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date: 28 March 2017

Roma Community, Roma Minority

Abstract and Keywords

The prevalent discourse about Roma community mainly occurs when the media reports “Roma problems.” Homogeneity, nomadism, and assumed innate characteristics (for example, laziness, aggressiveness, and lower intellectual abilities) are the most common myths about them. However, sociology recognizes Roma, Gypsies, Tzigany, Zigeuner, or Gitanos as one of the most oppressed, hated, and discriminated minority in all countries of their residence. This article discusses the multidimensional levels of discrimination of Roma minority from the perspective of their everyday life experience on a personal, cultural, and structural level. As Dominelli, Thompson, and Jones established, those are three crucial dimensions of recognizing the dynamic and rooted nature of discrimination.

Keywords: antiracist social work, cultural competence, ethnic discrimination, ethnic sensitivity, marginalized minority, racism, Roma


Roma (meaning “men” in Romani language) and gypsies are the two most common terms for describing Roma and are used as synonyms. However, in some countries, the label Gypsy in the language of a particular country (cigan in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia; tzigany in Hungary; zigeuner in Germany) has a pejorative connotation. For example, in the Slovenian language the word Roma (which was accepted at the first Roma world congress on April 8, 1971, in London as a polite expression for members of the Roma minority) does not even officially exist since it is not mentioned in any Slovenian language dictionary. Instead, a more negative term is used—Cigan—that can be understood as a synonym. Pavla Štrukelj, a well-known Slovenian researcher and ethnographer of Roma ethnic realities, lists some ethnographic examples of use of the term Roma in mainstream Slovenian society (Štrukelj, 2004, p. 66): cigan as a synonym for a thief, for dirt, untidiness, a darker skin color, and the verb ciganiti meaning to rip somebody off, to cheat. These are examples from the everyday discourse of the majority population, which also reflects that majority’s negative societal attitude to the Roma minority.

There are no official data about the size of the Roma minority in any country where they live since most censuses do not count Roma as a special ethnic group. However, existing data show there are between 10 and 15 million Roma in Europe. Countries with the estimated highest numbers of Roma population in Europe are Bulgaria (700,000 to 800,000), the Czech Republic (250,000), France (280,000), Greece (110,000 to 130,000), Hungary (550,000 to 600,000), Macedonia (220,000 to 260,000), Romania (1,800,000 to 2,500,000), Russia (220,000 to 400,000), Serbia and Montenegro (400,000 to 450,000), Slovakia (520,000), Spain (650,000 to 800,000), Turkey (300,000 to 500,000), the United Kingdom (90,000 to 120,000), and Slovenia (10,000 to 12,000) (Klopčič, 2007, p. 36). In the United States, the dominant population associates Roma communities (gypsies) with Europe. However, around one million Roma people live in the United States

Sociolinguists have proven that Roma’s country of origin is the Punjab region in northwestern India (Hancock 2001; Matras 2002) and their language (romani čhib) derives from Sanskrit. Matras (2002) estimates there are around 600 different Roma dialects all over the world as a result of the large waves of Romani migrations and cultural influences on the language. Further, a para-Romani language (Matras, pp. 242–249) has emerged as a mixture of Romani and non-Romani (local) languages (Hungarian Romani, German Romani, Spanish Romani). They left India in the sixth century due to constant incursions by Islamic warriors. Their journey led them through Persia, Armenia, Byzantium, and they reached Europe in the fourteenth century, moving on to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech lands, Poland, and further to Central Europe and beyond. Today, most Roma communities are sedentary.

In the past, Roma were well known by their crafts, such as spoon makers, woodcrafters, miners, goldsmiths, bear-trainers, sieve makers, and musicians. Therefore, the names of certain Romani subgroups derive from words for various crafts (Lingurari, Rudari, Zlătari/Aurari, Florari) (Hancock, 2001; Matras, 2002). According to their settlement, culture, and Roma dialects, the Roma minority is divided into the following five subgroups: Roma (Central and Eastern Europe); Iberian Kale (Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Latin America), Finnish Kale (Finland, Sweden), and Welsh Kale (Wales); Romanichal (United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Sweden, Norway); Sinti (German-speaking areas of Europe); and Manush (French-speaking areas of Western Europe).

