The Roma narrative of Romanian media: racism, antiracism and symbolic scapegoating
As an ideological disclaimer against possible misinterpretations of this text, let me state first that I consider racism as being a real, old and new problem of European societies and hope that antiracism may become again a healthy and progressive idea within European politics; one of the conditions for that, though, is to block the current transformation of antiracist and community-centered discourse into political alibis and cultural diversion to help us looking away from real problems. In Central Europe, the social group most affected by this kind of image distortion is clearly the Roma population.
The factual situation I try to describe here is a Transylvanian, lato sensu Romanian phenomenon, but I am convinced that most of the conclusions I draw may apply, mutatis mutandis, to all of Central Europe.
I was recently invited on Transilvania Live TV to Sabin Gherman’s show, along with a young local Roma community leader and an executive from the Cluj City Hall’s department of social affairs. Nothing should have gone wrong: Sabin Gherman, a senior journalist, both daring and wise, knows the secrets of his trade; the Roma leader proved to be remarkably intelligent, polite, well-informed and full of good will, and so was actually even the young lady from the City hall – an institution otherwise often contested for mismanagement, corruption and not being exceptionally friendly to Roma – or well, to poor Roma at least… And, apparently, nothing went wrong: Sabin Gherman, his two other guests and myself made a big show of our knowledge, dialectics and good intentions; the producer was happy, no hostile press reactions – even the public may have liked it, supposing we had any public for that midday show on a half-year old TV channel…
So what’s the problem? The problem, which I noticed during the show but was obviously not able to conceptualize enough on the spot, was that, in spite of the fact that the three of us were invited, in some way or another, due to some kind of Roma expertise, in one hour of time, we hardly made any mention neither of the Romani language and the problems linked to the necessary introduction of Romani teaching in schools with many Roma pupils, nor of the Roma identity, its lack of consistence in 2012 Romania, the subsequent weakness of the Roma political representation etc.. We talked about the things considered – not without some good reasons – to be the real “Roma agenda” in Romania: streets, water supply, electricity, jobs.
Obviously, none of these problems is specifically Roma. A “white Caucasian” Alsatian expat myself, I happen to live part time in Méra, a Transylvanian village near Cluj. As most of the roughly 1500 –mostly Hungarian speaking – souls there, I live in a house which is only connected to a local water grid (frequent shortages, irregular pressure, unchecked chemical qualities), the electricity grid is still the one built tens of years ago by the communist regime, and most of the secondary streets are actually rivers of mud. As any reader familiar with the Roma situation in Central Europe may guess, the Roma population of the village (20%?), living generally uphill in bad quality houses (though without any clear separation from the “Whities”) is the most affected. But most problems, especially those that could only be solved on a public level, like water supply, are painfully common, as they are in most rural communities, and quite a lot of suburban zones in Romania. In Méra, the richest gadjo and the poorest Roma are tragically equal when facing the enormous cost of including the village in a stable water-supply network. And this is exactly the reason why – even in an old-school liberal vision of economy – people need state institutions and public investment. The real name of the problem is, thus: chronic deficiency of the Romanian state.
Unemployment too, often related by media discourses to the lack of education, is huge in both Roma and non-Roma communities, and many working poor in Romania are actually highly qualified “white people” forced to accept the kind of low profile jobs a Third World, import-dominated economy is able to offer. Hence, though I do not wish to deny the existing cultural discriminations regarding access to education, I’m just stating the obvious: no kind of educational program could ever provide Roma or non-Roma workers with jobs in a country where all economical and monetary policies during the last ten years or more were incentivizing emigration or informal jobs as the best way to survive.
So what’s the point of “racializing” these issues in the media? Well, several kinds of motivations can be mentioned: in media terms, Roma, as a highly picturesque, loud speaking and slightly exhibitionist culture, are generally good business; “white” poor, in comparison, are a bit boring, would often refuse to have their children filmed and broadcasted half-naked as a naturalistic scene and… look too much like the viewers themselves! Identification, a key process of any kind of theatrical representation, including the kind of reality show known as “TV news” or “documentary”, would probably have unwished effects if the typical victim of neoliberal politics, failed states and corruption turns out to be the viewer himself.
Thus, non-Roma Romanian people live in a deep-rooted schizophrenia as far as Roma are concerned: manele, a local kind of ethno-pop music played mostly by Gypsy bands and almost officially recognized as the modern incarnation of Gypsy folk music, is hugely popular in the Romanian working class and peasantry, played at almost all weddings etc.. Romanian everyday slang is full of Romani words, some of them borrowed centuries ago, others yesterday. To cut a long story short: Roma, as depicted by the Romanian media, are actually the dark side of the Romanian life and culture. A side one would publicly prefer to deny in order to pose as a decent, discrete, politically correct, competitive white European. In other words, as there is a growing gap between the media induced self-image of Romanian people as Hollywood characters successfully working (in a jobless economy…) and happily consuming (imported goods which less and less people can actually afford without sinking in debt), there is also a growing need to symbolically keep the dark side at distance, through media reification: that strange creature I am contemplating on TV and wisely analyzing using all the conceptual tools borrowed from highly qualified commentators invited to the talk-show, that being cannot be me.
