The twentieth of February marks the commemoration of five centuries of Roma slavery in Romania, a period which has reverberating impacts even today.
Abolished in 1855/6, this episode of massive group trauma is virtually absent from public memory. For whom, then, should this commemoration hold significance? Nationally we continue to experience the fracturing social fault lines of trauma as historically marginalized groups fight for liberation. Globally, the acknowledgment of Roma slavery aligns with a glaring mandate to truly understand the enduring impact of historical trauma. Roma all over the world face deep challenges in equal access to housing, healthcare, education, and legal protection, being routinely denied the basic human freedom to live without persecution (United Nations, 2015). While it may be convenient to simply divorce the present situation of marginalization from the historical antecedents which created enduring conditions of social exclusion: it is not possible. Roma marginalization has proceeded intentionally and systematically since the time of slavery, and must be considered in light of very real, cumulative impacts of historical trauma over generations. Blaming Roma for their own marginalization, pathologizing Roma for the inability to overcome it, serves as a smokescreen – dismissing accountability by those who catalyze ongoing injustice. But this truth is self-evident: slavery has consequences.
Historical trauma is defined by Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (1999) as “a constellation of characteristics associated with massive cumulative group trauma across generations.” The impacts of massive group trauma may be transmitted inter-generationally through learned adaptive behavior (survival coping), through genetic/epigenetic means, and through power-imbalanced systems which replicate groups’ low social status. Accordingly, historical trauma is best understood as having interrelated effects on the individual, family, and community levels (Evans-Campbell, 2008). While stereotyping of Roma as parasitic, antisocial and subhuman have served to justify ongoing human rights abuses, there are many critical questions to be posed. How might stereotypes of Roma as “lazy” change when seen in light of historical exploitation of traditional Roma trades and modes of sustainable livelihoods, both during and after slavery? How does a legacy of slavery impact participation and leadership for Roma within state systems previously responsible for their bondage? Might the reported lack of Roma school attendance be more connected to fear of harm wrought by racist and openly abusive institutions than to a lack of value for education? How does one trust children to be educated by governments which do not uphold a just rule of law, ignoring the responsibility to provide safety for all citizens? How do current norms of societally-sanctioned violence and judicial impunity for perpetrators impact Roma capacity for activism? How do entrenched systems of structural violence including lack of integration into the economy over generations prevent many Roma from accessing the increased well-being that all people desire? These are just a few of the questions that situate the legacy of slavery firmly in the present.
Many people fiercely reject culpability for historical trauma, citing the impossibility of rectifying such temporally remote wrongs. Perhaps the true impossibility, however, is sustained collective denial. There are in fact many things we can do, starting with four domains of trauma-informed action: acknowledgment, reclamation, restitution, and self-determination (Anderson, 2016). First, historical trauma must be acknowledged. This might include individual and group psychoeducation, healing rituals, and public acknowledgement of accountability. Secondly, re-claiming of historical losses could include any activities which promote psychological healing from the effects of historical trauma and support resiliency, such as commemorations, culturally appropriate educational practices, and autonomy over cultural representation in the media and other public spaces. Thirdly, restitution can include financial compensation for economic resources exploited through slavery, as well as restoration of land relationships, and individual “reparative living” actions of dominant group members through self-education, activism, and conscious ceding of power in personal and professional roles. Finally, all action must support the self-determination of Roma to define both challenges and solutions regarding impacts of historical trauma. As citizens, organizations, governments: will we adapt to this lens of trauma-informed practice, or will we persist with trauma-ignorant, destructive, unsustainable approaches?
The educator Paulo Freire wrote (1970), “The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is not a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice.” On this day of commemoration, let us honor and join the incessant pursuit of the Roma community toward a humanity which was stolen by slavery and continues to be stolen by pathologization and indifference. Let us collectively turn from despair, yet instead acknowledge, repair, offer restitution, and lift up self-determination as a means for healing and justice.
Anderson, E.M. (2016). The De-pathologizing Power of Historical Trauma Theory in Development: Toward an Intergenerational Transmission of Healing (Master’s Thesis). The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, USA. Retrieved from http://heller.brandeis.edu/gds/social-exclusion/historical-trauma.html
Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (1999). Gender differences in the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Journal of Health & Social Policy,10(4), 1–21.
Evans-Campbell, T. (2008). Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities a multilevel framework for exploring impacts on individuals, families, and communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(3), 316-338.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
United Nations. (May 11, 2015). Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák: Comprehensive study of the human rights situation of Roma worldwide, with a particular focus on the phenomenon of anti-Gypsyism. Accessed at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/SRMinorities/Pages/GlobalStudyonRomaworldwide.aspx
Eamon M. Anderson, MSW, MA, LCSW is a Crisis Clinician, Nonresident Affiliated Expert with the Center for Global Development and Sustainability, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University