Roma and Racism
not a fun subject, right? but there are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head, and I need to write them down to draw a circle around what it is I think I'm doing with them. first off, I have no genetic 'proof' - such as a cheek swab from my estranged brother whom I haven't seen or heard from in years, for DNA testing - that my father was Rromani, but I have the stories I was told. not the ones that came out when my father's people got together at a gathering, but the ones he spoke low in the dark, into the breeze of a quiet, evening dog-walking, back when I still lived in the relative comfort of my parents' home. they would come out like whispers, confessions in the dark. we couldn't see each others faces as we looked outward, away, following the dog with our eyes as he followed his nose. we would stroll in the quiet of our suburban neighborhood, the hush of after-dinner glow vaguely lit by televisions, mutely exploding through living room windows, falling against the night. "I don't dream," he would say, a truth that would shock me again when I heard it from my child's father, 20 years later, as I realized with new horror what that statement meant from an adult mindset. as a teen, it was a confusing thought, but as an adult...as a parent...painful doesn't begin to cover it.
I go on about my dad a lot, I know, but he truly was an amazing guy. even now, almost 14 years after his death, he's still hanging around whispering in my ear, telling me things we didn't have the time to talk about while he was here, and I am thankful for that. when I was a young girl, and would have these private times together with him, we would talk about god and nature, history, and music; about what I learned in science class as opposed to what I learned from going to temple and learning about Judaism. I'd tell him about how the big bang created the Universe, that large masses of gas exploded out into space and started the whole big, beautiful, messy dance, and there was no big, white dude with a long, white beard sitting on a throne in a cloud, pointing his finger to direct any of it. he would nod sagely and consider that, ask me questions about how I came to my conclusions, what facts I used to support my evidence, and I'd answer with all the confidence of girl on the verge of womanhood.
and how his heart would have burst with love for me right then - from the washed, conditioned, brushed and styled hair on top of my head full of highly-ranked, East coast, North American public school brains, to the tip of my well-polished, designer label shoe-encased toes. how he must have cried inside with sobs of gratitude on his metaphorical knees to watch me (all of us!) sleep in my clean, warm bed, in my own carpeted room with windows, closets, bookshelves, a desk, tv, stereo, and telephone. there were vacations in other countries, holidays with gifts, theme parks, concert halls, art museums, music lessons, a car to drive at 16...the daughter of the man, who as a child, ran barefoot through the desert catching scorpions to sell for pocket money. I had never had to huddle in a bomb shelter, scrounge for food, hide in the night, run for my life, wonder where my parents were, feel lost, alone, abandoned, afraid, hungry...never having to face the horrors that war shows to a child. to bear the scars of an adult, never. not for me, not for his babies...
but what is the cost? okay, so my father managed to buy his children the sort of freedom and comfort he never had, but how many did he have to kill to earn it? and how much of himself? and that war is still going on, isn't it? children are still dying in the Middle-East (Europe, Africa, Asia...) while I send my kid to an East-coast, North American public school where the same stereotypes are equally as ignored as they were back in my day. so I grew up knowing to respect Black people, Native Americans, and
Jews, but not Palestinians, Muslims, or Christians. I had a glancing
awareness of Buddha, and a possible glimmer of thought about the host of
other religions/cultures/different sorts of people there are in the
world - yet I would remained silent when I would hear people I called my
friends putting another group of people down for being from another
country, because I was one of the 'accepted unacceptables'. pretty girls generally get a pass if they can keep their mouths shut, but how much of myself was I
made to put away to do it, and why should I have had to? what is the cost of
never knowing? and how much now that I know?
to see the emails pile up
in my inbox, the news articles day after day - segregation, violence,
exclusion, death. so from me, no more silence. okay, so when I was younger I would call myself a Gypsy to seem more exotic, and in high school I would cut class and give tarot readings in the library...I had (have) a crystal ball, and hung wishbones from a crystal wand I got at the Renaissance Festival. it can be said that I am guilty of representing for a people whose culture I have very little experience of in the most undesirable and stereotypically damaging ways. and it bothered my dad at first, until he figured out how to explain it away by saying, "all that Gypsy blood had to end up somewhere." I would get vaguely annoyed when I saw other people misrepresenting, but only so far as to point out that I was a 'real' Gypsy, and they were mostly just white kids who liked living in a van. I finally read a book about the Rromani people when I was just shy of 30, because I felt it was the one part of my heritage I knew the least about.
