April 07 2021
V. Kontvainė: attitudes will change when we start to see people, not their ethnicity

Research on public attitudes, conducted by the Institute for Ethnic Studies, has shown the same thing for the last 15 years: the Roma are the most disadvantaged group in society. Vita Kontvainė, a researcher at the Institute, notes that the Roma community is small, with about 2,000 members, so very often knowledge about the Roma is based on rumors and the media.

V. Kontvainė: attitudes will change when we start to see people, not their ethnicity

Research on public attitudes, conducted by the Institute for Ethnic Studies, has shown the same thing for the last 15 years: the Roma are the most disadvantaged group in society. Vita Kontvainė, a researcher at the Institute, notes that the Roma community is small, with about 2,000 members, so very often knowledge about the Roma is based on rumors and the media.

Roma are rarely cited in the media, and they are made to play the role of the “Other”, something “foreign”. Attitudes will change when we start to see people, not their ethnicity, says V. Kontvainė.

This interview with Vita Kontvainė is the first part of Media4Change’s series of conversations about stereotypes, attitudes and representation issues regarding the Roma in the media.

The second part with Rasma Pažemeckaitė can be found here.

The third part with Aliona Gaidarovič can be found here.

– Vita, the Institute for Ethnic Studies conducts research on public attitudes which shows that the Roma are the most disadvantaged group in society. This result has been the same for years. Can you tell me why that is?

– Yes, our methodology allows us to monitor certain trends and, I think, the greatest value here is that we can notice the changes that are taking place in terms of societal attitudes. It is easiest to understand how societal attitudes change when you look at not just one group, but several of them. So we see that public attitudes may change in relation to different groups. For example, in the case of Jewish ethnic religious group, we see that those attitudes have improved significantly.

As for the Roma, a large part and the main part of the information about them was about the Kirtimai encampment, and basically the only image of the Roma we have in the media is that of a drug trafficking resident in the Kirtimai encampment. And this has been escalated in one way or another, both in the times of politicians like Artūras Zuokas and others after him. There were constant rumors about the eviction of the encampment to one or another municipality which caused waves again, the residents of the municipality objected to it. The encampment aroused great fear, negative feelings, associating it with the unpleasant events taking place there.

Now that the encampment is gone, it will be interesting to see whether or not the media background and public attitudes towards the Roma change. Because the Roma community, like the Jews, is not large in Lithuania and is declining – about 2,000 inhabitants in Lithuania. Therefore, it is not like many people would have had any personal contact with them. Usually, that knowledge of the Roma is based on rumors or information provided by the media.

Culturally different groups in society are often portrayed superficially. On the one hand, the Roma are presented through the prism of a criminal, a deceiver, and on the other hand, their traditions, ways of dressing are parodied and mystified. How can you explain such categorization? What could be the strategies for overcoming it?

– There is a big gap between Roma and Lithuanians, a great deal of mutual mistrust on both sides. And so there is very little of that mutual understanding. When monitoring the Roma in the media, especially in television format, we can see that the Roma are portrayed as birds: loudly “chattering”, but not saying anything, inequal interlocutors. And in fact, if people are being filmed in a particularly stressful situation, when police searches are taking place, or in a place where a house is being demolished, the calm way of talking we are used to is very difficult to come across. Right then the Roma are filmed as exotic representatives of another culture.

It is important for every culture to have its own “Other”, and the Lithuanian “Other”, I think, are the Roma partially. In terms of what we are and are not: the Roma are uncultured, and we are already cultured and so on.

– How can these attitudes be changed?

– First of all, it is important to see people, not their nationality; what those people have to say, how they see the world, what is important to them. When I started my dissertation in 2008, the portrayal of the Roma was exceptionally negative and there was virtually nothing positive said about a Romani person. My tactic then was to talk about children because it is more difficult to demonize a child. At the time, the tactic was to “humanize” the Roma, to show that they were also human beings, not just “dehumanized” individuals, about whom only negative things could be spoken of. With that, things have changed a bit since we started talking about the problems Roma people face.

This is perhaps not very praiseworthy, because on the one hand, talking about children creates that kind of patriarchal, vertical patronage that is now rightfully criticized. Often the response to the negative representation is portraying the Roma as victims, as a certain group that needs helping, rescuing, solving its problems, and it is not a good strategy in the long run. In fact, you need to give it up, you need more equality, you need to think about journalistic strategies and really catch yourself if you think you really want to help them somehow or solve something. This is not a good starting point. First, you have to understand what happened, why it’s there, talk, listen to a few voices, look at the situation, and then try to convey it to the reader.

