Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Dealing with Multiculturality:
Minority, Ethnic, National and Human Rights

By Nicolae Gheorghe and Thomas Acton

The specific case of Romanies, or Gypsies, with their particular history and social situation brings into question the concept of "culture" with its complex semantic and controversial pragmatic implications. The "classic" situation in social and cultural policy is that of equating one people with one culture.

During the last two hundred years in European political history, we have witnessed the process of nation-building and the formation of national states. "Culture" played an important role in this process, since in Eastern and Central Europe cultural nationalism was (and still is) a driving force in the formation and legitimisation of nation-states which have a tendency to become ethnic states, that is states which "belong" to an ethnic majority.

The idea of state unity is put into practice, among other means, through a policy of cultural unity and cultural homogenisation, frequently imposed by hegemonic political elites to subordinate social groups which are depicted as culturally peripheral and socially marginal. By a process of homogenisation, the local and regional cultures are brought into a "national culture" which traces its symbolic boundaries in contrast and in sometimes violent competition with "aliens" and "strangers" from both within and outside the geographical boundaries. Language, religion, folklore and traditions become the epitomes of this national culture. The peasant communities frequently offer a reservoir of rituals and artefacts which are skilfully processed by an urban intellectual elite produced by the national schools and employed by the expanding state "bureaucracies".

This process of state and nation-building and consolidation via cultural artefacts has its own rituals, frequently sponsored by the state machinery. We are exposed to folk shows, festivals and exhibitions. The contemporary media of mass communication and culture lend this process more penetration and glamour. Traditions are "invented" and the peasants become French, Germans, Romanians, Slovaks, etc.

Those peoples and groups who are less successful in creating their own nation-states and who are incorporated into the nation-states of other peoples become "ethnic" or "national minorities". They strive for more group rights or the defence of basic freedoms and human rights in terms of their distinctive cultural traits, which then become "ethnic cultures". They use similar means (i.e. folklore, festivals, schools and publications in their own language) to affirm and preserve their specific cultures, competing with the dominant nation for the resources provided by the state.

The smaller or even less successful ethnic groups follow or simply imitate the more numerous and successful corporate groups in creating a cultural niche for themselves within the framework of the dominant nation and their state. Local and regional groups such as the Vlachs of the Balkans, or the plethora of ethnic groups in the former republics of the ex-Soviet Union provide present-day illustrations of a process which has been repeatedly re-enacted in modern history, only with different actors.

The world's Gypsy population is increasingly becoming part of a process of political mobilisation, manifest throughout Europe. Cultural affirmation is a component of such a process. We can identify among Gypsy communities in various countries the indicators (or symptoms) of the cultural mobilisation which preceded and accompanied the process of nation and state-building described above. An emerging Gypsy political elite is now engaged in a type of "self-rallying" process. Here and there we are witnessing cultural festivals, publications in and about the Romany language, readings in Gypsy folklore, textbooks for Gypsy children in schools, advertising of Gypsy groups and events, etc.

In this article we will provide the conceptual background of the strategies used by Roma (Gypsy) associations in different countries to promote the Gypsies' interests in social and political contexts marked by ambiguities of attitude if not by overt group conflict. The main point of our argument is that Gypsy history and present-day social realities are rather "deviant" cases, in respect of the historic pattern which shaped the cultural nationalism and the tools of cultural policy currently used both by the administrators of the national states and by the active elite of various national minorities.

While we are looking for the "uniqueness" and the unity of a people's culture as a prerequisite for promoting distinct cultural entities and a distinct cultural policy within territorially confined administrative units, the Gypsy people is presenting itself as a huge Diaspora embracing five continents, sharing the citizenship of a multitude of states, while lacking a territory of its own. The Gypsy "archipelago" is formed by a mosaic of various groups speaking both different dialects of Romany as an oral language and a variety of languages of the surrounding societies. The Gypsy communities share a number of religions and church affiliations; they maintain cultural boundaries not only between themselves and the surrounding environment, but also between various Romany groups themselves.

Multiculturality might be an appropriate concept to describe the basic reality of the Gypsy people. While Multiculturality could form the basis of an enlightened policy in specific local communities where several ethnic and cultural groups interact and co-exist, it is still difficult to imagine how Multiculturality and multi-territoriality could become the basis for the cultural affirmation and development of people, or at least of communities, which strive to identify themselves in respect of other groups in terms of unity and specificity.

