Good afternoon to all you pre-departure students!
Erin asked me to Skype in today, but my son has an orchestra event… and I tried to make a video, but apparently technology and I are not friends at the moment!!
So, this is me:
I was born in a traditional Romani village (often called an Osada or Tabor) in Slovakia. My father’s family lived close to Bardejov in the north east of the country. My mother’s family are actually Polish Romani, but they lived just across the Slovakian border. I was born sometime in the spring. My family then left Slovakia and travelled (by road and boat) back to the UK. I was registered there about 6 weeks or so after my ‘birth’ date. There’s a good chance it’s not accurate. My Slovakian relatives were extremely poor, but life in the UK was a little better. We weren’t pushed out into villages and ghettos, we were siphoned into council housing (pretty much the same as “section 8” in the US), where even if life was incredibly difficult, we usually had a roof over our heads and a warm place to sleep. I now live in Ohio, in the US midwest.
Romani in continental Europe and within the UK have experienced much different histories. For most Romani within the UK before WWII life was fairly easy compared with their brothers and sisters across the channel. Slavery, Communism, Fascism, Nazism… we were branded, forcibly sterilized (even until a few years ago in some countries), killed… the Holocaust was the culmination of all of this. Hundreds of thousands of Romani died… often in anonymity. Shot in the woods, forced to dig their own graves, gassed as soon as they arrived at concentration camps. My grandmother lost so many of her family members.
Below are some images of my family members, so you can see who we’re talking about (click on the images for a larger slideshow)…
People tend to dissociate the horrific events of the past from our present. But, the social issues we face are intimately entwined with those events. My family were poor, alcoholic, reserved, illiterate… I didn’t understand as a child, but as I’ve grown and explored what it means to be part of such an oppressed minority, I’ve learned that most of these issues stem from the terrible burden of cultural trauma that my family has faced.
My grandmother lost 5 of her 8 children before they reached their third birthday. My father lost is twin brother before they reached their first birthday. My mother and her older sister are ten years apart, with not a word of the other children who used to fill that gap… my grandparents didn’t attend school. My father left for good when he was about 10 or 11, and my mother when she was 12 or 13. They were married young – an arranged marriage – and we travelled a lot when I was small. We picked fruit, did manual labour, wandered from one place to the next doing all the things no one else wanted to just for enough money to survive.
Yet, as I grew older, our way of life was hurriedly being dismantled. It became illegal to camp on common ground, then common ground disappeared altogether. Boulders and bollards sprang up on rest stops and pullovers next to the highways and country roads, preventing us from pulling in and camping. Legal pitch sites were removed or reduced, taking spots from thirty or forty to fifteen and then ten or less. You know, after the Holocaust and the liberation of Auschwitz, being Romani was still a crime. As if we could somehow step out of our ethnicity and leave it behind. People told us “Gypsies out” in the places we tried to settle, and then they made nomadism illegal and prevented us from stopping anywhere. Our language is banned, or called “animalistic grunting”… our children are placed in special, segregated schools… we are generation after generation of deeply hurt and traumatized people. We don’t talk about the Holocaust or other painful history because it is a part of the fabric of our lives, intimately understood.
In the countries in which we live, we are treated as a colonized people – As Frantz Fanon wrote, “the ideological essence of colonialism is the systematic denial of “all attributes of humanity” of the colonised people. Such dehumanization is achieved with physical and mental violence, by which the colonist means to inculcate a servile mentality upon the natives” The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The Romani have been reduced, renamed, and redefined for generations. We are not even close to hegemonic discourse, probably not even close to subaltern either. If you read the news from any European newspaper, you can clearly see the ways in which we are subjugated on a daily basis. In the past few years we have been called animals and ‘retards’ by Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, and Romanian presidents and politicians. In France, it has been suggested that there needs to be a revival of concentration camps, because perhaps Hitler didn’t kill enough of us and we are being evicted and deported en masse. In the US and Canada, we are disbelieved when we say we face neo-Nazi threats, pogroms, violence, oppression, and discrimination in our home countries. We are swiftly returned without right to appeal.
There are many non-Romani who think that highlighting our poverty and lack (of economic and educational opportunities and with it progress) is the way forward. This explosion of what many refer to as “poverty porn” is not doing us any favours. Google “Gypsy” or “Romani” and you will see pages and pages of dirty, abjectly poor, half-naked children. You’ll see suspicious faces peeking out of shanties that are falling down. What you won’t see? The doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, engineers, architects, leaders, politicians, nurses…
because we don’t fit the colonial discourse of subaltern other. Once we are able to gain any kind of education or economic advancement whatsoever, we are no longer considered “Gypsy” or “Roma” by the majority population. We are something in between. We are a credit to our race. We are the lucky ones. We only got so far because of the tax money and scholarship opportunities provided to us by non-Romani (in other words, we certainly didn’t do it on our own). This “acting white” is a huge problem for us – we have to fit in with the way that the non-Romani world works or we are actively crushed beneath its rampant raging system. But, this ‘play’ comes with a price. Many of us must make a choice – between romanija – being Romani and gadžikanija – being considered (and acting) non-Romani. I made the choice to leave the poverty and trauma behind and in the process lost my family.
I guess, all of this to say it’s not simple. You will go and you will see Romani people and you will, whether you like it or not, make snap judgements about us… oh it’s so dirty, oh they don’t have anything, oh the poor people. You’ll want to take photos of the children who crowd around you, begging for a coin or candy. You’ll look for the most dejected child. You’ll want to share the terrible plight of my people to make it better. But, what does that mean? Remember, as I sit here with my BA honors (dual minor), MA honors, and current work in a post-graduate certificate, I was one of those children. What separates me now from them? Think about how you would greet me as a) a woman with an MA who is active in academia and activism; b) as a Romani woman with an MA who is active in academia and activism; c) as a Romani woman; d) as a poor Romani woman… why does your reaction change? I know through experience that people treat Romani differently based on their perceived level of integration with hegemonic society and cultural norms.
When you meet a Romani person, you ARE their oppressor. You ARE their colonizer. You ARE the source of many of their problems. Not individually, of course, but as part of the majority of whiteness, privilege, and power. Try to understand your position in our world…
and please, if you have any questions, email me at email@example.com!