8 April, 2014

2137 comments: racism, the Roma and online discussions

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Category: Case study, European Action Day, Guest writer, Opinion, Racism, Roma
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Mara blogBy Mara Georgescu

(image taken with Print screen from the Facebook page of Repubblica, on 21 March 2014)

On 21 March at 2 am, on the Facebook page of the Italian centre-left newspaper “la Repubblica” a post was shared containing this piece of news:  “”It is strictly forbidden for Gypsies to enter.” This is the text on a poster placed on the entry door to a bakery in the Tuscolano neighbourhood in Rome. This was reported by the Associazione 21 luglio (Association 21 July), a  non-for-profit organisation fighting for the rights of Roma and Sinti in Italy. The organisation commented that the event resembles the discrimination against the “Jews in Nazi Germany” and the discrimination against the “Black people in South Africa during Apartheid”. The poster was removed after it was reports. The organisation also sent a letter to the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, during the international day against racism, celebrated on 21 March.” (my translation from Italian)

I followed this post on Facebook until Monday 24 March, morning, and by that time it had gathered 2137 comments, 3184 likes and 914 shares. It was also shared on Twitter and other social media, but I did not check the spread of it there. I checked it recently and it did not change, which probably means the discussion was exhausted and people moved on.


What did I observe? There were posts showing outrage towards the very existence of this poster, I would call them the “supporters”.

Examples of posts by supporters:– How does racism works

– This happened before to the ones who discriminate today (similarly in USA, Germany and Switzerland about 50 years ago shop owners would write something like this about the Italians)

– Give information

– Remind the law

– Remind people that they are ignorant

– Remind people of famous Roma that they love

– Invite people to boycott the shop

– You people are racists!

Then came the posts with insults of all kinds, references to all sorts of human dejections, references to Roma as animals etc. This is the category I read, and do not react to. What would you do if someone shouted all these insults to you in the street, loud and aggressive, and you are alone? Probably not much. I did nothing about them, except to “like” the posts of those who responded to them. Nevertheless, if they were more and more, I think I would have reacted, possibly by reporting this.

Then came the “mild” racist posts, which were clearly racist without being insulting in the words they used, exemplifying all possible stereotypes and prejudice. These posts can be neutralised sometimes with facts: Roma were in Italy for some 700 years, for instance. Or – remember the Italian migrants 100 years ago in other countries? Reminding this could, in my opinion, help.

Examples of “mild” comments:– They steal every 

– They are smelly and should not be allowed

– Poor baker, he had enough!

– I unfortunately agree with the

– I could have made a poster with better graphics than 

– I would propose to this organisation to take all of the Gypsies home!

Third of all, there came the “hardline” racism, based on several ideologies. These posts are the hardest to tolerate, because ideologically biased and full of fallacies. For the biased and unaware, it could help to make people aware of their bias. For the second category, the fight is tough, and as far as I can tell from this experience, hard to have a deep dialogue online. Education offline could help.

Examples of hardline racism:– I would put this poster at the borders of Italy, Italy for the Italians

– I am not a racist, but they deserve it! The bakery shop owner is a

– My wallet was stolen or I sat in a bus next to a smelly Roma, can you blame me that I don’t want them to enter this shop?

– They live on welfare benefits, and we Italians lose everything because of this

– It is in the Roma nature that they steal, so they deserve to be forbidden from this shop. It is their choice to live as they do, so if they live like this, they have no place in our society

–  You are all part of ths “being kind” bunch (“buonisti”), and you are all wrong. This is the dictatorship of the Gypsies

– The Roma are less than human, it is about time we admitted it

– This is not racism, it is hygiene!

– I am for the political left, I am for human rights, but the Roma … they are just too much, because of … delinquency, lack of hygiene, stealing etc etc etc

– Their culture is illegality!

–  If the law does not work, then you need to do something! Good for the baker

– They do not pay for their water and electricity, so they do not deserve to be treated like others

– It is his property, so he defended it!

Issues at stake

Many Roma in Italy, just as elsewhere in the world, are scapegoats. I will give just one example. In 2007, 5 major Italian cities declared state of emergency regarding the Roma (aka “emergenza Rom”), because there was a “visible” danger in the Roma. This was obviously disproportionate and kept the public attention on this issue and fuelled the image of the Roma as “the problem” by their nature, which is very deeply rooted in peopkle’s beliefs.

In time of austerity, due to lack of information, some people may see themselves in competition over resources with the Roma. Some Italians feel more threatened by the Roma than by the rich fraud makers.

Children in Italy do not learn a lot at school about the Italian emigration, the disasters of facism in Africa or the more recent past of violence by Italian extreme groups against Italians (the years of terror etc). They probably rarely find out that the Roma have been in Italy for the last 700 years.

Migration after the war in the Balkans and when the borders with Eastern European countries were open brought more Roma populations to Italy. These people fled their countries because they lived in extreme poverty there.

All this is the result of a mix of long-term antigypsyism against the Roma, ideological political talk, generalisations and fallacies, and the need to find someone to blame without recourse.

No need to mention here that my stand is for human rights for all (even for those I do not necessarily like nor agree with) and for contextualising as opposed to generalising. No doubt the Roma are just as human as others, for the good and the bad. But I challenge anyone that a comparison between the petty theft and milions of fiscal fraud is just a non-comparison.

Blaming the poor, blaming the victims of racism because of their “nature”, blaming the ones who cannot even say no – I find this is part of an ideology which divides peoples and creates conditions for both a war between the poor as well as violence of all sorts and a vulnerability of all moral compass. It really kills the possibility to live together at its roots.

What to do?

–  When you see such a “debate” online, ask yourself: What is the issue here?

–   Are there people supporting the Roma with their comments online? Are there people showing discontent that the bakery owner put up this poster? Then like their posts at least! I feel stronger when I saw that my comments gathered more and more likes.

–   Comment yourself, calm and to the point or if you have a good sense of humour use it! Provide information and do not comment in order to make the racist users lose face, but in order to bring another side of the debate in!

–  Provide information, if you have some, remind people of recent history, make parallelisms to other situations etc.

–  Don’t generalise things, as this would just make extremes more extreme and get people to radicalise

–  Don’t forget you are online! A university thesis is not what you can put as an argument online. If you make a point, make it fast and to the point. What is the strongest argument you have? That one is enough. And if you do get another chance, share your second and third argument!

– Move offline and have meaningful conversations! This I still find the most relevant form of having a deep discussion. I discussed this post with several people and even if we did not find the magic wand, we did at least remember not to close our ears and eyes to racism!

– You are not alone! Even if the posts saying that this poster was wrong were numerically less than the ones blaming the Roma for every possible harm, they were there. So, if you hesitate whether to write or not, don’t hesitate! (But I would hesitate if I did not have any awareness about my security and privacy settings on Facebook or if I was the only one saying no to this, or if my personal phone number and home address were online – so, take some cautions for your security before jumping to online activism!)

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