WHY WRITE ABOUT THE RROMA?
by Roger Parham-Brown

Recently travelling on a train from Bucharest to Sighisoara I wandered into the dining car where I came upon a rowdy drunken crowd of young men, an athletic team. They were singing song after song, the lyrics of which were all about being in love with a Tigani women. There was a song about being in love with a beautiful Tigani woman and discovering the next morning that she'd gone away with her Tigani man and the cravan. There was a song that said I love two women. I have my Romanian woman because she knows how to cook, and my Tigani woman knows how to make love. This passionate expression about the Tigani woman in a country that shows such open racial hostility towards the same people does not surprise me. After all in America it's no secret that the black represented the embodiment of soulful spirituality, sensuality, sexuality. We have our songs that refer to liking cream in our coffee, and white men sing of their love for Brown Sugar, the brown-skin woman. In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, where the indigenous Indian population has been discriminated against for centuries and generally considered by the dominant society as an inferior people, one hears one romantic love song after another with the presumably white latino male proclaming his love for his beautiful morenita, or brown-skinned one.

Of course this somewhat symbiotic relationship between the Rroma and the Romanians make sense to me, but apparently not to many Romanians. I recently had a discussion with a group of educated, well- intentioned young sociology researchers who asked me, "Why the name Rroma?" I explained what little I knew; that it was more a linguistic tag, having not so much to do with the nation of Romania, and I showed the written material I had on the subject.

"But it's not right," I was told. "I feel as if they're stealing our heritage. After all they're not just here in Romania. They're all over Europe. Surely they must have their own nation and language. Why take ours?"

I argued as I always do that their history and culture is intertwined with your own. You are a part of each other. The young sociology researchers continued with their objections, pointing out that in their research projects with Rroma people, when they asked them, "What do you call yourselves, Tigani or Rroma?" These people said, "No, we're Tigani." The researchers said they objected to the idea of this name being imposed on these people by some outsider intellectuals. I said that it did not surprise me that these people with whom they spoke were not concerned with the new consciousness of pride of being Rroma. But I said that I thought there clearly was a need for an appropriate name for a people who previously had been called by a name which was synonymous with slave, a name which had taken on such a derogatory status as to be equivalent with a curse or the worse slander one could make against a person.

I've spent this past year here in Bucharest teaching English composition at a private university and teaching both a course in British history and a course in American history at a bilingual high school. When my students learned that I was writing a book about my experience here in Romania, they were at once fascinated and interested in knowing what I'd have to say about their country. What were my conclusions they wanted to know. I explained that I wasn't the sort of writer who puts much energy or emphasis on reaching conclusions: that I attempt more to render an impressionistic portrait--that is, to try to give a reader a sensory experience of what it must feel like to live 'in a certain place at a particular time; and, that I wanted to create a sense not only of the physical, the visual, but most important, the intellectual and emotional atmosphere during a particular period. I explained that, aside from the rather limited notes of my experiences as an American/foreigner living here in Bucharest for a year, the book would consists of dozens of interviews held with Romanians from different social stratas, all telling in their own words (talking into a tape-recorder) of how they viewed life ten years ago under the Ceausescu dictatorship and noting the changes that they have witnessed up to the present day. Secondly, how they view life in the present day 1998. Naturally, depending on who they are as individuals, their social background, education, profession, gender, and age etc., they will have dramatically different perceptions. However, when my students learned that I was particularly interested in Romanians relation with their Rroma population, they all became quite distressed.

"But why write about the Tigani?" they cried. "There's so much more to us, to Romania than the Tigani. The only thing the rest of the world knows about Romania is Dracula and the Tiganies"

I gently suggested that it would seem as improbable to me to attempt to write about Romania without writing about Romanian's relationship with the Rroma as it would be to try to write about America without writing about its relationship with the African-American and the Native American-Indian; I believed that their history as Romanians and the history of the Rroma in Romania were entwined.

