Today I followed a link to this fascinating book review about the origins and current state of gypsy populations in southern Europe. The book itself focuses on Serbian Roma, but I can’t imagine that the Romanians are much different. Among the grim facts that I learned:
“[T]he Roma are socially excluded (and exclude themselves) with life expectancies 10 to 15 years lower than the European norm, high infant mortality, and an 80% unemployment rate.”
“Their code of conduct minimizes contact with non-gypsy people, and particularly abjures marriage with non-gypsies.”
“Non-Roma are seen as unclean and polluting, interactions with them are to be avoided, and theft and crimes against non-Roma are not morally wrong.” This is the sort of thing that is frequently repeated as a calumny against gypsies in Romania, so it’s interesting to see a scholarly author essentially confirm it.
The Roma have “horrific figures for child mortality: 6 per 100 for Christian Orthodox Roma, 13 per 100 for Muslim Roma. By way of comparison, the highest global under-5 death rates are in Africa, at 90 per 1000, and for Europe only 12 per 1000.”
The author of the review goes on to conclude that most of the health and intelligence issues in the gypsy community are due to inbreeding, as well as some other issues. Overall, it’s a depressing read that doesn’t leave one with a lot of optimism for the gypsies.
The most popular article I’ve ever written was Romani, Racism, and Romania, which continually ranks among the most-viewed pages here on this blog. And I see that a Google search for “romanian racism” currently has my article as hit #3. So obviously I hit a nerve on something with that discussion. In particular, I seem to get a lot of Americans who have gone or are going to Romania, and want some context for what seems like a lot of racist behavior on the part of the Romanians.
I’m here to fill that need.
I write from the perspective of a white, middle-class North American. And I’m writing this for the benefit of anyone visiting Romania from America or Western Europe, though I don’t necessarily assume that you’re white. (We’ll cover that below.) My view of Romania is an outsider’s view. However, I speak Romanian fluently, I lived in Romania for a year before getting married, I’m now married to a Romanian, and we continue to visit the country frequently.
Romanians and Anglophone whites
If you go to Romania as an American or British person, you probably won’t experience anything that you’d call racism. However, if you actually attempt to engage in conversation with the locals, you’ll find a lot of stereotypes and assumptions that Romanians make about you. This may occasionally provoke some discomfort.
The first and most obvious thing: everyone will assume that you’re rich. And truth be told, you are pretty rich, compared to most of the people that you meet. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations. Some people may ask you for money, and they may become upset if you won’t give it to them. People may not understand the difference between “can afford to go out for dinner every night while on vacation” and “can afford to give someone a $600 laptop on a whim”, since buying a laptop and going out to dinner frequently are equally signals of wealth and influence to typical working-class Romanians. In general Romanians are very generous with each other; conversely, if you start to make Romanian friends, they will expect and assume that you are going to be generous with them. Many people find this presumption of wealth and generosity to be off-putting–I certainly did when I first started building Romanian friendships.
A related point is that you may discover people speaking to you with a certain amount of resentment. Romanians often feel like they’ve been unjustly maligned by history, and that foreigners don’t appreciate their considerable cultural and historical acheivements. As a result they may display a nasty inferiority complex that manifests as the need to constantly put down Westerners, or try to impress them by playing it cool.
Many Romanians are credulous of conspiracy theories and fringe scientific ideas that Americans find ridiculous. An example: I once had the truly surreal experience of talking to a Romanian who insisted that the Jews controlled the banks and the governments. However, he said they were doing as good a job as anyone, so he was content to let them continue.
Romanians who have never been abroad get most of their ideas about America from movies and television. Think about that for a moment. A lot of Romanians assume that America is basically Southern California + New York. And not the actual California and New York, but the Hollywood versions.
Romanians and English-speaking people of color
(I hate the term “people of color”, but I don’t know of anything else that can be used in this situation.)
If you’re a black, Asian, Indian, Native American, or other non-white American, you may be in for a somewhat rougher time in Romania. You’ll find that most of the stereotypes discussed above also apply to you, but with an additional wrinkle: many Romanians will never have meet or spoken to a non-white, non-gypsy person before you. This creates additional opportunities for discomfort.
A lot of people will simply be curious. Try not to take this personally. Americans have been conditioned to avoid directly mentioning or commenting on someone’s race, while Romanians have not. You’ll find that Romanians gleefully trample over the conversational niceties that Americans observe when discussing race. This may come across as rudeness, but it really shouldn’t be interpreted as racism. In fact, you may find that Romanians hold fewer racial stereotypes about blacks and Asians than Americans do, simply because there are almost no people of those races living in Romania and there are no cultural narratives defining what PoC are “supposed” to be like.
The Romanian dependence on Western pop culture without the rest of the Western cultural context can have some surprising and upsetting consequences. I had to explain to my sister-in-law that it’s not okay to call black people “nigger”, and that it’s in fact extremely offensive. She didn’t see what the big deal was: rappers and movie characters use the word all the time! The subtleties of in-group vs. out-group usage were lost on her, and she had no understanding of the history of the word. (Romanians know that black people used to be slaves in America, because for some reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin is quite popular in translation there, but they’re largely oblivious to the complex, bitter history of American race relations following the Civil War.) If you find yourself in a similar situation in Romania, it’s important to be forgiving and remember that your Romanian acquaintances are very likely oblivious to the racist significance of their language.
