The Romani people have not been treated well by those around them since, essentially, they first left India. Even as time passed and their cultural practices and identity changed, how people outside their culture viewed them didn’t much change. Roma were from outside Europe. They didn’t settle the same way most European cultures did. They existed outside of the social norm, and that made them unknown entities – dangerous and problematic. Stereotypes were applied to them, such as being dirty thieves, and in many places any individual who is thought to be Romani is treated as being guilty for a wide array of crimes or behaviors, regardless of whether or not they actually are guilty of such actions.
France is one of the places where this sort of racism occurs. It happens on more than just a cultural level; there are reports of there being systemic anti-Roma behaviors that extend up through social classes and into areas of the government itself; elected officials have been accused of not doing enough to improve the human rights of the Roma people. However, this is something that the wider world often doesn’t pay attention to, especially in the case of the US, and perhaps the average person isn’t aware of – until an incident between a homeless man, his puppy, and an animal rights group was filmed and put onto the internet.
In the video (which takes place in Paris, France), people from an animal rights group – Cause Animale Nord – struggle with a homeless man in order to remove his puppy from his possession. He and the puppy both cry out, and he is eventually overwhelmed and the puppy picked up and carried away. Though he gives chase, he is unable to get his puppy back. Next, the group posted an ad on Facebook to adopt the dog out (after renaming it Vegan). Both this and the video itself sparked outrage online from viewers who saw it. The reason given for the taking of the puppy was that the homeless man was a Roma who had drugged and mistreated the puppy in order to gain more money from begging. The group stated that this was a common Roma scheme, and that if the police would not take action, they would.
This incident captured my attention because there is a clear difference between online onlookers who understand and, perhaps, feel the racism associated with the Roma, and those who did not see the man as being anything but a loving dog owner who had nothing else but his puppy. In this particular case, the man was not confirmed as even being Roma by any of the news articles I checked – yet he had been forced into a position where he was treated as one: a second-class citizen, deemed guilty because he hit markers associated with the Romani. He was homeless, he had a dog, he was seen as taking advantage of the weak, being sneaky: he was, in other words, judged as being a despicable human being not worth even basic judicial rights.
This is linked to him being considered an outsider, of the lowest social class (even beneath the usually stigmatized homeless, though he is also that); stigmatized not just by the common social beliefs of the area, but also by government practices. The Romani are a group that have been pushed to the fringes so hard that they have not been able to integrate with the common culture. Instead, they have to fight for survival, which sometimes leads to unsavory behaviors. This then reinforces the beliefs about them (whether or not any unwanted acts are perpetrated by many or the few, anyone deemed to be Romani and bad is applied to all Romani) and further deepens the cycle.
This incident thus challenges the idea of hegemonic values because of the massive outside perspective brought on by the internet. For many people who watch the video, there is a breakdown of understanding. Someone who is racist against Roma might understand what happened and why (and even agree with it), but for someone who is not even aware of the racial implications of how the Romani are viewed and the negative behaviors associated with them, it is blindingly obvious that this was a completely uncalled for act. In which case the centuries of racism and the reason for that racism are peeled away, and shown to be an ugly justification for people to act against the Roma for their own concept of the greater good.
In the case of the video, it sparked social justice in the form of an online petition for the man to get his dog back. There are reports that because of the social pressure and the hyper-focused attention on both Cause Animale Nord and France itself, the dog was given back to the homeless man. This itself does not solve the racism against the Roma, but in my opinion it did shine the light on how ugly racism against them has gotten. Because in this case, and other cases where they are denied governmental aid, the chance for schooling, are victims of hate speech and acts, it is patently obvious that this happened for no other reason than the individual is assumed to be Roma and there is a knee-jerk belief that all Roma do bad things. There is no excuse for the treatment given to the Roma.
They each need to be seen as individuals with individual problems, from each child who needs to be educated to adults who are doing everything in their power to survive. It cannot be assumed that an entire group of people are inherently evil or predisposed to committing crimes or unsavory acts. As with the homeless man, in order to approach the topic without relying as traditional viewpoints, it is necessary that each person is seen as a person first, without being blinded by cultural or social stigmas. It is possible; one only has to look at the numerous posts on the social image sharing website Imgur and the social media site reddit to see how numerous individuals (including French people) react to the video with sympathy (understanding the pain of being separated from a beloved pet), and outrage (understanding that this was done without care or proper legal steps).
It can only be hoped that use of social media and the pressure of the international community will encourage the French government to treat the Roma as citizens rather than outsider criminals not worth the most basic efforts towards human rights.