The historic diversity and Multiculturality of Gypsy groups imposes serious constraints upon the formalisation or codification of Roma culture in order to teach and propagate it, and to put it on an equal footing with other groups or ethnic-minority cultures, not to mention better established "national cultures".

Recent developments in the former communist countries of Eastern European have provided a new and promising context for experiments with Romany ethnic culture. These are countries where the discussions on ethnic specificity and ethnic rights have more than an academic interest. The geopolitics of the region are closely tied to ethnic politics which are fiercely promoted through persistent, and even bloody, group conflicts. This is the region of the world where the majority of the Roma population is concentrated and where the prejudiced perceptions of Gypsies tend to voice themselves violently, resulting in pogrom-like attacks on Roma communities, the expulsion of Roma groups from localities of legal residence, the waves of refugees towards the West and a policy of forced repatriation from Western countries and "reintegration" in their countries of origin where Gypsies are rejected as foreigners.

The unity of ethnic struggles is always illusory, but, to participants in those struggles, creating, strengthening and maintaining that unity often seems the prime task. This illusion of ethnic unity is created by the existence of a common threat: racism. The most far-reaching example in many West European societies is that of anti-Black racism, which has in turn produced a Black identity which Black militants have used to embrace ethnic groups of startlingly diverse culture, language and physical appearance. However, insofar as these groups share a common experience of discrimination based on dominant ethnic groups regarding them as non-white, and insofar as culture is experientially determined, that common identity will become an increasing reality.

In many ways, both anti-Gypsy racism and Gypsy anti-racism (or Gypsy nationalism or Gypsy communalism, not to prejudge terminology) are as diverse as Black anti-racism and anti-Black racism. The determination of Romany intellectuals in many countries to construct a common Romany political struggle may thus seem remarkable, and indeed non-Gypsy social anthropologists continue to express as much scepticism about it as did the old racist Gypsylorists. Nevertheless, Romany activists are subject to the same political logic as other ethnic activists.

Historical background

Before we examine that logic of unity, we need to examine aspects of the diversity of the Romany experience, a diversity which gives rise to the different interests for which Romany activists have sought to use the rhetoric of unity. Insofar as ethnic histories have a beginning, we may trace that of the Gypsies to two periods of emigration from Northern India: one around the 7th century, which created the Nawar/Zott communities of the Middle East, and the other around the 10th century, which eventually created the Romany communities in Turkey and Europe. It is probable that at the heart of these emigrations was an expanding commercial nomadism dealing in metalwork, transport and entertainment; other communities and refugees from military defeat may have been drawn together by their common Indian-ness outside India, their ability to speak a Prakritic lingua franca (or one of a series of mutually intelligible lingua franca) which became the Romany language.

Large communities settled in Eastern Europe; from the fifteenth century, rather smaller groups visited Western Europe. Much modern historiography tends to represent the European reception of Gypsies as generally hostile from the beginning, but this is misleading. It is true that there are examples of persecution in the West, and slavery in the East prior to 1500. However, these cannot be compared with the sustained genocidal persecution and enslavement which appeared in the third and fourth decades of the 16th century. This persecution cannot be explained by any special characteristic of the Romany immigrants. The upheavals that awaited the creation of the West European nation-states, the redefinition of the Muslim-Christian border, and the period of the beginning of agricultural capitalism in the West were marked by general phenomena of inflation, unemployment and xenophobia, which led to religious and ethnic scapegoating against Jews and Africans as well as Gypsies. Yet, in the West at least, Gypsies also suffered social stereotyping as "vagrants".

Although it was only the most extreme instance of a general phenomenon, this 16th century Gypsy holocaust changed the particular situation of Gypsies everywhere, and created the new groups and modes of co-existence which lasted until the new holocaust of the 20th century. Between 1600 and 1800 there was virtually no international migration of Gypsies, except in the process of European colonialism. In Eastern Europe (and in Spain) there were large, sedentary slave or underclass communities and smaller nomadic groups; in the West, each political unit of the 16th century created a local ethnic group combining Romany and local commercial nomads. For historical reasons, some of these groups identify themselves as Romany, while others built an ethnic identity partly around denying that they were Romany. In the British Isles, for instance, we have four such groups: the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Travellers.

