Striving against prejudice: Romani heroes in literature

Magda Matache

Like teenagers anywhere, Roma teenagers in Romania alternate between being excited and melancholic; they fall in love; they are fans of various football teams, singers, and actors. But they have some experiences that differ dramatically from their non-Roma peers. Lesser access to higher education, stigmatization, and discrimination are all phenomena that affect and ultimately define the trajectories of many Romani teenagers. Hence, Romani youth have to learn how to cope with the biases and anti-Roma racism they meet everywhere in their everyday environments, particularly in the school system.

Different adolescents react in various ways to discrimination, from internalizing the stigma to lacking enthusiasm for school. To avoid humbling experiences, some Roma teenagers hide their ethnic identity: “For eight years in the primary and middle school I suffered a lot because, as I was the only Roma pupil there, the other children couldn’t stand me. The day I was handed the crown of flowers at the year-end awards ceremony, as was the custom back then, I think I was the saddest girl in the whole room because when I went on stage, no one would applaud me. Because of this, during my four years in high school, I hid the fact that I was Roma.”[1] Many Roma teenagers would close to their peers preferring life within the Roma community. Still others, benefiting from summer camps that aim to boost Roma self-esteem, overcome shame and find pride in their ethnicity: “… I am a Roma child, and I am proud of it! I get along very well with my mom my dad and my teacher. I like to have many friends, and I do have many, not only Roma, Romanians as well. I talk nicely to all the people, it does not matter if they are like me, that is if they are Roma or Romanians.”[2] Another said, “I was ashamed to say I am Roma, but not anymore.”[3] But there are also Roma young people who can’t cope with these pressures; they become depressed, skip classes, or drop out in the face of the prejudice and negative attitudes of non-Roma colleagues or teachers.

At the same time, biased or discriminatory behaviors often go unnoticed in an education system that does not include intercultural education methods and human rights standards in its teacher training.  Teachers who do benefit from such training become aware of the way they shape children’s motivation or apathy, prejudice or respect, curiosity or disregard for education: “We love them, we help them, yet, in school, their skin color begins to count; children begin to separate, Roma are marginalized, no one wants to share a desk with them.” [4]

Research shows that Roma youth have similar aspirations and dreams regarding education as their non-Romani peers do. Yet, the discrepancies between the Roma aspirations for education and their realistic expectations for future careers correlate precisely with the experience of discrimination and other hardships they have faced.[5] Thus, they need coordinated efforts by others to diminish prejudice in schools and beyond.

A crucial step towards reducing prejudice is learning about the history of the Roma and of other minorities living in Romania. The new curriculum adopted by the Ministry of Education could become a factor in changing stereotypes about Roma and provide a sense of belonging for Roma teenagers.

Along with systemic changes, Roma and non-Roma youth need to be exposed to Romani characters, stories, and ideas—and they must be current and exciting, so they can inspire youth to succeed and feel proud. Romani heroes and stories have the power to guide adolescents toward diversity and stir curiosity about the Roma. Such characters must be portrayed through movies, cartoons, books, etc., but the stories could also speak about real people, who are loved by the society and especially by teenagers.

This blog post summarizes and includes excerpts from Margareta Matache and David Mark, “Confined by Narrow Choices: The Stories of Roma Adolescents,” in Jacqueline Bhabha, ed., Human Rights and Adolescence, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

 

[1] Excerpt froma adolescents testimonial included in Romani CRISS and UNICEF Romania ( 2011). Roma school participation, non-attendance and discrimination in Romania, Vanemonde

[2] Testimonial of a Roma adolescent, participantat a summer camp, 2010

[3] Testimonial of a Roma adolescent, participant at a summer camp, 2010

[4] Focus group teachers, Bucharest, 2010

[5] Jacqueline Bhabha et al., Reclaiming adolescence: a Roma rights perspective, Harvard Educational Review, forthcoming 2017.