These days I went to several events during the Roma week at CEU. It is a series of events organized by Roma students attending preparatory non degree program covered by Roma initiatives and some other donors. I am also alumni of this program, and for the 8th of April traditionally students organize some events. Mostly there is some outdoor activity, a walk usually and throwing flowers in the river, some cultural event where you can hear some Roma music, see some dancing, and there are some public talks.
This time we had several of them. At the same time there was an event related to Roma issues organized on Corvinus University. The same people attend these events. As usual, these events do not get large audience beyond academic and activists Roma community. It is common practice in NGO sector and academia both, not just related to the Roma issues. I was not on every event, but I would share some impressions here.
Surely these events are organized within the limited scope of the 8th of April, and by a small number of people which took initiative, and this should be acknowledged. And people who spoke took some time to participate, so that is nice. Some also used their time to come and listen and contribute. And some money goes on organization of these events. Maybe it is not a huge budget, but it does. So there is this opportunity which is created. So when people’s resources are invested, then there is no reason not to use this opportunity to make some meaningful contribution.
I did not visit any Roma related events recently and my first impression was how strangely little really changes with time, and when you cross the border and enter international Roma movement.
There are we, more less the same people, for decades, with the privilege of time, location, and education, roaming the events. There are always some major figures which have something to say on anything and everything related to Roma issues. And it seems like nobody really expects these events to serve any other purpose but the symbolic one.
I started to think that this is because we are so deeply in our PTSDs that we compulsively have to restate some short and simple claims that we are there, we exist, we see injustice, we have a voice, we can talk, talk back. It seems like it serves some purpose which is basic, maybe to confirm our status as present, as humans. It might be.
This looks like resistance, but I could not help but think how more than anything it resembles some limited, repetitive automatic response of a traumatized collective, which is out of our control, and it’s like that, neglected, in terminal stage, for a very long time I think.
And there is nobody to offer any kind of consolation; we are there on our own, with ourselves, swinging back and forth. I mean, it’s a brutal and denigrating image, but there it is, it was in my mind. We are not crazy, but as a collective, it seems like our efforts look like they lost any sense. Well, at least to me.
It makes me sad in a way also how necked it appears. During the years it lost a lot of coloring, decoration, stile, craft, if you want, even the motivation to make it more like that. In movies you can see how dramatic and artistic and beautiful scenery of some dramatic scenes can be, with expensive lenses and good light, and great sound, and expensive production, and full theater, and distinguish audience. And you feel rather important when you leave the theater, even if you actually did not get anything else.
Actually, I guess the events like this in the past were made with the simple purpose to promise something wonderful in the future, new beginning, better life in which you will be respected member of society. It’s something parallel to the American dream, the Roma European dream, in color, starting from the glorious First Romani Congress in 1971.
I have some rather unsuccessful and neurotic strategies to prepare for the exams. I put so much effort to make it comfortable, to clean the space, to get some nice pens, to make sure my chair is comfortable, to find a nice place to study, to bring some nice music, and select the proper app for to do list, and all this bulshit stuff which promise good results, but which are simply worth nothing if I actually do not wrestle like a pig in a mud with the highly unapproachable wilderness of white men’s knowledge. And its not a joyful experience as it would be for a pig at all. These events now remind me more and more on this. Highly excessive spending and investment, with very little, or no real effect or value.
These symbolic acts, and events, sure have some importance. It is not what I am arguing against here. It is ok to have them in some context. They might contribute to the best results. And usually symbolic events are part of a culture. So, when we speak about national minorities, mostly people agree that these events have their purpose.
However, academia offers a place for real messy wrestling, real academic difficult discussions, and sharing of hardly acquired knowledge. And there are people who see themselves, and who are Roma activists and academics, who also mastered some of the skills, who wrestle for a long time, rare people indeed, you would presume they are valuable resources, and they have the opportunity and capacity to contribute in a way which is more than symbolic. To show us how to do it also. Since Roma activism is exactly that, you would imagine, wrestling with the all kinds of shit put on Roma. You would imagine it’s very messy. But it does not happen.
Its all in the realm of the symbolic, from the flag put in front of the table at the beginning, to the very end. Maybe only the catering at the end is real, and you might find it existentially relevant. Its funny how even if you were not living a poor Roma life, as a poor student you quickly get to learn to recognize and appreciate things responding to your existential needs.
And it might not be necessarily bad this symbolic realm. If you go to the CEU events usually there are academics who speak rather theoretically and professionally on a high level, presenting their topics. They are usually very well prepared. They are called to speak because they have some wrestling expertise with some problem, and they present usually some book, some article, specific idea, with several arguments, or argumentation lines, and they present their work in some systematic way. But they contribute so that they deliver to you at the end some piece of hardly wrestled product. Sometimes they do not. But mostly they do. You can agree or not, but there it is. Usually they demonstrate their skill, how they are well prepared and even when they are not, which is rare, their expertise helps them to navigate through the questions in a meaningful way beneficial for the audience who seeks to acquire some knowledge useful for their own wrestling with the real world problems. So these are usually not just symbolic talks. They might be sometimes when Soros family comes, maybe. Or some distinguish person with some high profile. But, they are even in that case one segment of the more substantive unit.
These are also usually talks beyond the point of shock. So there are periods when the community is stunned. The problem is registered. Work is put to register it. You are beyond the first step of denying. Then there is anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance they say, five stages of grief. So somewhere on that line you start being less shocked, less stunned, you start moving from the recognition of the problem to producing material with substance, which helps you regulate the problem, some strategies, plans, and it helps you to continue living your life. You become also experienced in this and you are also able to help others. Activists and academics are supposed to be good at this.