What I found most astounding in these early discussions with my students, in which they would assail me with a barrage of negative stereotypes as their justification for despising the Rroma people and I would to no avail offer arguments of modem understanding about social behavior and facts of Romanian and Rroma history to refute their notions, was that the individual bricks that made up this wall of prejudice consisted of some of my otherwise most intelligent, sensitive, open-minded and enlightened students, especially when it came to understanding the African-American or Native-American Indian's plight or even the stupidity of anti- semitism and the evil that it generated. But when it came to the question of the Rroma people, they were literally submerged too deep, drowned as it were in a culture of stereotypes. They were contaminated and blinded in an atmosphere that had embraced the ties for as long as anyone could remember.

I've volunteered to teach a creative writing workshop on Saturdays. It was there one Saturday when one of our discussions drifted into the subject of the Romanians treatment of the Rroma that one of my most gifted poets, a sensitive young man whosr poetry often deals with the nature of man's relation to God, spoke such stunningly harsh words about the Rroma that I could scarcely believe they were coming out of his mouth. "It's like if a dog keeps biting you, and biting you," he said. "When you've finally had enough and you canít take it anymore, you just want to kill it."

I later suggested this student write me an essay to attempt to explore from where these prejudiced feelings came. In his essay he said that he didn't like to think of himself as prejudiced; that in fact his first sexual experience had been with a Rroma girl; that he still found them attractive, but that there was just something inexplicably Romanian deep within him he supposed that--when he'd hear on the radio about people setting fire to a Rroma community--caused a voice within him to cry out "Yes! Yes! " He said further in this essay that people are always talking about the Tigani problem, but that no one ever has the courage to do anything about it. When I asked him what he had in mind when he spoke of "doing something about it," thinking he meant some sort of social project that would help the Rroma people, he said, "To get rid of them of course." This sweet, sensitive innocent young man was speaking of ethnic cleansing, Hitlerís final solution.

A colleague at the high school where I teach invited me to dinner to meet her husband who is a distinguished professor of American and English literature at the State University. It was a splendid meal, during which we spent a lovely literary afternoon discussing our favorite books and writers. The professor and his wife spent a semester teaching at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which he and his wife absolutely loved. When I mentioned that I was in correspondence with Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian-born, American poet and critic, the professor told me that he also admired Codrescu's work, and that, in fact, Codrescu's Romanian translator was a very good friend of his, a woman who lived here in Bucharest and whom he would be only too happy to introduce me, along with many other significant contemporary Romanian writers that he thought I should meet. I was delighted. Thrilled. What great fortune.

However, by the time desert came around something had caused me to venture into the perilous subject of the Romanian's treatment of the Rroma, and how I saw such an incredible similarity to the Romanian attitude towards Rroma and the attitude that had been prevalent towards Blecks and Indians in America.

"Oh, no! Absolutely not," said my host. "One simply cannot make any comparison to the situation with Tigani's and the American black. It's just not at all the same."

I told my host that I thought it was precisely the same. First of all because racial prejudice was racial prejudice, and that the same things were said about blacks and Indians, that they were ignorant, incapable of learning, unclean, lazy, and were only good for entertainment and sex etc. And I went on to talk about how the internalization of these prejudicial ideas damages the hearts and minds of its victims as I had seen not only in my own family (Here I must say that I am a person of mixed blood, African-American, Anglo- Saxon, but predominantly Native-American Indian- Cherokee. And I am a psychological victim, from a family of generations, afflicted by racial self-hatred), but that I had seen this with blacks and Indians throughout Latin America, principally southern Mexico in the state of Oaxaca where I have lived for nearly twenty years.

When Iíd finished, my host said, "You will agree, wonít you, that we have a Tigani-Gypsy problem in Romania?"

"Obviously you do," I said. Suffice it to say, I was never again

invited back , nor was I introduced to Codrescu's translator, nor any other Romanian writers. Whenever I've attempted to phone the professor, I was hung up on.

