“Shall no one fear to be a Roma”: how activism helps to get rid of bias and stigmatisation You may

Jan. 7, 2024

You may never guess how deep the impact of colonisation is upon your life. This impact is, however, deep, longstanding, and destructive. Modern-day ethnography helps show nations and ethnicities in their original form, without the imperial superstrata. It reveals nations and ethnicities to the global audience. Anyone can contribute to this cause.

Today, we shall continue sharing our conversation with a journalist, a social anthropologist, a writer, founder of an online training course for women writers, a co-founder and editor of the Qantar.Jazylu literary project, Ms Elmira KAKABAIEVA.

— As I read about problems faced by Romanis, I encounter the phrase ‘I feel fear of being a Roma’. This is why some people conceal their Roma identity when, say, they are polled or are filling in a questionnaire. This is also why we have no precise data on the number of Romanis in Europe, about education-related complication they face etc. These are problems faced by individuals, not by an ethnic community. What underlies these fears? Why do people fear of revealing their origin? And how can one preserve one’s memory in such conditions?

— This is a story of stereotypes, of isolation, of how such false impressions impact the person’s own identity. Yes, people are indeed afraid—and that is an expressions of awareness, of fear of being faced by unpleasant experiences. This is where it all comes from: I better keep mum on myself being a Roma. I better not hear all those negative, prejudiced statements.

I have only recently become familiar with the topic of the Roma community. But I am already impressed by how much has been accomplished by now. Today’s level of activism is fascinating.

Which is actually what works. Say, there is a thing called Black History Month, when representatives of the African American community shed light of their prominent figures: historians, artists, scientists. This is how another kind of thinking is being shaped—one that is positive. Thus, they raise awareness about their culture which is not universally known among others.

We are, after all, living in a single narrative broadcast to our attention by cinema and pop culture—and we take it at face value, by default, that this is the only narrative.

When communities raise their voices, this serves as an instrument that helps us understand that things may not be the way we think they are. The more stories emerge from people of diverse ethnicities, the more pride does one have that one belongs to a certain ethnic group.

— So, we are not talking about some banalities like ‘Stop pretending. Just stop being afraid! It is OK to be a Roma’, right? The thing is to engage in systematic work, both inside and outside a certain ethnic group?

—That is exactly the case. Such engagement may manifest itself in collecting family stories and communicating. One of the participants of our workshop recalled how her grandad always urged her to study, to get an education, to go forward. Her way, too, may become an inspiration for others. Add to this stories by painters, artists, writers, and the picture will start changing dramatically.

— But the classical school curriculum spotlights achievements by White European males.  Hence comes the stereotype that women are less smart, that they have not made so many great discoveries. Hence the Euro-centrism, as only Europe has come up with so many inventions… How can one change this? How can one make sure the textbooks feature representatives of various ethnic groups? Who can knock on the door of the Ministry of Education? 

—Democracy should protect the interests of various groups. Thus, activism and advocacy are a must. Romanis, as well as other ethnicities, should be represented in the parliament and other legislative bodies, as who else knows better about a certain group’s needs if not its actual representative.

In Berlin, there is a memorial to Roma people murdered in the Holocaust. Its erection was the initiative of a Romani councillor. He was in the position to influence things and to bring his position forward. Hence the result.

This, however, requires a long and diligent work that will take years, maybe generations. But we cannot stop. Consistency and legacy should be preserved, so that children continue doing the work of their parents.

— But then one group or generation of activists will give way to another one; so this interest, this common axis should be preserved, should it not? Preservation of memory will also be a means to that end. So our memory serves as a foundation for everything, for every successful change, does it not?

—It does indeed. One can hardly overestimate the importance of preservation of memory. History of ethnic groups will never not be important.

—Let us proceed. This kind of work requires a principle of ‘two-way street of equality’. The Romani will tell their stories. How about representatives of other ethnic associations? What if someone wants to support the Roma community but is himself, say, an ethnic Ukrainian?

