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British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2014


Afrmative action in Romanias higher education: Roma

students perceived meanings and dilemmas
Maria-Carmen Pantea*
Department of Social Work, Babe-Bolyai University, BBU, Cluj Napoca,
(Received 7 December 2012; nal version received 21 November 2013)
This qualitative paper explores Roma students perceptions on the policy
of assigning special places for Roma in Romanias universities.
Findings suggest that Roma see themselves as occupying a precarious
social space, concerned not as much to hide perceived merit violation
but to handle (alleged) inadequacies given by their stigmatized ethnicity.
Keywords: afrmative action; higher education; ethnicity; Roma

Roma (also known as Gypsies) are one of the most disenfranchised
minorities of Europe. For 20 years, Romania the country with the highest
number of Roma has allocated special places in universities within its
integration policy. Based on 57 interviews with Roma students/graduates,
this paper explores the perceived meanings of the policy and the tensions it
generates. The paper argues that as the afrmative action policy is poorly
articulated, individuals construct their own understanding in ways that t
their educational trajectories. Interviewed Roma see themselves as occupying
a precarious social space. Their main concern is not as much to hide perceived merit violations (as generally assumed in afrmative action debates),
but to handle (alleged) inadequacies given by their stigmatized ethnicity.
They need to manage two sets of dilemmas. One refers to the expectation to
give something back and the other to the tacit imperative for ethnicity disclosure. Ultimately, the article suggests that the policy of special places is
simultaneously inclusive and debilitating, as it carries social costs for the
minority students coming from stigmatized social groups.
Framing the context: afrmative action policies in Romania
Roma are, by far, the most disenfranchised minority of Romania; the
country with the highest Roma population1 in Europe. They have a history
*Email: pantea@policy.hu
2014 Taylor & Francis

M.-C. Pantea

of 500 years of slavery, which ceased merely 150 years ago. During the
Second World War over 25,000 Romanian Roma were deported to Transnistria. Now, one-quarter are illiterate (Soros Foundation Romania 2012) and
only one-half of Roma of working age are actually working, most often in
agriculture (World Bank 2010). Romanias afrmative action policy started
in 1992. Twenty years later, the policy conceived on the run (Roma Education Fund [REF] and Gallup 2009, 11) still carries critical administrative
and conceptual shortcomings. Besides elusive references to Roma inclusion,
the educational policy documents do not state any rationale and objectives
for the afrmative action policy:
There is no legislative act to stipulate with clarity what are the legitimacy
grounds of such measures, what are the objectives of these measures and
what is the time span planned in order to achieve the desired effects. (REF
and Gallup 2009, 132)

How does the so-called afrmative action policy work in Romania?

Essentially, the Ministry Education allocates a number of reserved places
for Roma2 to several state universities, which assign the places to various
departments, depending on the demand in previous years. The highest
number is distributed to the (largely feminized) social science sector (REF
and Gallup 2009). Students university admission is based on standardized
test scores. The candidates for the special places need to provide a certicate attesting the ethnic afliation, issued in the form of a recommendation
from a Roma organization. Those admitted are guaranteed tuition grants
and (paid) accommodation on campus. Need-based state scholarships are
available, while some external funding opportunities are offered exclusively
to Roma3.
The programme evolved from 10 special places in 1992/93 to 550 in as
many as 49 state universities in 2012/13. Each year, the number of special
places is increased (Horvath 2007); and each year, approximately one-third
of the reserved places remain unoccupied. An explanation is the lower
(and probably decreasing) demand (REF and Gallup 2009). Yet some Roma
go to private universities that are perceived as less demanding, while others
apply for regular places in state universities. The status of the places
remaining vacant is not regulated and this engenders the idea that the special places are subtracted from those belonging to the majority students.
Roughly, the number of those on afrmative action policies is 0.1% from
the entire student population.
Given the above, one could argue that if Romania applies an afrmative
action at all, this is in any case an outdated form that prioritizes numbers to
genuine institutional change. Other views may consider the reserved places
close to the controversial quota system. While acknowledging the legitimacy
of such interpretations, the paper will, however, employ the term

