Romani Culture in the Spotlight

An Interview with Gwendolyn Albert

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Media & Resources

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Interview

Gwendolyn Albert is a journalist and activist who has been living and working in Prague since the mid-1990s. She currently writes for Romea.cz.

 

Agosto Foundation: You’ve been active as an advocate of Roma civil rights both in the Czech Republic and abroad for over two decades. What originally prompted your interest in the situation of the Romani people?

Gwendolyn Albert: I come from California and I had never heard of Romani people before moving to the Czech Republic. I had probably heard the term “Gypsy” and had the same stereotypical understanding that anybody encountering European art and literature might have of what that means (fortune-tellers, etc.), but I did not know there was a Romanes language or anything about Romani people.

In 1995, I was living in South Bohemia and I noticed that there were visibly darker people who lived in their own part of town and who basically never interacted with anybody else anywhere — you would see them working as manual laborers on construction sites, but you never saw them in the supermarket once it opened. This seemed all too similar to the kind of segregation that my own society and many others have undergone and are still undergoing.

In 1995, President Havel unveiled a memorial to the Romani people who perished in a WWII-era concentration camp at Lety in South Bohemia. I saw in the paper that he was coming to do that and I persuaded some kind people to drive there to witness it. I wrote up my impressions of that event and they were published online, and that started the ball rolling toward my meeting more and more people connected with these issues, and eventually members of the Romani community.

One would not think literature to be at the forefront of Romani art, but the recently opened Romafuturismo library in Prague is a project which proves otherwise. Are there any other similar initiatives around Europe exploring the history and contemporary situation of Romani literary culture?

I am not sure how many collections or initiatives there are that share the same aims as Romafuturismo. There are definitely academic collections that have remained the domain of researchers, most of whom until very recently have not been Romani people. My understanding is that Romafuturismo wants to be a resource for Romani people themselves to explore their own past, present and future. It is also important because it is established by a very serious artist who is a member of the generation that is just now coming into prominence. I am sure there are many hidden Romani-authored treasures around Europe in many other art forms, not just literature, and my understanding is that the RomArchiv project in Berlin, which is related to the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), is supposed to be collecting and curating such works now.

Did the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015), which was intended to support educational and integrative initiatives across Europe, translate in any way into supporting the Roma community’s art and culture?

I have not come across any arguments to that effect. In my opinion, what has been much more impactful has probably been EU membership and international connections and resources of different kinds — but all initiatives that are designed in a top-down way are always frustrating to observe. Scant attention is paid by decision-makers to the issues involved, but bureaucrats are encouraged to produce a lot of words at the central government level, a lot of analysis and strategizing, that results in very little actual progress for Romani people themselves — maybe a few more jobs for experts or affiliated structures like social work, but not necessarily improvements for Romani people. If we were to set aside the arts and culture component and ask “Were Romani people more included in Czech society in the year 2015 than in the year 2010?” then I am afraid we have ample evidence that they were and are not. Many Romani people emigrate elsewhere rather than put up with the ostracism.

The Czech Republic is a specific case, but is there, in your opinion, an EU country which has consistently shown a willingness to engage with the Romani community and culture, and one which has furthermore achieved positive results in their “top-down” attempts at fostering integration and mitigating such ostracism? Does the struggle for systemic equality necessarily need to come from the grassroots?

Of the EU countries, I believe that Finland is definitely one where there has been long-term engagement at the national level with Romani people whose particular cultural differences are basically accepted (here I am referring to matters like wearing traditional clothing). Acceptance of Roma there is probably still less among the average person, though, especially of Romani people recently immigrating from elsewhere. It is also necessary to bear in mind that there are different groups of Roma, with their own names and practices, within each country. In my opinion the situation is most analogous to indigenous people in the USA.

The struggle for systemic equality indeed comes from the grassroots and not just from Romani people — non-Romani individuals at the grassroots must a): refrain from dehumanizing and ostracizing Romani people and b): support equal access to mainstream society by all instead of “defending” various areas, education especially, as “their” territory. There is no government on Earth that can genuinely prevent individuals from discriminating — each individual has to decide for himself or herself how to act, and all we can do is condemn these matters after the fact and attempt to prevent the creation of structures that will make inequality easier to achieve.

The discourse on Romani issues is often politicized, focusing on vicious cycles of poverty, structural inequality, and the latest xenophobic outbursts. I am wondering whether it is possible to have done with such a habituated media image of the Roma community and present the community in a different light — as a distinct cultural texture all of its own, one which can offer much to the populations across Europe and the world. We can give examples such as the Khamoro Festival which has been bringing top Roma culture to the center of Prague since 1999. What would you say is the effect of such cultural initiatives — would you say they have been successfully changing the perception of Roma within the Czech mainstream?

I do not believe these cultural initiatives have changed anything about mainstream public opinion. Performers of Romani material who are virtuosos come to town once a year, the public broadcaster films it and replays it on TV later on — this year ROMEA TV live-streamed part of some performances in real time — but that is not a sufficient counterweight to the volume of anti-gypsyist habits that go unchallenged in Czech society 24/7. Dancing, performing music, singing — none of this is going to challenge stereotypes about the Roma. People only see what they want to see, and the important question is why, in the Czech Republic, many people customarily speak as if they still perceive Romani people the way their great-great-great-grandparents probably did, why they still use the linguistic habits and rhetorical tropes to discuss these people today that were used a century ago. Non-Romani people use anti-gypsyism as a bonding mechanism here.

Romani cultural initiatives are important to developing Romani pride, and they can be and are consumed by non-Roma for all kinds of different reasons as well, but it is not my experience that they are changing hearts and minds. The larger society has carefully cultivated its blind spots about its own history and its present when it comes to Romani people, and that self-image does not acknowledge how society has dehumanized and exploited Romani people (and many others). Until the “mainstream” changes its perspective on itself, across Europe, there will be no progress in this regard.

Consistent inter-cultural exchange may work to effectively counter these “carefully cultivated blind spots” on the level of civic identity politics. Is not the continuing support of Romani cultural initiatives one of the ways to unpack and directly challenge some of the stereotypical rhetorical tropes you mention, or does the solution to countering habituated racism lie somewhere else?

I am personally of the belief that the members of society who are members of groups not subjected to dehumanization, discrimination and oppression have an obligation to stand up for those who are being dehumanized, discriminated and oppressed, to work with them together as allies, and to share what they know with others who are in a position to actually change the structural elements of the larger context in which we all operate. At the individual and local level intercultural exchange has to be genuine to work, not imposed from above or orchestrated to serve other needs. The way to counter everyday racism is to expose it, to shine light on the blind spots, to ask your fellow citizens what they make of it, to take a stand on it, to propose specific changes and convince others to undertake them. That does not happen successfully in the Czech Republic when it comes to Romani people, who have few allies. The cultural performances, whether extravagant and virtuosic or local and amateurish, are happening at the same time as very serious crimes and degradation is being perpetrated against members of these groups. Romani people should not be content with a spotlight on their cultural output only — light needs to be shined especially on those who benefit by orchestrating and perpetuating their oppression. The situation is as it is because more people want it this way than not — and the balance has to tip in favor of changing it. That is something each one of us who could be a potential ally will either participate in or not.

Vít Bohal