Improbable Meeting: Madonna Faces Romanian Essentialist Nationalism on the Gypsy/Romani Question.

Probably Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet TourĀ  in Europe was awaited with great expectation and excitement. One by one, European cities have greeted her and her music. Most notably, with the occasion of her concert in Bucharest (Romania), she chose to address a message of tolerance towards one of the most discriminated against minorities in Europe: the Romani, commonly known as Gypsies:

“It has been brought to my attention … that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and Gypsies in general in Eastern Europe. [...] It made me feel very sad. [...] We don’t believe in discrimination … we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone.” (Associated Press)

How was her message met? By boos and jeers from some of the 60,000 people gathered for her concert. And that was just the beginning, since Romanian press took up the subject and transformed it into a matter of hurt national pride. Not few were the editorials that questioned her motivations, her position, and her right to make such a statement in Bucharest. Inflammatory pieces accused Madonna of equaling Romanians with Gypsies, and of purposefully exploiting this subject, a painful one for Romanians, for her own marketing purposes. A Romanian TV channel (link in Romanian) collected the opinions of average Romanians on the topic. Tellingly, they read: “the fact that a whole nation did not succeed to educate and civilize this ethnic group, but on the contrary [...] is no reason for national pride,” reads one comment; “I see no difference between our discrimination against Gypsies and their discrimination against the Blacks,” is another reaction; “Why don’t you [Madonna] go one night in Ferentari [a neighborhood in Bucharest with the reputation of the most violent and poorest borough in the city; inhabited by a large Romani population] to enrich a little your knowledge about them. To be robbed, beaten up, and possibly… to be still alive afterward,” recommends another.

They all revealed the uneasiness of a large majority in Romania with the subject. The “Gypsy question” so to speak, brings forward the shameful episode occurred a couple of years ago in Rome (Italy), when a Romanian Gypsy allegedly robbed and raped an Italian woman. At that time, the Italian press was quick to make the analogy between Romani and Romanians, to the deep dislike of latter group. Unfortunately, the tragic episode in Rome is one of a multitude of such stories. Even in Romania, Gypsies (as they are commonly called) are accused of raping, stealing, and pillaging “common” Romanians. Little was done to improve their status of pariahs and marginalized group. Behind the well intended initiatives, there is a deep seated distrust that very easily degenerates into violence against them.

It seems that a Romanian essentialist nationalist cliche has taken hold of the debate in which the Gypsy are stereotyped as uncivilized, robbers, beggars, and rapists, unworthy of any help, and the source of all possible evils and national shames. Gypsies as a whole group are accused of actively resisting “civilization”, “integration”, assimilation in the name of “Europeanization”, strikingly reminding of racist reasoning and civilizational superiority. The Romanians may be considered Easterners elsewhere in Europe, but they have identified an immediate Other at home that can be regarded with contempt. In other words, discrimination and hierarchical structuring of Whiteness goes in concentric geographical circles, from the very White and very Western center, to the intermediate Eastern Europeans, and it meets its Easternmost periphery in the person of Romani people.

Even more unsettling is that not all Romanians are some innocent, saintly creatures either (not that it would come at a huge surprise to anyone). More often than not one reads (if there is any such interest) about horrendous acts of violence of Romanians against Romanians. Newspapers are bursting nowadays with news about fathers that rape their children, women that sell their newborns, women that are being trafficked. The less fortunate aspect is that even these are oftentimes dismissed with a quick brush “The perpetrator must have been a Gypsy! No Romanian would ever do that.”

But then a whole range of questions arise: Really, is it really only the Gypsy/ Romani/ or whatever one may wish to name them, the ones who must take the blame? Why is not there any thorough interrogation about the so-called deep Romanian values, and the much heralded “true” ways of being a Romanian, and to compare them with what actually happens in the country, or wherever else in Europe Romanians may happen to be? Why is it so difficult to assume responsibility for one’s own deeds? Is hating the less privileged such an easy and convenient way out, postponing emancipation from old stereotypes and toxic judgments? Perhaps it is about the time the whole Eastern Europe (keeping in mind the horrendous anti-Romani acts in Hungary, and the strong discrimination they face elsewhere in the region) needs to accept its responsibility and seriously engage in a wider discussion about the Romani/Gypsy with the very Romani/Gypsy that are so easily accused and discriminated.

And this is, unfortunately, just one side of the issues some Romanians have when it comes to relating themselves to Romani people. In a similar vein, Madonna’s appeal for fighting discrimination against the LGBT community, at the same concert, was met with even stronger boos and jeers. In this light, it seems that Romanian essentialist nationalism is one deeply anchored in racism and patriarchal heterosexism, highly intolerant with anything not conforming to the norm, but at the same time extremely uncertain about its own identity and aspiring to a “rightful” place in the “Great family of European nations”.

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Friday, August 28th, 2009 Miscellaneous