On the other hand, due to the inferiority complex mentioned above, some Romanians will fixate on any available reason to belittle a Western visitor, including their race. Some people will always be assholes. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with very many of these people.
Romanians and gypsies
Ah, here is where things get bad.
(I’m going to use the word gypsy throughout this section rather than the preferred Roma or Romani, simply to avoid any possible confusion between Romani and Romanian. The two words have nothing to do with each other, and the resemblance between them is completely coincidental.)
Before coming to Romania I thought of gypsies basically the same way I thought of pirates: something exotic and alluring that existed only in distant times and places. I was very excited to see real, live gypsies when I came to Romania. But discovering the actual situation of the gypsies in Romania was a rather rude shock.
The relationship between Romanians and gypsies is the only thing in Romania that’s remotely analogous to the relationship between American whites and blacks. Gypsies have never been enslaved en masse, but they’ve formed a permanent underclass for pretty much the entirety of their history in Romania. Most of them speak Romanian, but many of them also speak a dialect of Roma, their native Indic language. Traditionally gypsies were nomadic, traveling in caravans from place to place, but many of them were forcibly settled during the Communist era, creating miserable little gypsy villages and ghettoes across the country. Most gypsies live in tremendous poverty, they have a very high illiteracy rate, and they’re plagued by many of the same the social ills that attend to the inner cities in America.
If you’re visiting from America or Western Europe, you’re not a gypsy. Even if you’re dark skinned, even if you actually have gypsy ancestry, even if you think of yourself as gypsy, your Western wealth and status make you Not A Gypsy in Romanian eyes. However, you’re going to see plenty of gypsies in Romania, and you may be very disturbed by what you find there.
Romanians carry lots of stereotypes about gypsies. Here’s just a few:
Gypsies are swindlers. If you try to make a bargain with one, you’d better watch out, because he’s going to try to screw you over.
Gypsies are thieves. If you live near gypsies, you’d better lock everything up tight, because otherwise the gypsies will break in and steal it. Keep a tight grip on your wallet if you see gypsies in the market.
Gypsies practice witchcraft. You can often see gypsies acting as fortune-tellers in the markets. They can work hexes on you if you insult them.
There are basically two ways to react to this situation, and if you stay in Romania long enough you’re likely to experience both poles of this dichotomy. The options are:
Stuff White People Think: Obviously the gypsies are an oppressed people. The stereotypes about them are completely unfounded, and in fact the existence of all of these negative stereotypes is the reason that gypsies are so poor and underprivileged. If Romanians would just open their eyes and stop being so racist, they’d see that the gypsies are wonderful people with a beautiful culture of their own, and the gypsies and the Romanians would live in perfect harmony.
This viewpoint is likely to persist until the second or third time you get followed through the market with a gypsy woman on your tail begging loudly to read your palm, or until the gypsy boys down the street break into your ground-floor apartment. At that point you’re likely to Buy Into the Hype. Everything that Romanians say about gypsies is true. The gypsies are poor because they’re filthy and dishonest. You have every right to avoid them on the street and watch them distrustfully when you see them in the market. And naturally you’ll want to find another apartment further away from those people.
At this point, it would be nice to say that my experiences in Romania disproved the stereotypes and showed the baselessness of Romanian anti-gypsy prejudice, but that would be a lie. In reality, despite my initial favorable disposition to the gypsy people, I rather quickly learned to keep my wits and wallets about me when I saw gypsies approaching. This sort of thing falls into the realm of unfortunate necessity, a necessity that many people have discovered.
So what does this practically mean for you, the intrepid traveler?
In the first place, I’ll repeat the advice that any tourist is likely to receive. Don’t give money to panhandlers (of any race). Don’t go to people offering to read palms, tarot cards, or any other kind of fortune-telling, no matter how fun or innocent it might seem. Keep an eye on your valuables, especially when in crowded public places like markets. Do all of these things double when gypsies are involved. You may feel uncomfortable about doing so—I certainly feel uncomfortable giving this advice—but you’re not actually helping the gypsies any by letting them steal from you.
On the other hand, don’t hesitate to buy from gypsy vendors who are selling handicrafts or homemade goods.
Don’t bother arguing with Romanians about gypsies and racism or anything of the sort. They’ll tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and they’ll be right.
If you actually want to help the welfare of gypsies in Romania, I recommend that you donate to a reputable Romanian charity, or one dedicated to helping gypsies across Europe. You, as a visitor to Romania, are not in much of a position to change Romanian culture or make any real difference in the lives of the gypsies that you meet. However, there are many charities that are doing real work to increase literacy, provide job training, etc., and they’re much better equipped to actually help people break out of the trap of poverty and crime.
One last thing
Have fun in Romania. I love the country, and I can’t wait until the next time my family and I get to go back.
Please read this before commenting: A more positive follow-up. I get a lot of people complaining in the comments that I was overly negative about Romania, so I want to make sure that people see the other side and realize that there are lots of great things about Romania, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from going there.