British Journal of Sociology of Education

afrmative action and special places for Roma, as they appear in

Romanias educational policy.
Roma enter universities at a time when their status is subject to contestation and othering at home and in Europe (Tileaga 2005). They are often
misrepresented in the media and informally held responsible for damaging
Romanias image abroad. In the absence of a clearly stated policy rationale,
afrmative action is being attributed to the tendency to remedy past injustices, following similar US discourses (Horvath 2007; REF and Gallup
All things considered, afrmative action policy for Roma is not one of
the most difcult and divisive issues of the nation as is the case in the United States (McPherson 1983, 245). The number of reserved places is too
low to be perceived as a risk for the general admission process. The
policy is a rather silent measure; at best ignored, and at worst questioned
informally. Periodically, media revives the subject in rather divisive terms
and in a general context lacking any cogent debates4. This feeds a tacit anxiety over Roma as unmerited recipients of state support. Loosely regulated,
administered in universities own ways and often feebly promoted, the policy of special places for Roma is there, holding to the implicit notion that
the state has done its share.
Theoretical rationales in favour of afrmative action
Afrmative action is grounded in the principle of equal opportunities,
which holds that all members of society are eligible to compete on equal
terms (Arneson 2008). There are several arguments that lay behind this
more general principle, such as the need to compensate for past injustices
or to correct present-day social wrongs (Green 2004), the community benet
(Tierney 2007), the need for diversity in school settings, or the restoration
of the right to be heard (Strike 2006). In different social, political and legal
contexts, one argument may be more potent than another.
In general, afrmative action policies received more endorsement when
grounded in the liberal egalitarian argument, which holds that inequality is
permissible as long as any inequalities result in maximizing the position of
the worst off (Moses 2006, 573). The rationale is that treatment as equals
does not necessarily imply getting the same treatment (2006, 573). In
Romania, teaching in Romanes language (at primary school level) is
grounded in this principle. Yet it is unclear to what extent the special
places measure is perceived as being related to the liberal egalitarian
There are also other principles that provide some theoretical underpinning for the afrmative action policy. Thus, according to the compensatory
argument, afrmative action addresses past injustices (Bergmann 1996). The
corrective argument focuses on remedying present-day social injustices and

M.-C. Pantea

structural or organizational disparities. Redistributive arguments are

grounded in the assumption that society is unjust in its distribution of
social rewards, power, resources and afrmative action addresses those historically excluded (Francis 1993; cf. Green 2004, 376).
More recently, the global thinking on afrmative action policy was
revived following Michigan Universitys response to allegations of racial
preferences. The university rejected the social justice arguments (including
the principle of solidarity) and made the case for racial diversity, a term
with a long career in educational policies. In view of that, universities need
to reect the diversity of the society as a whole (Green 2004). Moreover, it
was argued that diversity benets the education of all (read: the others)5.
Diversity differs from afrmative action by its pragmatic, strategic orientation. However, the idea that campus diversity is a precondition for academic
excellence appeared unsubstantiated; successful universities without ethnic
and racial diversity showed that diversity could be contributory but not
essential (Fullinwider and Lichtenberg 2004).
In a more political line, likely to resonate with the current European concern on Roma education, one may argue that afrmative action should be
encouraged as a matter of restoration of voice (Strike 2006, 185). Universities are the primary gateway to other inuential forums, and not having
access to university means being declined a voice and the right to be heard
in societys places of inuence (Strike 2006, 190).
Tensions and dilemmas on afrmative action
Afrmative action is far from a conict-free theoretical space. Objections
argue that the policy is a violation of equal treatment: states have no duty
to provide for the less advantaged, but to ensure the enabling circumstances
for access to resources (Moses 2006, 575). In the United States, opponents
invoke national legislations that prohibit discrimination of any kind. They
advocate for colour-blind educational policies and oppose the so-called
government-sponsored discrimination (Clegg 2000). It is also argued that
afrmative action violates the meritocratic principles and that it is an articial policy trading traditional admissions criteria for questionable tactics
solely aimed at overcoming underrepresentation of minority groups (Sowell
1990, 20).
Afrmative action is also said to violate the protestant ethic that values
self-reliance, obedience, individualism, discipline and hard work: the new
racism (Augoustinos, Tufn, and Every 2005), or the modern racism
(McConahay 1986). Ambivalent attribution theory acknowledges past and
present racism, but holds to the idea that minorities condition will improve
only when they do more to help themselves (Gamson 1999).
In more practical terms, although the idea of afrmative action may benet from high endorsement, the concrete measures to reach it tend to be