The content of traditional stereotypes differs between Eastern and Western Europe, though both are overlain with 19th century romantic racism. The East European stereotype was of a slave, someone shiftless, ignorant and stupid - not all that dissimilar to American anti-Black racism. The West European stereotype was more like a down-market version of anti-Semitism - the Gypsy as a cunning fox but, unlike Jews, illiterate. Curiously, in North America, the West European stereotype of Gypsies as crafty nomads is applied to the predominantly static, East European Gypsy community.

We should add that there are substantial differences in social organisation between the Western commercial-nomadic groups and Eastern sedentary groups. If we were to construct an ideal-type differentiation, we would paint the Western nomadic groups as anarchic societies, regulating relations between close-linked groups by the process of feuding and practising marriage by elopement, and the Eastern, primarily sedentary groups as possessing an embryonic state in the form of the kris tribunal, which regulates justice, including disputes over arranged marriages. In practice, of course, actual Gypsy groups are somewhere between these two models of anarchy and regulation, and the revival of international migration in the 19th century meant that Romany groups with very different culture, dialect, economy and social organisation could co-exist with little contact within the same physical territory. It should be noted that those European Travellers who strongly deny Romany identity, such as the Irish Travellers, also can easily be fitted into this continuum and also tend to possess the same rather un-European taboos regarding cleanliness that mark the culture of Romany-identifying groups.

Definitions of Minorities

As we outlined above, many different Gypsy/Romany/Traveller groups exist in very different political systems, but in every system, since the way the group is defined in academic and policy literature is related to policy justifications, these groups - with the exceptions we note below - are usually attached to a conceptual category with general implications for the discourse of ethnic/national/anti-racist politics. These concepts overlap and sometimes conflict. The concepts, derived ultimately from Tsarist and Ottoman practice and which Stalin (1942) codified for communist countries as "nationality", "national minority" and "ethnic group", are used much more randomly in the West, almost as alternative rather than exclusive categories as intended in the Stalinist usage. They compete with other terms such as "linguistic minority", "race" and "racial minority", "cultural minority" and, in the lands where West European colonialism permanently dispossessed previous residents, the "indigenous and tribal peoples" mentioned by the International Labour Organisation Conventions (Nos. 107, 169).

Within these categories there may be, in particular political-cultural or academic contexts, various sub-groups such as the "Deutsche Volksgruppe" or "Osterreichishe Volksgruppe". Such administratively defined minorities enjoy an almost quasi-corporate status, which might perhaps be compared to that of Native American nations in relation to land rights. State recognition of their historically rooted, local minority rights must be contracted to the denial of rights to others not perceived as so historically rooted but classed as "migrants", "immigrants", "refugees", "displaced persons", "stateless persons", and so forth.

All of these categories indicate that Gypsy groups so classed belong to universal types of groups defined by the processes of cultural difference which exist throughout the human race. We can see this, in fact, by comparing them with another kind of concept which we, as sociologists, can see as a category, but whose function for governments has been to act as the denial of a universal category. For Gypsy groups, these are labels like "Travellers", "migranti e itineranti", "Woonwagenbewoner", "Resende", "Voyageurs", "Population Nomade", "personnes sans domicile fixe", "vulnerable groups". For governments, such labels serve to designate groups defined by some localised deviant life-style, rather than by ethnicity. Particularly in the case of groups who deny Romany identity, such as Irish Travellers, the implication is that they are not an ethnic group and therefore have no special rights. Campaigns about the rights of Gypsies in other countries, it was argued, cannot therefore apply to them because, as they say themselves, they are not Gypsies. Or even if, as in the case of English Gypsies or Swedish Tattare/Zigenare, they say that they are, the same arguments can still be used by claiming they are not "real Gypsies"

The framework of West European ethnic politics has therefore made it very important for political organisations from groups like the Irish Travellers and Dutch Woonwagenbowoners, who have to assert that despite their historical self-image as non-Gypsies and despite their claim to human rights on the basis of local citizenship and ancestry, to state that they are also specific ethnic minorities in their own right. One can see that the logic of this has been accepted within international Romany organisations who have admitted the participation of such groups for the past thirty years and have even pursued the logic to the point of expressing solidarity with similar groups who have no possible ethnic or historical connection with the Romany Diaspora, such as the Burukamin of Japan.

