Undermining the ‘last acceptable form of racism’

Matthew Reisz talks to Annabel Tremlett, an academic whose work challenges common perceptions of Romani life

July 3, 2014

Source: András Jókúti

Represented as different: Sometimes I don’t even remember my past, from the Roma exhibition

A new exhibition draws on a University of Portsmouth academic’s work to challenge stereotypes about Romani life.

Annabel Tremlett, senior lecturer in social inclusion, first became interested in the subject when she spent a year in central Hungary on a European Youth Exchange programme working with the long-term unemployed, many of whom were Romani.

This was around the time of Hungarian accession to the European Union, so “there was a lot of focus on Roma as a poor minority”. What was striking was “the gap between EU, national and local discussions of Roma”.

At the EU level, Dr Tremlett continues, the Roma were often “romanticised as a pan-European minority rich in cultural resources”. The Hungarian public debate, by contrast, was “very discriminatory, exclusively about delinquency, criminality and poverty”. But what she was finding on the ground, which was often “ordinary” as well as “interesting”, did not match either of these images.

She decided to pursue these issues through a PhD at King’s College London, looking at the everyday lives of Roma and non-Roma families in the primary school of a Hungarian town where both groups had lived for hundreds of years.

“I was interested in why the Roma are always represented as different, whether positively or negatively,” explained Dr Tremlett. “One of the big findings of my research is that difference is hard to pinpoint.”

Since getting an appointment at Portsmouth, she has worked with travellers in the UK and has been “shocked to find incredibly narrow stereotypes about Roma. It’s the last acceptable form of racism and seldom combated.” She has also analysed popular representations such as the Channel 4 television series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

As part of her PhD, Dr Tremlett gave Roma children in Hungary disposable cameras to take photographs of their everyday lives. Some of this material forms part of the Roma: From “extra” to “ordinary” exhibition on show at the Romanian Cultural Centre in London until 6 July.

Curated by Violeta Vajda, who is currently doing a PhD at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies, it includes framed photographs supplied by Roma living in Luton in Bedfordshire showing family skiing holidays and other activities seldom associated with the Roma way of life.

There are also pictures by Roma photographers from Eastern Europe that consciously undermine common stereotypes. One shows a Roma man holding a knife near his face. The caption reads: “I use my knife for peeling potatoes.”


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