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What's in a Name?: Professor takes on roles of Romani activist and spokesperson to improve plight of his ethnic group

Ian Hancock is not a gypsy. He is a Romani. The difference in nomenclature is so important that Hancock, a professor of English, linguistics and Asian studies at The University of Texas at Austin since 1972, has devoted most of his adult life to dispelling ignorance about the ethnic group into which he was born.

Romanticized, fictional representation of 'gypsies' from cover of song book

Romanticized, fictional representations of “gypsies” leave the general public with little accurate information about Romanies.

“Most people don’t know that appending the name ‘gypsy’ to my people is both wrong and pejorative,” says Hancock, the official ambassador to the United Nations and UNICEF for the world’s 15 million Romanies and the only Romani to have been appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “‘Gypsy’ is simply a shortened form of Egyptian—that’s what many outsiders thought Romanies were. Using a little ‘g’ in ‘gypsy’ also compounds the problem because that indicates that as a common noun it’s a lifestyle choice and not that we’re an actual ethnic group.

“Most people don’t even have a minimal education about Romanies. They don’t know that seventy percent of the Romani population of Nazi-occupied Europe were murdered during the Holocaust. Or that we’re the largest ethnic minority in Europe but have no political strength, military strength, economic strength or a territory. Or, for that matter, that there are over one million Romani Americans.”

Educating the public about Romani history and culture has been a colossal task for Hancock because most individuals do, unfortunately, have a graphic mental image of the “typical gypsy,” but they have formed their ideas from all the wrong information.

According to Hancock, most people are only familiar with the surfeit of romantic fairytale myths that surround the diverse collection of individuals erroneously termed “gypsies.”

Novels, poems, plays, films and songs over the past several centuries have portrayed ‘gypsies’ as free-spirited, promiscuous, indigent criminals who dance around campfires and are fortunetellers, thieves and liars. ‘Gypsies’ are carefree and enjoy an almost childlike innocence and release from duty. ‘Gypsies’ practice witchcraft, steal babies in the dead of night and are filthy and unkempt, so the stories say.

“This ridiculous fictional image has taken on a life of its own,” says Hancock. “The cliché description of Romanies is so deeply rooted that it may never totally be eradicated. There are countless representations in films and books of Italians as Mafia members, but no one actually believes that all Italians are Mafia members. That is not true for my people.”

A dog that wanders will find a bone.  Romani proverbAlthough fictional accounts of Romanies have left the non-Romani population with almost no accurate information about the traditions and culture of that ethnic group, the history of the Romanies also has contributed to centuries of misunderstanding and suspicion.

The ancestors of Romanies originated in India 1,000 years ago, then moved west in response to the spread of Islam, arriving in Europe around 1300. They eventually ended up in every European country and also in North and South America.

“From the beginning, Europeans were aware of the presence of the Romanies and viewed us as a foreign, undesirable population—like the Jews, we were the quintessential outsiders,” says Hancock. “Romanies were non-Christian and associated with the Islamic threat, were non-white and were on the margins of society. A large part of the problem has been a separation that occurred because of both internal and external factors. There were and still are laws imposed to keep Romanies segregated, and there are internal forces in the Romani culture that keep us from mingling and getting too close to people outside our group or society.”

Dr. Hancock's Romani family members in Britain standing in front of a covered wagon

Dr. Hancock’s Romani family members in Britain.

Because of their cultural habits and lifestyle choices, Romanies continue to be a target for harassment, misunderstanding and discrimination. In May 2001, The Economist stated that Romanies in Europe were at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator: the least educated, the poorest, the most unemployed, the shortest-lived, the most imprisoned, the most welfare-dependent and the most segregated. The results of a public opinion poll conducted over a 25-year period and published in the New York Times in 1992 indicated that Romani Americans were ranked last out of 58 different American ethnic and religious minorities.

