When I first came to the US, a little over 11 years ago, I did not openly identify my ethnicity. My accent was enough that I was “English” or “European” or sometimes “Australian” or “German”. I had been staying quiet, I suppose, for a good deal before that too. I had stopped speaking my language, stopped interacting with my extended family as much. It was sad in a way, because I saw my phral and phen start to do the same thing before I ever did. Instead of “Ahoj” or “T’aves baxtali” when we met it was “Hi!” or “Hallo!” It was subtle changes, but changes that permeated deeply.
When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac of Newark International Airport in New Jersey (March of 2001, 6 months before 9/11) with two suitcases and $300, I had no idea what awaited me, but I was sure that it would not include being a “Gypsy” or speaking Romani. However, as soon as I hit immigration, I was flagged and sent to the office. I was interrogated for over three and a half hours. “Why are you here?” “Where did you come from?” “Where are you staying?” and to every answer I gave came the reply, “you’re lying”. Eventually they called the friend I was staying with and she confirmed my story. I was allowed to leave with a stern warning to “behave” or the officer would “see to it” that she personally slammed the door on my return flight to Europe.
That experience terrified me. I had previously thought, rather falsely, that there weren’t many Romani in the US and if there were, they weren’t well known. While the latter is certainly true, the former is not. I was scared that immigration had now flagged me as a potential illegal immigrant, or some kind of scam artist, and would ship me off as soon as they could. I don’t know what’s in my file – but I still get harassed almost every time I fly, even though I have a Green Card and I am married to a US citizen. The first time we returned to Europe together with our small son, immigration cornered me and grilled me about them – “is this really your husband?” “is this your son?” “what are their full names?” “what are their birth dates?” I felt like screaming, “NO you jackhammers, I’m an irresistible Gypsy and he is under my spell!”
I think that made me want to hide even more, so I did what I could to forget everything. I kept žužo and other traditions, but never uttered the word Romani or spoke a single word in Romanes until a few years ago.
I don’t know what tipped the scale. In my classes at school, we’d talk about racism, discrimination, human rights and all those kinds of things, and every time I would think to myself “you have no idea about the treatment of the Roma in Europe”. I think the real flash point came in a Political Science class when we were discussing the news of the day and someone said “Hey did you read about the Gypsies getting kicked out of France?” and the class dissolved into a very bigoted, xenophobic, and blatantly racist discussion. Basically, the class agreed that France was right and that maybe the Gypsies should be forced back to wherever they came from, but ultimately they were the responsibility of the countries from where they came. Some people said that Gypsies were all bad and a culture of thieves, whores, and drug addicts. I tried to counter with explanation of the Roma and Sinte genocide in the Holocaust – and was promptly called anti-Semitic.
I ended up in a ‘verbal altercation’ (I suppose you could call it), with the professor, and had to drop the class. On my way home I cried – sobbed – because I realized that I had to make choices.
I have since spoken in quite a few university classes (level 200 and above) about the Porrajmos (Holocaust) and about Human Rights issues in regards to the Roma, as well as presenting generalized information about the different groups commonly corralled erroneously under the term “Gypsy”. I am a board member on four (currently) different non-profits (O Porrajmos Education Society, International Romani Anti-Defamation League, Heart.Beats.Slavery, and Vox Humana). I am also a Masters student – currently in intercultural communication, with plans to apply to a Doctorate of Education program this Spring.
But, all these things aside, by writing about my ethnicity and about things that fall too close to home (such as racism in education or the in-fighting I’ve seen between groups on Facebook), I’ve learned that I have very strong feelings. These aren’t backed up by research or studies, they’re just my own experiences colouring the way I experience the world. In some areas I have discovered a very deep rooted bitterness fueled by the way I have been treated by non-Romani (and even by some Romani since coming to the US). I have sometimes been too eager, sometimes too bitter, sometimes too judgmental. I’m not perfect – I’m human and I’m trying to learn how to integrate my culture and upbringing with my academic and online lives. It’s not easy.
Yes, I am East Slovak Romani. But, this was coloured by growing up in the UK surrounded by family members who lived in Latvia, France, Scotland, Slovakia, Poland, and Ireland. My dialect was a hotch-potch of lexicons and orthographies, but it was who I was. I have since tried to standardize my dialect to the one I know most of, but even then I know I make glaring mistakes all the time – but, I’m trying. I want to save our language, preserve what I know and build on it into a level of complete fluency – so that I might teach others. I fail at code-switching and made mistakes with that all the time too. In a class I might drop into an accent, spit out a Romani word, or refuse to enter or sit until told to do so. I mark myself as “weird”; as “other” without even trying. It’s always been this way. However much my light-skin gives me passing privilege, my Romanija and traditions mark me out.
I used to feel embarrassed – sometimes still do – by these lapses. But, mostly now I accept them because they are ME. I don’t want to change who I am, but feel at this point in time my academic career has already been negatively impacted enough by people simply knowing I am Romani. This Masters degree has been a lesson in why I am quite clearly other even when I think I’m adjusting myself well. It has been incredibly difficult and stressful to deal with the open distrust and prejudice I have had to face. The amount of times I’ve been told that I am quite clearly “not cut out” for academics (even though I am the only second year in the program currently with a 4.0 – though I know that will change this semester, right before I graduate), or been denied the opportunity to speak at a conference or teach a class (I am the ONLY person in my program who will graduate this year who has not submitted to a publication, spoken at a conference, or taught undergraduate classes as part of the MA. I was actively denied those opportunities. I was told my writing was “not ready” despite getting As on my work. I was told that I would not be a good speaker or teacher. Why? I don’t know. All I know is that I am the only openly Romani person in the graduate program and have fielded many disturbing questions during classes).
All this to say that it’s been quite a journey and one that I am still quite clearly on! I am excited for the trip to the UN in New York in a couple of weeks, but nervous too – since I have not met many of the Roma who will be there – and their accomplishments and words inspire and awe me in a lot of ways. I feel very much like a child (one who keeps making mistakes) and I’m nervous to stand in front of others. I think these next few weeks will definitely be a place for introspection and delineation of my future – where I’m going, where I want to go, and why I want to go there. I think I’ve lost some of my way and stepped into a place that I need to step out of again.
I think this is the beginning of that – the next phase of my journey.