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Who are the Roma? An Identity in the Making UNTIL the early 1990s, few people knew the meaning of the term “Roma,” but almost everybody had opinions about the “Gypsies .” In the last years, however, the term “Roma,” which is the ethnocultural self-appellation of many of those perceived by outsiders as “Gypsies,” has come to dominate the official political discourse, at least in Europe, and has acquired the legitimacy of political correctness. Not all so-called Gypsies in the world today recognize themselves as Roma, and it is difficult to predict whether a broader identity will be constituted in the future to encompass the non-Roma “Gypsies.” But at present, the political construction of the Roma identity has reached a stage at which the outsider identifications, such as Gypsy and Tsigane, terms still preferred in much of the historical, anthropological, and ethnographic literature, are considered undesirable due to the huge baggage of prejudice they carry. Groups externally identified as Gypsies but not necessarily considering themselves as ethnic Roma include the Jevgjit in Albania; the Ashlkalija and Egyptians in Kosovo and Macedonia; the Travelers in Britain and Ireland; and the Rudari and Beyashi in Hungary , Romania, and other countries. The Sinti, who live in many SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) The Roma: Between a Myth and the Future* DIMITRINA PETROVA *I am grateful to my colleagues at the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), a public interest law organization based in Budapest, Hungary. Unless otherwise indicated, statements of fact concerning the current situation of the Roma are taken from the research archives of this organization. Publicized material in English and Romani with emphasis on human rights issues related to the Roma can be found at . European countries, particularly Germany, are sometimes subsumed under the Roma category (e.g., by Hancock, 2002: 34), and sometimes set apart from Roma (e.g., Marushiakova and Popov, 2003). Speaking the Romani language (Romanes) is not a necessary identity characteristic either: some communities that consider themselves Roma have actually lost the Romani language (the majority of today’s Roma in Hungary, for example). In the Romani language, the word “Roma” means “people” in the plural masculine gender, with a connotation of “us” as opposed to “them.” Outsiders are referred to by the general term gadje (also a masculine noun in the plural). It is my impression that calling all “others” by one name, “gadje,” is a strikingly frequent conversational practice when Roma speak with Roma. This frequent reference to a generalized “other” is generally not found in any other insider ethnic discourse. This certainly reflects a high degree of “us/them” opposition that has been historically reinforced by centuries of internalized oppression and isolation. At first glance, it is quite amazing and even exceptional that over centuries of exclusion, marginalization, discrimination, and in some regions slavery and forced assimilation, the Gypsy groups have preserved strong elements of a common ethnocultural selfconsciousness , which serves as one of the bases for the continuing construction of the Romani identity. In the course of one millennium , many ethnic identities in Europe have vanished without a trace. But in the Gypsy case, several factors have created a synergy to preserve the sense of belonging together. These include late arrival in a continent already populated by settled communities, the high degree of difference from European culture and society, and the ensuing structural social and political weakness of the Roma in European history. Attitudes and practices that reproduce the pariah status of the Gypsies are deeply entrenched antiGypsism and the systematic abuse of their human rights in the last few centuries, including widespread persecution and racial discrimination . These same factors can be described as the root 112 SOCIAL RESEARCH causes of both anti-Gypsism and the survival of the Roma as one single—but not yet internally homogeneous—cultural identity. It is also important to emphasize that, following the end of communism in Central and Eastern European societies (where the largest numbers of Roma are concentrated), new political dynamics are at work. In postcommunist countries we have witnessed the rise of racially based discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization of the Roma at the same time that the opposite forces of an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 111-161
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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