Hate Speech And The Fight For Roma Representation After New York Comic Con
We live in a time when hate speech directed at marginalized people has become too commonplace in public and political rhetoric; a time when the demonization of Muslims, immigrants, transgender people and others masquerades as a defense of security or virtue; when nostalgia for "the good old days" sanctifies a past in which marginalized people were deprived of respect, voice, or power. The fear-mongering of politicians seeps down into everyday conversation, feeding commonplace prejudices.
Even so, it's still shocking to hear that sort of rhetoric presented on the stage at a comic convention by one of the industry's most high profile authors, especially at a panel discussing LGBTQ themes in Marvel's X-Men comics. Yet at last week's New York Comic Con, writer Peter David indulged in exactly that sort of hate speech, in this instance directed at one of the world's most easily and persistently scapegoated communities: the Rromani people.
Elana Levin at Comics Beat offered one of the most comprehensive first-hand accounts of the incident. In brief; human rights activist Vicente Rodriguez, founder of the recently formed Rromani representation advocacy group RomaPop, noted that negative ideas about Rromani culture have been presented through characters like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Doctor Doom, and asked what could be done to improve editorial policies regarding Rromani representation. (We've chosen to use the spelling "Rromani" in this article in deference to the community.)
David responded with a personal anecdote about seeing children in Bucharest, Romania, with broken legs, and being told that "gypsies" break their children's legs to make them more effective beggars. In response to Rodriguez's attempt to follow up, David shouted, "I don't care," and finished by saying, "I don't want to hear anything else you have to say." The exchange at the panel was caught on video by a representative of RomaPop.
David later wrote about his experiences in Bucharest in 1993 in more detail on his blog, and posted a picture he had taken of a child with a deformity of his legs.
David has since offered an apology for his outburst, acknowledging his own ignorance of the subject, and stating, "the more I've read, the more convinced I've become that what I saw [in Romania] was indeed examples, not of children crippled by parents, but children suffering from a genetic disorder."
ComicsAlliance spoke to radiology technologist Jim Gilmer, and he suggested that the photograph David took in Romania "looks to me, as someone with years in pediatric ER and trauma, exactly like what one would expect from a congenital deformity of the limb, and from the sort of lack of medical care that the Rromani in Europe suffer under."
In David's statement he acknowledged that his own comments helped further the stigmatization of Rromani people, though he also asserted that Rromani children "beg or steal to gather money for drug abusers," and said that "[t]he 'lucky' ones are dumped in orphanages" --- both claims that further reflect prejudice and poor understanding of the plight of the Rromani.
Nonetheless, this has clearly been an educational week for David, and perhaps for other people who share his prejudices. The notion that child mutilation is endemic to Rromani culture is a libel in line with the sort of lies previously spread about many other marginal groups, such as the claim that Jewish people practice the blood sacrifice of children, or the claim that gay men are sexual predators. Such libels almost always present the marginalized people as a threat to children.
The similarity of David's claims to those made against other groups was especially resonant to Gilmer, who is both Rromani and Jewish. "The thing that stuns me the most is that this is a Jewish man [Peter David, known to fans as PAD] who believed it, and I try to wrap my head around someone being told in 1993 of blood libel and believing it of the Jews, and I would think PAD would immediately scoff at the idea that anyone could ever believe that of an entire race, and yet... that's essentially what he did."
The Rromani have long been an especially vulnerable group for persecution, in part because they're a widespread ethnic minority group, and in part because they have no official native state to offer them protections. The fact of their vulnerability is as true today as it's ever been. Speaking to ComicsAlliance, Vicente Rodriguez noted, "Rromani reality in today's Europe is probably one of the top human rights emergencies. The far-right and fascist rising after the 2007 economic crisis has brought back the ghost of the Holocaust. Today our people suffer segregation, forced sterilization, mass evictions and violent hate crimes."
Gilmer experienced anti-Rromani hatred (antiziganism) first hand, growing up in and around Detroit. "I am 'white Roma'; by most American standards I'm white, [but] I was far from white enough for the sort of people who burned crosses and marched in full KKK and Nazi uniform through the streets of small towns in mid-Michigan. I took a few beatings as a kid and even got stabbed for not being white enough as a teenager. I'm extremely privileged, however, because anyone can tell you the horrific conditions which those Roma who can't pass or who are still connected to their cultures either in the Americas or back in Europe face."
Rodriguez has been criticized in some quarters, including by David, for raising the issue of Rromani representation at an LGBTQ panel. Yet Rodriguez correctly observes, "There is no space for Rromani people to raise their voice in American pop culture, and this space certainly does not exist within Marvel or the Comic Con itself. We tried to create that space to start a conversation, sending lots of letters and applying for panels, but everything that had the word Rromani on it was rejected."
