Here are three recent stories from real life:
Story A: Two colleagues are watching a newscast. The newsreader is talking about the plans of the Italian government to evict (mostly Romanian) Roma from their illegal settlements. The younger one wonders out loud how this can happen. The older colleague mentions casually that it is the only way to do policing in Europe. He knows because his wife works in law enforcement. “Gypsies” are sought out and targeted, because they just are much more likely to be criminals.
Story B: A mixed bunch of hockey players, from young teens to 42-year olds, are getting off their bus outside a rink. The coach tells them not to leave anything valuable on the bus. When one player asks “why not”, the answer, given with a smirk, is “because there is a Roma convention taking place in the building next door”. A few players giggle a little, and all file out of the bus and head for the rink to prepare for their match.
Story C: A team of football players is out on the town after a victorious tournament. Loud, boisterous behaviour and drunken antics are accompanied by approving laughter and backslapping. At one point the teasing is directed at one player, M, and a well known football chant which translates as something along the lines of “M is a gypsy” gets on the way.
This sort of casual racism against the Roma (or Romani*) happens all the time, everywhere, on our presumably modern, civilised continent. While we mostly understand and abstain from overt racism or other forms of crass discrimination against other minorities, the same rules don’t seem to apply when it comes to the Roma. I was channel surfing the other day and was pretty shocked to come across a reality TV show on English TV that was called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. Apart from the fact that the TV company had thought it OK to use the derogatory term “gypsy” in an attempt to draw a humorous parallel with the hit play and later movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, the content continued with the racist theme. I watched it for about 20 minutes out of some kind of morbid fascination to discover that the bride-to-be looked and acted like a pretty standard English “bridezilla” who has lost a few marbles in the planning of the impending nuptials, but somehow this was all made to sound like it was due to the fact that she was Roma. And this was all happening on national TV! The mind boggles.
Casual racism is not rocket science, so if we wanted to stop it, we would. There is a very simple test to find out whether a stereotype about the Roma is acceptable or not: Just replace the word “Roma” or “gypsy” with “jewish” or “black”. If this makes you squirm with discomfort, well then what is being said is racist, whether it is intended as such or not.
But the problem is not just that we casually make such remarks. It is made much worse because we tolerate them.
Which one is the odd one out of my three stories above? Story C.
Stories A and B happened to me. I was listening to the racist remark in A and the racist joke in B, and said nothing. In story A I should have told my boss that finding out that this sort of racial profiling is conducted openly by the Swiss police sends shivers down my spine, and not least because it is against the European Convention on Human Rights. In story B I should have told my coach that I find making racist jokes, especially in front of impressionable teenagers as young as 13, entirely inappropriate. Instead I shut up.
Story C happened to my other half F. He challenged his loudmouth drunken football buddies, telling them that this sort of casual racism was just not ok. Some protestations ensued, a few players defending their actions by saying that it was harmless football banter. F was having none of it, telling them that racism was never harmless and football should move away from using such chants. To their credit his buddies listened and took note. Several constructive conversations about casual racism directed at the Roma have taken place among the team members since.
I just hope that when these situations occur in the future, and they will occur, since the Roma will continue to be the most discriminated minority in Europe for a long time, I will have the courage to act more like F and less like me. I can’t stop the Italian (or Finnish, for that matter,) police from evicting the Roma from their makeshift camps, nor can I ensure that Romania (or other countries) do not discriminate against Roma children in isolating them from “normal” children and giving them substandard teaching in separate classes. But what I can do is point out these small, casual, acts of racism, and make these very smart and nice people see what they’re doing, and thus make them perhaps think twice next time. I will report back on the first occasion I manage to put my own advice into action.
*Romani is the more technically accurate term, since Roma are a sub-group of Romani, but I've stuck with Roma, as it is widely used to denote all of the Romani.