Discrimination and exoticization

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Hate speech

What is “hate speech”? From “stinky gypsy woman” (1) to “Even if Steaua disbands I won’t allow a homosexual on the team” (2), there are familiar examples in Romania that have gotten a lot of media coverage because they were public statements made by important people, whose actions have a bigger impact. But in fact every day we witness name-calling and negative comments directed at some people based on certain characteristics that set them apart from the majority and/or place them in an inferior position in social hierarchies. This helps build the reality that we all live, whether we belong to the majority or a minority. This type of language and negative ideas about some groups and kinds of people are so common that they are considered “normal”. Since it’s part of our daily routine usually we don’t usually realize that it’s a problem unless we are directly affected or we make an effort to understand and be aware of the effect that resorting to this name-calling has on any person belonging to the group concerned.

Hate speech, as defined by the Council of Europe, covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin. — nohatespeechmovement.org

Hate speech is defined as bias-motivated, hostile, malicious speech aimed at a person or a group of people because of some of their actual or perceived innate characteristics. It expresses discriminatory, intimidating, disapproving, antagonistic, and/or prejudicial attitudes towards those characteristics, which include gender, race, religion, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability or sexual orientation. Hate speech is intended to injure, dehumanize, harass, intimidate, debase, degrade and victimize the targeted groups, and to foment insensitivity and brutality against them. — Raphael Cohen-Amalgor

Furthermore, the definitions provided by the National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD), an institution in Romania that functions based on the country’s laws for preventing and penalizing all types of discrimination (on criteria of: race, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, social category, beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, a disadvantaged category, age, disability, status as a refugee or asylum seeker or any other criteria) and aims to monitor and apply penalties for this type of behavior in the public space, are as follows:

Direct discrimination takes place when a person receives a less favorable treatment than another person that used to be, is or could be in a similar situation, based on any criteria of discrimination included in the existing legislation. Indirect discrimination takes place when a measure, a criterion, or a practice that is apparently neutral puts certain people at a disadvantage, based on criteria included in the existing legislation, except for the cases in which these measures, criteria or practices are justified objectively by a legitimate purpose, and the means for reaching that end are appropriate and necessary. Indirect discrimination is also any active or passive behavior that, through the effects it produces, sets at an advantage or a disadvantage without justification, or submits to an unjust or degrading treatment a person, a group of people or a community compared to others that are in equivalent situations.Multiple discrimination takes place when a person or a group of people are treated in a different manner, in an equivalent situation, based on two or more discrimination criteria, cumulatively.

However, such legal definitions and existing official measures aimed at controlling hate speech and its harmful effect on certain individuals and social groups are complicated by the role of personal subjectivity. Discussions regarding the limits on the language used by people around us depend greatly on one’s personal social positioning. For example, it isn’t always clear what “innate characteristics” could become the target of hate speech, or who is an object of hate and why. In certain cases, in a particular context, it is fairly obvious that someone belongs to a group that is discriminated against and is affected by hate speech, but in other situations the harm and damage caused by the kind of language used against some categories of people are less recognized, because certain criteria of discrimination are less visible, questioned and accepted as social problems. For instance, even though theoretically the legal definition of hate speech “covers all types of discrimination”, in practice there is more attention payed to race, ethnicity, religion and even sexuality, then to gender, disability or economic class.

… the power structures of class and gender are marginal in discussions of hate speech. This is primarily because “women” and the “working class” are not seen as numerical minorities or under threat of being expunged from the nation-state, but also because questions of gender and class are widely regarded as having been “solved”, and thus, given their relative increase in power in society, “women” and “the working class” are not vulnerable to hate speech. What this in turn alerts us to is one of the prime lines of struggle concerning hate speech in relation to ethnic and racial minorities: if being “vulnerable” to hate speech is related to relative power in society, then one of the most consistent tactics deployed to deny the utility of hate speech as a political idea is to deny the actuality or significance of power differentials in society. This is both a normative debate – as to whether equal respect for individuals requires differential treatment, in the longrunning “multicultural” vs “liberal” argument – and also a political strategy, whereby the political claims made by minorities are represented as an imposition of the powerless majority, and thus as constituting “special treatment” and “reverse discrimination/racism.” — “Starting Points for Combating Hate Speech Online”, citing Lillian and Jones

Indeed, in 2012 CNCD found 113 cases of discrimination (out of 548 petitions of complaint received) and applied 35 fines of a total value of 114 000 lei (approx. 26 000 eur). In the last four years, the number of petitions received by CNCD has been approximately 450-550 on average. In 2012, 211 petitions referred to discrimination based on the social category, 61 the ethnicity, 49 the nationality, 43 the language, 45 a disability and 69 on other criteria. Some criteria were less represented: gender (21), beliefs (15), disadvantaged category (10), non-contagious chronic illness (6), HIV status (5), religion (5), age (5) and sexual orientation (3), but compared to previous years there has been a relative increase of the number of petitions regarding discrimination based on non-contagious chronic illnesses, HIV status, nationality, gender, belief and language. (Obiectiv.info).

Secondly, the issue of penalizing hate speech is met with resistance because it is seen as limiting the freedom of expression of some people; in this apparent conflict between the freedoms of two people (one to express themselves as they wish and the other to not have their fundamental rights to equal access, safety, dignity etc. denied), the social “normalcy” already mentioned of prejudiced and oppressive attitudes towards certain (groups of) people leads to a greater acceptance for those people who take away the rights of others through discriminatory speech. In other words, the discrimination towards minority or marginalized groups that is already there, through the very social system currently in place based on inequalities among different social groups, leads to more discrimination and a refusal by the majority to right social inequalities through measures of so-called “positive discrimination”. “Positive discrimination”, in the most widely used sense, would consist of measured that address historical and systemic injustice, including legislation and policies regarding hate speech or crimes. Rather than “discrimination”, this type of measures can be characterized more accurately as measures of differentiation among groups that already have different degrees of power and influence within society and thus must be treated differently to be able to solve the inequalities on which the existing hierarchies are based.

In fact, differentiation and “discrimination” are not the same thing. One definition of discrimination that is also relevant in the case of hate speech would be that it consists of any action or policy distinguishing or singling out some individuals based on unfounded or contextually irrelevant considerations that have a negative impact on those subjected to this distinction. In particular, it is the differential treatment of groups with less power (women, the elderly, people of a different ethnicity, people of color) than those in dominant positions.


Inequality means not having the same rights and opportunities as another person or group of people. If to discriminate means to make use of a difference (real or imagined) in order to treat someone according to the social system of inequalities, then the first step required by this mechanism of perpetuating hierarchies and injustice is to establish the difference. “Othering” — next to dehumanizing, exclusion or marginalization of certain people by the majority or the privileged categories — is one of the tactics that facilitate this discrimination against certain categories based on the idea of difference. For this reason, even in those cases in which it seems to be a difference acting in the favor of the “othered” group — the group perceived as being of a different kind or the “other” in terms of the roles, functions, biology, class, gender, ethnicity, etc. — it is often just a pretext for creating and legitimizing negative situations such as an inequality in status, power, access to resources and opportunities.

“Othering” is the process through which people that belong to a certain social group are considered foreign and different from the group “us”, which is taken as point of reference, and therefore transformed into “them” (or “others”). There are three types of othering: oppressive othering (from outside), defensive othering (internalized, from inside) and implicit othering (self-othering).

Oppressive othering refers to the situation in which a social group tries to obtain or to keep a privileged social position by defining another group as morally or intellectually inferior. A close example refers to ethnic stereotypes regarding roma/gypsies, defined as dirty, lazy, or dishonest.
Defensive othering appears when individuals from the subordinate group try to distance themselves from the stigma that is imposed on them by imposing it themselves on other members of that category. Many people of roma ethnicity say of “other gypsies” that they are indeed uncivilized or imoral – in order to distance themselves from them and affiliate themselves to the dominant group.
Implicit othering is a strategy adopted by elites or by those that aspire to a superior position, consisting of highlighting their own moral qualities or special skills. — Cosima Rughiniș

Indeed, aside from negative stereotypes about Roma people and hate speech directed against them, there are a series of “positive stereotypes” that are heard often, such as those regarding their “natural” competence and inclination towards music, dance and anything arts-related, their bohemian, carefree, nomadic lifestyle, their cheerfulness, their colorful clothing, and for women their seductive beauty. As in other cases of “exoticization” or “romanticization” of traits of certain marginal and marginalized populations, this type of image – even if it is a “positive” one – serves the interests of the majority population, which can support discrimination against Roma people and at the same time appreciate the “qualities” that relate to this more or less fictional image, without taking into consideration their full humanity, diversity and real situations of Roma people around them.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Esmeralda is a voluptuous Gypsy temptress whose beauty, dance, and charm make her the fantasy of every European man. A far cry from Victor Hugo’s exotic Gypsy seductress, for the past decade Romani women have been struggling to regain their dignity in the face of multi-faceted oppression, some of which comes in the form of the aforementioned example of racialized objectification, others in the form of the systematic denial of basic rights. Staging this lonely battle means resisting the interlocking systems of racism, sexism, and poverty as well as the political discourses that perpetuate them. — Alexandra Oprea

So, do the well-meaning statements or events organized to promote “Roma culture”, which rely on this romanticizing attitude really contribute to combating hate and discrimination? We live in a context influenced by a history of oppression, marginalization and continuous exploitation of Roma populations in Romania (where they were slaves over the course of several hundred years) and in the rest of Europe, where hate speech towards Roma people is an everyday occurrence. Thus, maintaining a stereotypical image about Roma culture and traditions and identifying Roma people as a group with such an image can help by highlighting some positive traits, but at the same time it aids in continuing a view of Roma people as “exotic” and “others”. For the majority, Roma are “them” and could never be “us”.

More specifically, for events such as festivals of Roma culture and arts, the real impact depends most of all on who organizes them, with what purpose, and who the public is. On one hand, it is wonderful for someone who is roma to be with a lot of people of the same ethnicity in a context that celebrates common traditions and values, for the feeling of belonging and of being together, to get to know Roma people from other places, to share the music and the language in their different varieties, and to find out more about their own ethnic identity.

But for those people who belong to the majority? What does it mean to take part in such an event as a non-Roma? In such contexts those who are not Roma are not there to celebrate their own culture and identity, they cannot understand the issue of dealing with traditions as part of daily life with all its nuances, so what are people left with in the end, both Roma and non-Roma, after such a festival?

First of all, this issue of exoticization and romanticization of Roma people should be a subject of discussion. Even if a festival cannot help to fulfill basic needs like gaining access to education, health services, or a place to live, an event that brings together many people of different ethnicities can offer much more than just some entertainment. They can be more than an opportunity for the “gypsy-friendly” festival-goers to be cool by listening to some music and dancing “gypsy” dances (in colorful skirts, perhaps), while they continue to believe that Roma people do not want to work or are all thieves, and they even actively discriminate against Roma in their daily life (take for instance what happened at the Gogol Bordello concert in Bucharest, where the public that had come for “gypsy punk” stared booing when the band, which has Roma members, played a “turbo gypsy” song – a Romanian “manea” – and talked onstage about Roma rights).

In these contexts, since it is one of the few occasions when Roma people are mentioned in a positive light and it is about the culture of these “people without culture”, much more can be done to inform and educate, for instance by directly investigating the role of Roma people in culturally enriching the countries they live in. Explicit messages against discrimination from the artists who are there to celebrate Roma people are essential. Art is an extraordinary instrument for changing mentalities, so a possible solution would be to have more engaged art that reflects Roma culture and the daily struggle.

On one hand we have the most discriminated against ethnic group in Europe, facing everything from forced evacuations, the history of slavery, and racially motivated violence, to Romanian bands not wanting to play on stage after the Roma band Romano Boutique, and on the other hand Roma people brought flamenco to Spain, Django Reinhardt gave the world jazz manush, the great Charlie Chaplin comes from a Roma family, Ion Voicu was one of the world’s best violin players, etc.. However, this information is not known by many people or it is not sufficiently stressed. In this context it is all the more important that art will ask important questions and leave people with more than they knew before. Through such events it should become common knowledge that Roma are not just those people with colorful costumes and cheerful rhythms, not only the exotic ones who can create punk, jazz etc., but real people with real problems.

(1) “Romania President sorry for ‘Dirty Gypsy’ slur”
(2) MEPs welcome European Court of Justice ruling on anti-gay Romanian football owner George Becali


Raphael Cohen-Amalgor, “Fighting Hate and Bigotry on the Internet, Policy and Internet, Vol. 3(3), 2011

C.N.C.D.: formele discriminării, http://www.cncd.org.ro/new/formele_disciminarii/

“Starting Points for Combating Hate Speech Online”, Council of Europe, 2012

Lillian, D. L., “A thorn by any other name: sexist discourse as hate speech”, Discourse and Society Vol. 18 (6) p. 738., 2007

Jones, O. Chavs, The Demonisation of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011

CNCD: 113 dosare au fost admise anul trecut. Cele mai multe cazuri de discriminare şi etnie”, Obiectiv.info, 9 iulie 2013

Cosima Rughiniș, “Explicaţia sociologică”, Iași: Polirom, 2007

Alexandra Oprea, “Re-envisioning Social Justice from the Ground Up: Including the Experiences of Romani Women”, 2004

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