– Roma are rarely quoted in journalist publications. Why do you think that is and is it precisely because the Roma do not have trust in the media, or is it the reluctance of the media to talk to them? How can this be changed?

– I think the problem is that there are not many leaders, public speakers in the Roma community. We could count those who speak on one hand: Rasma Pažemeckaitė, Ištvanas Kvik. A few years ago, there were people who could speak out. Some of them leave (I’m talking about the older generation of Roma, 10-15 years ago). There are Roma who are educated and can reflect on the situation for the journalist, not only from their own perspective, but also from a broader perspective. There are such Roma, but they are not public figures as Roma representatives. Because if a person has achieved something, for him to go out and introduce himself as Romani is still a certain stigma.

Also, community representation is not that simple because the community is family-based. There are separate families, some communicate more, others less. Speaking on behalf of the Roma is problematic for the Roma.

Among Roma people there is that distrust of the Lithuanian media and the reluctance to be a public figure in general. This really makes it hard to hear those voices. You need to look for organizations that work with the Roma, talk to the Roma organizations themselves, just build those bridges and try to find people within the community, because if someone steps up, there is that support: ‘you talked well’, ‘you did this well’. But it’s not easy.

– You probably also notice examples of positive portrayal, what are they like?

– Most often it is those positive people who go and speak out, for example, Božena Karvelienė, who has done a lot, talked a lot about discrimination in the labor market; Rasma Pažemeckaitė is a personality who breaks stereotypes with her behavior, presenting a different image of a Romani woman in public space; Ištvanas Kvik, meanwhile, represents the traditional image of Roma culture (through culture, customs, entrepreneurship). But there are not many of those speakers from the Roma community.

How do journalists talk about Roma people? Either by depicting a personality that is cool, or conflict, drama, crime – something negative.

It is important to recognize yourself in the “Other”. Get to know that they live with the same problems as me. Another strategy is to show the unique problems that the Roma face, such as the demolition of encampment homes. After all, this is not something that many Lithuanian families can identify with. But you need to find a format to help reveal that, and beware of your stereotypes, exoticization that these people are very unique in their culture and dramatically different and that’s why I want to write about them or want to save them from something.

It is important for the journalist to answer to themselves why they want to write about that, and then it will be clearer to reflect on what strategy should be used. I liked how much the NARA team focus on catching themselves like this: whether I’m not mistaken in this place or whether I’m not repeating those old clichés. Because it’s truly easiest to write when you already know what to write. But that doesn’t work.

– You mentioned that the depiction of the Roma is related to public opinion. Have you noticed that the opinion changed over a period of time precisely because of how the Roma community was portrayed at that time?

– Yes, we monitor those times when negative attitudes rise. In the case of Roma community, we did not notice any significant improvements, but we did notice deteriorations. One case was around 2005 when we first started our monitoring. The first results were very negative for the Roma community, but they can obviously be linked to Artūras Zuokas’ first attempt and political manipulation to demolish the encampment houses. That whole show happened in December of 2004. And so there were strong negative attitudes, because in order to demolish the whole encampment, it was necessary to depict it in a terrible light and show that order had to be restored. This created a type of black-and-white discourse. There were great fears that the Roma would move out and spread around Vilnius. Later, the situation subsided and eased.

When I was writing my dissertation, I asked people how many Roma people they think live in Vilnius. The answers amounted to 20-40 thousand. I was asking myself, do we live in the same Vilnius? Because, in fact, about 600-800 Roma people live in Vilnius. This encampment seemed very big to them in terms of how the media portrayed it and how much it was talked about. We notice the hyperbolization of the problem.

Another deterioration was no longer because of something that happened in Lithuania, but Nicolo Sarkozy’s campaign to expel the Roma from France in 2010. A lot has been written about it in the Lithuanian media too, and the negative attitudes have worsened, because “even in France they are being expelled, which justifies my negative attitude towards that group”. Some people, too, began to think that they did not want the Roma to live in their neighborhood.

Now that the encampment houses were demolished, no sharp waves were observed against the Roma. So there are no improvements yet, but deteriorations can be seen.