—The issue of support is a multifaceted one. I myself am by no means a representative of the Romani ethnic group but I have actually conducted a workshop whereby I shared my experience and knowledge. And I have actually found out many new and useful things. This was an exchange of sorts—and this kind of exchange is of paramount importance in activism.  

It is important to hear each other, to support each other, to share knowledge and skills. To be a part of the community, to be nearby. Each one of us has certain abilities and capacities to help one another, regardless of which ethnic group you represent.

Of course, there is more credibility when and if Romanis are telling their own stories. As, let us say, suppose a German addresses me, and I shall ask him: what do you know about the Roma people? What kind of answer(s) he might come up with? Some superficial ones, some general ones, most likely. But when a Romani is telling me his own story, about his project or an initiative, my impression is on a different level. Say, when Natali (Nataliia TOMENKO, co-founder of the Arka) tells me about her grandad, a Holocaust survivor, about her family’s experience... I only begin to trust her more—as I am certain that she does indeed know what she’s talking about. And I trust her more than anyone from outside the community.

Next. Say, a great nation like the Germans or Ukrainians—who have national idea of their own. Say, they want to support other ethnic groups. There is no need to invent a bicycle here. Just ask that ethnic group: ‘How can I help?’

— What is, then, the role that is to be played by an individual representative of a community? Say, a person is not up for activism. He or she is afraid to get engaged; he or she does not want to become a target of bias, of a stigma. What should one do in a case like that?

— The most affordable option is to get interested. To immerse in one’s own history, to ask questions. To register events, stories, perhaps. To relay those stories to the next generation. To preserve the knowledge about one’s culture, one’s ethnic group.

 — And here you get us back to the issue of memory. But why the effort? After all, one cares about oneself more than about others. Each one has tragedies and painful experiences of his own. Why would a Jew be preoccupied with the sufferings of Romanis? Or why would one spotlight Romanis in textbooks as it all has been known and verified over years? Why would, say, I need Natali’s story if my grandad has survived even more horrendous events? I do not mean these stories in particular; I mean hypothetically only. Yes, such comparisons may be out of place. But this is how people thing. What should one do?

— We do not exist within a single, all-fits-one identity. This was also the cause of the tragedy of the Holocaust. The Nazis have chosen to persecute Jews. They just did not like Jews. Then there were the Romanis, disabled people, LGBT…

And that is how new causes for persecution emerged. But that generic Roma person could have been, say, a Nazi sympathiser, a ‘fellow traveller’, could he not?. Or a Communist. There were Communist Jews among victims, too, weren’t there? So whose tragedy it is that we are going to commemorate? How can we measure the share of victimhood in a person: was he more a Jewish victim or a Communist victim? Which category does he fall into?

Where is the guarantee that a certain other characteristic may not become a reason for persecution one day? How can one be sure that the tragedy of the Roma will never repeat itself, this time with the German people?

One cannot separate oneself from others. We do not exist within a single, all-fits-one identity. I am not ‘merely’ a Romani, a Ukrainian, a Kazakh, a German... This ‘merely’ is appended with a number of other characteristics.

This is wherein the problem of linear thinking lies. I may be a Black lesbian woman. And I might be discriminated in view of any or all of the above characteristics.

We are comprised of multiple identities, each of which manifests itself in a variety of situations. Yes, we may not converge. Say, I am a Jehovah’s Witness and I could not care less about the tragedy of Roma people. That, too, is just fine. HOWEVER.

Let us get to what we began with. Why would anyone want to preserve one’s memory in the first place? So that no one shall fear to be a Roma. So that no one shall fear to be gay. So that no one shall fear to be a Jehovah’s Witness. So that one shall be able to speak of oneself freely. So that no one shall be discriminated due to any of one’s identities.

So that everyone understands: each one has his own story to tell—a story rich in heroes. And I am proud to be a person like that. And I shall not fear.