Today, use of the Romani language is also influenced by changes in the majority society. Employment opportunities and urbanization have made Roma move from rural to urban areas. However, many of them have found the Romani language to be an obstacle to social inclusion and social mobility. But ignorance of the Romani language does not necessarily allow full social integration in the mainstream society.

One common myth about the Roma minority is their homogeneity. In fact, they are an extremely heterogeneous ethnic group as reflected in their “life style (peripatetic or sedentary), tribal affiliation, occupation, language, religion, and country of residence” (Barany, 2002, pp. 12). Brian Belton (2005) questions the Roma identity and claims it is merely a product or construct of a majority society. He believes that Roma as a homogenous group with a single (Roma) language and a single (Roma) culture do not exist. He argues that the majority population created, constructed, and is maintaining a category of Roma by ascribing them typical and stereotypical “Roma characteristics” (especially concerning language, way of life, surnames, and physical looks). At the end, “because of the diversity of the Gypsy people, it is unclear what the Romani identity is” (Barany, 2002, pp. 15).

History of the Roma Minority

The Roma community is historically recognized as one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in Europe. Many agree that the Roma’s history is a history of their persecution, especially under absolutist rulers (Maria Theresa, Franz Joseph II) and during the Nazi regime in the form of genocide (the most horrifying form of discrimination) (Barany, 2002; Fonseca, 1996; Zimmermann, 1999). From the start of the Second World War up until the end of the communist regime, there were two dramatic attempts in Europe to “solve the Roma question.” During the Second World War, around half a million Roma were exterminated by the Nazis with the aim of doing away with their supposedly antisocial way of life. In countries with former communist regimes (Eastern European countries), a different campaign against Roma was launched that led to social and economic assimilation. The hostility toward Roma was still present but more covert (sterilization without consent, mass employment of Roma to prevent the majority society from high Roma birth rates. The logic here is that Roma people were given jobs or employment but behind this was not a concern of a state for their high unemployment but for their high birth rate. By providing them employment, the state wanted to have influence on their lower birth—the logic was if Roma women work, they have less time for their husbands and “smaller chances to get pregnant”). Yet the goal was the same—to exterminate the Gypsies and their Gypsy way of life—only the way in which this was to be achieved varying. Many countries adopted assimilation measures as Gypsies were considered dangerous by their “Gypsy nature.” Assimilation approaches were based on the assumption that the Roma’s integration would only be successful by determining their place of settlement, employment, and education. Assimilation represented a permanent solution to problems created by the relationship between the Roma ethnic minority and the majority population. Its core idea was based on the socialization of Roma, meaning that in time their culture (language, customs, and clothing) would become obsolete and replaced by the culture of the majority society in which they live.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe continued with the exclusion of Roma. Many Eastern European countries faced an economic crisis after the political transition that resulted in high levels of unemployment, particularly among Roma. This forced many Roma families into poverty. However, the shift to a democratic political system established a pluralist system and a market economy, which also affected the change of the status of individuals “from subjects under authoritarian rule to citizens with substantive constitutional rights” (Barany, 2002, pp. 3). Marginal groups have gained the opportunity to participate in politics by establishing organizations to articulate their voices that were ignored in the past. However, despite the extensive growth of such organizations and their political engagement, Roma remain excluded. Today, in many countries they experience the denial of their formal and legal rights, overt and covert, intentional and unintentional racism (for more, see http://www.errc.org/).

Nowadays, the idea of forcing the assimilation of Roma has been abandoned by states; however, new, covert pressures have been created. Despite a general finding that in countries throughout the world, the Roma society has seen great development, especially in the cultural domain (establishment of associations, networking among Roma, and maintenance of their traditions), many research studies and everyday public discourses show the expanding discriminatory practices and social exclusion Roma experience in their day-to-day lives in the form of negative social categorization, marginalization, invisibility, dehumanization, and accusations.