In Cluj at an orientation program for the Central European Teaching Program of which I was a part, a Romanian historian/sociologist discussed the problems of the Romanian minorities by which he meant Hungarian- Romanians, Roman Catholics etc. I raised the question of the Rroma people. "That's quite a different matter," I was told. "They're not really a minority. The problem with them is very complex," he said. "Made especially more difficult by the fact that the Rroma people are unwilling to integrate into the Romanian society. For example we've spent a lot of money," he said, referring to the government. "Trying to educate them, but they simply refuse to send their children to school."

In all of this scholar's talk no mention was made of the fact that children everywhere drop out of school when they fail, and that when no provisions are made for Rroma children's language they have a built-in handicap for the likelihood of their academic failure, not to mention the psychological damage, "the destruction in the hearts and minds" of the young children aware that they, and the very name of their race are objects of hatred.

I mention these incidents to illustrate that as an outsider, a visitor Romania, I am overwhelmed by my awareness of an acceptance of these racial stereotypes that is pervasive on every level of society. In fact, I dare say that in my view it is particularly the intelligentsia that embraces these racial stereotypes with their own 'intellectual rationales to support them, of course.

These intellectuals who employ these racial stereotypes do so under the perhaps well-meaning, but nevertheless misguided belief that the Rroma problem is essentially a consequence of the Rroma being a nomadic people and of their inability to adapt to a structured modem society. For me, as with a female who's been raped, this is the same old story of blaming the victim in as much as this position's blindness to history overlooks the principal reason for the Rroma's continued nomadic existence throughout Europe and elsewhere: in most places they were forbidden to own property and in 14th century England, as in other places, they were continually being deported. They were literally forced to keep on the move.

People who ignore the status of slave to which the Rroma was relegated for centuries in my view have no understanding of how that image has been indelibly stamped in the psyche of the society. And neither should one expect to find any more clarity of perspective on the understanding of stereotypes by its victims. To the contrary, except for this elite group of young intellectual activist Rroma on the vanguard of fighting for Rroma human rights interests and consciousness raising of Rroma pride, I've found that most disadvantaged Rroma are clearly aware that there is prejudice and racial hostility against them, but sadly, many believe that this prejudice stems from the bad behavior brought on by bad Rroma. Many of them are unlikely to recognize the inherent ignorance, injustice and fallacy of attributing moral characteristics to any ethnic or racial group of people (in the first place).

I've traveled back and forth across Romania interviewing poverty-stricken Rroma in Mangalia to relatively wealthy Rroma in Tirgu Mures. Some clans who hold themselves in very high regard as a people quite distinct and superior to other Rroma believe that discrimination doesn't affect them because they do not possess the negative qualities of the other Rroma, and they tend to agree completely with the criticism and stereotype of their unfortunate brethren. And sadly I must say they were segregationist, entirely devoid of compassion.

I know one young extremely intelligent and articulate young Rroma girl who proudly told me, "I have no complexes." "What do you feel when you hear people criticizing Rroma?" I asked. "It doesn't bother me because I know Iím different."

"Why do you think they criticize the Rroma?" I asked. She explained that it was because so many of them were dirty, they stole, and spoke ugly etc.

"Why do you think only the Rroma are like this?"

"god made them that way," she said.

I see these diverse responses as being no more than two opposite sides of the same coin. For me both groups are victimized by their internalization of negative racial stereotypes.

It is apparent to me that this above all else is the insidious evil of living in a society steeped in an atmosphere accepting racial stereotypes that no one escapes its contamination. Whether we're speaking of the disadvantaged and emotionally vulnerable Rroma who has been innoculated with the lies of his inferiority and accepts that as truth and acts out in a defeatist manner serving to prove this inferiority, or whether we're speaking of the Rroma with a powerful ego and a strong-willed determination to overcompensate and succeed and achieve at the emotional cost of rejecting anything that might remotely associate him with being Rroma, we are still dealing with individuals whose psyche have been damaged by the acceptance and thereby internalization of the racial stereotypes.

