Brave Words from a Bully Pulpit By Kiri Kankhwende

11 December 2013 — Media Diversified

With current transitional controls imposed on Bulgarians and Romanians moving to Britain due to be lifted in January, anti-EU, and in particular, anti-Roma rhetoric is ramping up.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett raised the spectre of race riots in an interview with his local BBC news station on 12 November:

We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that.”

Nick Clegg chimed in a few days later, warning that many find the activities of the Roma community threatening:

There is a real dilemma when you get communities coming into part of our country and then they behave in a way that people find quite difficult to accept. They behave in a way that people sometimes find intimidating, sometimes offensive. We have every right to say if you are in Britain and are coming to live here and you are bringing up a family here, you have got to be sensitive to the way life is lived in this country.”

_1803387_blunk150The accusations are vague, but the stereotypes they evoke play into historic anti-Roma prejudices that have long prevailed in Europe. Clegg and Blunkett’s words stereotype an entire community because of the actions of a few, and this is portrayed as something attributable to Roma culture in general, rather than isolated incidents of community friction.

Their words did not fall into a vacuum. In addition to the anti-migrant rhetoric that dominated the summer with the Go Home campaign and increasingly hysterical Daily Mail headlines about “waves of new migrants,”  last month the case of a blonde Roma girl in Greece who was found to be living with a Roma family who were not her biological parents inflamed old prejudices about Roma kidnapping children. Although the girl’s parents were traced (and were actually Roma themselves), subsequent hysteria saw two Roma families in Ireland have their children taken away because they didn’t look like them.  Gary Younge summed up the situation perfectly:

The truth is the Roma have far more to fear from non-Roma than vice-versa. Gassed by the Nazis, forcibly sterilised by the Swedes, recently expelled by the French, they have long been persecuted.”

Nick Clegg’s comments are also a nod at a particularly aggrieved form of entitlement racism. Although he1927189258 is a government politician with a media bullhorn denigrating a disempowered community without the same formidable resources to mount a response, his talk of the “right” to speak out is based on the assumption that these views have been deliberately silenced. Apparently this is a feeling that resonates with Nigel Farage, who praised David Blunkett’s words:

Mr Blunkett should be admired for the courage he has shown by speaking so plainly on this issue. Of course the type of language he has used I would have been utterly condemned for using.”

The myth that opponents of immigration have been silenced and are now bravely stepping into the public domain to speak the truth has a particular hold for Farage – and I suppose we can now add Blunkett and Clegg to the list. But the real problem is that their language is contested, inflammatory and in some cases simply racist. It’s not silencing to say so. And unlike them, the voices in opposition don’t have the benefit of a bully pulpit to respond.

Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian writer living in London with an eye on Southern Africa. She has a background in human rights campaigning and is interested in immigration, politics and theatre. Can be found blogging at Madomasi and tweeting @madomasi

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