me for a non-Gypsy to just summarily decide what is and what isn’t a “valid” part of Gypsy culture. This is why I divide Gypsies into “Black” and “Blue” categories because the Gypsies doing “Blue” activities (singing, dancing, etc) are doing things which the larger society deems as valid and respectable and the “Black” activities are things which the larger society deems are not valid and respectable.
To the outsiders, there’s a clear sense of what is “okay” and “permissible” (or “good”) and what “isn’t good” or what is “wrong” but what’s important to understand is that for the Gypsies themselves all of these activities (“Blue” or “Black”) are equally okay and fine. After all, their culture is their culture and all of it, both the “good” and “bad” parts, are fine with them.
3) Disrespecting Authority
Every Gypsy I know and every Gypsy I’ve ever heard about functions in a sort of semi-tribal hierarchy where local chiefs and “kings” exercise some kind of authority over the Gypsies under their purview.
There are entire villages and town which are populated entirely (or almost entirely) by Gypsies and there are dozens if not hundreds of local Gypsy leaders, chiefs, mayors and “kings” that make administrative decisions. Yet where are these leaders in either Romania’s national strategy or even in the European Union’s activities? Where is the input and the collaboration and the consultation with the Gypsy leaders? What are the Gypsy leaders’ thoughts on all of this “integration” stuff?
If a European country went to another land populated by indigenous peoples and then the Europeans installed their own governor or king and had him rule over the indigenous peoples without consulting them, that would be called colonization.
Yet somehow it’s okay for non-Gypsy leaders on all levels (up to the European Union itself) to make all kinds of decisions about Gypsies for the Gypsies with little to no consultation with Gypsy leaders or representatives.
I may be wrong but I’ve never heard one Romanian Gypsy leader or tribal king ever give a statement ever that they felt that more integration into Romanian society was a priority. In fact, I’ve never heard a Romanian Gypsy leader ever say that integration was something that Gypsies even wanted at all whatsoever!
If one race of people deciding what’s best for another race of people without consulting them isn’t the very definition of racism then I don’t know what is.
4) Hitler and Stalin
I’m treading on some mighty thin ice with Godwin’s Law here but a fundamental guiding principle of the European Union towards peace and harmony (and tolerance) is as a direct result of World War 2 and the chaos, murder and mayhem it caused. And so the EU (and its member states) should be mighty careful when deciding to pursue paths that mirror what Hitler and Stalin felt were right for their vision of society.
It’s a well-known fact that both Hitler and Stalin tried to eliminate and forcefully “integrate” the Gypsies in their societies into the wider society as a whole. I realize that the EU isn’t running death camps or gulags but both the EU and fascist/totalitarian leaders are essentially wanting the same end goal: to eliminate all “Black” Gypsy activities.
Again, the “Black” Gypsy cultural aspects are ones which fundamentally are at odds with the larger society as a whole. Logically speaking, there isn’t much difference between gassing a Gypsy and forcing his children into 12 plus years of mandatory education because the end result is the same: the eradication of all “Black” Gypsy identification. Don’t believe me? Then ask a few members of the Stolen Generations of Australian aborigines.
Yes, I do realize there’s a hell of a difference between gassing someone in a death camp and the more “beneficent” EU approach of forced education but those two things aren’t quite as different as you might think at first glance.
So… what to do?
I know firsthand that many Gypsies suffer from some very real problems. I’ve filmed 50+ hours of footage with homeless Gypsies and Gypsies who live in trash dumps (UK: rubbish tips) and who were quite often ill and/or hungry and/or suffering from tremendous pain. I’ve filled out paperwork for illiterate Gypsies and helped them get access to basic services from the local government.
I’m certainly not indifferent to the suffering and misery that a lot of Gypsies endure. What I am saying however is that I do not think that integration, or converting Gypsies into little Romanian clones, is the answer. I don’t think Romanian’s poorly written National Strategy is the answer (even if it were properly funded, which of course it isn’t), nor more NGOs and volunteer organizations doling out books and toothbrushes or anything else most people have in mind.
I’ll get into some more of my ideas of what would be workable in another post (this one is long enough) already but I’ll summarize it below:
- Consultation with Gypsy leaders and representatives – It’s not just racist but strategically unsound to make grand plans for an entire race of people without asking them what is it they would like, not just what you would like for them.
- Respect without Approval – You and I don’t have to like all aspects of Gypsy culture but at least respect the fact that it is their culture. I don’t like to see child beggars any more than you do but I at least am broadminded enough to realize that these kinds of activities have a place and a sense of purpose for them even if it doesn’t for me.
- Not all the statistics are as bad as you think – Yes, illiteracy rates amongst Gypsies are far higher than they are for Romanians. But as I wrote about in The Ghost of Simonides, that’s not necessarily a “bad” thing in and unto itself.
- Respect Romania for what it’s done right – It seems unremarkable because it’s been a fact for decades but under the law all Gypsies in Romania are full citizens and thus have the same legal rights and standing as any other person born here. Meanwhile in other European Union countries such as Latvia, over 10% of their citizens are not citizens at all – they can’t vote, study in their own language or have full access to the same legal rights as full citizens.Romania could’ve taken the Latvian route and declared Gypsies to be “non-citizen residents” and prevented them from voting or obtaining passports but no, they gave all Gypsies full legal rights and Romania really deserves a lot of credit for this.
- Be a little more human – It’s very easy and quite satisfying for EU and other politicians (including many in Romania) to wring their hands and cry “woe to the poor Gypsies” because it’s an easy way to get sympathy. But Gypsies are more than just statistics on a piece of paper, “driving down the numbers” and fucking up quotas about employment levels. They’re actually human beings with dreams and aspirations and stories to tell. Try talking to them some time and not just talking about them.
And those are my thoughts on the subject for now although of course we all know it’s going to get revisited in the future as none of these issues are going to get addressed in any kind of satisfactory way any time soon :)