I would just like to remind academics, politicians, law-makers, policy-creators, and general lay people the world over,
the Roma are not animals.
This week saw an extremely damaging textbook come to light in Hungary. Authored by the well-known Dr. Géza Jeszenszky (the former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Ambassador to the USA, and currently Ambassador of Hungary to Norway) and published in 2009, the book states that,
“Their [the Roma’s] low status on the job market and higher unemployment rates perpetuate poverty, widespread social problems and crime. The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other” (pg. 273).
Of course, Jeszenszky defended his commentary arguing that he is not an expert and the work was based on that of other authors, not only that but “Not even a biased Roma civil rights activist could find fault with my handling of the subject; hundreds of Hungarian and foreign students have used my book and found it useful”.
And herein lies the problem. Academics. Immediately after the letter I wrote as part of the International Romani Anti-Defamation League was circulated, we received backlash from, yes you’ve guess it another Academic – an anthropology professor from a Canadian university, presenting himself as an expert, as well as in total agreement with Dr. Jeszenszky.
The fact that this man (Dr. David Scheffel) just happens to be another old, white academic steeped in western traditions and enshrined in tenure shouldn’t be surprising. At least not to anyone who has taken any anthropology classes. Academia is crawling with over-ripe patriarchal opinions.
I spent last night researching Dr. Scheffel. One of his areas of interest are the Roma in Slovakia. Apparently his studies concur with the assessment made by Dr. Jeszenszky, that Roma are animals who cannot refrain from having sexual relationships with close relatives. His other work (a documentary on the Svinia ghetto and several books) are simply poverty porn aimed at painting the Roma as helpless victims of their own circumstances and traditions. In fact, Scheffel states that he has done a great deal of research on the Slovak Roma and our marriage and sexual traditions and customs and that his research agrees with Dr. Jeszenszky. It makes me wonder whether Dr. Scheffel provided some of the research that Jeszenszky utilized to formulate his bigoted opinion?
It disgusts me.
What disgusts me more is the fact that because I do not have the letters PhD after my name; because I am not affiliated with any institution; because I am not a well-published author or artist, my words mean nothing.
I am Slovak Roma. I am not an animal. I would never (knowingly) do anything like both Jeszenszky and Scheffel claim. I don’t care whether in some circumstances mistakes are made or circumstances make genealogy research less than practical – to make sweeping statements claiming that ALL ROMA do this and therefore that is why so many are “mentally ill” is racist at best…
Both of these supposedly educated men are taking their own data and deliberately skewing it to misrepresent the Roma and our familial traditions. The real reason why so many Roma are born with mental or physical deficits is nothing to do with our family structure or our customs, it is to do with the institutionalized and blatant racism that forces our families to live in toxic chemical plants; on poisonous waste dumps; on lead-polluted land; drink poisoned and untreated water; live in old and crumbling buildings which contain lead and asbestos.
We are forcibly removed from society and corralled behind fences and walls; forced to beg and steal to feed our children; forced to live in places like Lunik IX with no running water, no electricity, mold, and other pollutants and yet we are blamed for these conditions. My culture strongly favours Roma women to marry Roma men. In a place like Kosiče in Slovakia the Roma are confined to small areas of land and if marriage or relationships were to occur, I am not sure it would be possible to guarantee that the persons involved were not in some way related. Even distantly.
According to the government
If only we’d integrate better (become invisible)
If only we’d be someone else’s “problem” (become invisible)
Everything would be “solved”.
This racist rhetoric is growing exhausting. Europe doesn’t need anymore old, white, academics publishing articles providing fuel to right-wing neo-Nazis like the Jobbik or the Golden Dawn. The Roma are not animals to be herded, corralled, abandoned, or discussed in the third-person. We are people and maintain the same basic human rights as everyone else (whether or not these are actually given to us). Any court of law would declare the comments by Jeszenszky as defamatory. Just because he is an “academic” and an “Ambassador” doesn’t mean he should get to walk away from this.
But, what can I do? I am Roma; According to political rhetoric I am an animal who does not have a voice of my own; who is ‘mentally ill’; and who can neither be educated or “integrated”.
Below I have posted an article from Politics.Hu in which Jeszenszky claims that the problematic quote came directly from medical papers. If this is the case, then not only is he racist, he’s a plagiarist because he did not cite WHERE it DIRECTLY came from.
Sometimes, I HATE academics.
University teachers, students and researchers on Tuesday protested against remarks by Geza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, which they think “stigmatise” the Roma minority. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Jeszenszky cannot be blamed for prejudice for his lines.
Over 100 people signed the statement concerning a textbook used at Budapest’s Corvinus University (BCE), in which Jeszenszky suggested that “the reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other”.
The statement said that the textbook’s conclusion was not scientifically supported and insisted that the community of BCE could not “accept pseudo-scholarly claims disguised in the cloak of science, especially not those harshly stigmatising an ethnic group.”
Jeszenszky has rejected accusations of racism. In a statement, the diplomat said that “as a teacher, minister and ambassador” he has always supported cases of persecuted ethnic or religious communities.
He admitted that he was not an expert on Roma issues, and said that a 15-page chapter in his textbook on the community was based on other authors. “Not even a biased Roma civil rights activist could find fault with my handling of the subject; hundreds of Hungarian and foreign students have used my book and found it useful,” he said.
Jeszenszky added that the issue of mental disabilities among the Roma are usually attributed to the community’s closed nature and the resulting frequent marriage between brothers and sisters. Due to his assignment in Oslo, the seminar has not been advertised for two years and the textbook did not go to bookstores, he added.
On Tuesday, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Jeszenszky had written his remarks as a university teacher rather than as Hungary’s ambassador. The statement said that though the contested remarks “could be misunderstood”, Jeszenszky’s life achievement and his latest publications all demonstrate that he is committed to minority rights and cannot be charged with prejudice.
In the meantime, organisers of a Holocaust conference in Oslo suggested that it would be “prudent” of Jeszenszky to stay away from the event.
Head of the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities Anton Weiss-Wendt told MTI that the conference was supported by the Hungarian, Swedish and Israeli embassies in Oslo, and noted that Hungarian Holocaust expert Professor Laszlo Karsai was one of the guests invited. Karsai, however, declined to participate, and referred to Jeszenszky’s “biased and racist” remarks in the textbook, Weiss-Wendt said.
Weiss-Wendt quoted Jeszenszky’s email to the centre, based in Norway, saying as the Roma community was “inbreeding” and “suggested that Roma as a people have little idea of the dangers posed by incest”, he said.
“These and similar comments are deemed uninformed, if not offensive, in this country,” Weiss-Wendt added.
In a telephone interview to commercial TV channel ATV on Tuesday evening, the ambassador said that if he were to publish his textbook now, he would consider how to quote the contested sentence, if at all. He insisted that it had been a direct quote from medical papers.
Jeszenszky said that the chapter in question attempted to present “the real weight of the problem” and that it suggested his “understanding for the Roma”, the author’s desire to improve their situation.
The ambassador said he was sorry if any readers found his lines offensive, but said that not only the contested passage but the whole chapter or the entire book should be read
“Not even a biased Roma civil rights activist could find fault with my handling of the subject; hundreds of Hungarian and foreign students have used my book and found it useful,”