And yet, of all the very diverse Roma communities living in Romania, those subject to this kind of media reification are precisely those offering the closest reflection of a non-Roma poor community. Traditional, highly organized and self-isolating communities – the best example certainly being the Gabor communities – generally live in better conditions, have higher – though often irregular and fiscally unregistered – revenues, due to the preservation of ancestral trades and successful adaptation, mostly through commerce, to the new, post-1990 environment. Whereas communities of so-called “domestic Gypsies”, actually melting into Romania’s rural and suburban lumpenproletariat, are, among all Roma, the primary victims of massive impoverishment, and the favorite actors of media-run misery shows. Almost all Gabor Roma speak Romani as their mother tongue (an use it even abroad for trade talks with other Roma, from Germany to Poland and Russia), generally being highly bilingual (with Romanian as a state language) or even trilingual (for those born and/or living in Hungarian-speaking parts of the Romanian territory), whereas language loss is a common and highly actual feature of most “domestic Gypsy” communities. Observing family structures, religious habits, and even clothing leads to the same conclusions: in Romania, poorer Roma have a stronger tendency towards cultural assimilation than richer Roma. Gabor Roma enjoy some kind of media celebrity due to the high level of visibility created by their compulsory use of quite an exotic dress code, but they’re not very keen on interviews, do not like to complain (even when the rule of law should encourage them to do so), and cameras hardly reach the interior of their houses; for most non-Roma Romanian, they remain a mute picture, a cliché, gaining existence only through the exhibition of insolent wealth by a few members of their community and automatic suspicions of criminal activities – though most of the well-doing Gabors are actually hard-working, well-paid craftsmen and successful businessmen indulging in no more corrupt practices than an average non-Roma businessman in Romania.
“Domestic Gypsies”, on the other hand, generally don’t master any more the trades once typical of their tribes, show high levels of linguistic creolization – some of them monolingual in various kind of Romani-based Romanian creoles, unable to speak either standard Romanian or “pure” Romani – , dress like the gadje of their immediate environment (that is: like the poorest of Romanian gadje, mostly using cheap, second hand products of Western suburban fashion), are more open to mixed marriages, less strict in their religious habits and generally lack the kind of highly hierarchical family and community network which makes the Gabors so successful in a country where personal acquaintances, family links and friendship often weigh more than legal and professional aspects in the actual decision-making. In my experience, for instance, it is much easier for an influent Gabor paterfamilias to get rid of a well deserved fine from road police – as it is for most non-Roma nouveaux riches – than for my “domestic Gypsy” – or even Hungarian, for that matter – neighbors to get their part of the street asphalted. Here again, emphasizing the role of racism in non-specifically ethnical aspects of the life of a stable multicultural society bears the risk of occulting the underlying problem, being in this case the wide-ranged and deep-rooted corruption of public officers.
As most members of the Romanian political and economical elites, following Western ideological patterns – officially repudiate racism, racism itself becomes a social marker of impoverishment and lack of social prestige. So not only is it almost totally riskless in Romania for journalists and NGO activists to denounce racism in general terms, but the anti-racist discourse can even become an instrument of social repression, as an argument to impose a top-to-bottom vision of social and cultural change, in which lower class individuals keep, in the very best case, the right to be forcibly reeducated against alcoholism, sexism, racism and all plagues of life… except poverty. Obviously, such manipulations of antiracism have a very wide dividing effect on the working class, creating a new kind of antagonism between apparently over-victimized and seemingly under-victimized groups of poor people, and give illegitimate credibility to all kinds of populist and assimilationist theories. After all, if being Roma is primarily seen as a source of misery, the solution to the “social problem” might well be to eradicate – in the best case, culturally – Roma identity…
To make things even worse – if possible –, Romania, a cultural and economical colony of the West, lives under constant influence of the Western media, which find it a most appropriate shooting ground for patronizing TV subjects on how miserable mankind was and still is under and after communism, and why massive migrations from those countries are to be expected at any moment. Most of those subjects indulge in ample, naturalistic depiction of Romanian (generally suburban Bucharest) Roma lumpenproletariat, which has thus become one of the internationally best known aspects of an otherwise widely ignored Romanian reality. Hence, Non-Roma Romanian are very prone to the conclusion that Roma “spoil their national brand”, which is obviously false: on the one hand, because Romania is an under-marketed country with basically no country brand recognized abroad, on the other hand, because Roma are also responsible for a big part of all “export products” favorably popularizing Romanian culture abroad (Gypsy musician of the Clejan area and/or starring in Tony Gatlif’s films etc.). And, no matter how unfair this “gypsyzation” of Romania seems to them, this Western media-fashion actually retro-feeds into the fabric of Romanian TV news and documentaries, reinforcing the above described phenomenon.
On a theoretical level, these observations should lead Roma scholars – obviously well acquainted, like most minority researchers, with the concept of moral scapegoating of the minorities – to take in consideration the concept of symbolic scapegoating, which, in my opinion, is very often the psychological background of the media victimization of economically challenged minorities. Most of all, symbolic scapegoating being eventually as dangerously alienating as moral scapegoating, it should be fought against with no less resolution, even when its authors naively or shrewdly sell it under the noble cloth of antiracism.
Raoul WEISS - A Transylvania-based French writer, translator, publisher and journalist writing and broadcasting in French, Hungarian and Romanian. Raoul WEISS also worked as an impresario for rural Roma string bands from Transylvania and often acts as a middleman between Transylvanian Roma communities and Western researchers. His blog:http://korkorezhau.blogspot.com/
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