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May 25, 2022



Roman Koky: Romani people have a better relationship toward the majority society in the Czech Republic than the majority has towards Romani people

11.12.2021 13:15
Roman Koky (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
Roman Koky (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

Mgr. Roman Koky (1996) completed his Bachelor's in psychology at the Faculty of Arts, Ostrava University. He then earned his Master's in Brno at Masaryk University, where he is currently working on his doctorate.

Koky's work focuses on the psychology of inter-group relationships between non-Romani people and Romani people. He is a member of the Brno Lab of Intergroup Processes, which was established by Sylvie Graf and Martina Hřebíčková of the Czech Academy of Sciences at its Institute of Psychology.  

Currently Koky works at the psychiatric treatment facility in Šternberk as a psychologist in gerontopsychiatry and internal medicine. He is a participant in psychotherapeutic training, specifically in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Koky chose relationships between members of the majority society in the Czech Republic and Romani people as the subject of his thesis after the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for him to pursue his original research questions. However, he became so submerged in the issue that he has decided to continue with it during his doctoral studies and to write a dissertation on it. 

"I was sincerely surprised by the fact that the attitude of Romani people toward the majority was predominantly positive, because the majority predominantly holds a negative attitude toward Romani people," Koky says of his research findings. Romano vod'i magazine conducted this interview with him for their most recent issue. 

Q:  Your thesis was about intergroup relationships between Romani people and non-Roma and chose a less customary perspective on this question, namely, the attitude of Romani people toward the non-Roma. Why did you select that angle for your research?

A:  Originally I planned to write my thesis on a clinical subject. Then COVID-19 came and it was no longer possible to collect data in hospitals, so I had to change my theme. I began collaborating with doc. Sylvie Graf, who studies the topic of relationships between the majority and Romani people. I am continuing to dedicate myself to this even now, during my doctoral studies. There is very little research on the intergroup relationships between non-Roma and Roma in psychology. There is even less research that takes minorities' perspectives into account.

Q:  How did you do this research?

A:  It was cross-sectional, not experimental. We collected data predominantly online by sharing a link to our questionnaire on social media. Roughly 226 respondents participated, which is satisfactory given that this population is so inaccessible. We believe our findings are interesting, but they do not allow us to interpret causal relationships. For that reason we will be continuing our research and the findings we discover will be verified through experimental study as part of my dissertation. 

Q:  What were your main conclusions from that survey?

A:  It appears to be the case that the attitudes of the Romani people who participated in the survey were predominantly positive toward non-Romani people and that this was related to the frequency of their mutual contact. In other words, the more often Romani people encountered members of the majority and the better those experiences were, the more positive their attitudes toward the majority were. We assessed their attitudes through what is called an emotional thermometer on a scale of 1 to 100, where the higher the value, the "warmer" the attitude is. We discovered that the attitudes of Romani people toward non-Roma displayed quite a positive value - almost 70 degrees on this scale. We also investigated norms in society and the role, if any, they were playing in this. We discovered that injunctive social norms (Editor's Note: ideas about what most members of a group believe one should or should not do) determine what behavior by Roma toward non-Roma is desirable and what behavior is undesirable. This is important in relation to attitudes and contact. If a Romani person knows that other Roma associate with non-Roma, then they comprehend that to mean contact between non-Roma and Roma is supported. That assumption can improve the attitudes about non-Roma that are held among Romani people. Intergroup contact between a majority society and a minority is crucial for improving their mutual relationships. That idea was already expressed in 1954 by the psychologist Allport. Current research also demonstrates that an important role is played in the relationship between attitudes and contact by different variables - intergroup anxiety, empathy, trust, or a sense of intergroup threat and the norms in the social group, which I already mentioned.   

Q:  Did you discover any facts during the research or its conclusions that you had not anticipated?

A:  I was sincerely surprised that the attitudes of Romani people toward the majority were predominantly positive, because the majority holds predominantly negative attitudes about Roma. That was confirmed, among other things, by a report from the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology in 2019, which found that after Arabs, Romani people spark the most antipathy among members of the majority society.  

Q:  Your thesis also reviews research conducted abroad on this same subject. Are the findings comparable, or do they differ somehow?

A:  It's comparable. It's possible to say that in almost all countries in Europe, Romani people are among the most discriminated and most stigmatized minorities. Their conditions for accessing education, housing or job opportunities are significantly unsatisfactory compared to members of majority societies. Relations between the majority and Romani people have been tense for a long time. 

Q:  How do you explain that the biases against Romani people in Czech society are bigger than the prejudices held against other minorities?