British Journal of Sociology of Education

highly contentious, if not plainly divisive. For instance, although a practice

in early days of afrmative action, quota systems are now considered discriminatory and unlawful in the United States and the European Union,
among others. Yet, up to now, there has not been any cogent debate on
these measures in Romania. Percent plans seem less controversial, although
not free from disagreement either. They consist of reserving university
places for usually 10% of the highest achievers from each high school. The
policy, implemented in Texas, California and Florida, is being criticised for
discouraging competition while endorsing the segregation of the educational
system (Gnagey 2003).
There are, also, some lessons learned from Indias reservation policy,
which goes back to Gandhi, who cautioned about its potentially divisive
character. In time, it became evident that this policy did not succeed to
address the established divides of the caste system, but accentuated the
inequalities within the so-called backward classes (De Zwart 2000). As
the upper strata of the disadvantaged castes took advantage of the policy,
the measure conrmed that afrmative action needs to incorporate the
intersectional character of oppression (Crenshaw 2003); that is, to integrate
ethnicity/race with gender and class.
Whether afrmative action succeeded to overturn some forms of inequality remains heavily debated. A controversial mismatching theory holds that
it allocates minority students to universities that pose standards which are
too high and thus increases their chances of dropping out (Sander 2004).
The policy was also criticized for having a boomerang effect, when mark
[ing] people of colour as decient and insatiable, as always needing more
and more (Fraser 1997, 30). Besides, some research seems to indicate that
the policy did not touch the lives of the most disadvantaged and it left intact
societys structural constraints (Fraser 1997) or the divides inside minority
groups (DSouza 1995; de Zwart 2000; Bok 2004; Fry 2012). Thus, in the
United States there were frequent concerns over afrmative action policies
promoting the emergence of a black bourgeoisie, black underclass
(DSouza 1995, 239242) or a privileged and disengaged Black middle
class (Thompson 2003, 20). In India, the reservation policy overlooked
castes internal stratications and a proposal for quotas within quotas was
considered more legitimate (De Zwart 2000, 246).
Although rare, arguments that afrmative action for Roma does not reach
the hard to reach because of disregarding the intersectionality of discrimination were also heard in Romania (Oprea 2005). As an illustration, 78% of
Roma students from a probabilistic sample of 175 would have enrolled if
afrmative action measures were unavailable (REF and Gallup 2009).
By and large, the policy debates were heavily penetrated by ideological
considerations that inevitably objectied minority students. They assume
and reinforce some of the simplications of ethnic absolutism (Tremlett
2009). Roma ethnicity is not an exception to this: it is a contested terrain,

M.-C. Pantea

penetrated by debates over who is a Roma/what makes someone a

Roma. The notion of exible/ hybrid identication (Les Back 1996; Smith
2008) tries to challenge the binary focus being or not being a Roma, to
declare/ not to declare by showing that people use a myriad of identity
formations depending on the context, power relation or particular moment
(Tremlett 2009, 165). Inevitably, the risk of further essentializing the
Roma has been a major concern this research needed to face.
However, the discourses on afrmative action developed with poor
awareness at the inherent dynamics that situate people sharing an ethnic
background at different levels of vulnerability. Because these debates tend
to overlook other forms of oppression such as gender and class, they face
the risk to perpetuate a groupist view of ethnicity as a thing in the
world: internally homogenous, externally bounded (Brubaker 2004, 1). It
is thus likely that looking at the way afrmative action is experienced at the
personal level will add a different layer to the current understanding of this
Aims and methods
This paper looks into the meanings of afrmative action for young Roma. It
examines the processes of identity negotiation involved when they work out
their status as beneciaries of afrmative action policies in an institutional
environment heavily permeated by mainstream values. The paper does not
intend to take sides, but to shed light on the ways Roma perceive the afrmative action policy and on the way this is enacted in their everyday lives.
The main rationale is to provide insights and open up debates into an area
that remains largely uncharted. It mirrors similar concerns expressed in the
literature on Latina in American universities, namely to give voice to a
silenced discourse which is often concealed for fear of appearing weak, confrontational, self-pitying, or unscholarly (Reyes and Ros 2005, 378). Also,
the paper counter-weighs the tendency to perceive Roma as a group and
rarely as individuals (Sigona 2003).
The research was based on in-depth individual interviews with 57 selfdeclared Roma students or recent graduates (37 young women and 20
young men) from more than 10 (public and private) universities of
Romania. Several students/young graduates had been working for Roma
organizations. The recruitment method was not limited to those admitted to
the special places. Participants have been approached from Roma students
associations, personal contacts, universities, and online social networks. The
duration of interviews was between 30 minutes and two hours. Several
participants who were living long-distance and two graduates who have
migrated were interviewed by telephone.
The number of research participants (small in absolute terms) needs to
be judged in relation to the diminutive number of Roma in universities. If