Marginalization of the Roma Minority

General public discourse about Roma communities and Roma minorities is rare. The prevalent discourse about Roma mainly occurs when the media reports “Roma problems.” The social identity of Roma is usually constructed around images of poverty, begging, and stealing. Many authors point out that Roma communities are among the most socially, economically, and politically neglected groups. In addition to the societal discrimination, these groups generally suffer from poor living conditions and health, a low level of education and high level of illiteracy, along with economic disadvantages. Even in countries where governments have implemented national strategies to improve the living conditions of the Roma minority, they remain on the margin of society. There are not many sources about Roma communities and Roma minorities from the social work perspective. Discussions are rare, usually hidden in concepts such as inequality, discrimination and racism, and social exclusion. Neil Thompson’s (2001) PCS analytical model, which will be discussed later, is particularly relevant for understanding the Roma community’s situation and for further social work practice. Minority is not only a term signifying a smaller social group within a broader community or society but, more importantly, a social group that is recognized as having unequal opportunities, unequal power, and unequal social status in comparison to the majority. In Europe, two main approaches to protecting ethnic minorities have emerged: the enforcement of antiracist norms (ensuring equal treatment) and support for minority rights (allowing their differences to be preserved to avoid assimilation) (Open Society Institute [OSI], 2001, pp. 16). However, nationalist sentiments claim that minority protection is an unnecessary privilege of minorities and a cost to the country but, at the same time, it is “allowed” in a segregated place.

Particularly in the period when countries in which a large number of Roma live were acceding to European Union membership, minority rights protection and related discussions regarding the Roma’s position in individual countries gained more relevance. In 2001 and 2002, the OSI in Budapest commissioned research into the Roma minority’s position in several countries, which were then member or acceding countries, to be carried out by independent researchers in individual countries adhering to the same methodology and concerning the implementation of programs for improving the Roma’s position. Political interest in Roma surged following the publication of their results which, in many fields of Roma’s everyday life (employment, access to health care and social rights, up-bringing and education, political participation and media representation, racially motivated violence), drew attention to numerous instances of discrimination. The European Union issued the EU candidate countries in the second wave of enlargement a warning to respect minority rights when regulating their legal protection of the Roma minority. However, despite the many legal regulations adopted in individual countries that prohibit ethnic-based discrimination, today Roma remain one of the most hated and excluded social groups in Europe, and are subjected to systematic exclusion. The reports pointed to many examples of ethnic discrimination. The Race Equality Directive (2000) offers clear requirements for tackling discrimination, explicitly prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity, yet not all candidate states incorporated all elements of the Directive into their national legislation. This results in the lack of antidiscriminatory legislation seen in many states today. This is one reason many Roma prefer not to be identified as Roma, also because of a fear that such data might be misused.

The marginality of the Roma minority is complex and multidimensional, impacting on many areas of their everyday life: education, employment, social, and health care. The most marginalized are members of the Roma minority without citizenship of a particular country, which presents an additional obstacle to the realization of their social, economic, and political rights. In many countries, Roma are the target of hate speech, intolerance, and social exclusion. In Hungary, in the mid-1980s, Kenedi (1986, pp. 11) compared the situation of Roma with Jews during the Second World War. They were perceived as “shifty, good-for-nothing” and were commonly a target of abuse. In 2002, the Romanian newspaper Economist placed Romania on top of the list of all European states regarding popular extremist right-wing-oriented movements spreading ideas of racism and being racist. Valeriu Nicolae and Hannah Slavik (2003), Roma activists from Romania, believe that “being a Roma is the worst social stigma.” Local and national politicians publicly spread their hate speech about “Gypsies,” explicitly expressing ideas of their isolation, segregation, and extermination into Gypsy camps.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the living conditions of Roma are worse than those of the majority non-Roma population. Due to their ethnicity, Roma face discrimination more often and in more spheres of everyday life than non-Roma. They typically live on the margins of the majority population, most often in extended Romani communities which, marked as marginal cultures in public discourses, are considered deviant and socially unacceptable by mainstream society.