“An American can best understand the discrimination that Romanies experience in Europe, for example, by looking at how African Americans have been treated in the recent past here in the U.S.,” says Roy Mersky, Harry M. Reasoner Regents Chair in Law and board member for the United Romani Educational Foundation Inc., of which Hancock is Chairman. “In Europe, Romanies can’t even enter some towns. It’s against the law. ”

Although Hancock has been a teacher and had an intellectual interest in the language and history of the Romanies for decades, perhaps his greater contribution to education has been outside the classroom and more due to intensely personal experiences than to a dispassionately curious and active mind.

Hancock was born in Britain of both British Romani and Hungarian Romani descent and was raised according to Romani traditions and mores. He experienced firsthand the prejudice, discrimination and alienation that so many centuries of Romanies before him had endured.

Old firewood catches alight quickly.  Romani proverb“I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade to go to work. That was very common,” says Hancock. “No one in my family could read or write and none of them had gone to school. I did realize that we were different. You couldn’t NOT realize that. As a child, I wondered about relatives who were frequently evicted and treated badly by the law. When I was young I just accepted the fact that that was what white people did to people like us, that there’s this seemingly bottomless human desire for a scapegoat and that we were the scapegoats.”

A fatalist might advance that Hancock was destined to be a preeminent international spokesperson, advocate, scholar and leader for his ethnic group. It was written in the stars. His roles as academic and activist certainly hinged upon chance and unexpected circumstances that removed him from a life typical of many Romanies, one of poverty and nonexistent avenues for advancement or redress in the face of wrongs.

While working at one of many menial jobs as a teenager, Hancock met some workers from Sierra Leone who were living in West London and befriended them. Exhibiting a surprising fascination and facility with linguistics at an early age, he began to learn their language and collect material on them and their backgrounds. Word of the precocious 9th grade dropout spread and reached London University, and soon Hancock was being courted to enter the doctoral program at the university as part of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s fledgling experiment with affirmative action. He embraced the opportunity, although such a move set him apart from his Romani peers.

At London University, Hancock became the first Romani in Britain to receive a Ph.D., and, in addition to beginning a career path he would follow for several decades, also found his voice as an activist.

Settela Steinbach, a Romani girl, peering from a transport wagon on its way to Auschwitz

Settela Steinbach, a Romani girl, peering from a transport wagon on its way to Auschwitz, 1943.

“I can remember the precise incident that started my activist involvement,” says Hancock. “It had a profound effect on me that’s lasted to this day. In the mid 1960s while I was at the university, there was a significant increase in police violence against Romanies.

“During that time there was one particular story that managed to find a small spot in the news—a Romani family had been pulled over to the side of the road by the police, and the husband refused to move the trailer they were in when the police told him to. He informed the policeman that his wife had gone into labor and that it was impossible to move her. The police brought in a bulldozer and started rocking and jarring the trailer. A kerosene lamp inside fell and the trailer went up in flames, the wife miscarried and her two children died in the ensuing blaze.”

After reading about the tragedy, Hancock contacted a Romani organization in London and for the first time met other individuals who felt the same concern, indignation and desire for change that he felt.

Since his London University days, Hancock has used his somewhat unique position as a Romani-born, university-educated scholar to speak for an oppressed population that has traditionally had no voice or representation, to preserve information about Romani customs and history and to fight for Romani political and civil rights.

Among his numerous accolades, Hancock was the 1998 recipient of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice from the University of Wisconsin and the 1997 winner of Norway’s prestigious Rafto International Human Rights Prize, in addition to being named for an honorary doctorate by Umeå University in Sweden. West Chester University in Pennsylvania is in the process of creating the Ian Hancock Graduate Fellowship in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and former President Bill Clinton appointed Hancock to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Hancock is responsible for the first Romani program of university studies, which he initiated at The University of Texas at Austin, and is to be credited with the university’s distinction as the leading U.S. center for studies of Romani history, language and culture.

