No rent for Gypsies, Arabs or blacks in Bucharest
They are dirty and violent and the landlord doesn’t want any trouble
Today I had the pleasure of having a surreal phone call with a blatantly racist real estate agent while trying to find rent in Bucharest. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the call, but since I couldn’t allow myself not to share such a delightful conversation, I wrote a transcript from memory with as much accuracy as I could. The transcript is in English, but the original conversation was in Romanian. Enjoy.
Me: Hi, I’m calling about a studio apartment I saw online, you said you’d call me back yesterday but I didn’t hear back from you.
Agent: I see, I can’t hear you very well, are you Romanian?
Agent: You’re an Arab, right?
Me: [racism detector activated] No… ?
Agent: Where are you from?
Me: Brazil. Why does it matter?
Agent: So you see, the landlord doesn’t want foreigners, he doesn’t want trouble. You’re black, right?
Me: Are you actually asking me this?
Agent: I’m just trying to say the landlord doesn’t rent to foreigners, he doesn’t want trouble.
Me: [trying to leverage my white-passing privilege] What if say I’m from Portugal? Does that sound better?
Agent: No, he doesn’t want foreigners. He told me he doesn’t want gypsies, arabs or blacks, they smell, they don’t clean, he doesn’t want any mess. I know how it is in Brazil, there’s violence, black people walking barefoot and shirtless in the trash, I’ve seen City of God. I’m not saying you’re like that, you’re probably ok, but the landlord prefers to be on the safe side.
Me: Are you serious? Have you ever been to Brazil? Do you actually think watching City of God gives you a balanced image of the whole country?
Agent: I’ve seen Brazil on TV multiple times, I know it’s not like Portugal, it’s more like Angola, a black majority slave colony where like Brazil, the Portuguese are rich now cause they ravished your countries, killed everybody and took everything they could. [rebellious, anti-colonialist moment]
Me: Don’t you realize how racist it is to refuse to rent to certain races?
Agent: I’m not discriminating against anyone, racism would be if you couldn’t enter the bus, but the landlord can choose his tenants, it’s his private property.
Me: This may be your opinion, but you don’t write the laws, you should double check because I’m quite confident Europe has more rigid anti-discrimination laws than this. Maybe I could even sue you.
Agent: So you are threatening me now? You come to my country and you threaten me and you expect me to help you?
Me: I don’t need your help but I’m not threatening you anyway, I haven’t recorded the call and I don’t want to waste time in court, I’m just suggesting that you inform yourself in order to avoid problems in the future.
Agent: You come to my country, we receive you, now you threaten me? You think this is normal?
Me: Romania is a state governed by rule of law. I came legally to this country and I am playing by the rules. I don’t care what people think of me. I have the right to rent an apartment and I have the right to sue people. If anyone is in a gray legal area it’s you. I’m just saying you should be careful in the future. There are a lot of Romanian immigrants in the world. If you tried to rent an apartment in Germany and they said they don’t rent to Romanians because they’re dirty gypsies, he’s seen it on TV and doesn’t want trouble, how would you react?
Agent: I wouldn’t go to Germany, I think the country where you’re born is the country where you should stay.
Me: Well, a lot of Romanians disagree with you because lots of them migrate to Western Europe every year. As a result a lot of people think Romania is a huge dump filled with homeless gypsies. Do you think there’s a fair image of the country?
Agent: But people who migrate to Romania are different, who migrates to Romania? If they settle for Romania it means they must live in terrible conditions or be looking for trouble, normal people go to France, Germany, nobody comes to Romania.
Me: There are lots of people who come to Romania from lots of countries. There are people who come for work, people who get married to a Romanian citizen, have you thought about that?
Agent: Haha why would you come to Romania for a chick? Brazilian chicks are hotter than Romanians, Romanian chicks are ugly. And we all know there’s no such thing as love. If you came for a chick you probably came because she had money.
Me: I work in IT, I have a well-paid job in Romania. I don’t need to marry for money and I would never do that. Her family did well but, if you make me compare, I was probably more privileged than her. I didn’t come to Romania because I was “trying to escape from Brazil and live a more comfortable life in Romania”. I had a reasonably comfortable life in Brazil.
Agent: I’m sure you’re ok, but the landlord doesn’t want to risk, he rented once to Arabs once and we had to pay cleaning ladies two days of work, they said they had never seen so much dirt like in those Arabs’ place.
Me: Do you really think it’s ok to generalize from isolated cases like this? Or you really think a proper academic study would reveal that statistically Romanians clean more than Arabs or blacks? And even if it did, do you think that would justify you in treating individuals as members of a category rather than as individuals? Where are you from in Romania?
Me: What if a landlord refused to rent to you because he had bad experiences with people from Craiova in the past? It’s mind-blowing to me how little Romanians are educated about racism and discrimination. In other countries people have learned that things are not so simple, you should try to educate yourself.
Agent: What countries??? Nobody likes immigrants. They cause the same trouble everywhere!