Education of Roma Children

Romani culture is often pathologized and functions as a projection screen for the deviant, undesired, and unvalued in the dominant culture. The most common perception of a Roma child in central and eastern Europe is their presumably antisocial behavior, lower intellectual skills, and low motivation for learning. One consequence of this public perception leads to covert, implicit racism of Roma, manifested in ignorance, misunderstanding, and disrespect of Romani cultural realities. The result of this often sees Roma children being placed in special schools for children with intellectual disabilities. Such practices are common in most European countries with a Roma population (OSI, 2001). Actual lower intellectual abilities are one, namely non-problematic, reason for such placement. However, there is an explicit pattern of Roma children being placed in special schools by virtue of their social conditions and ethnic membership.

Employment and Faces of Poverty of Roma Minority

After the fall of the communist regime, the Roma’s situation worsened, mostly evident in the employment area. They were the first to lose their jobs and, in turn, the level of unemployment among the Roma population in many countries rose to more than 50 percent of the whole Roma population in those countries (OSI, 2001, 2002). Due to their low level of education, little interest in Romani traditional crafts, and the stereotypes of employers, members of the Roma minority faced obstacles in entering the labor market. On the other hand, Roma are usually placed in socially non-desirable, non-valued working places, such as low skilled and low paid jobs (garbage services, street cleaners). Eriksen (2002, pp. 28) describes this phenomenon as an “ethnic division of labor, where, for example, particular ethnic groups carry out most of the underpaid manual work.” Further on, the dominant group may also “emphasize that it is the ‘nature’ of the members of the group X to do manual work, that they are ‘unsuitable’—by nature or culture—to carry out prestigious jobs.” However, the strategies of Roma to earn a living vary. Most of them are looking for any kind of work that could provide an income. According to Schuringa (2005, pp. 16), some reinvented “traditional” handicrafts (for example, weaving baskets), others receive income from marginal seasonal labor (for example, gathering herbs, wild fruits) and also from informal sector. Since they are highly exposed to income uncertainty, some members of Roma minority find themselves in black market labor. “If no earnings are found, deviant income generating activities are sought, like theft and begging” (pp. 17). It is obvious how deep poverty and multidimensional deprivations have a strong ethnic dimension and are highly concentrated among Roma population, which urges them toward criminal acts.

Poverty and multiple deprivations are highly concentrated among the Roma population, particularly those residing in Roma settlements, which are usually situated in the suburbs of urban population. Roma poverty is evident in their high unemployment rate and consequently high rate of dependency from social benefits as their only income. In situations where poverty (or any other dimension of social exclusion) goes from generation to generation, we talk about cyclodeprivation, “chronic poverty,” and also “culture of poverty” (Schuringa, 2005).

Health Situation of the Roma Minority

There is a strong correlation between poor health, ethnic identity, and poverty. A poor health condition is not only a result of aging, but also of social status and complex inequalities, which often lead to a mental health crisis, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Therefore, caring for health not only lies in the domain of the individual but is also in the domain of sociopolitical factors allowing an individual to lead a healthy lifestyle. In many European countries the health situation of Roma is much worse than for non-Roma. Many ERRC reports highlight many health problems of Roma, such as a lower life-expectancy (in Hungary, for example, on average Roma live 10 years less than non-Roma (Barany, 2002, pp. 176–177), illnesses and infections as a result of bad living and economic conditions, frequent pregnancies and abortions, chronic’ illnesses of small Roma children. In the United Kingdom, for example, a study conducted in 2004 showed that Roma and “Travelers” suffer from much worse health problems than non-Roma of the same sex and age. Moreover, their health problems are two to five times more frequent than in the non-Roma population (http://www.errc.org/article/report-on-health-status-of-gypsytravellers-published-in-uk/2206). In addition, a considerably higher number of Roma children are diagnosed as having an intellectual disability compared to non-Roma children.

The Situation of Romani Women

The European Commission issued an extended report, Ethnic minority and Roma women in Europe: A case for gender equality? (2008), that points out a more vulnerable situation of Roma women in comparison to Roma men and a more vulnerable situation in comparison to women from the majority population. This is mostly evident in the area of employment (where Romani women more often provide for their family members instead of working), education level (more Romani women are illiterate), and health situation. In most European countries, the health situation of Roma ethnic minority members is worse than of majority (pp. 111–115). Apart from already mentioned lower life-expectancy, bad housing, and economic conditions, they also face higher number of pregnancies and abortions (as a primarily contraceptive method), conical illnesses and bad mental health. Forced sterilization of Romani women is still the case in some European countries (for more information, see http://www.errc.org/).

