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A matter of identity

WIlliam Bila, IMBA’02, advocates on behalf of Romani people.

When William Bila, IMBA’02, moved to Prague in 1992 to work at the consulting firm Ernst & Young, his mother told him never to admit he was Roma. Bila’s parents had immigrated to the United States from what was then Czechoslovakia; his mother knew well the open prejudice he would face.

Romani people—widely known in English-speaking countries by the inaccurate term “Gypsies”—moved to Europe from India, not Egypt, more than eight centuries ago. Their history and culture are largely misunderstood and undervalued, even among the Roma. Bila’s mother didn’t know the Romani came from India, he says, “until she moved to America at the age of 40 and saw it in an encyclopedia.”

Bila now lives in Paris, where he serves on the boards of the Roma Education Fund and the Roma Education Support Trust. As part of his activism, he recently spoke at the French Senate. Bila is also an independent promoter for A People Uncounted (2011), an award-wining documentary about the Roma.

Bila’s interview with the Magazine is edited and adapted below.

Based on media coverage, it seems like the situation for Roma is worse now than 20 years ago.

Much worse. I would say mostly because of the economy, but also because no one has done anything since 1989 in terms of introducing multicultural education. Roma have lived on the territory for centuries. They’re not “immigrants.” They’re not “foreigners coming in.” They’re part of the fabric of society, but they’re treated as if they’re foreigners who never integrated.

There’s a difference between culture and socioeconomic class. Roma are looked upon as being poor and migratory. The vast majority are sedentary. There are Roma people who are middle class, who have jobs, who have gone to school.

What about those in shanty towns? Are they legal to live in France?

They are European citizens and have European passports. Since the new countries joined the European Union, they have the right to live anywhere. When you see expulsions in the papers, that means destroying a shanty town. They might go to the next town.

There’s something so medieval about that.

Exactly. France, which is supposed to be a Western European leader of human rights and democracy, should be setting the example. But they’re following the examples of the Eastern European states, treating the Roma as scapegoats, because they can’t deal with their own economic crisis.

Roma don’t need a special policy. They need to have the same access and respect for their culture, for their rights as human beings, as citizens of Europe, and that’s it.

What is the relationship between Romani living in different countries?

It’s complicated. There is no one Roma culture. Gitanos in Spain, gypsies and travelers in the UK, and Manouche in France, are all Romani peoples. The proper word would be Romani. And then there are the Roma from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

So Romani is a general term.

It’s kind of a general term, but the Council of Europe and the European Union and Amnesty International use the word “Rom” or “Roma” for the whole. And that’s in general OK. But some of them don’t like to be called that.

There’s no institution that exists to define who is Roma. It’s always defined from the outside. And that definition keeps changing based on whoever’s in power. That’s why we have an activist phrase of the last few years, “Nothing about us without us.”

Growing up in the United States, did you think of yourself as Romani?

I grew up as a white suburban American. I didn’t consider myself ethnic-y in any way, any more than an Italian American, Irish American, or anything. My parents felt perfectly comfortable as basically Slovak immigrants. My mother is Roma, my father is not.

How did you react when your mother said to hide your background?

I argued a little bit with her, but I listened. When I was living in Prague, I heard lots of comments.

As an activist, if you could change anything, what would it be?

To keep socioeconomic status separate versus identity, culture, history, ethnicity. You can do that through education, a cultural institute, history books, proper journalism.

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