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STUDENTS’PERSPECTIVES ON THE ROMA COMMUNITY

STUDENTS’PERSPECTIVES ON THE ROMA COMMUNITY

by Tiana Brownen, Video Advocacy and Fundraising

Photo courtesy by Jonah Blumenthal, Vidin, 2019.

 

May 6th, 2019

“That’s just the way they are,” and “They aren’t like us” are common responses to what my students think about the Roma people. Most of my students clearly do not have very high opinions of the Roma community, but very rarely do they have clear reasons for their strong beliefs. If you push the students on why they believe the Roma are dangerous they will use general statements such as, “They are thieves.” Rarely are examples given. These broad stroke statements are used as a way of covering the issue and dismissing it without truly addressing the reason or validity of the statements. If facts were given or if evidence was cited, it would make it harder to argue with the logic provided, but this is not the case. This is what makes having productive conversations about the conditions of the Roma people fairly difficult. Many of my students cannot explain why they feel the way they do and questioning them would most likely expose their unjustified beliefs towards the Roma.

 

Having these conversations is hard and often I can sense that it makes my students uncomfortable. In my opinion, being uncomfortable is a valid response. Many topics dealing with hard issues tend to start out that way, but they have to keep going in order for people to become more open to discussing the problem. However, in my classroom, the conversation rarely continues. I can understand this as well because no likes to be challenged or told they are wrong. This, coupled with the fact that I am an outsider living in Bulgaria, makes it almost impossible to have deep discussions regarding the Roma people, their treatment, and possible solutions. As someone who has only lived in Bulgaria for a nine months, it is hard to combat racist mindsets without appearing to prop myself up on a moral high ground. My students have lived in this country their entire lives, so understandably they believe they are more knowledgeable on the subject. In this way, I think it is difficult for my students to see my opinion as legitimate and trustworthy. Yet the more I probe my students and ask harder questions, such as “You said they are different. What makes the Roma different than other Bulgarians?” the students become more disengaged. Many answered my question with a simple shrug and said, “I don’t know.” Then they start speaking in Bulgarian, so I cannot understand what they are saying fully. I can only assume from the smiles of their classmates and occasional laughter that it was something I would not approve of.

This is just part of what makes having conversations about the Roma with my students so challenging. I can admit that there may be ethnic differences between the Roma people and Bulgarians. But, unlike my students, I also believe that there are not always differences. Contrary to my students, I also believe that many of the perceived differences stem from the discrimination and racism that the Roma people have endured. For example, education for the Roma people is disturbing unbalanced in comparison to the rest of the population. NGO Organization Drom’s latest report indicates that around 70% of Roma children attend segregated schools in Bulgaria today (1). The fact that there are segregated schools exemplifies the overall prejudice against the Roma. Segregated schools also contribute to the imbalance in proper education for Roma youth because the majority attend inferior facilities, which contributes to the perception of the Roma as illiterate and uneducated. My students will even tell me that the Roma do not attend school, but it is always phrased as a downfall of the people and not a structural problem that is outside of their control.

The general feeling I get from my students is that the events that happen to the Roma occur because of something they did. It is never because of the violations of their human rights or overt discrimination taken against them. The framing of the issue is typically that the Roma people are the perpetrators and never the victims. The Roma are never given the benefit of the doubt. This mindset is dangerous because it condemns the Roma, but also because it connects negative qualities to the Roma and perpetuates this negative perception as normal behavior for the whole Roma population.

One of the ways I think my students mindset is shaped regarding the Roma community is through the media. As teenagers, most students use their phones for everything, including as a way of getting their news. When the news usually describes incidents involving the Roma in negative lights, it creates a shortcut for people to connect the Roma with negative events. The more this happens, the stronger the connection becomes. Over time, people start making the associations themselves, which is why many people will assume that the Roma are the perpetrators in any situation that involves conflict. Of course, this is not the case, but the media and the way the news is presented makes it easier for students to view it that way.

 

Another way the media has affected my students’ beliefs about the Roma people is through the language they use to talk about the community. Throughout this article I have used the term Roma because this is the proper name for the people group. However, my students have never used the term ‘Roma’ when discussing the Roma people with me. They call the Roma people ‘gypsies,’ which is seen as a racial slur to the Roma population. Even when I ask questions about the Roma, my students’ responses use the term ‘gypsy’ or generic terms like ‘they’. The renaming of the group and the complete lack of acknowledgement they give the Roma further exemplifies the negative attitudes my students have for the Roma.

In this way, by seeing them as the ‘other,’ my students display a classic ‘us versus them’ mentality. My students view the Roma people as the ‘bad’ people who are always against them. Therefore, they have no reason to engage with the community because they are associated with purely negative thoughts. I even had one of my students say, “They (the Roma) are everywhere!” This exclamation displays two ideas to me: 1) The Roma should not be around or easily visible. 2) That the Roma need to be contained. Either option is disheartening and shows how little the Roma are valued in society. Additionally, I think this displays the nearly impossible situation the Roma face.

Clearly, the situation regarding the Roma people is not ideal. This minority group continues to endure blatant stereotyping, racist attitudes, and prejudiced behaviors against them. The problems are easy to identify, but fixing them is not so simple. My students, like most people in the world, claim they are not racist. This makes sense. If one does not admit that they are racist, then he or she cannot be required to change or help make the situation better. It exempts them from action and gives them an easy way out. I know that the solution does not lie solely in the hands of my students, but they could be a key component in changing the future for the Roma. I want to clarify that my students are not bad people, and many of them might not believe the same voiced opinions of their classmates. However, none of my students challenged the beliefs that were stated by their peers in class; they simply went along with it. This ‘go-along with it attitude’ is partially why I think the attitude against the Roma is at the extreme degree it is today. But the easy way out will not provide tangible solutions to the issues the Roma currently endure. Hard actions that produce change are needed.

The anti-Roma sentiments in Bulgaria have steadily heightened over time. People are becoming more intolerant and prejudiced, which has led to more dangerous rhetoric and actions taken against the community. In order for the perception of the Roma to become better, it will take brave people standing up to the loud opinions of others and defending those who do not have a voice. And while the situation with the Roma was not started by my students, I am hopeful that perhaps they can be the generation that begins to make positive changes for the community.

 

 

Disclaimer

It should be noted that the sentiments expressed in this article do not reflect those of the larger Fulbright program or the United States’ State Department.

 

Reference

(1) Russinov, Rumyan (2019). Baseline Study of the Roma Community in Vidin. Report, prepared for NGO Organization Drom, April 2019. Available at: http://drom-vidin.org/drom/?q=en/news