Also, Romani women visit their doctors less often. This could be one result of their presumably low interests for their health. Understanding that many of them have bad past experiences for different reasons might put these facts into perspective that allows for more ethnic sensitivity. Some reasons are discriminative attitudes from health workers; many Roma women are illiterate and lack information about the services provided; and some of them feel uncomfortable visiting a male gynecologist due to cultural barriers. Some women are ignorant of their health status because they focus more on their existential needs such as housing conditions, food, and clothes, which obviously affects Roma families that live in poverty.

A short overview of the health perspective of Roma women shows that Romani women are (along with Roma children) one of the most vulnerable social groups. Examples also show cyclodeprivation, where all levels of exclusion intersect and influence one another.

Psychological Effects of Ethnic Discrimination on Roma People

In response to their social stigmatization and discrimination, Roma have developed certain social behaviors. One of them involves developing different forms of psychological defense mechanisms, including conformism and resignation, or defensive behavior (with which they try to neutralize negative feelings produced by negative relationships). Some Roma also change their identity (changing Roma surnames to non-Roma ones, abandoning the Romani language, or developing para-Romani languages). In such circumstances, Roma have few alternatives—either they hide their Roma ethnic identity, move out of the city or country, or accept their situation. In the words of Camara P. Jones (2002), the latter can be recognized as another level of discrimination, that is, an internalized level of discrimination (or racism). This refers to situations where the victims of discrimination develop a negative discourse about themselves. If people experience denial, ignorance, disapproval, or oppression for a long time, they can easily develop a real identification with their role of a victim, and start blaming themselves for the situation. The content of prejudices becomes the content of their self-identity, they start to react according to the ascribed prejudice and the dominant society (which is producing such prejudices) is given an argument for such beliefs. This process can be referred to as a vicious circle of discrimination.

PCS Analysis of Ethnic Discrimination of the Roma Minority

A three-dimensional PCS (personal level, cultural level, structural level) analytical model (Thompson, 2001) allows us to better understand the dynamics of creating and maintaining the process of discrimination of the Roma minority (or any other discriminated social group). It also points to the multidimensional nature of discrimination since three levels (P-personal, C-cultural, S-structural) “are closely interlinked and constantly interact with one another” (pp. 21). “The P level is … embedded within the cultural or C level” (pp. 22). Further, “to understand the C level, we need to relate to the S level, the structure of society” (pp. 23). Thompson says our personal thoughts are to some extent individual and unique, but are strongly influenced by the specific culture where we live and specific structural factors.

The personal level of discrimination refers to the personal or psychological: individual thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and individual actions, practices, stereotyping. Some examples that indicate the oppression of Roma on the individual level:

  • “Open the window! This is a smell of Roma!”
  • “I would never drink a Roma coffee!”
  • “I have nothing against Roma, but I would rather see that they stay where they are.”

The cultural (community) level of discrimination refers to shared ways of seeing, thinking and doing, values, and patterns of a particular culture (community) in relation to Roma. Cultural discrimination most often manifests in ethnic humor, culturally rooted proverbs (sayings) and nimbyisms (NIMBY—Not-In-My-Back-Yard):

  • “We have nothing against the Roma; we just want them to stay where they are!” (a common dominant community response to Roma)
  • “If you don’t behave, the Gypsies will take you away!” (a Slovenian cultural saying used when disciplining a child)
  • “Your room is like being at the Gypsies!” (a metaphor for an untidy, dirty place)
  • “What is the recipe for a Gypsy cake?” “First you steal three eggs …” (ethnic humor based on the stereotype of Roma being thieves)

The structural level of discrimination refers to the network of social divisions, power relations, institutionalized practices that oppress and discriminative laws, regulations, ideologies, and routine institutionalized practices that discriminate. One of the most recognized structural or institutional forms of discrimination is the passive attitude or ignorance of practitioners in public institutions, “ping-pong” strategies, or the controlling and conditioning of social benefits.

