We, the Roma: An Interview with Ian Hancock

 The name Ian Hancock has become synonymous with Roma advocacy. As the pre-eminent Roma scholar worldwide, and by far the most vocal of the handful of Roma-rights advocates, Professor Hancock is definitely a major player in the area of Roma advocacy. But how did Ian Hancock rise to where he is today? How does he feel about the way the Roma are viewed? And, perhaps more important, what are his hopes for the Roma in the years to come?

I interviewed Ian Hancock on the morning of November 12, 2004, after having attempted to reach him for several days. His official day job is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, but Hancock wears a multitude of different hats. He is the Roma ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, a member of the International Romani Parliament and as White House appointee served as the Romani delegate to the U.S. 

Holocaust Memorial Council. As a regular contributor to numerous major publications, he is constantly sought after for his expert opinion on issues pertaining to the Roma. His primary raison d’être, however, is the advancement of the Roma in contemporary society. An aggressive activist for the Roma, Ian Hancock does not shy away from controversy. He has made such audacious accusations as labeling a variety of other well-respected and recognized specialists on the Roma as “promoting racist views,” and has called for the unequivocal recognition and integration of the Roma into European societies. So it came as a surprise when, finally able to reach him by phone, I was greeted with a very gentle-sounding voice, one that did not match at all with the image of the Ian Hancock I had imagined. Since Hancock was the first Roma in the country to ever receive a Ph.D., I thought an appropriate place to start our conversation would be to ask him about his experiences after receiving his doctorate in Britain in 1971. He responded that, though there were a few members of the faculty that supported him over the course of his study, he was for the most part exiled from the larger academic community. That part of his experience did not come as a shock to me, but what I found most interesting was that he said  that, though many Roma were “extraordinarily proud” of his achievements, many had no idea what a Ph.D. was and therefore were unable to appreciate its significance. I then asked Hancock if he feels that the Roma will ever be treated as equal to their non-Romani counterparts in Europe, to which he responded very quickly, “No, no way at all.” He added that the situation of the Roma is deteriorating in many places, but also that, in Europe, January marks the beginning of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion is a European-Union-mandated program that will give a higher profile to Romani organizations, legislation, and leaders. Hancock seemed rather pessimistic about the initiative, though, pointing out repeatedly that this may simply be a symbolic gesture by the EU in the direction of the Roma, and that little, if anything, of significance could result. In previous years, Professor Hancock has been a strong critic of the EU, as they have taken only insignificant steps to help the Roma of Europe. He told me that he is completely in favor of integration, but is strongly opposed to assimilation, which he views as “identity death,” which he thinks will strip the Roma of their cultural and linguistic uniqueness. Hancock believes that the Roma are already Europeans, and should be given rights accordingly. He stated this in his book, We Are the Romani People, in which he wrote, “So what makes a European? It is a state of mind, a sense of belonging to a part of the world and being a part of its history and its different regional and ethnic cultures. In all of these, Romanies are in no way different from other peoples inhabiting Europe” (78).

It is here that Hancock would disagree with the self-proclaimed non-Roma scholars such as Konrad Bercovici, who attempts to blame the marginalization of the Roma on their exotic nature, using statements like, “They who have no country of their own can call all ground under their feet theirs. They who have no complete language of their own can employ one understood by all the world” (2). Statements like this portray the Roma as being purposefully nomadic, which Hancock insists is not true. Hancock also points out that the Roma have only led a nomadic way of life  because of legislation passed in Europe that has not allowed them to settle permanently anywhere. Though this type of legislation is no longer a serious problem, the Roma have been unable to shake this reputation of being nomadic.

When talking to Hancock, I could not help but notice a deep sense of conviction in his voice. It was obvious that being a Romani himself was not a nine-to-five job for him. He was carrying a great deal on his shoulders. I asked him about how his credibility has been affected within the European Roma community, and he quickly responded that, though he lives in America, he has dual citizenship in the U.S. and the U.K. His main point, however, was that most of the work being done on behalf of the Roma is being handled by gadje (non-Roma), so it did not really matter where he was from, because any Roma has more credibility within the community than a gadjo does. He also pointed out that the millions of Roma who live in North and South America are for the most part excluded from any “worldwide” Roma programs, such as the EU-initiated Decade of Roma Inclusion.