Speaking from personal experience, that sounds all too familiar. As someone who has been advocating for queer representation in superhero comics for 20 years, I recall the frustration I faced in finding spaces at conventions where my questions were welcomed. It took time, persistence, and visibility, to see those spaces emerge, and to have that conversation about queer visibility move into the mainstream. The same will be true of the conversation about Rromani representation, and people like Rodriguez deserve to be supported in their efforts.
Rodriguez is a long-time fan of Peter David's work --- he bought his first Peter David comic, Incredible Hulk #454, when he was nine years old --- and he used to save up what little money he had to read more of David's Hulk comics. Though he says he's forgiven David for his remarks, he hasn't been impressed by the author's various statements, noting that the final statement "goes as far as to say that Rromani parents forced children to beg for drugs ... What to say to this? Responding is not worth my time."
Gilmer also came to David's work through Incredible Hulk, and while he says he accepts David's apology and wants to offer him a second chance, he sympathizes with those who cannot.
"I don't know that PAD realizes how damaging hearing that from a prolific and beloved creator is, and that it emboldens both the flat out racists who many of us deal with, as well as the fans of PAD who are going to be upset that people are angry at him. I've already seen some racially charged comments made against people who've expressed their anger, as well as some racists popping up online to agree with PAD or use his words to back up their own hate speech, and I don't think that is at all what he would ever intend or want, and yet... that's where we are."
Through the organization RomaPop, Rodriguez hopes to help improve the representation of Rromani people in popular culture. "There is plenty of work to do. We will keep producing educational materials, organizing seminars and conferences and demonstrations, giving lectures in US universities and all that." The group issued a statement through its Twitter account calling on Marvel and NYCC organizers ReedPop to make a public commitment to better Rromani representation. The statement read, in part:
We are still asking ReedPOP to commit to a public show of solidarity, a concrete plan to fix their anti-harassment mechanisms, and a panel at next year's Comic Con that will address Rromani representation. We are still asking Marvel to respond publicly to the openly racist hate speech of one of their most prolific writers, and to address our initial set of demands which encourage them to alter policy to ensure sufficient education and guidelines on Rromani people, as well as formal consultation with Rromani representatives and creators."
Marvel's sensitivity to issues of representation in recent years has been uneven at best, with Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso going so far as to note at a Black Panther panel at the same convention that he is "the last thing from a social justice warrior." The company does not appear to have any set editorial policies in support of diversity, and a history of public missteps --- such as the straightwashing of Hercules, or the belittling of Jewish fans who expressed unhappiness with the Nazi Captain America storyline --- suggests that Marvel editors and contributors could benefit from sensitivity training. The panel where David made his remarks was not organized by Marvel, but it did include Marvel editor Daniel Ketchum, so it had the publisher's support.
"I honestly doubt Marvel will address [David's remarks]," says Gilmer, "but I would hope that when someone, even inelegantly, tries to speak for a traditionally under- or badly represented group that suffers real world repression that the people who work at Marvel take the time to listen."
Representation in popular culture, such as Marvel's comics and movies, remains a vital way to help people understand other cultures. Rodriguez told ComicsAlliance that the best way for people to confront their prejudices about the Rromani is to "[m]eet people, talk with them. ... We are all human beings and that's it. No better, no worse than anyone else."
The next best thing may be to expose people to unbiased and humane presentations of Rromani people in entertainment. Rodriguez has written in the past about the importance of making the Roma identity of characters like Doctor Doom and Nightwing visible in the text --- specifically in film, but the request is equally applicable to comics.
Other existing character who could be used to advance Rromani representation in comics, particularly popular superhero comics, include Nightcrawler and Meggan of the X-Men, and Justice League of America member Cindy Reynolds. There must also be scope to establish new Rromani characters, preferably in consultation with the Rromani community.
(It's worth noting that Cindy Reynolds' established codename, "Gypsy," is considered a slur by many, and would presumably need to be changed. Also of note, Nightcrawler was raised in a Rromani community, but it has never been established whether or not he is ethnically Rromani.)
Peter David's remarks at New York Comic Con were a disgrace, but the efforts made by Rodriguez and RomaPop will hopefully start a conversation that leads to better representation of the Rromani people in comics and pop culture, and a more sophisticated understanding of their experiences and struggles.
"I don't hold out much hope for Marvel (The Company)," says Gilmer, "but I do hold out hope that the people who work there now, who will work there in the future, and who work across the industry, will hear about this and use it to learn, and when there's the potential for a Rromani character, or when a character who is Rromani and already exists is used, that there's some deeper thought given about how they represent both the character, their heritage, and that character's relationship to their heritage.
"Because comics have taught me a lot. I've learned countless things about history and language and people from comic books, and I continue to, and I would hope that it's the right things that get taught and represented."
To learn more about RomaPop and its aims, visit the Facebook page or follow RomaPop on Twitter. RomaPop recommends visiting the Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative to get a better understanding of the challenges facing the Rromani people, or watching this two-minute animation by the Open Society Foundations.