Social Work Responses

Nowadays, social workers face a conflicting position, the duality between their two professional roles—support and control. On one hand, this is surely one of the oldest dilemmas in social work (Dominelli, 1997) but, on the other, it is also a result of the so-called administrative crisis of welfare states (Culpitt, 1992), which is today’s reality. Social policy aims to ensure minimal social protection of their citizens through certain benefits, services, and programs. However, despite their ethical antidiscriminatory code and the primary principle of social inclusion, social workers often (unconsciously and unintentionally) produce or maintain social exclusion, which is evident in certain procedures that social workers carry out as part of neoliberal social policy requirements (legalism, administration). Although it is obviously unable to ignore the conditions provided by the state (which finances social security services), with its own scientific basis and its theory to substantiate social workers’ actions, social work is far from being a mere implementer of social policy. The gap between the implementation of social policy (with social workers overburdened by administrative work) and the fundamental principles of social work (social inclusion) is a common ethical dilemma of social workers in welfare institutions. This fact contributes to the creation of negative effects in terms of social control within social work’s relationship toward its users, with social workers who exert control often also creating inequalities. This state of being divided between the so-called double mandate is a paradoxical situation in social work that can aggravate an individual user’s position and increase or even create their social exclusion. The profession, which is struggling against social exclusion and decreasing it, is also finding itself maintaining it with certain procedures, or even creating new exclusions. The inefficiency of social policy is also shown in the ratio of costs of social security benefits to the Roma who cannot support themselves, and the results of social work. The allocation of state social assistance and implementation of other social care measures by social services are not sufficient to do away with Roma’s social exclusion, which continues generation after generation. Although social services are often Roma’s only advocates, protectors, and “active listeners,” they cannot abolish or reach beyond their social exclusion merely through charity-based interventions. Instead of solving their situation of exclusion, this social aspect actually largely creates and keeps their dependence on the state’s social assistance. Similar dilemmas also occur with other social groups in all areas of social work practice. However, since Roma are one of the most socially excluded groups and, therefore, one of the most frequent users of social services, they are also the most explicit indicator of the general crisis facing social work.

Early Beginnings of Ethnic Sensitivity in Social Work

Despite the early beginnings of calling attention to the ethnic specificities of individuals, groups, and communities in social work (Richmond, 1917), it took a long time for the concept of ethnic sensitivity to become asserted in social work theory and practice. Ethnicity first became the subject of social discussions in the 1980s in so-called multicultural states, such as Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, in the period of migrations to large industrial cities. The historical contextualization of ethnicity in social work reveals that its development cannot be separated from external political structural processes. The absence of ethnicity in social work in general was evident up until the 1980s when the theme became more explicit due to mass migrations. However, the absence of public debates about ethnicity was greater in countries with former communist or socialist regimes. For example, in Slovenia these topics were not raised until the 1990s when they were exposed by the war in the republics of former Yugoslavia. It took almost 10 years after the arrival of refugees in Slovenia for them to become part of the social work curricula.

In the time of the traditional model of social work practice, universalism was one of the most signifying ideologies, although these days it is criticized as a racist and “color-blind” approach (Dominelli, 2008).

New Understandings of Ethnicities and Discrimination

Today, significant international and local documents in the field of social work (for example, Global Standards for Social Work Education and Training, codes of social worker ethics) place principles such as individualization, ethnic or cultural sensitivity, an antidiscriminatory stance on lists of the core principles or values in social work. Social work is therefore the right profession to deal with marginalized people and their experiences of inequality and discrimination. Understanding the dynamics of discrimination and its effects also enables social workers to understand its complexity, that is, its multi-dimensionality and the fact that the many levels of discrimination are intertwined and influence each other (Jones, 2002; Thompson, 2001). Further, understanding the ethnic reality of marginalized Roma communities constitutes particularly important knowledge for the social work profession. It allows social workers to understand certain types of Romani behavior, such as fatalism, conformism, passivity, distrust of institutions, which is often the result of a prolonged experience of discrimination. Social workers are expected to be sensitive to all kinds of discrimination, to be active in working against them, and to draw attention to them. The recognition and understanding of exclusion and racisms, called “ethnic reality” by Devore and Schlesinger (1999), is the first and the key step toward antiracist and ethnically sensitive social work that gathers fundamental knowledge when working with socially excluded, marginalized minorities.

