The letter that follows was difficult to write because I do not want to cast a pall over a wonderful community event, the Wearable Art Show. But I promised myself that when I saw racism, even inadvertent, I would not remain silent. I had a good friend who once gently called me out when I made a comment that was offensive to another friend and I was grateful. I hope this will open up a discussion both here and elsewhere.
To the Editor,
Fifteen years ago I led a project to train Roma journalists in Slovakia. My students were honest and hardworking, but a stereotype followed them, limiting their opportunities. The Roma are an ethnic group commonly called Gypsies. My students were constantly confronted with discrimination based on the stereotype “thieving Gypsy.” At the end of a day’s training, we wanted to have a dinner at a local restaurant, but my students were refused entrance. After the training, I had trouble placing my qualified students as interns because of the fear that they would steal.
It is easy to spread stereotypes and, unfortunately, that was done at the Wearable Art Show this weekend when one of the acts portrayed Gypsies as pickpockets. The problem was compounded by jokes from the podium about watching your wallets when the Gypsies come.
The dancing in the act was very good and the costumes wonderful. I am sure that the participants in the show did not intend to demean any ethnic group. But they did help to reinforce and spread a stereotype that, unfortunately, sticks to all members of the world Roma community. That stereotype leads to discrimination. As a community we must work to avoid demeaning a class of people and judge each person on his or her own merits not through a stereotype. My wish for my former Roma students in Slovakia is that someday they may be judged as individuals, or as Dr. King says, “by the content of their character.”