And don't believe for one moment that those young drunken men on the train who sang of their romanticized stereotype of the free spirited, more sensual Rroma woman for which they held an unrequited love are not also victims, imprisoned by the same stereotypes that prevent them from having an honest realistic perception of not only the Rroma woman for her genuine humanity, but perhaps for all women and from recapturing their more honest humanity for the male gender as well.

May I suggest that as an affirmative step towards this necessary healing process, we would all do well to both question and examine this ancient human need to always designate a group slightly different from ourselves, "the other" as the repository for our worst fears about ourselves, or as in the hyper-romanticism of the drunken singers on the train to perceive this group as the embodiment of our unrealistic dreams of what we could be were we allowed to be set free from the restrictive shackles of society's expectations.

For those who doubt that this evolution towards a more mature approach to perceiving ourselves and others is possible, I'd like to recount something of my childhood. As an African-American, Native-American, Cherokee-Indian growing up in the segregated environment of the forties and fifties in Washington DC, our images of beauty and our heroes and heroines were the same as the white child's as were our aspirations and dreams. And yet we never had the benefit of seeing a physical image of our own likeness reflected in the popular culture (e.g. the movies, magazines) The only time we saw a black or an Indian in a movie, he was brought into the scene for a moment of comic relief, a figure to make fun of, a joke for the audience to enjoy a good laugh. Do I need to tell you what that must say to a child, what he must be learning about his limitations as a human being? If you opened a magazine and saw a female model advertising a refrigerator or a man behind the wheel of a new automobile, they would invariably have blonde hair and blue eyes, and the message of one day being in the driver's seat was that there wasn't even the remotest possibility.

But in the civil rights movement of the sixties some activist seized upon the idea that psychological damage done to the identity of the children victimized by racial prejudice was as devastating if not more so than the discrimination which prevented them from full participation in the larger society, that this damage to the ego, as stated by the noted American author Jonathan Kozol, had caused "destruction in the hearts and minds" of these children, and that it was on this front of the damaged identity that a war must be waged. The result was that pressure was put on the marketplace to demand first that advertisers would be required to show positive images of blacks and Indians in their commercials, and that economic pressure through boycotts and other means would also be placed on the film, television and entertainment industry for Blacks and Indians to be represented on the screen in a variety of roles from heroes to romantic figures--not just clowns or bad guys. In the news media ethnic minorities and women would be seen in positions of professional and intellectual authority. I can tell you that it was as if before there had been darkness, then suddenly the lights had come on in my world. We Indians, Blacks and women saw a world of possibilities for ourselves which before we could never have even imagined.

The slow subtlety of the poison of racial prejudice invades our consciousness at an early age and remains in the system long after we have perhaps intellectually disavowed it. In the sixties when I would see black or Indian intellectuals on television for the first time I can remember thinking with pride: "Oh, wow! look! He's like me. He's a black or Indian whose intelligent. Oh, look thereís another one, and there thereís another one.

To illustrate the slow residual power of this poison it was even as late as a few years ago when after continuously seeing numerous ethnic minorities in such positions that I cried with real shame to discover that all along unconsciously I had remained a victim of prejudice, believing that I and the other Indians or blacks who had made significant achievements had done so because we, unlike most Blacks and Indians, were unique, special. And then suddenly for it to dawn upon me what prejudice I still harbored. Now that one could see these outstanding achievers everywhere, the shame of my prejudice was obvious.

It would not surprise me if there are many who would say that all that I am talking about is very light stuff, very insignificant indeed in comparison to the real practical needs of a people disadvantaged and marginalized by racial discrimination, that what I should be talking about are concrete ideas that would serve to better the condition of these people.

But I obviously disagree. I believe that it is in this area of combating racial stereotypes that there is the greatest hope for real change for both the victims of discrimination and the perpetuators, and that we have all been imprisoned and contaminated by the insidious evil of negative stereotypes and therefore we are all victims.

As I am brought back to the image of the drunken boys on the train singing of their Tigani girl, I feel a sadness and a compassion for us all. Of course, I conclude it would be impossible to write about Romania and Romanians without writing about their love-hate relationship with the Rroma, their past and their destiny are intertwined.

 




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