Anti-Roma Racism in Romania
This is part of a Roundtable, Ideas of Race, Ideologies of Racism: Roma Rights in Europe during the #BLM moment.
In November 2020, during one of his regular Zoom lessons, a five-year-old Romanian asked his teacher: “Ma’am, which people (‘neam’) are the Roma descended from?” In a hushed tone, she replied: “Oh, dear child, you put me in a difficult position. I will look it up and tell you next time. I do not want to say something stupid.” The teacher did not know where the Roma were from, but promised to return with an answer. What was clear from the question, however, was that the child “knew” the Roma were not like the other Romanians.
The real labor of education begins with a question and finding an answer to it. Regarding the Roma, education is also essential in the un-making of anti-Roma racism as it provides much-needed information about the past. Addressing it means perhaps asking more of teachers than of any other public employees. However, many of them are woefully unprepared for this responsibility. But anti-racist education is challenging, and not only for those who are committed to the promises of equality and social justice. In a country like Romania where Roma children continue to be segregated in schools, their education produces anxiety, not only among the teachers but also among the children themselves, Roma and non-Roma alike. Children can show implicit racial bias from a young age and, if not addressed in schools and in the family, this can turn into discriminatory behavior around ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation. In Romania, children often come to share their parents’ perception of the Roma as a “different” people who should be avoided, and then they express such attitudes in the classroom.
For more than a century, the Roma in Romania had been signaled out for their alleged “difference,” determined less by the color of their skin and more by their social and economic condition. Therefore, when the Roma are racialized in public and private conversations in Romania, they are viewed through social and cultural lenses. This strategy is often couched in expressions such as “this is not about race” or “Romanians do not use the word ‘race.’” “I am not a racist,” many Romanians would also tell you, while insisting that not “all” Roma are “thieves” and “lazy.” When they hear the word racism, most Romanians do not think it describes their behavior and hostility towards the Roma. Racism means slavery, imperialism, colonialism, Nazism, the Holocaust and apartheid, occurrences and episodes in the history of other countries. Few Romanians know that until 1856 the Roma were slaves of monasteries and boyars or that there was a coordinated state policy of extermination against them during the early 1940s. These aspects of Romania’s uncomfortable history continued to be suppressed and their importance marginalized in history textbooks.
Many Romanian educators and politicians do not acknowledge the negative and traumatic impact of Roma slavery. The historical significance of slavery is however relevant to contemporary anti-Roma racism. The legacy of slavery informs broader cultural strategies towards the Roma; yet not in terms of social justice and compensation but rather as evidence of their “submissive nature.” To give one example: in December 2020, another teacher, from a city in northern Romania, who was a candidate in the Parliamentary General Election was invited to participate in a public debate organized by one of the popular Romanian TV stations, Digi24. The topic was “Equal opportunity for all in the Romanian educational system.” At some point, she attributed the failure to educate the Roma to their “slave mentality.” The Roma, she continued, “think about themselves as slaves.” She said she was troubled by it, but envisioned the work of teachers such as herself as emancipatory. The Roma, she suggested, must be “helped” to overcome their passive, subservient behavior.
When presented with such examples, what becomes apparent is that for all the progress made in transforming the teaching and curricula in Romanian schools during the last three decades, much remains to be done. How is it possible in 2020 to bring such a discredited notion as slavery into a discussion about the educational opportunities of Roma children? It is not only offensive, but also incredibly short-sighted. Either these teachers are unaware of Romania’s racial past or they choose to ignore it. But, then, how can we expect the pupils to engage with and challenge anti-Roma behavior at school when their teachers adopt a paternalistic, patronizing, and often intolerant attitude towards this group? How can pupils learn about Roma slavery, when it is absent from existing textbooks, precisely because it challenges the Romanians’ self-perception as always tolerant and inclusive?
In Romania, as in many other East-Central European countries, anti-Roma racism is the most widespread form of racism. It runs deep in society. One hears it on the street and sees it on the television. It circulates in popular culture (songs, anecdotes, newspapers, or daily conversations) and in forms of high culture (editorials, textbooks, or academic debates). One of the most pervasive and prevalent modes of anti-Roma racist attitude among the Romanians is under the guise of caricature and humor, often masqueraded as sophisticated cultural taste. No surprise, then, that in the September 2020 issue of Dilema Veche (Old Dilemma), one of Romania’s most respected cultural weekly, one such racist illustration featured. It depicts a woman selling sunflower seeds in small packs of paper made out of pages ripped from a book she’s holding in her hand. Roma women are often seen as street vendors in Romania, and during the communist era, in particular, they were known for selling flowers and sunflower seeds. The caption of the image reads: “As long as there are sunflower seeds in Romanian soil, there will be books.” Not only is the Roma woman explicitly ascribed a disparaging profession, but she is also denied the status of an educated person, unable to understand the purpose of the book.
Such stereotypes about the Roma in Romania perpetuate a long history of social, economic, cultural, and political marginalization. So when we consider this history and the present day stigmatization of the Roma as “undesired” members of society, it becomes clear that they are interconnected. Another aspect of anti-Roma racism in Romania is its eugenic undertones, which draw sustenance from the constant supervision of their reproductive life, which is deemed “abnormal” and “scheming,” as a numerous family allows for increased access to social assistance and care. As a result, public local officials in Romania often propose methods to limit Roma fertility, most worryingly through sterilization, as suggested by the mayor of Târgu Mureș, a city in Transylvania, in January 2020. Growing numbers of Roma children has re-ignited eugenic anxieties about the protection of the Romanian majority. According to this view, the biological body of the nation is under threat from the Roma, which are considered to be of “lower” social and biological quality.