The importance for policy of these concepts was brought home to one of the present writers during comparative fieldwork on the fishing and canal-boat-dwelling populations of Guangdung, China. When Acton attempted, in 1980, to show to officials, both in China and Hong Kong, comparisons of special educational provision for these boat-dwellers with that provided for English Gypsies, he was invariably met with the assertion that the two situations were completely different, because Gypsies were an ethnic minority and the boat-dwellers were not. In fact, during the entire Qing and Kuomintang periods, both academic and policy discourse had treated the boat-dwellers as a non-Han-Chinese minority, a position only reversed by research in the 1950s. By contrast, until the 1950s, the English Gypsy population was treated by government as an s-social group defined by lifestyle and to be sharply distinguished from "true Romanies". The recent acceptance of the application of "race relations" legislation to Gypsies has come about only after a great deal of politicking and indeed legal argument about the "mandla" criteria for legal acceptance as a "race" (Times Law Reports, 29 July 1988). Like much other anti-racist activity, in order to make any impact on racist practices, that of Gypsy activists had to make ad hoc arguments in terms that captured the immediate attention of the powerful people being lobbied and exploited contradictions within the ideological positions of those people. It is hardly surprising that most anti-racist rhetoric borrows the conceptual apparatus of racism, seeking to discredit the content of a particular racism rather than to undermine racism in general. Most ethnic struggles have too much to gain in the short term from their own racism.

The contradictions which arise from this, however, are particularly apparent with Gypsies. Unlike the common situation of ethnic minorities who are more or less confined to certain territories or regions, Romany communities are dispersed in a world-wide Diaspora both within and across the borders of countries, states and continents. Specific concepts or sets of concepts may be theoretically and politically meaningful in some countries, but meaningless or even misleading for Romany communities in other countries. Equally, the applicability of some specific concept of minority rights to one particular Romany ethnic group existing in many countries does not mean that same concept might be relevant to describing the situation or informing the strategies of other Romany groups - even in the same countries.

For instance, the political strategy of the large populations of sedentary Roma in Eastern Europe when asking for their recognition as "national minorities" is shaped not only by the Stalinist definition of the latter, but also by historical traditions of cultural nationalism and by the political rhetoric forged in the processes of building conflicting national states in that particular geopolitical space. Such influences can even be seen in the strategies for creating a literary language: Friedman showed how Jusuf Shaip's Romani Grammatika followed techniques used earlier in the construction of literary Macedonian.

One must ask, however, what meaning this concept of "national minority" can have when applied to the situation of ethnically similar groups in France or the USA. Could we, for example, imagine one of the more widespread (and more anthropologically documented) groups, the Kalderash Roma in New York, Buenos Aires, Balham and Paris getting together with their relatives in Moscow and the Balkans in a common political action based on claiming their rights as a "national minority"? If that seems improbable, could we imagine the Kalderash or other presently mobile or nomadic groups in the West finding the concept of a "tribal people" as defined in international law more useful for seeking legal recognition and protection of their distinct cultural identity? Adopting such a label would enable them to network into the political alliances of "indigenous peoples". However, such an identification would probably be profoundly unacceptable to organisations of Hungarian Romany musicians, or to the developing East European Romany intelligentsia in general.

The difference in interests between long-established communities and more recent migrants recurs throughout the Romany world. Romany refugees in Germany seeking a "Bleibenrecht" must identify themselves as "stateless" in order to benefit from the provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Given the reappearance of fascist movements calling for genocide or expulsion in the East, the identification of Romany people as a "stateless minority" may become instrumental for refugees not only in Germany, but also in other EC countries. The beginnings of such a strategy, however, are already in conflict with the demand of Sinti Gypsies represented by the Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma, who are seeking constitutional rights as a "deutsche Volksgruppe". In fact, conflicts of interest like this have appeared in Western Europe ever since the renewal of emigration from Eastern Europe in the 19th century and have even been exported to the lands of settled European colonialism in America, and more recently, even Australia. We have only begun to explore the diversity of the cultural traditions, class positions and interests of Romany groups, within specific and also highly variable national and regional political contexts, each with correspondingly variable approaches to minority rights issues. This variety is not an unfathomable mystery or an impenetrable puzzle, as some traditional social anthropologists who have studied only one Gypsy group would sometimes have us believe, but it is very complex.