British Journal of Sociology of Education

as little of 0.7% of those above age 16 (around 1732 Roma) have some
form of tertiary education6 (Soros Foundation Romania 2012), it follows
that the total number of those now in university or who recently graduated
is extremely low. Also, the need to establish trustful relationships with the
research participants, to ensure anonymity and to discuss in-depth issues
perceived as sensitive or a matter of internal knowledge limited the capacity to extend beyond this number. Interviewing was concluded when the
themes became repetitive.
Close to one-quarter of interviewees were from the countryside or from
segregated Roma communities, from very precarious economic and social
environments7. They had parents without stable incomes or siblings who
dropped out of school long ago. Three participants continued their education
while facing sometimes adamant family pressure to marry (a young man
was forcibly married in a spring holiday and then he ran away). Another
family had a history of precarious housing and evacuation. Yet the large
majority of the research participants came from small families living in
integrated environments, often at physical (and social) distance from the
extended kin. At least one parent held a permanent job. For many, the
history of social mobility and integration started generations ago. Several
interviewees were from musician families, a Roma branch with some social
and economic capital.
Grounded in a constructivist understanding, the paper prioritizes young
peoples perceptions, incomplete as they may be, and does not engage in
a purposeful search for the truth about afrmative action policies in
Romanias universities. Nevertheless, the ndings based on a limited and
convenience sample cannot be generalized beyond the individuals actually
Recruitment and interviewing were aware that students understand and
position themselves in different ways in relation to Roma ethnicity: from
adhering to the emerging notion of Roma pride to making deliberate
efforts for concealing potential association with Romaness. Both recruitment
and interviewing were sensitive to participants personal choices and tried
to avoid causing unwarranted distress. Previous familiarity with some interviewees who prefer not to declare having a Roma background was instrumental in gaining a closer understanding on the eld, and compensated to
some extent for under-sampling the less vocal youth.
Research ndings
The next three sections will analyse the meanings of afrmative action
among interviewees and the dilemmas it generates: the moral obligation to
give back and the regime of compulsory disclosure often discussed
in the context of other stigmatized groups, such as homosexual persons
(Decena 2008, 397).

M.-C. Pantea

Perceived meanings of afrmative action

Regardless of their status (recipients of special places or not), research participants demonstrated strongly held opinions on afrmative action. There
were very few instances when interviewees related afrmative action policies to Roma history of slavery and deportation. Those who did owed their
awareness to a previous involvement in the Roma civic movement. Knowing about Roma plight was not a natural by-product of living among
Roma, but an educated and recent exercise. This situation may be linked
with Roma people having a weak collective memory, experiencing a historical amnesia or living with(in) another sense of time (Trumpener 1992;
van Baar 2010). Other authors spoke about Roma as people who choose
not to bother with history at all (Clendinnen 1999, 8; cf. Stewart 2004,
568) or possessing an art of forgetting (Fonseca 1995, 276).
Yet it may also be for the interviewees that the discourse on todays
adversities exerts such a compelling force that it prevents them from reading the rationales for afrmative action policies (also) from historical
lenses. Besides, Roma in Romania have different histories (which go from
deportation to more autonomous life in Transylvania) and thus the discourse
on Roma oppression may not have the same relevance to all (Gheorghe and
Rostas 2012). For other participants, the grounds for afrmative action were
often elusive and inherent in the very condition of being a Roma. Afrmative action becomes a right, with no strings attached, and one can enjoy it
by virtue of his/her ethnicity alone:
Interviewer: If someone were to ask you why do you think someone like you
would need special places at university, what would you respond?
Sebi: Because Im a Roma! Thats what Id say! (Sebi, age 20)

Sebis assertiveness is grounded in his involvement in Roma movement.

