CHID 470 WINTER 2014
University of Washington
Instructor: Erin Clowes

Deconstructing Identities: Roma Identity Discourse

Course Overview:

This Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) study-abroad course approaches the notion of identity and alterity by examining the current crisis of Roma minority communities in Rome, Budapest and Prague. By reviewing ethnographic and historical accounts as well as theoretical essays, we will evaluate some of the methods individuals and groups use to generate and interpret knowledge about themselves and about others. Our readings will largely rely on academics and activists of Roma origin and discussions will explore the ways in which different interpretive perspectives and practices are connected to issues of cultural exclusion and inclusion, marginalization and integration. We will examine how the circle of  “we” is implicitly or explicitly exclusionary.

Through experiential projects with Roma individuals and communities in each destination, we will personally engage with and challenge the ways in which political and popular discourse both create and castigate Roma populations.  We will reflect on whether or not terms like “culture” and “identity” are useful in thinking through relations to oneself and to others, both in terms of our contextually defined situation as subjects in a particular time and space and our role as ethical agents whose actions shape the future. We will examine the ways in which notions of “identity” and “culture” conscript Roma populations and reflect on the ways in which they are pushing back against this discourse.  The ultimate aim of our work together is to learn to think critically about how we think, and how to frame our actions as meaningful, purposeful and ethical in the world.

How We Began

We began our journey in Rome, collaborating with anthropologist Adriana Goni Mazzitelli at University of Rome III and Professor Marco Brazzoduro, who connected us with the impoverished Roma camps in Salviati and Salone. Utilizing photography as a tool to connect UW students and Roma and non-Roma youth, we focused on our shared identities as sons and daughters, students, and photographers. The Roma youth had the chance to visit the University of Washington Rome Center for our photography event together, and University of Washington students had the chance to visit the youth in the camps. For Roma populations in Italy these impoverished camps are considered “permanent housing.”

The program culminated in a photography exhibit and dinner at the Michele Testa CentroCulturale near the Roma camps. The photo exhibition gave us a chance to honor the work of these young photographers by exhibiting photographs from our project together,  revisit through photography those moments we shared together, as well as providing a forum for the friends and families of participants to mingle together in a celebratory public forum. University of Washington students cooked the meal with Roma women, created and mounted the photography exhibition, made photo journals with the youth, and wrote reflective letters about their experiences which were translated and included in the exhibit. The exhibit, titled “There’s no place like home” was attended by a political representative of the municipality and provided a chance for him to see the Roma camps through American eyes. One of the UW student quotes he admired in the exhibit was, “I can’t imagine being born into a country that keeps me down, saying it’s in the best interest of the nation.”

In Budapest we work with art historian and Gallery owner, Timea Junghaus, who facilitated our connections with local Hungarian Roma students. Through their candid sharing of their life stories we were able to learn about the situation for Roma in Budapest and Hungary.  Roma  are the largest minority in Hungary and suffer severe discrimination. The unemployment rate for Hungarian Roma is 90%. Roma children are segregated in the school system – often even in mixed schools. Frequently Roma children are placed in classes for students with learning disabilities. More than 42% of Roma children are assigned to special education classes.
In Budapest students created a blog page entitled, “Why Save the Roma Parliament?” The Roma Parliament is not a parliament in the traditional sense, but a longstanding public space with a rich history of political and cultural activity for the Roma community of District 8 in Budapest. This space has been closed by the municipality at a time when nationalist and anti-Roma sentiment is sharply  on the rise in Hungary, and the Roma population here has no access to any civic space for education, cultural events, or political efforts. The Roma volunteers participating in the project with us in District 8 left a lasting impression and will always have a special place in our hearts.

Prague is our final destination, where we will spend our final two weeks together. In Prague we will have the opportunity to see the work of artist and activist, Tomas Rafa, who creates art as a political statement for social justice. (The Roma flag fence painting on this page is a project of his). He recently created several flag designs originally exhibited in Prague’s National Technical Library and the Artwall Gallery in September, 2013. Rafa’s flags are inspired by the Czech Republic’s red, white and blue standard chevron design and the international Roma flag which is blue and dark green with a red spoked-wheel, and these varied flags have been created to represent a new symbol of unity in the Czech Republic. They were unveiled on July 16th in Prague as a “Competition for the New Czech-Roma Flag.” The intention of Rafa’s project was to create a dialogue about patriotism, nationalism and tolerance to minorities in the Czech Republic. The artist was shocked in December, when he was issued with a fine of 2,000 CZK for “defamation of the Czech flag” by Prague 7 authorities. The investigation of this case was initiated by activists in the far-right political party DSSS.


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