Current developments in Romani Politics

Perhaps it is, however, the popular versions of this academic reaction that have helped create an international Romany movement. In England, councillors who have never knowingly spoken with a Gypsy believe that somehow Gypsies do not deserve the protection of the Race Relations Acts. In Eastern Europe, despite Indian diplomatic intervention in the last decade as a putative country of origin, Romany people are still not seen to conform to the standard pattern of a "national" or "historic" minority (and even if they did, that might not impress a new generation of skinheads). So, even though the content of the prejudiced stereotypes varies, as does the thrust and impact of different forms of discrimination or oppression, the brute fact of virulent and persistent rejection has drawn together politically-minded Romany individuals to assert an ethnic solidarity expressing the feeling that they belong to the same and distinct people, who share common and enduring cultural traits, similar patterns of interaction with multicultural environments, and common problems resulting from widespread prejudice, ethnic hostility, racial hatred, and violence.

Nonetheless, this political solidarity has to be addressed to rather different constellations of problems. These include:
 

a) The struggles of commercial nomadic groups in North-Western Europe to defend or secure camping sites and educational provision. As these struggles for basic human rights gain some minimal satisfaction, they progress to other more common anti-racist themes, such as securing access to schools, clubs and shops on the same terms as other citizens.

b) The struggles for cultural and linguistic rights in Eastern Europe, which were the most common form of group self-promotion in the former communist countries (albeit repressed in Bulgaria and Romania). Once established, these could, as in Hungary, move on to questions of civil rights, educational and occupational advancement, and the improvement or replacement of ghetto housing. In these struggles, the linguistic issue has a salience which it largely lacks in Western Europe.

c) The life-and-death struggles which have begun to develop more recently in parts of Eastern Europe simply to protect the lives and property of Gypsy groups against localised racist attacks following the weakening of state repression of private violence. Coupled with this must be the attempt to form alliances against new political movements which advocate the generalisation of such violence to institutional genocide similar to that practised by the Nazis in Germany or the English colonists in Tasmania.

d) The struggles of recent migrants and refugees. These in turn take various forms, but may include both the immediate reductionism so evident in Germany at the moment and the longer-term problems of statelessness, cultural identity and difficulties in long-term economic adjustment which are present within some Romany groups of recent East European origin in North America and Western Europe.

e) The struggles for economic advancement of local commercial-nomadic and former commercial-nomadic groups within rural development programmes in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.


It should be emphasised that this categorisation claims to be neither definitive nor exhaustive. It should also be emphasised that many groups of Gypsies are hardly in struggle at all. For example, the Romance (Angle-Romany) populations of North America and Australia are able to pursue a caravan-dwelling lifestyle without attracting any of the political opposition this attracts in England, because caravan-travelling is common in those countries and therefore not a characteristic of Romany ethnicity as in England. In England, by contrast, caravan-travelling is so strongly perceived as a trait of Romany identity that house-dwelling Gypsies may easily escape attention. Such groups of Gypsies escape discrimination, however, because they are not identified by their neighbours as Gypsies, or only by those neighbours who have established stable social relations with them. Still, they have to pass as non-Gypsies to escape discriminatory stereotypes. This concealing of one's identity - perhaps from childhood onwards - carries its own psychological penalties. Educated Gypsy individuals in secure economic positions have begun to realise that, despite their fears about revealing their own ethnicity, they have not only a right, but perhaps even a duty, to be publicly indignant about stereotypes which also put them down. Next to the traditional communal negotiators who dealt with police and municipality ("Gypsy Kings" or "Gypsy Councillors") the "coming out" of such hidden intellectuals has been a major source of Romany ethnic militants. Indeed, we may attribute the fact that Gypsy political organisation only really got going in North America, despite intermittent welfare-oriented activity since the 1930s, to the well-publicised remarks of members of the US Holocaust Commission crassly denying or minimising Romany victimisation in the holocaust which steamed up a number of well-educated and economically comfortable American Roma to realise that anti-Gypsy racism was also their business.

Theorising Human Rights

The organisations and campaigns created in these struggles always exist in dialogue or interaction with state authorities and practices, even if, on the side of the state,  this sometimes appears to be a dialogue on different wavelengths. That is to say, the Gypsy organisations respond to the categories of policy already adopted by the state. The declaration of the September 1991 Rome conference of the working group of academics and International Romany Union Presidium members attempted to square the circle of this diversity by saying:
 

"All Romany political strategies have to combine:

-a human rights approach

-a minority rights approach, and

-a social movement and community-development approach.


While closely inter-related, each of these approaches entails distinct goals, techniques of action and different networks of alliances which may be promoted jointly or separately by governmental agencies, NGOs and by Roma communities and associations."