Ignorance, carelessness, and indifference are recognized as some of “the common characteristics of actual democracies” (Zaviršek, 2005, pp. 251) on which social workers have to develop a critical stance. In the opposite way, social work contributes to the problem (maintaining or producing discrimination), not to the solution (challenging discrimination). Narda Razack (2002) believes that racism is a crucial factor of most social problems in society. However, social workers have an insight into people’s everyday life, and an understanding of their reality—which represents their biggest advantage and urges them to be socially active.

Social Workers as Agents of Challenging Discrimination

Since discrimination produces and manifests itself on three levels (personal, cultural, and structural), the process of challenging discrimination also takes place on the same levels. Thompson and Thompson (2005) talk about empowerment as the most influential method of social work when working with victims of discrimination.

Personal racisms are often expressed in language or in the way social workers speak about members of ethnic groups. Discourses on Roma in social work are often filled with cultural stereotypes that individuals have internalized. Trying to transcend and abolish discrimination on the personal level means fighting for an ethnically sensitive practice based on antiracist principles. Apart from observing universal ethical principles in social work (such as individualization, acceptance, a non-judgmental attitude, care for confidentiality, respect, empathy), the ethnically sensitive social worker employs sensitive language. Ethnically sensitive language is language that allows the expression of respect toward ethnic groups (instead of being insulting). Accordingly, communication is adapted in terms of the use of everyday, easily understandable expressions, use of the user’s mother tongue, use of picture materials to enable understanding by the illiterate or those with learning problems, and similar. The ethnically sensitive social worker either understands the Romani language or provides a translator. It also means they are able to translate professional language into everyday language and choose simple words that are closer to Roma (the use of local language). On the personal level, social workers should strive to abolish their own personal prejudices and discriminative actions, while also empowering victims of discrimination in a way that strengthens their self-esteem, teaches them new social skills, encourages their independence, and provides information. However, from the position of a victim, social work on the personal level might only entail encouraging survival strategies in existing discriminative circumstances. Slogans from the 1960s (for example, “Black is Beautiful!”) have had the effect of empowering and encouraging individuals, but do not change living conditions. Therefore, social work not only reacts on the micro (personal) level, but also exerts its influences on the macro (cultural and structural) level. On the cultural level, the influence of social work is seen in raising awareness: promoting the breaking of social stereotypes by carrying out workshops on tolerance among primary school pupils, striving for antiracist ideology in social work theory and practice, expressing criticism of value-based social work practices among co-workers, and encouraging public debates about social inequalities and social exclusion or inclusion. On the structural level, social work strives for ethnic or cultural sensibility in organizational settings, abolishing routine practices, and striving for positive discrimination in legislation. Giving support in employment and providing opportunities to employ Roma minority members in social work organizations are also antiracist activities that directly contribute to the abolition of institutional racism (Dominelli, 2008). Social welfare institutions that employ a member of the Roma ethnic group tend to develop an ethnically more sensitive practice, mainly seen in use of the Romani language as part of the working relationship with Romani users of social services, as well as raising awareness about Roma’s “ethnic reality” among other social workers. Another important challenge in transcending institutional racisms lies in the promotion of community social work with Roma (Schuringa, 2005). A community social worker’s most important role is being a promoter of change and acting as a catalyst and a guide between institutions and the community. By making conscious decisions combined with a professional action framework, that is, considering the elements of the working relationship and raising awareness about ethnic principles (Devore, Schlesinger, 1999) and antiracist principles (Dominelli, 2008; Thompson, 2001, 2002), administrative social work can also contribute to social inclusion. To conclude, Jones (2002) believes the institutional (structural) level is the most significant level to address to challenge the status quo. Changes will, in turn, start to happen on other levels as well.


