On December 8, the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan bill solution “celebrating the heritage of Romani Americans” and honoring Romani history, culture, and contributions to human progress.
The passing of the resolution – the result of years of activism and lobbying by Roma and our allies – was a crucial step forward in our long fight to have Romani history and heritage officially recognized and respected in the United States. While there is reason to rejoice at this important resolution, our work is far from done.
I was not born in America, but as a Romani who has lived in the US for many years, I have experienced and seen the damaging effects of the American public’s prejudices about Roma, history and culture.
I moved from Romania – where my people had faced racism, discrimination and institutionalized violence for centuries – to the US to attend Harvard University in 2012. surrounded by people who are knowledgeable about anti-Roma ideas and well-versed in speaking out about their many manifestations.
I soon realized that my assumption was wrong. Several people I met here, despite having a nuanced understanding of racism, its ideologies and manifestations, casually mentioned the “g*psy crime” myth as fact or alluded to a specific Romani lifestyle.
For example, one day when I was leaving a class, a fellow student asked me if my family had a “lifestyle” similar to that of the characters in the reality TV series Gypsy Sisters – one of the American spin-offs of the immensely popular British series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. His interest in my culture was genuine, but like many of his compatriots, his perception of Roma was distorted by the transatlantic migration of anti-Roma sentiment and the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes on television.
In a 2020 study, my colleagues at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and I, in conjunction with Voice of Roma, found that two-thirds of Romani-Americans interviewed agreed that U.S. television shows portrayed Roma negatively. Indeed, shows like My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding present violence, vulgarity, and early marriage as Romani cultural hallmarks. Episodes of such series carry titles such as Birthday Party Turns into a Massive Fight, G*psy Truck Fight and even Mama Bear Attacks the Bride.
Not only so-called ‘reality series’ aimed at Roma, but many American TV shows and films portray Roma people as one-dimensional g*psy stereotypes. They misrepresent us, as Roman-American filmmaker George Eli once put it, “as mystical creatures, vampires, wanderers, nomadic beggars, criminals, thieves, or pickpockets”. In fact, they not only misrepresent Roma culture as vulgar, inferior and violent, but also sensationalize it so they can exploit it for profit.
This ongoing misrepresentation and sensationalism impacts the everyday realities of Romani Americans. A Roma we interviewed for the 2020 survey told us that the school environment in particular is “much worse now that the teachers can see My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. “They think our kids are worthless scum, that they don’t deserve to be raised or protected in school.” Other Romani-Americans agreed that their children have suffered from racist depictions of Roma as subhuman or Romani girls as oversexual. They said many Roma children dropped out of school because of bullying related to their ethnicity and explained that such incidents led them to advise their children to hide their ethnic identity and to put up with any anti-Roma prejudice they encountered in silence.
Of course, anti-Roma discrimination in the US was not invented by reality TV executives. Today’s exploitative TV shows simply reinforce deep-seated prejudices that allow them to spread much further than before. Many decades ago, in the Change in Social Standing polls of 1964 and 1989, American adults rated “g*psies” as the lowest “social status”. In fact, they rated Roma, along with Mexican and Puerto Rican people, lower than a made-up ethnic group called the “Wisians.”
Of course, anti-Roma prejudices are not isolated. As is the case elsewhere in the world, cultural and racial prejudice against Romani justifies and reinforces deeply harmful discriminatory actions, such as ethnic profilinginstitutional neglect and disrespect for members of our communities.
So it is high time for change. The recent Senate resolution celebrating the legacy of Romani Americans is a good starting point, but we need more. The exploitation of Roma culture and the proliferation of harmful Roma stereotypes in popular culture must end. One way to achieve this could be by ensuring that Roma play a leading role in writing, producing, directing and acting in TV series and films. We need American policymakers to take meaningful action so that we can fully regain control of our identity, history and heritage – and we can finally feel that Romani Americans are valued and respected members of American society.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.