In fact, if we look more closely, we may see that the second and third of these approaches are often in conflict, while the first may be a kind of synthetic approach which was used at least by those Romany activists present in Rome to subsume and reconcile rather different struggles. We shall argue that this adoption of a human rights approach is more than the manipulation of concepts, but is in fact essential in providing moral legitimacy for sustainable Romany political action and creating the possibility of political solidarity or unity which will not itself be oppressive of Romany diversity.

The social or community-development approach, which might be said to correspond to "assimilation" or "integration" strategies within British "race" relations, tends to see Gypsy communities as "backward" or "underdeveloped" when compared to majority communities and therefore in need of special help. In an Indian context, where such special help might consist of building new wells or clinics in a Bangor village, one can see how the patronising ideological baggage of such an approach might be irrelevant to the villagers, while Rubella's account of the failure of sedentarisation policy with Gaduliya Lohars shows that ethno-centric assumptions can mislead policy-makers as much in India as in Europe.

As some European policy-makers came to see the disadvantages of Romany communities as intolerable, they too saw the problem as one of civilising a community "scarcely advanced beyond the stone age". Caravan sites were seen as transitional arrangements preceding housing, while special educational provision - sometimes used to avoid having to bring Gypsy children into classes alongside non-Gypsy children whose parents would object - was seen as a way of adapting Gypsy children to school.

It is easy to mock the paternalistic racism of such an approach and perhaps too easy to forget that even patronising officials creating segregated and substandard provisions for Gypsies could be marginalised and insulted by colleagues for providing Gypsies with anything at all and might indeed have to fight for such policies against traditional policies of simply moving Gypsies out of the area in Western countries, or leaving a village or a Gypsy quarter to stagnate in muddy quagmires without electricity or clean water in the East. It is easy to criticise Gypsy organisations who, in the 1961s, accepted bleak caravan sites next to sewage farms, or subsidised folklore programmes in place of civil rights, but that is to forget the realities of continual eviction or forced sedentarisation compared with which any recognition at all of rights for Gypsies constituted an advance.

Indeed, while Gypsy activists might now wish to assert that there is no specifically Gypsy problem of poverty, ill-health or housing, it still remains the case that for many Gypsies it is their problems of low income, poor health and housing which are most politically salient rather than formal issues of equality or non-discrimination. This means that although a minority rights approach is more in favour now, it has never been able entirely to subsume the struggles in which Gypsy activists have engaged.

A minority rights approach, as defined in the Rome declaration, may appear rather confusing in terms of British "race" relations, because it would include both the approaches called "multi-cultural" in Britain (or "inter-cultural" in EC terminology) and that called "anti-racism". In other words, it can vary from simply bringing into schools a few Romany cultural materials and books with positive images of Gypsies to a thorough analysis of the way in which it is non-Gypsy racism, rather than some imagined psychopathology or "backwardness" of the Gypsy community, which has led to the sustained disadvantages of the Gypsy community. Given the fierceness of the anti-racist critique of multiculturalism in Britain, it may surprise the reader that only rarely does such a debate break out in Gypsy politics and studies. In light of the persuasiveness and respectability of anti-Gypsy racism, as compared with anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, a certain solidarity is essential among all those who wish to affirm Romani/Gypsy/Traveller groups' own cultural identity, protect it against any form of racism, and obtain the associated rights to education, to cultural activities in Romany dialects and to collective public and political representation. In this respect, there are too few people prepared to convince Gypsies that the price of citizenship and protection against discrimination need not be total assimilation in the host culture, and that they need not fall out too often among themselves.

The problem is that any argument based upon ethnic particularism may be reversed in order to limit and control the ethnic group in question. By this we do not mean in any way to endorse the common racist complaint that any action against racial discrimination constitutes an unfair privileging of ethnic minorities. Rather, we mean to suggest that so long as state action to help end discrimination against Gypsies is organised as a form of positive or counter-discrimination aimed at a particular community, rather than individuals with specific needs and rights, then it is bound to give state agencies more power to define and control those communities.