Being a member of an inuential family involved in local politics, Sebi
learned to make ethnicity work to his advantage. The notion of social exclusion is so much embedded in the way he sees the condition of his group that
it hinders the perception of afrmative action as an articulate policy. For Sebi,
afrmative action is here to stay, just as Roma marginalization itself:
Interviewer: Why do you think there are special places for Roma in universities?
Cristi: Because Roma civic movement considered it good for Roma to be
helped at the beginning, to advance. [Smiling] In the ideal moment when
things will even out (Cristi, 19)
Sebi: I dont think so. Even if they were equal and there were no differences,
a gypsy is still a gypsy, and there will always be a need for afrmative

British Journal of Sociology of Education

Other times, young people may retrospectively search for meanings and
try to accommodate the rationales for afrmative action in their own educational trajectories. In a constructivist way, for some, the interview facilitated
this process of meaning-making:
Ive never liked to study. Now, when learning psychology, Im thinking that I
might have had some learning problems. I was always waiting for examples
from them [the teachers]. I couldnt understand the written text. I wanted
them to explain things. I needed to process stuff and I used to learn a lot
from practice [] Thats why I had poor grades. In this respect, the special
places thing was very good for me. (Sidonia, age 26)

Most probably, Sidonias school experience is not unique. Roma children

with (apparently) different learning styles are structurally disadvantaged in
school environments where teaching is not culturally responsive. Their
experiences of social/cultural domination resonate with Bourdieus (1991)
concept of symbolic violence. Afrmative action comes as a late response
to these less visible barriers. Now, Sidonia is studying psychology in order
to obtain the formal credentials for the community work she is practicing
successfully without a degree. She questions the relevance of ethnicity as a
personal source of identication and positions herself beyond ethnic labels:
Then, I had this transition stage. Wellwhy should I say this thing? That Im
a Gypsy?? [] We can talk about Iraq without me saying Im a Roma.
Right? (Sidonia)

On the other hand, the research identied situations of opposition to

afrmative action among Roma. For some, disagreement was shaped by a
strong motivation to integrate. With a history of 12 years of education in a
boarding school for children with visual impairments, Victor made tting
in his life project. His views on afrmative action are integrated into a
personal value system:
As long as I dont like being negatively discriminated, I wouldnt want to be
positively discriminated, either. I say I am a Roma, but Ive never applied for
scholarships. As long as I want to be like the majority, I have to behave like
them, to wash like them, to dress like them. This doesnt mean I have to give
up Roma traditions. (Victor, age 27)

Young Roma may reject afrmative action for the same reason as many
from majority population. They may also consider it a violation of meritocracy and a great detriment to the Roma not in special places:
I know them [Roma in special places] very well. They hang around some
NGOs all day long, dont care about school, barely pass the exams and then
claim loudly that Roma are being discriminated against. (Viorica, age 24, not
in special places)


M.-C. Pantea

Afrmative action is also rejected out of concern for its more practical
implications (e.g. improper disclosure of recipients, more subtle racism and
a marginal status):
Im against the special places. I have colleagues who were divulged from
the second day and its known they are in the special places. (Alex, age 22)

According to others, afrmative action reproduces Roma victimization and

is thus offensive and debilitating. Yet the more conventional approaches of
merit risk oversimplifying the structural constraints preventing the education
of the disadvantaged Roma. It is, thus, not by chance that the majority of
the interviewees not on afrmative action agreed that, in principle, anyone
could make it if they tried really hard. The large majority of interviewees
endorsing the above position also tended to construct themselves as
unaffected by racism (Phoenix 2011).
Giving something back and its dilemmas
The idealistic view of the Roma graduate going back to the roots for serving a generic Roma community is not without its own dilemmas. According to a young leader of a Roma organization, afrmative action should not
be seen as an entitlement. Its recipients have an ethical obligation to give
something back:
Im often asking newcomers: right, so you are now a student, you received a
Roma Memorial scholarship. What can you give back? These are scholarships and places are received due to our ancestors. Its not that we are a
disadvantaged community blah blah blah and you receive these places
because youve done something. No! This is only because of our history. So,
what can you give back? Nothing! But you should! (Valer, age 24)

Nevertheless, many of the interviewed young people (both those on afrmative action policies and those on the mainstream places) seem guided by a
moral principle of reciprocity. Giving back and helping my people were
recurrent themes in their accounts: Rather than bringing 100 clients to a
rm, Id rather bring 10 children back to school (Ioana, age 24). Yet
giving something back is easier said than done and many research
participants gradually become aware at the efforts involved:
Ill not be able to do this all my life. I want another lifestyle. This is not a
workplace, but a way of life. Its 24/7 [] Discrimination doesnt have
schedule. If someone is being evacuated you, as an activist, have to intervene
then not during your ofce hours. (Maria, age 26, not in the special places)
I wanted to help my own people, so to say. But I often wish I had a regular
job somewhere else and could mind my own business. But then I say if I
wasnt there no one else would help them. (Victor, age 25)