A:  That is determined by several factors. On the one hand, it is a fact that biases toward Roma come from the context of history. From the literature we know that negative attitudes toward Romani people have accompanied them from the time they first arrived in the Czech lands. Another factor is the setup of this society. Prejudices against Romani people are amplified, to a certain degree, by the media and by some politicians and continue to be taken more as a certain "norm of society". From my own experience I am able to say that the most frequent biases against Romani people are those alleging they do not work and do not want to work, that they abuse the welfare system, or that they are parasites on Czech society. An example of a positive prejudice is the assumption that all Romani people know how to dance and sing. A big part of the majority society, however, is generally hostile to diversity and otherness, and racial difference is no exception to that hostility. In bigger cities the situation is naturally much better than in rural areas, for example. The final factor may also be poverty. Those members of the majority society who are socially vulnerable may have the feeling, for example, that Romani people are being privileged with various welfare benefits while they themselves are hard at work, but are even worse off. Such convictions naturally intensify their biases against Romani people even more. Low levels of education may also be one of the factors, but on the other hand there are many college graduates who harbor prejudice not just against Romani people, but against other minorities as well here.    

Q: Can the findings of your research and others like it be used in practice?  

A: The findings can be used practically anywhere that others influence an individual's behavior. For example, in the schools, teachers are able to emphasize the importance of intergroup contact and its advantages, as children in particular are quite sensitive to the influence of others. That has been confirmed, among other things, by experimental studies this year that investigated the influence of norms in society on biases against Roma in Hungarian schools. It was shown that intergroup contact between non-Romani and Romani pupils is associated with fewer prejudices in classrooms. The norms of social behavior in a classroom also play an important role in forming biases, as pupils have a tendency to adapt their attitudes to the norm perceived as prevailing in the classroom. Teachers also are able to play an important role in this prejudice reduction because they can contribute to creating desirable norms according to which biases are unacceptable.

Q:  You mentioned the media. Frequently the media are reproached for mentioning ethnicity in cases where it is irrelevant, especially if something negative happens. However, there are also voices arguing that ethnicity is also not relevant to mention when something positive happens. Which side do you agree with?

A:  In the case of a news report about incidents that are negative, I believe it is fine for ethnicity not to be emphasized, because bad behavior is not associated with ethnicity. However, if the media mention ethnicity in the case of a news report about an incident that is positive, then I comprehend that to mean they are doing their best to improve the image of Romani people in society. In a certain way, this is definitely one route to take when combating prejudices and stereotypes, which unfortunately are deeply rooted in us.

Q:  Have you personally ever encountered obstacles because you are a Romani man?

A:  Of course. Sometimes I say to myself that it is not possible to be a member of a minority and not meet with discrimination or prejudices in the Czech Republic. However, I also have to say that my brother and I had amazing teachers in primary school who believed in us and maximally supported us in our studies. To this day we are in contact with some of them. My Mom did not have such good luck, unfortunately. When she was in primary school, a teacher threatened her and told her that if she dared apply to a secondary school with a diploma program, the teacher would intentionally give her bad grades so they wouldn't accept her. I'm glad I never met with any such treatment from the people who educated me. I am also grateful to my parents, because my brother and I have been attending university at the same time - we're twins - while my sister was and still is attending college preparatory school. For our parents, who are employed in the working class, it has never been easy for them to financially stretch their incomes to cover such costs. Mom had problems finding a job for a long time because she is Romani. Without support from the ROMEA scholarship program, or from the OSF scholarship program, we would probably never have graduated. We also took part-time work ourselves so we would be able to afford all of this.  

Q: Employment is a big problem. Romani people, especially those living in social exclusion, frequently do not have the required expertise or education and therefore their opportunities to make their way into the labor market are few. In your view, what can be done about this, whether in the schools or in other segments of society?   

A:  It's necessary to realize that many Romani children come from quite disadvantaged family milieux, and sometimes even from pathological situations. They also encounter discrimination from their non-Romani classmates, who are frequently influenced by their own parents and unfortunately even by teachers to discriminate. In such cases, it is exactly the role of the teacher that is basic, the teacher should lead the class collective toward mutual tolerance for each other, and should approach children, including those from family milieux that are pathological, with the maximum respect, empathy and tolerance so those children know that the school is a safe space for them and create a positive relationship towards it. That can be essential as far as their motivation to continue their educations goes. However, I also know several college graduates among my friends who are Romani, and despite their degrees, they still have difficulties finding a job or housing because they are Romani. A college education is not a guarantee that you will not encounter discrimination and prejudices in life, but becoming educated will distinctly move the position of Romani people in society in a direction that is positive.

Q: Do you have any experience of the majority being less prejudiced toward you thanks to your education? Do you feel excluded from the community of Romani people because you are educated?  

