I’m not a well-known Romani figure and I’m not particularly well-educated, but with news this month of a new Romani initiative – the European Roma Institute – I’ve come to understand something: I am not just Romani (Roma, Roma Gypsy, Gypsy); I am an embodiment of all that needs fixed within Europe; I am a political statement. It has also become clear, from the commentary surrounding this news, that I – as a self-identified Romani – have no right to any say at all and certainly no ability to have any input in what needs done to fix my situation. Only when Romani step into the political spotlight do non-Romani swarm forward to protect their own interests – i.e: the intertwined domains of education and politics. In fact, the most vocal opposition I’ve read thus far has come on one hand from academia and on the other from ex-European Parliamentary members. If I am educated, vocal, and visible, I am a self-identified Romani, as though my ethnicity is suddenly some kind of choice. (However, if I am poor, uneducated, and living in a ghetto my ethnicity is not questioned. It is handed to me, in words not of my choosing).
My grandmother was a Gypsy all her life. She was a stereotype – poor and illiterate. She was handed her ethnicity as she ran for her life from the S.S. Einsatzgruppen, it was not a choice she made. She told me once that non-Roma kept us from education and jobs because they were scared that they had misjudged us and that they would have to admit we weren’t like rats, but instead like people. As she said, “then they must eat shame for generation after generation”. My uncle always said that there were only two options for us: live, act, and speak like non-Roma or live our lives, but in poverty, fear, and silence. Facets of our ethnicity are prescribed daily – we are real Romani only if we do this or that, or live this way or that way, or speak this dialect or that one. Academics paint us into corners as statistics, genetic haplotypes, and linguistically intriguing anomalies, literary authors use their pastel-tinted brushes to describe our pastoral, wandering, romantic life, edged with razor-sharp undercurrents of thieves, vagabonds, miscreants, danger danger danger! News outlets call us gypsies and imply we are invading and stealing and breaking England and France and Ireland and Canada.
Although we are not indigenous and don’t have our own country, we are, nevertheless, a colonized people. All aspects of our being is regulated and isolated. Non-Roma are still trying to civilize us – in fact, the production of knowledge about Romani sits firmly in non-Romani hands – despite claims to the contrary, many of these academics and authors reflect and reinforce colonial ideology, which in turn becomes a mode of exercising authority over us by organizing and classifying knowledge about us. This is unsurprising really, since “knowledge” is simply a reflection of economic or political interests. [However, it’s interesting to note one of the most vociferous voices in this debate is a non-Romani academic afraid of Romani intrusion into his sphere of influence].
A Romani Institute is not going to fix any of this and may, in fact, make everything more difficult. A Romani Institute isn’t going to give me a voice, give me a place in academia, or silence those non-Roma who like to criticize us no matter what we do. It isn’t going to fix the rifts between our own families, clans, and groups. It isn’t going to help Sinti, Travellers, Jenische, Manouche, Gens du Voyage or anyone else who doesn’t self-identify as Romani. It isn’t going to give us jobs, provide outstanding education, healthcare, or social welfare. It isn’t going to solve our human rights issues, disband the Jobbik party, or desegregate eduction.
In fact, I doubt that the ERI will do a single thing for me or my family in Europe. But, I am behind this initiative one hundred thousand percent.
Too many initiatives have been created, whether by Romani or for Romani, without an understanding of what Romani really want and need. Perhaps this will be no different, but if the wood won’t burn, it’s most likely wet and you may as well try a different branch. Some argue that other initiatives already exist – but what have they done? What are they doing? From my uneducated, naive perspective I have seen little change.
That’s just it, I suppose. What in these initiatives will actually help people like me to be involved? What is there for us self-identified Romani academics and authors? The ERI proposal at least sounds like it could force open a space for discourse and empower small voices to rise up.
I think that’s exactly what non-Romani are afraid of – the successful transfer of knowledge and power into Romani hands – in essence, a move to decolonize our own voices and spaces, to politicize our own bodies.
But, what do I know?
ko kamel ča te sikhavel, bisterel te sikhljol.