Intersectionality, Interpretation, and Inertia

Feb 11, 2013 by

This morning I was lucky enough to read the “Statement on Why and How does Ethnicity Matter in Academics: The case of Romani women with intersectionality” (Brooks, Carmona, Kócze, and Vincze, 2013), which I have copied in full below.

As bell hooks stated, “In a culture of domination, preoccupation with victimage is inevitable”, and I believe that for Romani women, this idea of victimage comes both from within and without. Despite the cultural criticism pouring from a myriad of locations that extols a vision of cultural hybridity, border crossing, and a subjectivity constructed out of plurality, it seems that the vast majority of people in this society, and indeed in academia, still believe in a notion of identity that is rooted in a sense of essential traits and characteristics that are fixed and static. Intersectionality as an experience is seen as merely another category (and not, as the word itself would imply, intercatagorical). As both Romani and Woman, I have experienced the burning sting of this dual victimage first hand.

Radical social transformation requires more than just an unmasking of the ways in which power constitutes conformity and resistance. We must move away from the discourses of victimization that have historically plagued our communities and walk towards a “delinking” – a radical shift in the geo-politics and body politics of
knowledge. As Walter Mignolo stated, “in order to delink and move forward, you need a new pair of shoes. If you do not invent a new pair of shoes you remain kicking around in the old ones” (2005).

New shoes indicate a new identity – a struggle to raise above the historical victimage of Romani and Woman.

[I]dentity, in my view, is a mediating concept between the external and internal,
the individual and society, theory and practice. Identity is a convenient “tool”
through which to try and understand many aspects – personal, philosophical,
political – of our lives. (Sarup, 1996, p. 28)

As a Romani, woman, ex-pat, mother, daughter, sister, student, worker, non-citizen, scholar, I have constantly negotiated my identity – creating and recreating my self. I live intersectionality, but as a Romani. There is no “Romani Theory”; there is no Marxist-feminist critical theoretical approach centered on the lives of Romani women, although we too face political oppression and intersections of consumer racism, gender hierarchies, and disadvantages in the labor market.

As Romani, as Women, we occupy a borderland in higher education. A borderland created by socio-historical and socio-political oppressive discourses and experiences. My own experiences with this borderland are still evolving and coming to some conceptual realization. When I first started my graduate program I felt completely alone and isolated. There are no other Roma on campus; no one like me. I was not a “typical” graduate student and I exhausted my professors and fellow students who felt I was too other and too woman to have such strong opinions. I was ascribed identity by peers and professors alike; angry Gypsy; radical feminist; reverse racist. I was victimized and labeled as a “problematic, affirmative action, this-is-what’s-wrong-with-education, confused Gypsy who should have stayed home and made babies like on that one TV show”. Yet, at the same time, I was chastised by my male relatives for being too outspoken, too educated, too non-Romani.

To deal with this, I became inert.

I became silent.

However, self-indentification of this borderland existence requires a forward momentum and the building of a new consciousness. A consciousness which moves away from victimage towards an interrogation of internal and structural oppression. In fact, this consciousness entails  a “shift out of habitual formations: from convergent thnking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes” (Andalzua, 101). This border thinking creates a new mythos—“a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave”.

As a Romani, as a Woman, when I look at Academia, there are more voices like mine, more faces like mine, more experiences like mine – but our voices are not any louder, our words still placed at the bottom of the pile.

We are still handed our identities as we walk into the room…

it’s time we took them back.

______________________________________________________________________________________

STATEMENT ON WHY AND HOW DOES ETHNICITY MATTER IN ACADEMICS
The case of Romani women with intersectionality

10th of February, 2013

Self-identification as ethnic Roma (or as Traveller, Gypsy, Gitanos etc.) is part of the political choices made both in the strict domain of politics and in everyday life. It is about naming, positioning and recognition, an ongoing process marked by the power hierarchies of the context where it is happening. Assumed and ascribed identities are social constructions however they are as real as there are all the other aspects of our societal realities. They underline socio-economic distinctions, often used to justify injustices and boundaries between “us” and “them”, or among those who “deserve”, and those who “do not deserve” belonging. Stigmas attached to (minoritized) identities are major obstacles in ones access to and participation on what is defined by the mainstream society as normal ingredient of life.

