“You Gypsies, you never stand up for yourselves. That’s the problem,” the gadžo professor nodded his head emphatically. We had been discussing the situation of Romani throughout Europe and the best way to improve conditions. “You don’t do anything to change the situation, you’re just so passive about everything!” Again, he nodded as if he alone knew all the answers. By this time, he had been talking non-stop for a good fifteen minutes and his raspy voice was grating my nerves into a pile of finely-shredded frustration.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I have to disagree. Your reasoning is built on faulty logic. We are not passive because we don’t want to do anything, we are passive because of the continual racism, oppression, and discrimination we face on a daily basis. We feel like we CANNOT do anything! How can you find the strength to battle oppressive political systems when you can’t even find food? Water? Clothing? Not to mention the misrepresentation by academics such as yourself, as nothing more than pieces on a political chessboard!” I sputtered to a stop. His face was red, lips pursed angrily, mustache twitching. He glared at me for a moment and then he said it;
“You don’t need to be so aggressive!”
Maami always said that Gypsies were never of our own making. We were (and are) a social construct – a story, a meta-narrative. This narrative is rooted in the idea of citizenship as universal and equal, and as previously nomadic people, we are considered non-citizens, unequal and different. This universal citizenship narrative renders non-existent historical and contemporary realities of individuals who have not experienced citizenship in equitable and just ways.
We exist as a dichotomy – too passive to help ourselves, yet aggressive and dangerous when challenged. We are, in short, aggressively passive. The reification of “Gypsy” as a politicized ethnicity is not only a bad habit, it is an extremely dangerous and damaging one. We are always placed in direct opposition to the citizens of the countries in which we live. We are not simply Other, we are a politicized Other and we remain actively despised because of it.
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”
Also known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect – we come to hate people whom we treat badly. If we experience guilt about our treatment of some person, or group and have trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we have wronged. If we dehumanise someone, distance our empathy, we don’t feel bad about the terrible way we treated them.
Romani are consistently othered as violent, worthless, animalistic, primitive people who need to be kept behind walls for everyone’s safety. This narrative reinforces (and reifies) “Gypsy” as catch all for aggressive people who are passive about the vile conditions they live in.
“They used to say we liked it,” Baba Edita confided one day. “Those gadže kids would say we pigs liked our dirt. They’d say that we were smelly and stupid and lived like animals because we liked it …”
It is assumed that our abject poverty is a result of our passiveness; that we have no desire to change it. It is also assumed that we are too aggressive to accept help to improve our situation.
This dichotomous categorization is tempered by the idea of ‘nomadism’ as related to the construct of “Gypsy”. Romani have long been represented in European media (particularly novels) as stock figures with a one-dimensional and predictable symbolic function. They appear for a brief moment and then disappear from the represented world – pastoralists in an increasingly industrial age. We are figures of speech, plot devices, archaic tropes. We are less than fully human, deficient in reason, and unworthy of full membership in society. In fact, between the 16th and 19th centuries, British law itself moved from defining us as a genetically foreign community, to one defined by behavioural preferences. Our perceived antagonism toward territorial allegiance and private property has marked us as ‘inassimilable” to the nation-state.
These views still dominate political and social attitudes towards Romani. We are seen as unwilling and unable to assimilate. We are seen as genetically and socially too different to coexist with non-Romani. We are still see as unworthy of full membership in society and are walled off in ghettos and slums. Our children are segregated in schools. We are denied access to basic human necessities.
Bibi Lemija once told me that Romani weren’t indifferent to their suffering, rather they were patient. “They tried to exterminate us because they see us like rats. But, rats are clever and tough. They can live without water, survive poison, and swim like fish! We are like that. We can live anywhere and survive no matter what is done to us! They call us Gypsy like they call out rat, rat! I am not a Gypsy, I am Romnji.”
I’m tired of being patient. Tired of accepting microaggressions and microassaults because to challenge them is to be aggressive.
Maybe it’s not aggression.
Maybe it’s resistance.