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Nicolae, V., & Slavik, H. (2003). Being a “gypsy”: The worst social stigma in Romania. Retrieved January, 2013, from http://www.errc.org/article/being-a-gypsy-the-worst-social-stigma-in-romania/1385

Open Society Institute (OSI). (2001). EU accession monitoring program (2001): Monitoring the EU accession process: Minority protection. Budapest, Hungary: Author. Retrieved January, 2013, from http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/monitoring-eu-accession-process-minority-protectionFind this resource:

Open Society Institute (OSI). (2002). EU accession monitoring program (2002): Monitoring the EU accession process: Minority protection. Budapest, Hungary: Author. Retrieved January, 2013, from http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/monitoring-eu-accession-process-minority-protectionFind this resource:

Razack, N. (2002). Transforming the field: Critical antiracist and anti-oppressive perspectives for the human services practicum. Halifax, Canada: Fernwood.Find this resource:

Richmond, M. E. (1917). Social diagnosis. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Find this resource:

Schuringa, L. (2005). Community work and Roma inclusion. Utrecht, the Netherlands: Spolu International Foundation.Find this resource:

Štrukelj, P. (2004). Tisočletne podobe nemirnih nomadov: zgodovina in kultura Romov v Sloveniji [A thousand years of images of restless nomads: history and culture of Roma in Slovenia]. Ljubljana, Slovenia: Družina.Find this resource:

Thompson, N. (2001). Anti-discriminatory practice (3rd ed.). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Thompson, N. (2002). People skills, 2nd ed. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Thompson, N., & Thompson, S. (2005). Community care. Lyme Regis, England: Russell House.Find this resource:

Zaviršek, D. (2005). Tleči rasizem zahodnih demokracij [Burning racism of western democracies]. Socialno delo, 44(4/5), 251–258.Find this resource:

Zimmermann, M. (1999). The national socialist solution of the gypsy question. In U. Herbert (Ed.), National socialist extermination policies. Contemporary German perspectives and controversies (pp. 186–209). New York, NY: Berghahn Books.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Ethnic minority and Roma women in Europe: A case for gender equality? (2008). Retrieved November 2012, from http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=738&langId=en&pubId=492&type=2&furtherPubs=no

Guy, W. (1998). Ways of looking at Roma: The case of Czechoslovakia (1975). In D. Tong (Ed.), Gypsies (pp. 13–68). New York, NY/London, England: Garland.Find this resource:

Harry, B., & Klinger, J. (2006). Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race & disability in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.Find this resource:

Izsák, R. (2004). “Gypsy rooms” and other discriminatory treatment against Romani women in Hungarian hospitals. Retrieved November 2012, from, http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2063

Lucassen, L. (1998). Harmful tramps: Police professionalization and gypsies in Germany, 1700–1945. In L. Lucassen, W. Willems, & A. Cottaar (Eds.), Gypsies and other itinerant groups: A socio-historical approach (pp. 74–93). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Okely, J. (1994). Constructing difference: Gypsies as “other”. Anthropological Yearbook of European Cultures, 2, 55–73.Find this resource:

Roma in Central and Eastern Europe. (2009). Retrieved February, 2013, from http://www.gesis.org/fileadmin/upload/dienstleistung/fachinformationen/series_ssee_01/Roma_in_Central_and_Eastern_Europe.pdf

Rorke, B., & Wilkens, A. (2006). Roma inclusion. Lessons learned from OSI’s Roma programming. Budapest, Hungary: OSI. Retrieved January, 2013, from http://www.soros.org/initiatives/roma/articles_publications/publications/inclusion_20060605Find this resource:

Stewart, M. (1997). The time of the gypsies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Find this resource:

Urh, Š. (2008). The development of an ethnically sensitive approach in social work in Slovenia. European Journal of Social Work, 11(2), 117–129.Find this resource:

Urh, Š. (2011). Ethnic sensitivity: A challenge for social work. International Social Work, 54(4), 471–484.Find this resource:

Varsa, E. (2005). Class, ethnicity and gender—Structures of differentiation in state socialist employment and welfare politics, 1960–1980. In K. Shilde & S. D. Schulte (Eds.), Need and care—Glimpses into the beginnings of eastern Europe’s professional welfare (pp. 197–220). Bloomfield Hills, MI: Barbara Budrich.Find this resource:

Zaviršek, D. (2001). Lost in public care: The ethnic rights of the ethnic minority children. In L. Dominelli, H. Soydan, & W. Lorenz (Eds.), Beyond racial divides: Ethnicities in social work practice (pp. 171–188). Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate.Find this resource: