Features Combining Activism and research
Thomas Acton describes how Romanies are always outsiders. He contends that it is impossible to be engaged in Romani Studies without also becoming part of the Romanies’ struggle.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 9, Vol II:III-IV, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 19, 2010
”You cannot just be an academic when you devote yourself to Romani studies, you have to be active in the struggle”, maintains Thomas Acton, professor of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich, London.
Although it is the first time Thomas Acton has lectured at Södertörn University, his audience does not consist entirely of strangers. On the contrary, many of his Swedish Romani friends are present — people who are, like him, politically active in strengthening Romani rights.
Acton has 40 years of experience combining activism and research. He has worked in the field in all the senses of the term “work”. At the end of the 1960s, he participated in the development of education for Romanies and travelers living in trailers. To give lessons in ambulating premises was one way of focusing attention on needs not provided for by society.
Acton’s research has included the study of how Romanies have been conceptualized in European history. There exist stereotypes about Romanies that are used to legitimate their isolation, Acton argues. Romantic ideas about how they are deviant, wild and hard to control. These ideas are romantic insofar as they often endow their subjects with qualities and behaviors that many within the majority themselves long for, but do not dare to posess or fully express. But in the long run, these ste-reotypes nourish racism, and justify the oppression of Romanies.
Such stereotypes are often based on second-hand accounts of meetings with Romanies rather than first-hand experience, Acton believes. Stories and historical accounts of Romanies put special emphasis on the Romani as thievish and maladjusted. Behavior that is explained by their being Romanies, rather than as deriving from social circumstances. In order to survive racist acts of cruelty, some Romanies have been forced to conceal the fact that they are Romani. This was the strategy used by Romanies who survived the Holocaust.
Acton knows many Romanies who lead a kind of double life as part-intellectual, part-Romani. This can quite literally entail being a university student on weekdays and living with cousins in a trailer, selling goods and services at the Saturday market on weekends. To combine these different social roles is a dilemma. Those Romanies who complete higher education can sometimes be seen by others as betraying the group, or as allying with the oppressors. Majority intellectuals may view educated Romanies with suspicion, or, at best, with curiosity. The dilemma is accentuated, Acton believes, if the Romani intellectual devotes him- or herself to Romani studies.
Being Romani oneself does not suffice to give adequate knowledge of Romani culture and history. The academic study of the subject can provide many facts, approaches and concepts. But, stresses Acton, this does not mean — contrary to what many people maintain — that Romanies doing research on their own culture produce results that are, by definition, either dubious or of lesser value.
He has met colleagues who maintained that Romanies who conduct research on Romani culture are working through personal traumas with the help of student financial aid or government research funding. “When the discourse is like that, it is not surprising that I have acquaintances in the academic world who haven’t dared to come out and talk about their Romani background.”
There exists, in consequence, a sort of paranoia among many intellectual Romanies: that they will be rejected as Romanies by their own people, and at the same time be rejected by the majority’s intellectuals. On the other hand, adds Acton, during the Soviet era, there was paranoia among all intellectuals, but less — according to Acton — among the Romanies, because they knew they could trust one another.
“All Romanies who get an education cannot be active for the Romani cause. Some study subjects that are far removed from Romani studies. But a Romani must always choose a position or point-of-view, and all choices involve varying degrees of loss”, says Acton, and describes the various choices: not to get any education at all, and thus place oneself outside the rest of society; to get an education in order to assert Romani rights; to get an education and to ignore one’s background; to get an education and try to avoid taking any definite position. All of these attitudes imply choosing an identity, or trying to live with double identities.
Acton is glad that Romani is, today, a written language into which more and more works are being translated.
“To read the Bible in Romani gives an extra dimension to its contents. This language, which was for so long only spoken, is without the clichés that for instance burden English”, says Acton.
When more and more Romani children learn Romani, they will gain access to a global community, and will be able, through media such as the Internet, to have contacts with Romanies in the whole world. In this way, the Romani people will receive — by means of a written language and through globalization — a totally new platform from which to act. ≈
* There are approximately 10 million Romani in Eastern Europe, all living as minorities.