I’ve heard this at least a million times this week, hyperbole aside. With the case of little Maria in Greece (found today to be both Romani and the daughter of Sasha Ruseva as claimed), I have learned that people I thought were definitely not racist, are in fact, really quite the opposite.
While I understand that not every instance of racial conflict, injustice, insensitivity, exclusion, discomfort, or miscommunication can, or should, be labeled as “racist”, I do believe that a lot of what happened this week was easily and correctly definable as “racist”. I also believe that if a person feels the need to begin their sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” then there’s a good chance they know that what they’re about to say is offensive and potentially very harmful and yes, perhaps even racist.
In regards to the case of blonde-haired blue-eyed Maria, the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. As soon as I started posting about the story, I started receiving comments:
“I’m not racist, but it’s obvious that Maria was kidnapped”
“I’m not racist, but Gypsies aren’t nice people”
“I’m not racist, but Roma really only have themselves to blame!”
“I’m not racist, but…” became a mantra used by non-Romani people to defend their belief in stereotypes about the Roma. The more news outlets covered the story, the more I heard the assertion, especially in regards to the old “Gypsy child-stealer” myth. I firmly believe that the media furor surrounding the event fueled racist stereotypes about the Roma to a fever pitch, with headlines telling us how the “blonde angel” was “stolen” by Gypsies, “living in filth and poverty”, “used to beg” and “groomed for child marriage”.
News reproduces racism not because readers necessarily agree with what is presented, but because journalism ‘‘manufactures a racial consensus in which the very latitude of opinions and attitudes is quite strictly constrained. They not only set the agenda for public discussion (what people should think about), but, more important, they strongly suggest how the readers should think and talk about racial/ethnic relations’’ (Van Dijk, Racism and the press, 1991, p. 236). It was quite clear that the majority of news outlets believed it genetically impossible for a Romani child to be both white-skinned and blonde-haired and it was also quite clear that they believed their own hype. They clearly defined (with use of words like “blonde angel” and “dark-skinned Gypsy kidnappers”) the demarcation of good (white) and bad (Romani). They set forth that it was permissible to discuss Romani in terms that would be unacceptable if it were any other race.
In fact, news sources, such as the BBC are still referring to Maria as “the mystery girl” despite the fact that to the Romani of Farsala, Maria was never a “mystery”, she was their daughter.
I can’t count how many times in my life I’ve heard someone say to me, “but you don’t look Gypsy” … and they’re right. I certainly don’t look like Esmeralda (which also, by the way, embodies the whole “stealing babies” stereotype) or any of the other media representations of “swarthy vagabonds” that show up in Hollywood tropes. I’m light-skinned and blue-eyed. My older brother is dirty blonde, but has darker skin and eyes than me. Some of my cousins have red hair and some look very much white.
Perhaps this was always the root of the myth. Our blonde haired brothers and sisters pointed out in hushed whispers of proof that children better behave or the Gypsies will take you. Apparently though, the media is quite happy to perpetuate this, and other myths, that fuel right-wing neo-Nazi hatred.
“I’m not racist, but…” is a way for people to distance themselves from statements they clearly understand to be offensive. Racism isn’t just about Hitler or the KKK. Racism is portrayed as the domain of crazy skinheads and deluded white power wannabes. However , racism is very much alive in our institutions, in our society, and in our homes.
There is a gross failure of objectivity in journalism as a whole. News story “facts” are imbued with values, framed from particular (mostly white) world views, and consumed in a context that is directly affected by racism. The issue of race is uncomfortable. It places people in a position of acknowledging their own privileges while simultaneously understanding their current place in world events. Challenging racial subjectivity is emotional and difficult. Roma are not immune to this either – spend enough time in academia or in journalistic spaces and you end up writing, even thinking in a non-Romani voice.
It seems the Roma make everyone uncomfortable. The recent flurry surrounding Maria has opened many eyes to the difficult conditions of the Roma. The “I’m not racist, but…” statements seem to be on a breaking edge of recognition. The media never questioned why more than 40 armed police were repeatedly raiding the Farsala camp, and others like it, when no drugs or weapons were found there. The media also never questioned the hundreds of thousands of Romani children “illegally” adopted by Greeks or other Europeans. And, the media failed spectacularly to treat the Roma as either real or human.
Recently, French Prime Minister Valls declared that the Roma are incompatible with the French way of life and that received a passing mention in a couple of news feeds.
A quick Google search shows how prevalent negative attitudes are:
We need to stop thinking that racism is a black and white issue – it’s not. Racism is so much more than that, and it’s ripping little girls away from their families.