We Need History About Roma

NPR has the right idea. This week we need to be reminded of the history of the Roma people instead of just focusing on fear and stereotypes. In their story “New Stories Dredge Up Old Stereotypes of Europe’s Roma” Dr. Jennifer G. Illuzzi, assistant professor of history at Providence College in Rhode Island, talks briefly about the troubled history of the Roma. She says:

One of the points that I think is important to make, however, is that there is a long legacy of this discrimination. This is not just something that happened during the Holocaust and the extermination of the Roma people. It didn’t come out of nowhere.

One of the things that history has, by now, shown us is that in times of trouble and dissatisfaction we humans often look for people we can scapegoat and take out our fears on. As our economic situation across the globe languishes, fears over drone strikes, NSA spying, nuclear and chemical aggressors and more continue to be pronounced, and people across the world face anxiety every day, the danger for lashing out grows stronger. When we see a single incident set off a rash of paranoia towards a particular group, as we did this week with the stories about Roma individuals, we should remember to not just pass over it as “quirky” “tragic” or “weird” news but to view it as the potential symptom it is of something more dangerous. Dr. Illuzzi finishes the interview with:

I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this case is once it came up into the news and there’s these images of this small, blonde, blue-eyed child in the news, that there is an immediate linkage to this discourse about disappeared children cases throughout Europe. It’s incredibly problematic, and I do think that the tone with which this is being covered is going to put Roma at risk.

Here’s a more fleshed-out, illustrated version of the history that Dr. Illuzzi is talking about:

And from the accompanying article (Gypsies, Roma, Travelers: An Animated History, Adrian Marsh, Open Society Foundations, June 5, 2013):

It is a complex and highly contested narrative, partly because the “Roma” are not a single, homogeneous group of people. They can include Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; Travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others. It is also partly because many of these groups have differing narratives of their history and ethnogenesis (their origins as an ethnic group).

The Roma do not follow a single faith, but are Catholic Manouche, Mercheros, and Sinti; Muslim Ashkali and Romanlar; Pentecostal Kalderash and Lovari; Protestant Travellers; Anglican Gypsies; and Baptist Roma. There are variations in practises associated with birth, marriages and death, yet also linked cultures that display subtle but distinctive patterns or, as a Roma preacher once described it, “many stars scattered in the sight of God.”

A thought that occurred to me while reading about the Roma was that we should be keeping this history, and other histories of nomadic people and people who have lost their common land but not their common culture, in mind as we travel into a new phase with our planet. If our oceans continue to rise and we lose vulnerable places such as the Maldives, what will happen to land-less nations of people. Cultures without places. Where and how will they find a home?

UPDATE: Check out this article in the New York Times as well:

Roma, Feared as Kidnappers, See Their Own Children at Risk, Dan Bilefsky, October 25, 2013

In an era of budget cutbacks and high unemployment, politicians on both the left and the right have singled out the Roma as emblematic of the problems of illegal immigration and have questioned whether they can ever be integrated.

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