British Journal of Sociology of Education


Like other research participants, Maria would nd it difcult to handle the

many interests and the tenuous border between personal and professional
life in her home community. Another position expressed holds that giving
back is an individual choice and, despite the moral pressure put on Roma
students, they should not be asked to contribute to Roma inclusion more
than students from the majority population are. This stance responds to the
tokenism view of Roma students as holders of the expert knowledge of
their minority group. For a totally different set of reasons, other participants
may deliberately choose working outside the notion of giving something
What surprises me is that I, and some other colleagues, was asked: What do
you give back because you entered in the special places? Well, what can I
say I told him as I tell you now: My question is: those guys handling
these European projects that cost millions, what do they give back to the
Roma? You know what I mean? There are some students who dont have
connections and who received the scholarship. But as long as 2 or 3 persons
told me they arranged things to receive the scholarship, do you realize
whats going on? I prefer discrimination by a Romanian than by a brother.
And then, they have the nerve for us to give something back. But what are
they doing, in the rst place? (Elemer, age 21)

For many interviewees, the Roma movement provides an employment

niche. Yet Roma organizations have a problematic credibility among many
others who experience a great sense of disappointment and who, ultimately,
start questioning the moral underpinnings of the rhetoric of giving back.
Eligibility problems and the coming out issue
Nowhere are afrmative action policies free from eligibility concerns. It
was even argued that passing is inherent in such programmes and the
anxiety over fraud should not prevent afrmative action programmes from
ourishing (Guimares 2012). This section will focus on the eligibility concerns that are particular to afrmative action policies for Roma in Romania.
Afrmative action candidates need to submit a certicate attesting the
ethnic afliation issued by a Roma organization, apparently after an interview. Despite the arguments holding that (Roma) ethnicity is a social construct, informal knowledge among Roma NGO staff holds they can tell
who is a Roma. Yet, almost each year, there have been local scandals on
trespassing, corruption or abuses from NGOs (Istratie 2010; Mihu 2012),
which altered the perception of afrmative action among majority and
minority Roma alike. To a certain extent, entrusting Roma organizations for
certifying someones ethnic identity undermines an individuals capacity to
Applying for afrmative action may involve coming out as a Roma,
at least in some administrative cycles. While, for some, submitting a Roma


M.-C. Pantea

certicate does not involve any dilemmas, for many this is a matter of concern that cannot counterbalance the economic benets of afrmative action.
Their main anxiety is not as much being perceived as violating the meritocratic principles, but being perceived as a Roma. The notions of being
othered and otherness is, thus, instrumental in understanding the experiences of young Roma, as well as the social environment that reinforces
and reproduces positions of domination and subordination (Johnson et al.
2004, 255). For instance, Dorina refused to apply to the special places, for
fear of making public her ethnicity. Consequently, she assumed enormous
nancial and social costs: from paying fees to securing more expensive
accommodation off campus8. She cut off the networks of support available
among other Roma students, in exchange for a frail sense of integration.
Yet while all her efforts gravitate around ensuring secrecy on her ethnicity,
Dorinas colleagues are well aware she is a Roma and presume she is in the
special places.
For others, being in the special places may trigger the compulsory declaration of ethnic identity. Thus, even if Veronica shared much of Dorinas
fear of being uncovered as a Roma, she gave into the pressure of her
Roma colleagues who, persistently asked her to declare her ethnicity or to
join their association, as a matter of moral duty. Often she experienced the
pressure as being unreasonable: from weekly text messages, to being
greeted in Romany when in the company of her Romanian colleagues. In
the end, she joined several Roma-related events, but remained reserved in
declaring ethnicity in other circles.
In inter-ethnic families, afrmative action challenges previously latent
notions of ethnicity and hybrid identication. At times, the debates may disrupt the established dynamics of power, with the rst-born siblings paying
the emotional costs for ice-breaking. Thus, interviewees reported several
instances when a parent did not agree that the child should apply for afrmative action (read: to declare Roma), sometimes at the expense of not
being able to attend university at all.
Although a debate on ethnicity may seem theoretically appealing, in
many cases young people apply to the special places because of more
practical reasons: I wanted to be sure I could get a place, Why not benet?, I dont like to recognize, but , and If I had this chance . Even
the most personal rationales appear not independent from the economic
I decided to do this in the memory of my father. He would turn over in his
grave to hear I paid so much for university, instead of doing something else
with this money. (Irina, age 19)