On the topic of other supposed Roma scholars, Hancock is quick to offer criticism. When asked if he feels that the misrepresentations of the Roma that he claims are perpetrated by these scholars are a result of innate racism, or stem from a general misunderstanding of Roma history, he dodges any direct accusations but makes clear his low regard for these scholars. He said that these people writing about the Roma are mostly journalists or novelists and are trying to convey the stereotypical Gypsy image, without acknowledging any of the major problems facing the Roma. Hancock claims that these authors are partially to blame for the general public’s misunderstanding with who the Roma are and he adds that most Europeans are more likely to identify the Roma with Carmen than with anyone else. Hancock is worried that this type of generalization hurts the Roma because, if they are not seen in a serious light, their problems will never be taken seriously. Take Jan Yoors, for example, who opens his book about the Roma with, “The Gypsies, seemingly immune to progress, live in an everlasting Now. . . . They are in constant motion, like the waving of branches or the flowing of water” (Yoors 5). Here Yoors depicts the Roma’s nomadic way of life as intentional and allows the Europeans to save face with regard to their treatment of the Roma. Moreover, writers like Bercovici assert that, “I am attempting to unravel the story of a people whose vocabulary lacks two words—‘duty’ and ‘possession’” (Bercovici 1). This type of romanticized description of the Roma is exactly to what Hancock was referring when he stated that these authors are simply trying to maintain the stereotypical image of the Roma. In Hancock’s article entitled, “Duty and Beauty, Possession and Truth: ‘Lexical Impoverishment’ as Control,” he outlines the many fallacies and plagiarisms that are prevalent in “Roma historical doctrine” (Tong 117).

Over the course of our conversation, I asked Hancock how he felt the lack of historical documentation had affected the public’s ability to understand the Roma’s past. He quickly reminded me that the lack of documents is “very significant,” and that, “we [the Roma] don’t know where to go unless we know where we come from.” This is where the conversation struck a sentimental chord. While I listened to the story of Hancock’s family and their travels around Europe, I once again heard his tone of voice alter. Though in retrospect it probably was not the most appropriate timing on my part, I then asked Hancock to what extent the Roma should be blamed for their elusive and mysterious image. Hancock quickly retorted, “We [the Roma] don’t think we are mysterious, but we are sometimes considered mysterious by outsiders because we don’t answer their questions.” He then drew a surprising parallel between the Roma and Hasidic Jews, pointing out that the latter have their own dietary laws and customs, as do the Roma, and since they both keep to themselves, they are both perceived as mysterious.

He also made the claim that society has a need for the Gypsy as an outlet for fantasy and intrigue. Though I found the latter claim to be slightly outlandish and feeding into romantic stereotypes, his parallel to the Jews, I felt, was well founded. In fact, comparisons between the Jews and the Roma are quite common in Romani literature. For the most part, this comparison exists because both groups of people have been traditional scapegoats in Europe, yet Hancock’s scholarly analysis brings a new level to the relationship between the two peoples.

Throughout my conversation with Professor Hancock, I could not help but feel that my views were beginning to shift. I had entered the conversation with the notion that Hancock was an extremist advocate for the Roma, meaning that I had not felt he was the most credible source on the Roma because he would say anything to get more for his people. But as I spoke to him, I became more trusting of him and listened more objectively to the things he was telling me. When I asked him about the various approaches countries have taken to the Roma question, Hancock told me a story about a recent Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting, in which the Czech delegate stood up and proudly announced that his country was sponsoring a program to teach the Roma to be teaching assistants. At first, I thought he was providing this as an example of the progress that some nations were making, but, after pausing a moment and realizing whom I was talking to, I understood he gave this as an example of how backward many European countries still regard the Roma to be. Why weren’t they being taught to administrate? Another interesting role that Hancock plays is that of the official Roma delegate to the U.N. Hancock lobbies the U.N. for any help they can offer the Roma. He told me that, though the U.N. as a whole did little to help the Roma, it gave some legitimacy to their cause and allowed Hancock to attend major conferences with heads of state. Hancock capitalized on this opportunity to tell me about how the George W. Bush presidency was negatively affecting the Roma, though I detected that some personal animosity was involved. President Bush removed Hancock from the Commission of the Holocaust Museum because he was a political appointee of President Clinton; Hancock told me that Bush let his personal feelings override what was right, and that Bush “hasn’t done anything at all to help anyone in the Roma community.” He also pointed out that the Clinton administration, like most Democrats, was more involved in human rights affairs and that, during her husband’s presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited several Roma camps in Europe and personally donated fifty thousand dollars to a Roma orphanage.

As my conversation with Hancock neared its end, I repeatedly tried to prolong it. I so much enjoyed listening to him, his way of speaking, and his passion when talking about the Roma. Just before we hung up, Hancock told me another story about Clinton’s presidency and a certain piece of legislation he hoped would pass and, in a small way, help the Roma. When I asked him if he really thought President Clinton was interested, he responded memorably, “But of course Clinton tried to help us. He has Roma roots, you know.” After I hung up, I sat in silence for a minute. I was not as shocked by Clinton’s Roma roots as I was by my own complete and sudden change of opinion about the Roma. Hancock’s gentle but matter-of-fact diction had a profound effect on me, and I left the conversation with hope that if anyone could help secure a better future for the Roma, it was he.

Works Cited

Bercovici, Konrad. “The Missing Words.” In The Story of the Gypsies. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1928.
Hancock, Ian. “Duty and Beauty, Possession and Truth: ‘Lexical Impoverishment’ as Control.” In D. tong, ed.,  Gypsies: An Interdisciplinary Reader. New York: Garland Publishers, 1998.
___. “How European are Romanies?” In We are the Romani People. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002.
Yoors, Jan. “Introduction.” In The Gypsies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.