A: I have to answer yes to both questions. I frequently have the feeling that it is exactly thanks to my education that prejudices disappear. However, as I already said, even a college degree is no guarantee that you will not encounter bias. For example, almost every time I show my ISIC card on the bus, drivers have a tendency to inspect it in detail because it apparently seems strange to them that a Romani man is attending university. I sometimes have a feeling of [community] exclusion, but it may actually just be the sense that I am much less in contact with some of the Romani people whom I know than I was before.

Q: What is your perception of the label "Cikán" vs. the term "Romani"?

A: It insults me to be designated as a "Cikán" and I believe any Romani person should be offended by it. I have never encountered that term being used in a context that is positive. I recall that when I was in primary school one of my classmates called me that name. My amazing teacher immediately reacted and explained to everybody why that word is not to be used. This approach taken by my homeroom teacher certainly played an important role in how our classmates then behaved toward me and my brother. This confirms, among other things, that teachers actually are able to play important roles in forming intergroup relationships.

Q:  Why did you decide to study psychology?

A:  Since childhood I have wanted to work in health care. However, when I was in college preparatory school I was attracted more to disciplines in the social sciences like philosophy, psychology and history. Ultimately I decided to study psychology. While it is definied as a social science, it is quite close to health care. I like the fact that for a psychologist, working with one's own personal experience is a basic prerequisitive. Looking for answers to one's own problems and questions is a necessity. For that reason, too, psychotherapeutic training and its focus on how one experiences oneself is an important part of the education of a psychologist.   

Q:  What does the position of a psychologist consist of in the health care field?

A:  There are two basic levels, diagnostic and therapeutic. As far as the former goes, it can play an important role, for example, in differential diagnoses, when a clear diagnosis is not quite available for a patient. Diagnostics in psychology also makes it possible to comprehend pathology and psychological processes more comprehensively and in more detail, which then aids the doctors with establishing the correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Psychotherapeutic assistance then consists of treating psychological problems, pathologies and different anomalies through psychological remedies, and it frequently is a basic component of comprehensive treatment alongside psychopharmacotherapeutic care, which is in the competence of a physician. 

Q:  You work as a psychologist in the Šternberk psychiatric treatment facility in gerontopsychiatry and internal medicine. What is your specialization and what specifically does your work there entail?

A:  Gerontopsychiatry is dedicated to treating psychological disorders in older patients, usual age 65 or older. The most frequent psychiatric disorders at that age include organic mental disorders, which are different types of dementia or delirium. However, they also can have the diseases that appear among other age cohorts as well - mood disorders, psychotic disoders, etc. The work of a psychologist in gerontopsychiatry consists not just of diagnostics but also of therapeutic care. In the diagnostics, the psychologist concentrates above all on recognizing what the different cognitive deficits are, for example, in memory, attention or intellect, which are often part of some organic mental disorders such as dementia. Therapeutic care consists, for example, of cognitive trainings through which we do our best to prevent the cognitive deficits from deteriorating further in a significant way.

Q:  Do you also encounter Romani patients?

A:  Given that I've just been doing my practicum for a short time, I have yet to encounter any patients who are Romani. I do believe the aspect of culture can play quite an important role in the relationship between a patient and a psychologist as far as trust is concerned. My experience from my own family and friends close to me who are Romani is that Romani people tend to perceive psychological or psychiatric care as a taboo, much more than the rest of Czech society does. Romani people may avoid such care because of that taboo, even though some of them may need it. That's a great pity.

Q:  How can one recognize a real expert in this field as opposed to a "self-appointed" coach of some kind?

A:  This is a big problem today. There are many self-appointed "experts" in mental health who do not have enough qualifications to treat people. Unfortunately, we also encounter people who have studied a different field, such as pedagogy, or social work, and who then pose as psychologists or therapists even though they have never received any proper psychotherapeutic training. Cases also come up of people who have no university education or training - they just attend some fast course and then offer different "esoteric services". This is wrong, because it leads to deceiving the clients, and there is a big risk such clients will be damaged by these people, either financially or healthwise. If somebody is considering contacting a professional, he or she should always first verify that the therapist has a university education, and any professional will clearly mention their education, for example, on their website. Psychologists must have attended a university program in psychology for at least five years. For clinical psychologists, i.e., health care workers who have contracts with the health insurance system here, the insured patient pays nothing and does not have to be concerned that the care given will not be of good quality. Verification of the therapists's qualifications is always appropriate if a client is paying for care. Pay attention to whether the price asked for such a "service" is disproportionately high and whether a solution is promised to be "100 % effective" and fast.  

First published in Romano vod'i magazine.


Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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