Me: I mean mostly the developed Western countries, but also their former colonies. I lived in Sweden, for example.
Agent: They don’t like immigrants in Sweden either, the Romanians who go there don’t make any friends, if you go to their ghettos filled with immigrants you’ll get beaten!
Me: What I’m trying to say is that, in the developed world, at least the young and educated people know, after centuries of slavery and the holocaust, that the differences their ancestors saw between populations and assumed to be biological, were in fact mostly cultural. Romanians continue to see everything as a matter of genetics.
Agent: Yes, genetics! How do you explain the characteristic smell of gypsies and blacks?
Me: I am reluctant to believe that gypsies have any noticeable difference in smell compared to Romanians. They are racially not so different. I’ve seen a lot of gypsies with very light skin, and Romanians with darker skin. Gypsies smell because they are poor and lack the conditions that you have. They don’t wash and then they smell, as you would smell if you didn’t wash. The same is largely true for black people, and even if they do have a different smell biologically, the negative connotation that you are implying is entirely cultural. Do you really think that if you get a newborn gypsy baby and raise him in Norway, by a Norwegian family, when the baby gets older he’ll start stealing and being violent because of his gypsy blood? They will be the same as a Norwegian. Same if it’s a black person or whatever. They will be as capable as anybody else. They are not limited biologically in any significant way.
Agent: Haha, are you saying that if you get a rat and raise him in a human family he’ll be as capable as any human?
Me: I’m saying that, based on the science we have, the genetic differences between human populations are so small that it is absolutely irrational to assume that belonging to a certain race alone is an accurate predictor of violence or cleaning habits. People act the way they act mostly for cultural reasons. Or do you think Romanians are genetically worse at football than the French or Germans, for example?
Agent: Yeah, they’ve been practicing for generations, they must have better genes for football. Here in Romania we are not such a pure race, we got mixed with gypsies, jews, even huns from Mongolia…
Me: What about Brazil then? We’re the most mixed race on the planet, how are we good at football? What about baseball? Do you think North Americans have a genetic predisposition to be good at baseball?
Agent: I don’t know, but I think blood is important. As we say in Romania, blood is thicker than water. It’s no coincidence kingdoms were inherited via bloodline.
Me: I don’t see how that is relevant. They used bloodline because they wanted to keep the power in the family. This fact doesn’t in any way support the claim that certain races are better than others. I still maintain that people have equal potential, no matter their race.
Agent: Don’t you have problems though? In Brazil, with the different races, aren’t there conflicts?
Me: Of course there are tensions, but that’s for historical reasons. And the tensions are not so racial as in the U.S. for example, they are more about social class. It is true that the poorer a neighborhood is, the darker the people are. But the people are not all black. If I walk into a favela at night and I get mugged, it won’t be because I have lighter skin, it will be because I belong to a different social class and I’m perceived as having more than them. Although it is less common, it is not unheard of for darker-skin, middle-class people to be mugged by lighter skin, lower-class people. With a lot of mixture it’s hard to be so tribal about race. Me myself, I have a black great-grandfather. The rest of the people in my family are mostly white or mixed themselves, and they also don’t know how many black or indigenous ancestors they have. In my family we know of African, indigenous and European ancestors, but there could be even more.
Agent: Yeah, I’m sure you’re ok, I’m sorry if it seemed like I said something bad of you personally, I’m impressed that you speak Romanian so well and I can see you’re a cultivated person, but we see a lot of bad things about Brazil on TV and the landlord doesn’t want to take chances.
Me: I’m not interested in any apartment from this landlord, I’m insisting on this topic because it’s important. How can you act based on the stereotype of you created of a country after seeing one movie? Don’t you see that this is exactly what happens to Romanians in the West? What do you they see about Romania on TV in France, Germany, etc? They see dumps full of poor gypsy families and they think that’s how the country looks like. Have you seen the movie Borat? Have you seen the initial scene? It’s filmed in Romania. That’s the Romania the foreigners know. Is it true Romania? Yes! It is. But it’s not all of Romania.
Agent: Hahah that’s true, I’ll have to give you that.
Me: You see? Don’t you think the same happens with Brazil? The scenes you’ve seen from Brazil are probably real, but they’re not all. It’s not even a majority of the Brazilian population who lives in such extreme conditions.
Agent: Probably, I don’t know. This landlord is decided though. I could maybe help you but only if we’re lucky with another landlord.
Me: No, thank you, it’s ok. I’ll check other apartments online and I’ll figure it out myself. Have a good day!
Agent: Have a good day!
Clearly the order of the arguments and the exact wording are lost forever. But yes, he did say gypsies, arabs and blacks are more “dirty” and “troublesome”. Yes, he did mention the smell of gypsies and blacks. Yes, he did use the “rat” comparison in order to make a point about the genetic inferiority of certain races. The exchange is overall pretty accurate. And probably the saddest part is that, after almost 5 years in Romania, I wasn’t really that shocked. I can only hope things will keep changing for the better. And they should. Unless Romanians are genetically predisposed to racism, of course.