Universities do not seem to follow any coherent policy for maintaining

applicants condentiality. As a matter of practice, they make public the

British Journal of Sociology of Education


admission lists, including the names of those in the special places for
Roma. Interviewees experiences varied: from studying at departments
where their names were kept condential, to situations where their status
proliferated even in the attendance lists. Anonymization is more probably a
matter of individual choice by the staff than a deliberate policy. Even the
most outspoken research participants recalled initial anxiety over not having
any control over the disclosure of their ethnicity. Instances of (subtle) racism (e.g. professors accidentally mentioning ethnicity along their name or
even asking Roma to stand up) were experienced as carrying a huge
debilitating role.
Besides the manifestations of the subtle institutional racism, several
Roma students also reported a certain level of frank and disrespectful
curiosity among some of their colleagues:
Students knew they have colleagues in special places and tried to guess
And imagine they asked me if I didnt know who might be the Roma.
[Laughs] As a matter of fact, I still dont know who the other one is. I have
an inkling, but (Sandra, age 20)

Yet for others, condentiality does not seem to be a big issue: Everything
should be on the admission lists. Its about public money. Such reactions
do not indicate a lack of sensitivity, and need to be read against the conventions on public examinations in Romania, where the grades have always
been a matter of public record.
In opposition, some research participants used the notion of discrimination without being able to point to concrete discriminatory situations. Possible explanations are young people employing Roma organizations
rhetoric, or for them to experience what has been called the is it just me
phenomenon (Padilla 1997, 855). Alternatively, it may be that the new
forms of discrimination are more subtle, more symbolic and thus less
communicable. They are gestures, acts, signs that mark [Roma] as different (Vestel 2004, 428; cf. Fangen 2010, 136). On the other hand, interviewing came across situations of young people insisting they have not
experienced any discrimination: neither for being in the special places, nor
for being a Roma:
I didnt have any problems whatsoever. Im a Roma and my face makes that
clear. So, I couldnt hide. But I didnt have problems. (Gicu, age 23)
I was never discriminated against. No, never! Not even in high school. I got
along very well with everybody and they all knew I was a Roma [] I really
dont like this story of discrimination which is so overused. An educated person who thinks even a little bit doesnt have the word discrimination in his
vocabulary. Its not in mine. But today, these Roma organizations, in fact,
want discrimination to go on. They are searching for discrimination all the
time. And make a mountain out of a molehill, when in fact they should look


M.-C. Pantea

more carefully in their own yard. Cause they in turn may discriminate against
their own people. (Sebastian, age 23)

One explanation is for the young people to construct themselves as

unaffected by racism (Phoenix 2011), which may, indeed, be sometimes
the case. On the other hand, however, it is more probable for the students
to select themselves from a small population of young Roma with positive
educational experiences (Ive rst heard about school segregation when I
became a student).
Concluding discussion
Afrmative action means different things to different people. Leaving the
policy without a clearly formulated rationale is simultaneously a drawback
and an advantage, as it lets individuals construct their own understanding in
ways that t their life circumstances and educational trajectories. The paper
deconstructed Roma attitudes with regard to afrmative action policies, in
order to add another facet to the discourse on Roma education. It challenged
mainstream approaches that apply to Roma as beneciaries and showed
that, for young people, afrmative action triggers a divisive rather than a
productive rhetoric. The paper presented Roma students as individuals questioning the established notion of ethnicity and policies logic, praising its
rationale, or proposing new implementation tools (e.g. policies of condentiality). Ultimately, the article suggested that the special places policy is not
without social costs for minority students, especially when they come from
stigmatized social groups. Young Roma know too well that afrmative
action does not come alone and it has strings attached.
The paper indicated that young Roma experiences cannot be understood
outside several dilemmas (e.g. the legitimacy of the expectation to give
something back or the experience of being othered). These issues call for
looking into other unresolved tensions, such as the situation of those
embracing hybrid identities, not feeling prepared for a public disclosure,
being pressured (from family) not to declare, being uncertain or simply
refusing the regime of compulsory disclosure. Moreover, given the above
identity questions, universities may need to reect on the imperative of
making known the identity of those occupying the special places, as a
matter of public accountability.
Often, the recipients of special places perceive themselves as occupying a contradictory and precarious social space. Their main concern is not
(only) to hide a perceived merit violation (as generally assumed in afrmative action debates), but to handle (alleged) inadequacies given by their
stigmatized ethnic identication. Their attitudes are, thus, more complex
than being pro or contra. On one extreme, one may nd the view on
special places as entitlement without obligations (Because Im a Roma!).

