“We”, “you” and “the Roma”

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a peoplewill get to the Promised Land.

We: such a short word. Such a powerful word, but a word that Romani people don’t often hear used in the media with regard to ourselves.

In the home, “we’re like this”; “let’s do that”; in the papers, “they’re like this”, “they do that.” This is so commonplace that after the first few centuries it starts to feel inevitable. Hearing “we Roma” on the television is so unusual, at first it seems incredible: whoever the speaker is, whatever they’re saying, it makes a change just to hear the fundamental switch from “them” to “us”.

David Blunkett and Nick Clegg aren’t Romani, so I don’t expect them to start talking about “we Gypsies” any time soon. But you can still tell a lot about a politician’s intentions by the way they use words like “we” and “they”.


Nick Clegg

Recently publicised research by the University of Salford says that the UK now has one of the highest Roma populations in Europe, with at least 200,000 immigrant Roma having arrived in recent years to join the sizeable Romany Gypsy (British Roma) community who have already been here for up to half a millennium. In the wake of this research, and of complaints by locals in the Page Hall area of Sheffield about a trend among Slovakian Romani neighbours to hang around in the streets and not manage their rubbish collections properly, Mr. Blunkett- a former British Home Secretary, one of the highest political offices in the land- had this to say to BBC Radio Sheffield on the 12th November:

“We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that.”


David Blunkett

Who exactly are the “we” and the “they” implied by Blunkett’s words? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

When it comes to the blanket reference to the “incoming” Roma, there’s nothing to decide at all: they’re all the same, and that homogeneous problem group all need to have their culture changed, according to Blunkett. Fair judgement? I’ll leave it up to you to decide. What about the fact that these people are often fleeing medieval living conditions, as in the Lunik IX ghetto in Slovakia, and the brutal practices of institutionalised racism, such as forced sterilisation, segregated schooling and organised Gypsy-hunts? Relevant, or simply liberal excuse-making? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Françaises So Charles De Gaulle, President of the Fifth Republic of France, asked the watching French population as paratroopers circled in the skies above Paris, ready to carry out a coup in response to his broken promise to keep “Algeria French”. What happened next is the history influenced in part by De Gaulle’s choice of address: he spoke to the French directly.

Roma Gypsies Slovakia: Becoming part of Europe

Lunik IX, Slovakia

So when Nick Clegg, the UK’s current Deputy Prime Minister, waded into this so-called “debate” last week, we might have expected a change of tack: he is apparently leader of a Liberal, Democratic party, after all. What did we get from Mr Clegg? A rush to exonerate the government (people shouldn’t “lurch around and say it was all the government’s fault”), and the following:

“There is a real dilemma when you get communities coming into part of our country and then they behave in a way that people find quite difficult to accept. They behave in a way that people sometimes find intimidating, sometimes offensive.”

Here the “we” and the “they” are clearer still: they are the intimidating, offensive Roma. If Clegg really wants to address the Roma, shouldn’t he try using “you”? Maybe contemporary politicians think that the broadcast “you” is best left where it is: on Lord Kitchener’s army recruitment posters or, like De Gaulle’s implied “you”, lost in the colonial tribulations of the early 1960s.

If you’re thinking of trying to introduce a sense of “us” into this situation, you’d better be prepared for the coming storm. When my friend, the Romani journalist Jake Bowers, wrote in the Guardian last week that David Blunkett’s comments were feeding Romaphobia- and, worse, to mention examples of integrated, successful, yet proudly Romani immigrants from Slovakia like Artur Conka- he had shown the temerity to speak the truth, and the response from the reading, commenting public- of a notoriously liberal newspaper- was so vile I that only a response written in Romanès could show proper solidarity with Jake and avoid an instant hail of anti-Gypsy abuse. My comment was removed: racial generalisations in English are fine, but Romani lamentations are not allowed.

damian james le bas and artur conka

Damian James Le Bas and Artur Conka

Putting aside for a moment all the grammar, all the bile: what does the future hold? Our best guide might be to look to the recent past, but the level-headed views are somewhat harder to find than the scaremongering. As Yaron Matras, editor of the journal Romani Studies, writes on Politics.co.uk, migrants from Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, whether Roma or not, have been able to come to the UK and work here since 2004. Most have quietly gone about finding jobs and integrating their children into schools: this is not my view, but the view of those actually working with immigrant Roma on the streets, as one support worker stated when I was interview on the BBC’s Today Programme on Saturday. Yet his words were ignored by my interviewer, perhaps because when it comes to concerns about Roma- be it the infinite traction of the child-stealing myth, or the notion that hanging around in the street is an existential crime- the facts always play second fiddle to the fear.

By Damian James Le Bas