It was never the point of Indian Reservations to give power or independence to Native Americans. We should not be surprised that official Gypsy caravan sites in Western Europe have multiplied the dependency on state benefits of their residents. A kind of social inadequacy is built into the official perception of Gypsy particularism, so that Romany individuals who might be businessmen, students or professionals are seen as "not really Gypsies". Although in England the original definition of "gypsies" in the 1968 Caravan Sites Act (s.16) was "persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin" [excluding showmen and circuses] there has been constant pressure to exclude those not entitled by a more particularistic definition of "real Gypsies". This involves the social construction of some mysterious group of deviant imitation Gypsies, whom the government imagines have some arcane interest in appropriating the image of the country's most persecuted minority, a fascinating and persistent racist fantasy, not always unabated by individual Gypsies, which has been examined at length elsewhere. In the 1960s the pressure was to exclude "tinkers"; today it is to exclude "new-age Travellers". In contrast to earlier official determination to retain a non-ethnic definition of "gypsy" (sic), recent government-sponsored reports have tacitly conceded the demand for an ethnically discriminatory approach by recommending that councils "avoid mixing gypsies [sic] and other types of traveller on the same site since the two groups tend to be incompatible".

Let us make clear that we are not criticising the rights of individuals to live near to others of their own ethnicity, or to choose their own neighbours. However, one does not have to introduce a policy of rigidly segregated housing according to race in order to achieve such freedoms, and such a policy is not in fact one which respects cultural identity or autonomy. It would, for example, put wholly unjustifiable obstacles in the way of inter-group marriage. Nor would it in practice achieve any security for Gypsies on such segregated caravan sites, for anyone whose face failed to fit could be rapidly excluded once defined by the council (or perhaps by a tame Gypsy organisation) as "not a traditional traveller."

In short, defending caravan-dwelling or nomadism as an ethnic Romany privilege is a political blind alley. The right to lead an economically viable nomadic lifestyle, conducted without invading the rights of others, is either a human right or no right at all.

Are we therefore implying that there are no morally legitimate, specific, ethnic Romany politics? Far from it. The economic history which has led to the Romany adoption of nomadism as a cultural motif certainly gives Romany people a special interest in its defence. The demand for resources to promote Romany culture and identity remains, but the political defence of the Romany language, say, cannot be conducted on the grounds that it is a particularly beautiful language (however much we may believe that) but on the grounds that anyone has the right to have their mother-tongue respected. Everyone has a right to their own cultural identity and to be protected against racism. In short, ethnic rights are morally defensible only as a sub-class of human rights; when Gypsies fight for theirs, they are also fighting for the future of humanity. A new holocaust would not merely be a disaster for Gypsies. It would taint, contaminate or destroy all hope that we now have of building a new Europe.

The advocates of the nation-state and the new right in Eastern Europe are charging national minorities with disloyalty; against Gypsies and the remaining Jewish communities they are reviving the old anti-Semitic charge of "cosmopolitanism". Perhaps Zionism can be seen partly as the ultimate riposte to the charge of "cosmopolitanism": certainly the Zionist state may claim to be one of the most anti-cosmopolitan of political entities, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of nation-state ideology. There were, in the 1960s, Gypsy nationalists who took Zionism as a model, such as Ronald Lee and Vaida Voevod but they have had little influence, for who is ever going to provide the territory or the political will to create Romanestan as a second Israel? Romany activists are stuck with their cosmopolitanism; they cannot escape it through an imitation Zionism or any other kind of ethnic particularism. In fact, while it is still open to Jews to read the lesson of the holocaust as being that only having a place of their own can protect them from a repetition, the lesson to the Gypsies is the opposite: the holocaust of the 20th century abolished the protection given by the mehalla, the ghetto, the segregated pariah nomadism and the other sanctuaries which emerged as refuges after the holocaust of the 16th century. There is no substitute for having human rights everywhere; this is the logic of seeking to define Gypsies as a transnational rather than a national minority. It is not so much that the rights of ethnic minorities must be protected, as that ethnic majorities must be in themselves deconstructed. The foundation of global human law must shift from the self-contradictory illusion of national self-determination to a new bedrock of individual, human self-determination. The unfolding agenda of Gypsy activism may be nothing less than the abolition of the nation-state. The mere existence of such an agenda has profound implications for any sociology of group conflicts.


This article was prepared from excerpts from the report prepared for the Colloquy held in Slovakia in 1992 on "Gypsies in the Locality", organised by the Council of Europe; it later appeared in Winter 1994/1995 Vol. 3 No. 2 issue of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Bulletin <http://www.osce.org/inst/odihr/docs/bulle3-2.htm>.

Posted 03 September 1999.



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