Greek, Romanian, Albanian: why are these racist terms in Europe?

Article published on May 17, 2010
Article published on May 17, 2010
It's a fine line between risky jokes and racist innuendo. Those who manage to be funny while staying on the right side of that line are pretty smart. Nevertheless, at a time when calls to reject that protean scapegoat, the Other, are growing throughout the four corners of the continent, a little self-examination in Europe might not be a bad thing

Europeans all have some whipping boy or scapegoat, whether Romanian or Albanian, in their everyday language. When the Italians say sei un albanese (you’re Albanian) or sembri un albanese (you look Albanian) to someone, this means that they are badly dressed, or, basically, dressed like a tramp. Spain has the same sort of expression: rather than saying you don’t look too good, the expression is tienes más mala pinta que un rumano (you look even worse than a Romanian). Idem in Poland where co za Rumun (you Romanian) does a good job of expressing criticism. The problem is that Europeans like to make amalgams and so do not always distinguish between Romanians and gypsies. The French do not even know anymore whether it is the Romanians or the gypsies who are reputed to steal from parking metres. In Italy, sei uno zingaro (you are a gypsy) and sei un albanese (you’re Albanian) mean exactly the same thing, and nothing too pleasant either.

Where did these language habits, shared by all Europeans, come from? Romanian national security, a group of hackers who attacked the websites of two daily newspapers, The Daily Telegraph in the UK and Le Monde in France, blame the media for associating Romanians with gypsies (and who have gone on to associate them with begging and stealing). On 15 April 2010 they replaced the homepage of Planète plus intelligente ('More Intelligent Planet'), a supplement offered by Le Monde, and of and, two sub-sites of the British daily paper, with a Romanian flag followed by a text declaring resentfully that in Europe, Romanian too often means gypsy. Thus, even in prestigious publications, everyday racism can be present.

However, Romanian friends, take heart as you read: others are also affected by this ordinary racism. Udawać Greka (pretending to be a Greek) for the Polish means pretending to be unaware of something you know perfectly well. According to the French, the Greeks are all homosexual, or so the expression va te faire voir chez les Grecs (go and get a seeing-to by the Greeks) would suggest. They also eat a lot of garlic according to the Germans, because Die Griechen – die riechen (the Greeks stink). And if someone Spanish tells a girl pareces griega (you look Greek), this means that she has not waxed properly. One might think that what brings Europeans together is the need for a long group therapy session in order to know a bit more about the roots of our own everyday racism!