Everyday hate speech in Romania

teodor-quoteIn 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.

6 Replies to “Everyday hate speech in Romania”

  1. I think the fact that you are not from Romania makes you a fine observer of things that most of us, born here, just became accustomed to and somehow we don’t react to it.
    You are right in pointing out that Romanians do think in a racist way when it comes to the Roma population. I heard so many simplified conversations about the Roma population where the obvious and simple solution, that always comes with the racist discourse, was to just make them get out of the country.
    Honestly, I have no idea how to make things better, but after working as a doctor in a place with a big Roma population, I realized the problem is very complex, it has many layers and the Roma population needs help and it’s not made up just of people who are out to get us. After a year and a half of working very close with them and being in their homes, I am still at a loss about what the solution would look like but I do know that simplified speech, hate speech and bad jokes are not it. The community that was assigned to me had strong spiritual believes and these believes were very convoluted. They truly believed in things like being cursed, like people coming back from the dead to haunt you and lots of such stuff. They were quite afraid of many modern things like vaccination – it was a huge struggle to convince them. The position of women in this community was that of a servant. Contraception was very frowned upon. Add all of this to the bigger problems that place had ( it was in Rosia Montana ) and you get a recipe for disaster.
    I completely agree with you the the spread of hate speech leads to future hate based actions.
    But I do not see the solution in a form of government imposed sanctions on words. The only way I see actions being effective in stopping racism is if you manage to spread counter ideas to the silly, hateful, simplified ones used by racists.
    I just don’t see how it can work if the government says if I hear you say this and that you will be fined …. or what? How would this work ?
    There are actions that are government sanctioned that are meant to counter actions, like not being able to discriminate based on ethnicity ( not that i think it’s working very well ). And the reason that I don’t think it’s working well it’s exactly because you don’t stop people from being afraid just by imposing a law. Because most people that I know that are racist against the Roma population are so firstly based on fear. How can I make somebody not discriminate against hiring a gypsy if that person if really afraid?
    So, laws on speech are not for me. I can never see how I can designate someone else to decide when can I speak and when I can not.
    I believe in spreading counter ideas, in a non preachy ( non afternoon special ) way, in real open discussions in big media outlets.
    On the other hand there is the problem of tackling the sources that lead to the problems the Roma population have. This is also very hard. It requires money and a long time vision. I do not have the vision. I know what the solution is not, but i do not know what the solution is 🙁

    1. I totally agree that a top-down, government imposed policy of censorship is not a good or even viable solution. Legally we can only regulate the media (within limits) and other institutions, or sanction politicians and other public people who make racist statements to the press, like was the case with Teodor Baconschi. But ideally it should be a bottom-up change. I think people who are more educated and progressive should not stay quiet when their friends make blatantly racist statements in their presence. It’s a much harder thing to do, but I try to do my part.

      When it comes to government, media and other institutions, what I think they could do in order to help people see the Roma population in a different way is give more visibility to the success stories of integrated Roma individuals, because they are really invisible in Romanian society. The truth is that the Roma community is indeed quite closed and suffers from deep human development issues, and it’s not so common for them to come out of it. These are the Roma I am exposed to. I know there are those who rise above and manage to have a good education etc, but I don’t even know how many there are because they are not exposed. Some I know exist simply because I know NGOs like Romani CRISS and E-Romanja, but I don’t even know their names or how they look like. These people should be famous! There should be a TV show just about Roma success stories!

      1. Yes, I also try to speak up when I hear racist, sexist, homophobic etc speech. But it took me a while to actually understand why some way of talking was hurtful. It happened for me because I happened to meet people that were more educated than I was on certain subjects and they pointed stuff out to me, they told me about stuff to read on certain subjects.

        Unfortunately lots of people are so attached to the status quo that they don’t want to look into certain subjects, they just dismiss it as an actual topic of conversation.
        Also it very hard to explain to people that they can be hurtful even if they don’t intend to and that one can say racist things even when they are not necessarily racist.
        And I totally agree about offering exposure to different kind of Roma people. I do believe that role models are important and I do think it could make a difference for some people to see that there are different kinds of Roma out there. I mean success looks different to different people, but it’s always good to actually be exposed to different points of view on how success can look like.

    2. I recently saw a great documentary called “Școala noastră” (2011), which tracks the integration attempts of Roma children into a Romanian school. It exposes many facets of this complex problem and highlights even more subtle forms of discrimination.

      I think art is probably one of the few ways in which public attitudes could actually be improved.

  2. there is a HUGE difference between racism mentality and racism in expression…

    whether one say or not “nigger” does not mean he or she is a racist… nigger is quite a nice getto word…young kids in Romania use it between themselves and they all think is COOL…

    “nigger come out already” “nigger give me a smoke”…and such

    same in US… some time ago it was ok for whites to say “nigger” and even wear getto clothing…

    but then, the PC libtards moved in… and made everyone “aware” of their “past guilt”… even the northen folk that went to war against shouth and liberated the blacks…

    now everyone is afraid to say something “offensive”….
    where once young whites and blacks could join together in a game on basketball and yell “pass the ball cracker” “behind the back nigga”…. and no harm was done…

    …now they are all aware of their differences… they police themselves and harbor a growing distrust….

    because “words can be racist”… no?
    no….

    people are racists… and they use words… and if you take the meaning out of a “bad word” and substitute with another meaning, then you will liberate that word and everyone in the same time

    but if you insist on labeling people, actions and words, then you will continue to delay the healing…

    yes… in order to heal… all must forget…
    they must truly forget… that at one point one, or another, were against each other….

    how in the hell anyone can forget now, when the libtards keep remembering all that they are different… ?

    oh…btw…. what the hell they gonna do if the racists will start using another word instead? and then another?

    it is beyond stupid to police words… others tried… they miserably failed…

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