In Romania it’s common for people to condemn the accent from other regions without any pudency. And many don’t do it jokingly, they really mean it. They call people with accents “peasants” and “rednecks” that destroy the Romanian language and nobody reacts, it’s socially acceptable. Openly complaining about gypsies with strong language is even more common. Some even say they’re a “spoilt race” that is genetically damaged, although these tend to be more extreme than the majority. But even the less extreme ones seem to find it normal when they hear it. They’re used to it, and even if they disagree with the choice of words, they wouldn’t defend gypsies because, after all, all they do is steal, beg and destroy the reputation of Romanians in Western Europe.
I do not mean to generalize, of course there are anti-racist Romanians who support human rights and social inclusion. I know many and, considering that from the top most racist people I’ve ever met, all were in Romania, I especially respect their persistence and open-mindedness. But although I know they exist, they don’t seem to be very visible. I never saw anybody openly condemn racist or xenophobic comments on the spot, for example. Don’t get me wrong, in general people are very open towards me and people of other nationalities, after all they don’t even have enough contact with them in order to form any opinion and the few foreigners in the country are university students with whom people generally sympathize. But the roma don’t seem to count as an ethnicity. The more progressive ones even joke that, if accused of racism, a typical Romanian says “What, me? No! I have nothing against black people!”
I don’t mean to paint a bad image of Romania. I like living here and the country deserves a much better reputation than it has (in Western Europe, in Brazil there’s no negative reputation). But I’ve always been a grumpy hater and I don’t feel I’m living a fulfilling life if I don’t expose the problems I see in the society I live in. I hate the social dynamics of being an immigrant and how it tends to stop me from making any negative comment about the country I’m living in, however constructive I may be trying to be.
If it makes it any better, I remind you all that, although Brazil is always in the news for being a growing economic power with awesome carnival and football (soccer) players, it has a considerably lower HDI and much more serious poverty and human rights issues than the ones in Romania. Roma people here are not being tortured and killed by corrupt cops in unlawful interrogations, beaten up by vigilantes in broad daylight, thrown out of moving trains by skinheads or burned alive by teenagers while sleeping on a bench. I think that’s great. But still not enough to make us settle and stop worrying.
The problem of discrimination against migrants from less prestigious regions is even less severe, but given the scenario of discrimination against northeastern migrants in the southeast of Brazil, it’s hard to not sympathize with them, and I can’t help but cringe at the blatant demonstrations of linguistic prejudice by some higher class people when bashing speakers of less prestigious dialects.
Furthermore, when I say racist, I don’t mean only people who actually hold beliefs about the inevitable biological inferiority of other races. These do exist, but I haven’t met many.
“We have some natural, physiological problems of criminality within some of the Romanian communities, especially among Romanian citizens of Roma ethnicity.”
– Teodor Baconschi, 2010, then Minister of Foreign Affairs
When I say racist I also include people who simply use offensive language openly and with great naturality when referring to people of different ethnicities and who are hostile to the idea of even attempting integration. These are more numerous. They agree, if questioned, that the social problems endemic to these communities are caused by social exclusion and lack of education, and are not biologically inevitable, and many deny being racist, but insofar as they maintain their hostile speech, they’re still part of the problem. To be fair, Baconschi’s statement was promptly attacked by several NGOs in the country who called for his resignation and the National Council for Fighting Discrimination eventually declared him guilty of bigotry. So yes, there are people doing great work, it could be much worse. But it could also be much better.
There are many here, as well as in Brazil, though for quite different reasons, that would probably accuse me of imposing an annoying and “politically correct” attitude on others. In Brazil because they see political correctness as an infringement on freedom of speech and an obstacle to genuine, unrestrained, taboo-free intellectual and artistic expression. Here because they view it as something fake and stupid and because it’s considered much more authentic to say what you think without self-censorship. There may be some value to this in the sense that at least you know how people really think, which may be harder to tell in Brazil, for example. I also agree that political correctness may sometimes run amok and reach extremes that hinders honest debate are hardly constructive. But I think the other extreme is even more dangerous. There is a cost to speaking your mind with no restraints about delicate issues, and I think it outweighs the benefits.
It may seem harmless to make racist comments every now and then as long as you don’t act on them, but it is not that simple. Inter-ethnic violence doesn’t burst out of nowhere for no reason. It is the natural product of a climate of animosity that is cooked in lukewarm water for years until dinner time finally comes. The genocidewatch cites generalized hate speech as a critical element in the early stages that precede genocide. If genocide seems like a distant, irrelevant issue, taking a look at Wikipedia’s list of genocides by death toll is strongly recommended. If your degree of empathy approaches sociopathically low levels and this list doesn’t impress you, documentaries with graphic images may be easily found online for free. I recommend.
If you think I’m making a big deal out of it, and that there’s no chance that a genocide is going to take place in Europe ever again, I ask: is it really worth the risk? Besides, genocide may be the most dramatic danger of generalized discriminatory speech, but there are other, more subtle, but more tangible ones. Humans are profoundly social animals and our attitude towards others and ourselves is strongly shaped by socialization, especially in early ages, but not only. A great illustration of the way a discriminatory discourse can damage the social, psychological and cognitive development of marginalized groups is Jane Elliot’s school experiment. Again, I strongly recommend.
You may call me annoying, but I prefer to censure hostile discourse and be at least moderately “politically correct” than to watch passively while for lack of interest, social engagement or for historical amnesia regarding the horrors that ethnic hatred has caused humanity, inert people reproduce and reinforce a fatalist and racially stereotyped discourse that only collaborates to the maintenance of vulnerable groups in the bottom of the social hierarchy, silencing potentially constructive discussions with defeatist comments and reinforcing if not amplifying the mutual hostility and ethnical resentment already present in society.