Similarly, in most interwar eugenic literature, the Roma were described as “human parasites” whose only role was to undermine the body of the Romanian nation. This narrative was widespread among physicians and public health experts, reaching its pinnacle during the Holocaust. Then as now, the state aimed to sanitize Romania’s nationalized space. To govern, as Ion Antonescu and other high Romanian officials often remarked during the early 1940s, was to purge the nation of all symptoms of disease. This vision of national health has been constantly recycled and continues to inform the connection that many in Romania establish, between the spread of coronavirus and the Roma. Once again, we see how specific cultural norms characterizing the Roma are biologized and how older forms of anti-Roma racism are recycled in the public imagination. The Roma have always been described as “dirty” and “unhygienic” but now they also represent an alleged challenge for authorities in search of solutions to a public health calamity.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic these racial and eugenic stereotypes about the Roma have been repurposed. Once again, the Roma are de-coupled from society and the body of the Romanian nation. At the same time, they are de-humanized through eugenic allegories of innate criminality and anti-social behavior that leads to a condoning of anti-Roma violence. It is once again legitimate to “discipline” and “punish” the Roma. As the pandemic intensified during the spring of 2020 in Romania and elsewhere, so did the anti-Roma sentiments. State officials policed the infected areas in order to control the virus and prevent its spreading. They turned their public health gaze to the sections of Romanian cities and towns populated by the Roma. These areas became racially invested as “zones of contagion.” Many racist assumptions relating to Roma lifestyle, most notably their nomadism, were revived. A much-quoted statement in May 2020 by the former president of Romania, Traian Băsescu illustrates that in 2020, as in 1940s, the Roma have been pathologized differently and as one monolithic group: “Gyp*y groups must understand that their way of life cannot be tolerated,” adding about nomadic Roma that “there is also this category [of individuals], which, in general, belongs to the nomadic Gyp*sies, which is not capable of integration.”
This description by a prominent politician is infused with negativity and deep-seated beliefs in their “inferiority,” “backwardness,” and incapacity to “integrate” into Romanian society. Such racist statements are not the exception, but are entangled in the ways in which the general population perceives the Roma. The racialization of this pandemic and the connection between the virus and Roma’s “specific” ethnic pathology (“dirty,” “primitive,” and so on) clearly shows systemic racism across various levels of society in Romania, from politicians to the common people. The idea that the Roma overall are “different” and “outsiders” is woven into the fabric of everyday racism against them. The stigma surrounding the Roma remains a powerful tool in the hands of the state and its public health officials. After centuries of uninterrupted existence in Romania, they continue to be perceived as different, strategically kept on the margins of society.
Intersectionality and decolonization
An intersectional approach to anti-Roma racism reveals heightened discrimination against them during this pandemic. 2020 has also been a remarkable year in the global fight against racial justice. The Black Lives Matter events in the United States led to widespread public protests against anti-Roma racism in Bucharest and other Romanian cities. Solidarity with the African American struggle for racial justice has inspired many Roma activists and scholars in Romania. Moreover, and reflecting on the legacies of Black slavery in the US, a new generations of Roma writers, directors and actors are actively engaging with the history of slavery in Romania. Anti-racist agendas are both local and global.
To return to education, it is imperative that a new interpretation of history, inclusive and devoid of implicit or explicit racism, be offered in Romanian schools. If teachers were better informed about the history, structure, and culture of racism, they could attempt to unmask racist and xenophobic attitudes in Romanian society and public culture. What the current pandemic teaches us about anti-Roma racism is that many Romanians encircle themselves with eugenic boundaries, which they believe protect them and make them safe. The polysemic nature of anti-Roma racism therefore challenges us to re-think civic and academic activism and prompts us to work towards an effective decolonization of Romanian culture.
Marius Turda is Professor and Director of the Centre for Medical Humanities at Oxford Brookes University. He was the founding director of the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford (2011-12). He is member of the Royal Historical Society, fellow of the Galton Institute and member of Academia Europaea. His most recent books include Religion, Evolution and Heredity (2019); Historicizing Race (2018; Romanian translation 2019); The History of Eugenics in East-Central Europe, 1900-1944: Texts and Commentaries (2016); Eugenics and Nation in Early Twentieth Century Hungary (2014; Romanian translation 2020).
 On-line teaching, pre-school class, Bucharest, R. P., Personal communication, November 2020.
 “Rasismul se învață la școală,” https://www.scena9.ro/article/interviu-delia-grigore-romani-rasism-discriminare (accessed March 25, 2021).
 “Istoria (ne)cunoscuta a sclaviei romilor – The (un)known history of Roma slavery,” April 8, 2019, (accessed December 4, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FL8fO5xyf2U
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 Alina Mihai, “Traian Băsescu, Reclamat Şi El La CNCD Pentru Afirmaţii „Incitatoare La Ură’. Ce a Spus Fostul Preşedinte Despre Etnicii Romi,” Mediafax.ro, May 3, 2020, (accessed March 15, 2021), https://www.mediafax.ro/politic/traian-basescu-reclamat-si-el-la-cncd-pentru-afirmatii-incitatoare-la-ura-ce-a-spus-fostul-presedinte-despre-etnicii-romi-19112378.
 As exemplified, for instance, by the work of director, playwright and actress Alina Șerban
Photo: The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism | Shutterstock