to be fair, I don't know much about being being Polish, or Russian, other than a recipe or two that came out on holidays, but that branch of my family tree has been in North America since the 1920's, and I'm fairly well grounded in it because even as Jews, we were members of the predominate cultural paradigm. while one side of my family was fighting WWII on the American team, the other side of the family was fleeing Romania (another place I know nothing about) for Israel, to escape from it. when my dad's people left Israel to go on to Canada, he stayed where he was, having found his home on a kibbutz, growing cotton. I grew up knowing all about being an Israeli-American, though - that story was part of my every day life. being Israeli had a meaning over and above being Jewish, which was just the 'bible stuff' they used to teach you the prevailing set of moral codes - being Israeli meant fighting to stay alive in a world where all sides wanted to kill you every moment of the day. we were told we are a war-like people, and I believed them.
when I thought I had a better understanding of who the Rromani people were, I thought I was starting to understand why my dad wasn't overly fond of his folks, aside from the mistreatment he suffered at their hands. the book I had read had pretty much lead me to the conclusion that Gypsies were slightly more dignified than the trash the rest of the world seemed to believe them to be. slightly, but not much. I did begin to see why my dad liked to put on a show when we were around his family, though - he always wanted to seem richer, happier, smarter, well-behaved, proper, and clean. he wanted to rub the shame in their faces. "hey, what language is that you speak with Grandma ?" "it's a secret language...I don't know..." these were nebulous people. still, they were mine, and I felt like I was beginning to own them.
finally, I met a woman who is more vocal than I am about being Rroma...she's downright loud about it. but she knows she's Gitano in a way I can't say I know I'm Rroma. however transparent of a veil I've adopted from this culture, she wears it like a cloak, carrying it with her, and asking you to hold it sometimes. she 'outed' me to the administration of our college to bring weight to a discussion she was having with them, and I felt pinned to a dissection board, and ran away from the focused gaze of revelation. what if I was found to be inauthentic? would it matter? not one bit. I had spent all these years attempting to define for myself who I was, and getting bad information to go on, and here was someone through whom I could get a better story...and what it story it's turned out to be. remember all those emails turning up in my inbox each day? the ones I can't un-recognize the privilege with which I delete them when they become too much..?
...the ones that make me want to chuck everything and go to where the trouble is and throw my western attitudes around, 'get shit done, goddamn it', and probably get shot for being an elitist asshole or something... but what am I supposed to do? putting myself behind a brick wall in a community without power so my kid can't make it to the segregated school, either - while I throw my fat, white, ass in with the adults - not only doesn't solve anything, it just give them two more people to look after. so I argue over misappropriation of culture on the internet with seriously inappropriate people who spout the sort of hate speech it shocks me to realize is still so deeply embedded in their everyday mindset. maybe I'm not surprised at the thinking of it so much as the audacity to say it out loud, and have others stand up behind them and agree, loudly.
again, this is nothing new either to me, or to the world at large, but I guess it's the first time in a long time I've let it touch me so deeply, and I'm remembering what it was like to have to stand up and defend my Jewish, and/or Israeli heritage, and not let the little prejudicial bastards think I was going to take any of their shit. well, and now I'm not going to stay silent and let it happen to the Rromani folks, either. we all remember this great quote (or one of it's variations), right:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
right. it does seem possible to affect at least a small amount of change by getting involved in signing petitions, sending letters, and making phone calls, because awareness is a big first step towards helping to evolve an outdated idea. and you want to know the funny part about it all to me? the big, cosmic joke, as it were? we are the Rromanis your mother warned you about. wait...what? that's right, you heard me. if those whispers of story are to be believed, then my father's people are the ones who gave us the bad name in the driveway and painting business, and the house-fire stories, too (and I wouldn't doubt if one of my uncles was inappropriate with someone's daughter). yup, we are the ones who made the rest of you look bad, and I would like to apologize for that, and make my amends by working towards respecting all
human rights, and making sure to represent the Romani culture with the highest level of respect possible, given my limited knowledge on the subject, which is ever-growing.
sorry. but you know what? there are bad apples in every culture/religion/society, and as the saying goes, 'the crimes of the father are not the crimes of the son'. not that my father ever did anything wrong - remember, he did what he could to distance himself from that lifestyle - but I have to say, that as I go around defending a people I barely belong to in the language of my white privilege, pointing out that We are not, in fact, what 'I' am...that as the world begins to notice and accept the Rromanis among the vaulted halls and learned avenues, don't forget those of us who picked the lock and sneaked in the back. it may not make anyone proud to see me standing in their corner, but I'm here, nonetheless. I lay whatever skill I may have at the feet of the flag many will question my audacity to post under. I look forward to learning how I will be called upon to best serve.
Opre Roma ~