Known internationally for his work on Creole languages, Hancock is author of nearly 400 articles and books, including The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution, A Handbook of Vlax Romani and, most recently, We Are the Romani People.

Don't scratch where you don't itch.  Romani proverbHe has organized and maintains at The University of Texas at Austin the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC), the largest collection of Romani materials in the world, with more than 25,000 books, monographs, bound articles, prints, transparencies, photos, audio- and video-recorded media items. The center also contains reports from international human rights groups, including Helsinki Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, that document rising violence against Romanies and the continuing problem of discrimination in employment and social services. In Europe, rapes, murders and assaults on Romanies by skinheads and Neo-Nazi street gangs have greatly increased over the past decade. According to Hancock, the incidents usually go uncovered by the press.

Since the fall of Communism in Europe, ethnic minorities in areas such as Bosnia, Slovakia and Romania have suffered attacks and destruction of property as various ethnic populations have asserted, in a bloody and violent manner, their right to a territory. They have attempted to drive out the Romanies who, unfortunately, have no territory to which they may return, no “original lands” in Europe.

“Unlike the Jews, the fate of the Romanies in Europe has not improved,” says Dr. Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. “In fact, one can argue that it has gotten worse, especially in the Czech republic. So voices like Hancock’s are needed in both the struggle for memory as well as for human rights.”

With this most current attempt to destroy the Romanies tragically resembling their treatment by the Nazis during the Holocaust, it is ironic that Nazi riches may hold the key to economic assistance for Europe’s Romanies.

For 50 years, Swiss banks secretly retained the assets of Holocaust victims, as well as deposits of Nazi gold and war loot worth billions of today’s dollars. This included valuables stolen by the Nazis from Romanies who were sent to the death camps.

Dr. Hancock standing with the Dalai Lama

In March, Dr. Hancock had a private meeting with the Dalai Lama in which they discussed human rights issues and the future of the Romanies.

According to Hancock, Romanies carried their wealth with them in the form of jewelry, gold coins, gems, musical instruments, wagons and other portable valuables. If each of the murdered Romani families had held assets worth even just $1,000 each, total restitution would be around $100 million. If reparations of $1,000 each were paid for one million victims, the total would be more like $1 billion.

Although economic assistance will provide the foundation for Romani progress, there is disagreement within the Romani community about what “progress” for them will really mean and the merits of assimilation versus the retention of a unique lifestyle and culture.

“Mainstreaming is definitely a fundamental issue for us,” says Hancock. “We suffered five and a half centuries of slavery and oppression in the Balkans, so a lot of Romanies don’t see that the mainstream has ever done a whole lot for us. As Romanies deny their true identity and assume other ethnicities in order to disappear into the landscape, the Romani language, culture and way of life will be lost.”

In a private meeting with the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India, in March, Hancock had an opportunity to speak candidly with a human rights leader who has faced many of the same challenges that Hancock and the Romani population face today. Although in exile, the Tibetans have been able to maintain their cohesiveness.
The Dalai Lama informed Hancock that it was crucial for the Romanies to sustain the strength of the family unit within their culture and to keep their language alive but to lose those customs that are holding them back and keeping them from integrating into the larger society.

When Hancock looks to the future of the Romani people, he’s cautiously optimistic, and notes that, as a teacher, he’s seen improvements in his students’ level of awareness over the past 30 years.

“When I first started teaching, female students might come to class barefoot and wearing peasant skirts, thinking that was what it meant to be a ‘gypsy,’” says Hancock. “When I asked students to make a list of words they associated with ‘gypsy,’ they’d come up with things like ‘thief,’ ‘fortune-teller’ and ‘nomad.’ Things have definitely improved over the last few decades.”

Even if Hancock were not a teacher and lacked the cultural barometer that the students offer, he would know how “gypsies” are perceived these days—it is, after all, a way of life with which he’s intimately familiar.

Kay Randall

Photos courtesy Dr. Ian Hancock

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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