“We Are Whatever They Want Us to Be”: Identity Politics and Hungarian Roma

“We Are Whatever They Want Us to Be”: Identity Politics and Hungarian Roma


Despite their status as the country’s largest minority, Hungarian Roma remain excluded from the political and cultural movements—and the basic human rights—enjoyed by their non-Roma compatriots. Reflecting the broader European trend of Roma exclusion, Hungarian Roma suffer at significantly higher rates than other minorities from infant mortality, shortened life expectancy, and extreme poverty.


If Roma had the cultural capital to form a unified movement within Hungary, instances of forced eviction and (sometimes fatal) violence against Roma would attract greater national and international attention. Roma voices would form a stronger contingent in media and the arts, which could inspire compassion for a group often stereotyped as too deviant and dangerous to deserve social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, Roma themselves could partake in higher numbers in the very institutions that today exclude them from broader Hungarian society. But the historical causes of Roma exclusion, including conservative nationalism in Hungarian politics and the ethically ambiguous relationship between international human rights projects and Roma themselves, make integration difficult.



This struggle of Hungarian Roma, although gaining more attention in recent years, is rooted in a long history. The mass execution of Roma by Nazis remains at the footnotes of most World War II accounts. Even today, some polemics argue that this persecution can be justified by social rather than racial criteria—by the idea that Roma lifestyle is inherently anarchical, or parasitical to dominant economic modes. These myths survived into the region’s recent experiences under communism. Roma society’s structural basis in kinship did not fit into communist narratives of the “new man,” and most Roma who accepted communism lacked the economic status to fully integrate. The fall of communism brought a new set of problems, including the rise of nationalism and a struggle that sociologist Jennifer Mitchell describes as “a struggle “to define what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘theirs’”—a tendency to blur the lines between ethnicity and citizenship itself. Mitchell argues that as national majority identities emerged, no group was more at a risk of falling out of political discourse than the Roma. And as the economy suffered from rapid transition, entrepreneurial Roma with successful small shops became scapegoats for threatened businesses, and were often incorrectly labeled as partaking in the black market. Sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe points out that not only the Roma’s kinship-based social organization, but also their nomadism gave rise to tensions with external communities. Some Western Europeans still view their nomadism as an attempt to take advantage of refugee benefits, and have attempted to send Roma immigrants back to their place of origin. But many Roma argue that these policies are discriminatory; they justify their right to stay on the basis of “freedom of travel”—a freedom that, for them, is as much a human right as food or water.


Today, largely because Roma culture is comprised of a diverse set of sub-groups, it is still defined not by internal characteristics, but instead by what Mitchell describes as “the nature of the symbiotic relationship between Roma and the wider majority communities on which they have always depended on for their livelihood.” As such, Roma identity hinges not upon shared experiences that Roma themselves acknowledge, but upon the way that outsiders have written their history. As one Roma scholar explains in Mitchell’s article, “we are whatever they want us to be, and in the absence of a well-recognized history and clearly understood ethnic identity, our whole presence as a people remains in a sense confusing.”



Within Hungary, the lack of a uniform, Roma-created Roma identity creates a space for nationalistic voices to impede their integration. In January 2013, for instance, conservative commentator and a founding member of the right wing Fidesz party Zsolt Bayer responded to a public brawl that reportedly involved Roma with the following statement: “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for co-existence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals.” In a dubious attempt to clarify his statements, Bayer later said that he “wants(s) every honorable Gypsy to get on in life in this country, and for every Gypsy unable and unfit to live in society to be cast out of society.”


This discrimination is the greatest obstacle to the inclusion of Roma in Hungarian society. The human rights group Open Society Foundation writes that Roma are often convinced to sell their votes—even for parties that propagate anti-Roma policies—because they “think only about putting food on the table here and now…no Roma party or candidate can pay Roma individuals as much for their votes as candidates from the majority political parties.” The conservative Jobbik party, whose candidates consistently rally against Roma “criminals,” specifically sent activists into Roma settlements to convince Roma that they would increase Roma employment and invest in Roma neighborhoods.




As art, and media more generally, help create and define culture, and are perhaps even more significant in this case given the Roma community’s lack of an internally written, commonly shared history, I believe projects guaranteeing freedom of speech may be most effective in Roma integration. With the strength of nationalistic politics and the relative weakness of a more “civic-oriented definition” of identity that “lay(s) claims to universal norms and values,” art and media provide a unique opportunity for defining oneself outside of popularly accepted national tropes (Mitchell).


Without external aid, today’s Hungarian Roma would not have the economic means to achieve integration. But in helping Roma achieve the ideal of a civic political identity, the international community must be careful not to undermine their original goal of giving a voice to the Roma people. As Mitchell argues, “It is increasingly evident that many NGOs are out of touch with Roma communities.” The broader Hungarian society and the international community have a responsibility to stop human rights violations against the Roma, but they also have a responsibility to deal delicately with a group that has long been misunderstood. As they promote freedom of speech and expression for Hungarian Roma, they should assist projects for Roma created by Roma themselves wherever possible, and, at the least, consult with Roma communities before acting.



By Dana McKelvey






Associated Press. “Anger grows in Hungary over anti-Roma article.” The Guardian, 8 January    2013.

Gheorghe, Nicolae. “Roma-Gypsy Ethnicity in Eastern Europe.” Social Research.            Volume 58, No. 4 (1991): pp. 829-844.

Kimmelman, Michael. “In Hungary, Roma Get Art Show, Not a Hug.” The New York Times, 6    February 2008.

Mitchell. Jennifer. “Negotiating Identity Politics: Emerging Roma Ethnogensis in the Post             Socialist States of South Eastern and Central Eastern Europe.” Polish Sociological             Review. Volume 152 (2005): pp. 383-395.

Sudetic, Chuck. “Roma in Political Life: Hungary—From Transition to Hate Politics.” Open        Society Foundations, 10 September 2013.