Roma, racialisation and persecution

It’s November 5th 2013 and I have just returned from the protest to express solidarity with the Roma and to call for an end to State racism, organised by Anti Racism Network Ireland, the Irish Traveller Movement, and the Ireland branch of the European Network against Racism. It was heartening to see so many people there, yet some of us ‘old’ antiracists, reflected on the déjà vu element: we oldies have been going on such remonstrations since at least 1997, and our first thought was ‘here we go again!’ Now as then a couple of maverick TDs spoke, representatives from various antiracist groups, and representatives of the main racialised group involved – the Dublin Roma – but one wonders how many times more shall we meet holding banners and chanting old reliable slogans… The following are some of my reflections on the most recent incident of racial persecution… here I go again…

When my mother was growing up in a picturesque spa town in northern Romania as part of a thriving Jewish community (most of whom were exiled by the Romanian fascist regime to Transnistria during World War II), she was constantly warned about children-snatching ‘gypsies’. When the family made its way to Palestine in 1940 and stayed for a few weeks in Bucharest, her parents warned her not to go out during what was a pogrom of Bucharest’s Jews – as a blonde, she would be identified as a Jew.  Such are the complexities of the racialisation of Europe’s most persecuted minorities at the time – Roma and Jewish people.

The recent abductions by the Gardai – abduction is the only appropriate term (by the state, not the Roma) – of two blonde Roma children in Dublin and Athlone bring to mind not only the issue of racial profiling, but also the position of Roma people, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, in so-called civilised Europe.

roma-mariaA lot has been written about Roma people in the past weeks resulting from the discovery of three blonde children in Roma families in Greece and Ireland. In all three cases, it was the vigilance of ordinary (racist) members of society that led to the children being removed from their families, in Ireland in total contravention of the Child Care Act. I do not wish to reiterate these cases, even though the injustice in the Irish case is worthy of comment, but rather reflect on the way Roma people epitomise European racism at its crudest.

Racialisation, as discussed in Frantz Fanon’s work, consists of three main elements: epidermalisation, naturalisation and subjugation. Epidermalisation, derived from the experience of black people, is about skin (or hair) colour becoming the main reason for subjugation. This brings about the naturalisation of difference – the racialised become reduced to their physical appearance. However, all of this means nothing without subjugating the racialised, mostly based on their physical appearance (or cultural choices, such as wearing the Muslim Hijab).

Roma people have been discriminated against for centuries, because of their physical appearance – they are considered black – but also due to their nomadic lifestyle, which they claim is the result of their discrimination. Roma people, who allegedly migrated to Europe via Persia and Armenia, had been subject to laws to suppress their culture and exclude them from settled society, which feels the need to defend itself from Roma people whose traditional professions – blacksmiths, musicians, circus performers – reflected a nomadic lifestyle forced on them by a widespread prohibition on buying land or entering more stable occupations.

Just like Jewish people falsely accused in Medieval Europe of snatching Christian children to use their blood to bake unlevened Passover bread, Roma people had traditionally been accused of snatching settled children – hence the panic around the blonde Roma children. But, like other groups, Roma people have always intermarried, and blond hair is not an exception. Society’s panic about trafficking children for sex was just an excuse for anti-Roma racism.

The racialisation of the Roma – enslaved by settled Europeans for centuries –  peaked during the Nazi era when Roma and Sinti people, like the Jews, were deemed by the Nazis “enemies of the race-based state” and were systematic deported since 1940, first to concentration and later death camps.  70 per cent of Europe’s Sinti and Roma population were murdered, an estimated 500,000 men, women and children, in what became known as the Romani Holocaust, or the Porajmos – the ‘great devouring’.

Rather than remember and atone for the stain of racialising, and then massacring the Roma, contemporary Europe continues to persecute them – they are the only group of European citizens regularly deported, and the recent police abductions of blonde Roma children must be understood as a chapter in this shameful European history.