Since I posted “Political Bodies” there has been a lively debate over my viewpoint and the viewpoint of other Romani. As I mentioned, I am not a well-known activist or academic with a proven track record of anything. I’m just a little Romani woman who has struggled hard to be in this place of knowledge and learning. My grandmother always told me that women’s voices are like the rain – most people try to hide from them, even though they are necessary to our survival. I firmly believe, in the case of the ERI, Romani women’s voices are extremely important.
Much of the argument against the ERI that I have encountered seems to be that it wants to ‘aggressively’ challenge current, established practices within academia – specifically within the area of “Romani Studies”. The counter to this is an argument that academia is not a patriarchal, colonial, exclusive space, but that it embraces Romani with open arms and we should work within the current framework instead of demanding change.
However, in my (limited) experience, academia NEEDS to be aggressively challenged, especially in regards to the discipline and inclusion of Romani Studies curricula. My own area, Romani Literature, is sadly neglected, to the point that there is no scholarship or representation of Romani literature as a viable, interesting, and worthwhile area of study. Our great authors, many of them women, are left in the dark corners of academia under piles of ‘established’ literary canons and empty cultural studies. It seems people are so busy studying us as an object (our living situations, our languages, our social organization), they treat us more like interesting animals than real and capable people. How many times do I see “the Roms” or “The Roma” or worse, “The Gypsies”, along with assessments of our culture of oppression, marginalization, and victimization as though we are all represented by the very limited scholarship undertaken on our behalf?
As Ken Lee states, “Romanies are the Orientals within” (Orientalism & Gypsylorism, 2000) – in that we have been the proverbial “Other” since our entrance into Europe. Studies of Romani culture, customs, and language by Charles Godfrey Leland, Henry Thomas Crofton, and even the Archduke Joseph of Austria, and the later formation of the Gypsy Lore Society, did little to extradite us from the cage of “subject/object”. We have become a cultural construction in Western imagination and this has typically not been addressed by the (Western, non-Romani) academics who have continued to study our cultures and languages. In fact, scholarship has continued to place us further and further outside of national narratives and has only served to further dissociate Romani from their ‘political bodies’ as a ‘people’ and an – albeit stateless – nation.
Academia, as a whole, is dominated by Western rhetoric and colonialist narratives. It is oppressive and often, though it would vehemently argue otherwise, blatantly racist. White, non-Romani academics argue constantly that this is not the case, that not all academics are this way. They implore us to look at all the good work they have completed on our behalf and ask us to be grateful for these hundreds of thousands of words about us. Academics have a responsibility – not only to the Academy itself and the practice of “study”, but to those whom they are studying and the world around them.
Unfortunately, academia – as it presently stands – does nothing to encourage transformative social change; it does little to effectively address the oppressive structures of power that limit the choices of ALL people, particularly minorities. And, in the case of Romani, often serve to perpetuate these negative power structures and limitations. Fighting to win funding for one village, one program, one center, does nothing to address the structures of society that keep Romani groups fighting among themselves for crumbs offered up by those in power – regardless of whether they are Romani or non-Romani led initiatives. Romani Studies programs have the opportunity to use the PRIVILEGE of academia to work for and address social change – to do this effectively, professors must choose to address both the theory and practice of current Romani Studies programs and work to challenge current oppressive and negative structures.
The argument against ERI is, in short, an argument against this – against Romani working for Romani; against Romani redefining the field of Romani studies, but most of all, it’s an argument against Romani voices and the reality of ourselves as capable, viable, and knowledgeable writers and academics.
Ever since I was small, I have realized that my ethnicity is a construct of Western minds – portrayals of Romani in films, videos, literature, and other media easily persuaded me of this fact. I have known, without knowing, that the only true knowledge I was assumed to have, was that stored within my body. We are (even still) thought of as a people without history – except for the limited and visceral experience of an unrecorded, analphabetic everyday life. Many of the present ‘cultural initiatives’ have failed to address issues beyond stereotypes. Many initiatives have been unwilling to promote Romani culture for fear of simply further solidifying negative (or even positively perceived) stereotypes. My “body of knowledge” is more than an unwritten metahistory. As Norman Levitt postulated, “[w]hen one particular narrative prevails, the dirty work is invariably done by ‘rhetoric’, never evidence and logic, which are, in any case, simply sleight-of-language designations for one kind of rhetorical strategy”.
In short, it’s time for the predominantly non-Romani-led academic studies of Romani history, culture, and language to change. It is time for a resistance – where Romani voices are the first and foremost authorities on Romani affairs. Too long have non-Romani designated our levels of competence and minimized our knowledge.
Yet, at the same time, it is naive to expect groups that have historically had to fight among themselves to gain any support whatsoever, to suddenly come together to support (yet another) initiative. We are tired. We are jaded. We are not just going to open our arms to another initiative aimed at fixing our problem without a healthy dose of skepticism. I have not heard any of these skeptical commentaries myself, I’ve only been alerted to their presence by non-Romani voices. I agree, in part, with their skepticism. I am not entirely sure that the ERI will be the answer to our activist prayers – at least not at first.
However, I do believe very much that it will at least open up the necessary dialogue and discourse surrounding these issues – especially among Romani communities. We need to talk to each other, we need to be invested in our own bodies of knowledge, and we need to learn how best to represent ourselves in such a volatile political landscape.
My grandmother was right, all those years ago, when she told me in a hushed whisper, “women’s voices are like the rain, people may try to hide from them, but the monsoon is coming, trust me, čhajoři…”