The fluid nature of rural ethnic identity: encounters between non-Roma and Roma people in a Central-Eastern European context
In the early 2010s, France repatriated a large number of Roma back to Romania, following a series of highly controversial reforms by Nicholas Sarkozy’s government (BBC, 2010). Campaigners for human rights, free movement, and workers’ rights hotly contested those harsh actions of forced repatriation, which were widely discussed in international media. A Romanian article called ‘Back to the life of Gypsy in Romania’ (Micu, 2010) suggested that most of the transnational worker Roma went back to their homelands in the rural part of southwestern Romania. Taking an insight into this particular Romanian area, our recent study in Identities: Global Studies on Culture and Power explores perceptions of Roma people amongst the non-Roma community and how the Roma people respond to these perceptions today (Creţan, Covaci and Jucu, 2021).
To understand the social position of the Roma community in Romania, it is necessary to take a step back in history. Following the fall of communism, Eastern and Central European passed through a series of massive social and economic transformations. The area we explored in our study is on the border of Romania and Serbia and has traditionally been multicultural and multi-ethnic. However, it is also the site of long-term marginalization for the Roma communities. The shift towards a capitalist economy has exacerbated their ‘othering’, since the new economy offers the Roma few possibilities. Consequently, many joined the new transnational labour force in Europe, working abroad as seasonal labourers (including those targeted by Sarkozy in France). Others chose to leave behind their traditional skills and assimilate into majority society. The loss of guaranteed work which the Roma had under the communist regime has tended to intensify the post-communist direct discrimination against Roma, since they are often stigmatized as unemployed and dependent on public welfare.
Arab Americans have been categorised as White on official government forms for several decades, which grossly misrepresents this population. Advocacy groups unsuccessfully fought during both the Obama and Trump administrations to have the ethnicity category expanded in the 2020 Census. The ramifications of this community remaining uncounted include lack of funding for social, education, and health care services and less leverage in political issues. Along with negating the incredible diversity within this group, such categorisation excludes Arab Americans from affirmative action programmes.
The recognition of this ethnic group on government forms would allow for their inclusion in such programmes, which is crucial given the prominence of discrimination in the US. However, the irony lies in how mainstream society tends to change their view depending on current events. When there are no crises involving Arabs around the world, Arab Americans are seen as White. However, when a crisis does occur involving Arabs – as either transgressors or victims (i.e. 9/11, invasion of Iraq) – they will be gazed upon as ‘Other’ and enemies of America. The rise in hate crimes against Arab Americans – and anyone who fit into the public’s notions of what an Arab or Muslim looks like – following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a prime example of this phenomenon.
Consequently, regardless of being labeled as White, Arab Americans have experienced discrimination similar to other racially visible minority groups. This begs the question: if they are recognised as White, then why are they treated as ‘Other’?