On December 8, the US Senate passed a bi-partisan resolution “celebrating the heritage of Romani Americans” and honouring Romani history, culture and contributions to human progress.
The passing of the resolution – the result of years of activism and lobbying by Romani people and our allies – was a crucial step forward in our long struggle to get Romani history and heritage officially recognised and respected in the United States. While there is reason to rejoice in this important resolution, however, our work is far from over.
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I am not American-born, but as a Romani person who has been living in the US for years, I’ve experienced and witnessed the harmful consequences of the American public’s prejudices about Romani people, history and culture.
I moved from Romania – where my people faced racism, discrimination and institutionalised violence for centuries – to the US to attend Harvard University in 2012. Given the rich scholarship on racism in the US, I assumed I would be entering an environment where I would be surrounded by people who are knowledgeable about anti-Roma ideas and well versed to speak about their many manifestations.
I realised soon enough that my assumption was not right. Several people I met here, despite having a nuanced understanding of racism, its ideologies and manifestations, casually mentioned the myth of “g*psy criminality” as fact or alluded to a specific Romani “lifestyle”.
One day as I was leaving a class, for example, a fellow student asked me if my family had a “lifestyle” similar to that of the characters in the reality TV series Gypsy Sisters – one of the American spin-offs to the enormously popular British series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. His interest in my culture was genuine, but just like many of his compatriots, his perception of Romani people had been distorted by the transatlantic migration of anti-Roma sentiments and amplification of damaging stereotypes on television.
In a 2020 study, my colleagues at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and I conducted in collaboration with Voice of Roma, two-thirds of the Romani Americans interviewed agreed that American television shows portray Roma people negatively. Indeed, shows like My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding present violence, vulgarity and early marriages as Romani cultural features. Episodes from such series carry titles such as Birthday Party Turns into a Massive Fight, G*psy Truck Fight, and even Mama Bear Attacks the Bride.
Not only so-called “reality series” focused on Roma, but many American TV shows and movies portray Romani people as one-dimensional g*psy stereotypes. They misrepresent us, as Romani-American filmmaker George Eli once put it, “as mystical creatures, vampires, vagabonds, nomadic beggars, criminals, thieves, or pickpockets”. In fact, they not only misrepresent Roma culture as vulgar, inferior and violent but also sensationalise it so that they can exploit it for profit.
This continuous misrepresentation and sensationalisation do impact the daily realities of Romani Americans. One Roma we interviewed for the 2020 study told us that the school environment, in particular, “is much worse now that the teachers can see My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. “They think that our children are worthless scum, that they are not worth educating or protecting at school.” Other Romani Americans agreed that their children have suffered because of racist portrayals of Roma as subhuman or Romani girls as over-sexual. They said many Romani children dropped out of school due to bullying related to their ethnicity and explained that such incidents led them to advise their children to hide their ethnic identity and endure any anti-Roma prejudice they encounter in silence.
Of course, anti-Roma discrimination in the US has not been invented by reality TV executives. Today’s exploitative TV programmes are simply amplifying deep-rooted prejudices and allowing them to spread much further than before. Many decades ago, in the Change in Social Standing polls of 1964 and 1989, American adults rated “g*psies” as having the lowest “social standing”. In fact, they rated Romani people, along with Mexican and Puerto Rican people, lower than an invented ethnic group, the “Wisians.”
Of course, anti-Roma prejudices do not stand alone. As is the case elsewhere in the world, cultural and racial prejudices against Romani people justify and enhance profoundly harmful discriminatory actions such as racial profiling, institutional neglect and disrespect against members of our communities.
Thus, it is high time for change. The recent Senate resolution celebrating the heritage of Romani Americans is a good starting point, but we need more. We need the exploitation of Roma culture and the dissemination of damaging Roma stereotypes in popular culture to end. One way to achieve this could be through ensuring Romani people take a leading role in writing, producing, directing and acting in tv series and movies. We need American policymakers to take meaningful action so that we can fully regain control of our identity, history and heritage – and we can, finally, feel like Romani Americans are valued and respected members of American society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.