British Journal of Sociology of Education


On the other hand, there are the explicit oppositional discourses (Those
who want to learn, will learn anyway or Im against discrimination of any
kind). In between these radical positions there are the silent strategies of
accepting the policy while questioning the meanings of ethnicity, while
passing as a majority student, or endorsing the policy as an (economic)
opportunity alone.
Decisions to apply to university using the afrmative action policy are
embedded in complex webs of assumptions, expectations, anxieties and calculus of opportunities. It is likely that, for many, the prospects of coming
out as a Roma are a disincentive for applying to the special places. In
inter-ethnic families, afrmative action choices may bring ethnicity from the
status of a silent/silenced topic into plain debate. In such cases, a young persons coming out as Roma may potentially destabilize others sense of self.
In the nal analysis, one should refrain from considering the application
for the special places is necessarily an emancipatory statement of coming
out, as there are (arguably many) young people on afrmative action who do
not declare their ethnic identity outside the necessary administrative cycles.
Yet, for some, afrmative action is, indeed, the road toward assuming ethnicity, despite initial personal struggles. The paper touched upon the continuous
tension experienced by Roma girls in their attempt to pass as Romanians, in a
context shaped by a disclosure imperative (McLean 2007, 151).
Interviewees perceived rationales for afrmative action bring back the
dilemmas on Roma relation with their collective history. To a certain extent,
afrmative action reactivates what Misztal called the clash between two theoretical stands: the approach which stresses the signicance of remembering
and the perspective which insists on the value of forgetting (2010, 24).
Yet, as Romanias Roma have different collective histories, applying the
historically grounded compensatory or redistributive arguments may not
have the same relevance for all. Also, the diversity and the corrective argument focusing on remedying present-day social injustices may not hold for
the Roma embracing hybrid identities: those passing as Romanians or
who internalized the lifestyles of majority population.
Young Roma need to navigate through environments perceived, at least
at the beginning, as unreceptive, characterized by a weak sensitivity to difference. For the time being, university culture seems to function under a
tacit expectation for Roma to declare their ethnicity, to the extent of making them internalize such expectations as reasonable. This is, nevertheless, a
manifestation of symbolic power: it conrms Roma placement in the social
hierarchy and requires the dominated to assume this, in exchange for the
promise for social mobility.
The paper advises that the understanding of self-disclosure needs to
go beyond the psychological explanations linking it with a healthy selfconcept, identity development or personal readiness. Such views render


M.-C. Pantea

the declaration of (a stigmatized) ethnicity as desirable and invariably

Without being overly prescriptive, this paper raises awareness that universities need to be sensitive to Roma students anxieties and silenced tensions.
Also, they need to remain open to the practice of condentiality and to incorporate the self-disclosure as an individual choice and, implicitly, a matter of
Roma diversity. As it stands, the afrmative action is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. It includes those able to negotiate their ethnic identity in
sometimes unfriendly environments. It excludes the (sometimes more
vulnerable) Roma who are reluctant to handle the challenges generated by a
marginal status, including the regime of compulsory disclosure.
1. Romania has 619,007 Roma (or 3.2% of the total population), according to the
2011 Census.
2. There are also very few special places for young people with disabilities and
for those from the institutional childcare system.
3. Open Society Foundations has been extremely inuential in this regard.
4. Examples include: small-scale inquiries over opportunistic Romanian applicants, allegations of corruption from the part of Roma non-governmental organizations (NGOs) issuing false certicates or claiming money from Roma
5. An oddity according to Strike (2006).
6. According to an estimation based on the preliminary data of the 2011 Census,
2600 Roma have some tertiary education.
7. The gender and residential distribution of the research participants matches the
distribution of the Roma student population at a major university, the subject of
an earlier case study (Horvath 2007).
8. A special place would have ensured her tuition waver, and less expensive
accommodation in the campus. Moreover, self-declared Roma students are
eligible for donor scholarships.

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