The academic sphere is a space of knowledge production and dissemination marked, among others, by power hierarchies and intersectional inequalities based on ethnicity, gender and class. To a certain extent, inequalities that characterize our societies at large are (re)produced by the knowledge that academics produce, and/or by the process in which they produce it. Academics are not neutral knowledge producers, but embodied and embedded individuals, who act in the frame of particular social relations and are informed by their (often unconscious) personal convictions. Individuals belonging to marginalized groups, even if they advance through an academic carrier to a specific level, are more exposed to the inequalities inherent of this system, including the unequal access to resources, or to information about resources, to participation on scholarly partnerships, or to procedures of academic recognition.

Being a Roma (assuming Romani identity) does not empower anyone to know/ understand/ interpret “Roma” better. As being a woman is not a guarantee of the truth that she might affirm about “women”. But occupying a subordinated position in a power structure enables someone to be interested to challenge this power structure and to deconstruct it. As those who are occupying privileged positions are more eager to legitimize existing orders. What matters in knowledge production is the standpoint assumed, which includes not only ones position in a power regime, but also his/her set of epistemological and ethical values regarding how unequal societal and political arrangements should be described. Should we pretend that those unequally positioned are equal partners of the game? Or we should better describe how the game functions and how privileged positions are reproduced and maintained among others by hiding the mechanisms through which the very power regimes, within which they are privileged, naturalize the invested and constructed nature of these regimes.

In the past few years Romani feminists (women who assume their Romani identity because that matters in the way they are, and who perceive themselves as Roma also through their feminist standpoint) produced critical knowledge about the intersectionality of gender, ethnicity and class. Very often, due to this, they were placed by their Roma male colleagues on the one hand, and by their (feminist or not) non-Roma female and male colleagues on the other hand, to the margins of what was defined by the one or by the other as the legitimate sphere of addressing questions related to gender and/or to ethnic and/or to class inequalities. Their experiences and knowledge should be integrated into the universal flow of exchanges of people and ideas. Their work should be recognized and mainstreamed. And especially when it comes about the very subject of intersectionality, these Romani women scholars, who happen to be feminists, should not be placed into positions, which do not acknowledge them as equal participants of a learning situation.

This declaration was evoked by the forthcoming workshop on “Gender, Ethnicity and Class in Roma Studies: Whither Intersectionality?” that is supported by the European Academic Network on Romani Studies. This is not to contest the professional value of the seminar or of scholars proposing it however one should notice that, when recalling the brief history of intersectionality, they reduce it to the post-colonial and most importantly to the American Black feminist legacy. Moreover, it is important to observe: participants of the seminar will be Romani MA and PhD students from Eastern Europe, and none of the lecturers, or not even a single guest speaker is invited who would identify as Roma. This is professionally unjust, because European academics, and most importantly those who do Romani studies, need to recognize Roma women’s scholarship and entrenched experiences based on ethnicity, gender and class.

Romani studies academics, if committed to the promotion of ethnic Roma scholars as their fellows, should acknowledge that the perspective of intersectionality was applied and introduced both into Roma related studies, and European Roma policies by Romani women activists and scholars. Unfortunately, the way as the seminar is constructed, whereas the non-Roma male and female will teach and educate Romani students about intersectionalities is a reproduction of a paternalistic pattern, which ignores, excludes and further on marginalizes the formers’ contribution to (academic and policy) histories that matter.

Based on our knowledge and experience we firmly believe that without interrogating the internal oppression and structural discrimination in the academia – which tend to ignore and disqualify the voice of Roma who had no opportunities for centuries to shape the academic canon about them –, won’t be any shift from an adversarial to cooperative relation between Roma and non-Roma scholars.

Ethel Brooks, PhD
Associate Professor, Departments of Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology
Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies
Rutgers University, USA

Sarah Carmona, PhD
Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme
Université d’Aix-Marseille, France

Angéla Kócze, PhD
Research Fellow, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Sociology, Hungary
Visiting Fulbright Professor, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Wake Forest University, USA

Enikő Vincze, PhD
Professor, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania

2 Comments

  1. Victimage? Or victimization?

    • Qristina

      bell hooks used the word “victimage” in the quote I chose to use from her work. Taken in the context in which she uses it, victimage can be see to be the state of being a “victim”. I think she uses it purposefully to distinguish it from victimization (“to make a victim of”) and victim (“one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent”).

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