When you exit the room after CEU talks you usually can say you deepened and or widened the understanding of the topic. You acquired some new idea, in most of the cases, there is some value added. And these people are not called in vain. Just to be there. It has no purpose to call them just to be there. Faces behind the flag. It’s not part of the deal. So, there is a specific need for them to be called and to deliver, and they come and deliver. Very simple this commodifying language of academia indeed.
Somehow we stopped expecting anything from these events but symbolic. It looks like one part of it is just confirmation, and very simple and undemanding one that is, that we are ok, that the injustice against us and other Roma are real, we are not imagining, and to say to each other – “good job for staying alive”, and to congratulate each other that “it’s a miracle we do not give up”.
We, the most privileged people among all Roma, with the most resources, even privileges which majority population cannot afford, some living at the level of a business class, flying here and there, staying in nice hotels, getting nice payments, buying shoes of 600 eur, and flower patterned designed vests and bags by Roma designers in the range of other labeled goods from fashion shows, able to show of our romaness which other Roma cannot afford, with the fuzzy feeling we supported the cause even. We are there to show we “did not give up”.
Even more, as we could hear from our own CEU graduate, young Roma women representative from the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network, not itself grassroots as we are reminded, tokenism is ok, since it can be “an opportunity which we should learn to use to make the Roma voice heard”! And that’s the lesson from the front-line.
It’s not even shocking anymore that tokenism became acceptable and mainstream within our highly educated young perspective bureaucrats, highly nurtured by our supportive body of our dear sisters white liberal feminists. It just the nakedness and the brutality of the position in which Roma movement finds itself today.
With its endless perpetuation of the symbolic content with up to now so inflated meaning that it collapses over and over again in its own emptiness, endlessly sucking into it anything and everything from our papa Soros to bell hooks, it’s funny how these inflated attempts which are supposed to assure us that we are real, that ours and other Roma people’s problems are real, actually make me ask myself- “ am I a hologram, created by these series of events during the last fifteen years”. It looks as I am.
And you start searching the pills among the pills you take for your anxiety, panic attacks, imposter syndrome, self-hatred, cutting disorder, suicidal tendencies, you start asking yourself, where are these fckn red and blue pills, and how the fck will you know which one is which actually. Because, you are not able to tell anymore. You do not know what is real, what is knowledge and what is illusion.
Mostly after these events I feel bad. Empty. Wasted. That is why I stopped going there. It might be that is why many young Roma from the program often do not find interest in appearing there.
I feel how my years pass by, how much time I already spend on these events. I also realized I would never be able to find my future there. Existential issues hit you after 30s. I feel how I am getting old, and how I am late for something. Very late. I am faced with the emptiness of my own unproductivity also. Painful feeling.
I am also tired of watching my peers, my feminist sisters who have as myself now difficulties finding partners for being too educated and out of the community, wearing their feminism as underwear. Necessary, but ready to take it off when they spot a perspective Roma man. Its just silent pain you feel there.
Anyhow, for the end just let me share one more thing. I usually have some things to ask, so I ask. This time I was approached after the event by one of my Roma colleagues, with the demand to ask my questions- which people find from some reason provoking- without trying to make them more appealing, less threatening, or easier for speakers to engage in the conversation.
This is what I try to do these days since I do not enjoy at all being the one who is constantly perceived as a threat. To be put into the category of “unworkable with”. Its funny how I constantly feel there are these cripts to follow. So I do not like being put into the usual stereotype of “angry black woman” which you can easily get in these little parochial activist communities such is ours. While everyone on academia sees her/himself as a Morpheus, me included, it’s inevitable, you are supposed to deliver some knowledge, people usually do not like taking themselves the red pill, nor do they like when others offer them the same.
Young Roma know this very well, as when you are the weaker member of the pack, you learn your place rather quickly if you want to keep being feed. While there are young Roma with enthusiasm and passion, which you could feel on the events, the more experienced ones have learned the best way to survive and prosper actually is to keep quiet, at least pretend you took the blue pill, learn the scripts to sell yourself well, enjoy being a hologram. Or simply leave. However, now I realized some find it reasonable to ask from me to expose myself more to the consequences of asking questions.
So my message to the young people is that until you yourself start to expose your precious belly, you have no right to demand from me anything. I do not owe you anything either. If anything, you owe me for my readiness to stay there and try to contribute, to open the opportunity, to seek for the answers, to ask the questions you had, but did not dare to ask. Questions about the real problems you face in your lives which stay unanswered. For the problems you among other things face when you leave that precious all promising program and face the sobering reality of white, individualistic, meritocratic world of academia. They might not be answered, but there, I asked it also for you. It goes for your benefit also, so you do not have to do it. To take that risk.
Do not dare to think you can demand anything from me. You create the movement the way it is also. You might be the small dogs, but you eat and you vomit the symbolic all the same while taking care of your career. You learn how to recite and advertise yourself as the proper tokens for a good salary. Having questions in your head and among yourselves does not make it any better. Does not make us equals in some kind of a just community either. You are also the ones who make me feel like shit, like I do not exist, your silence makes me feel so alone, as so many other young Roma who disappeared after being disillusioned, about whom we know nothing, who might have died in shit somewhere, and you make my world so unreal that it hurts every time I leave these events angry and disregulated in my desperate desire to belong. You do not get to tell me or demand from me anything. When you start contributing beyond your own interest and against your own interest, then we might sit and negotiate our politics within the movement. Not like this. No way. Your tokenism has a price also.