Jelena Savic

I am a fuckn artist!

Few thoughts on racism & critical whiteness in academia/en September 11, 2016

Budapest is a nice place to be. Much more diverse people then you can ever see in the streets of Belgrade during the day. Few days ago me and my Black African friend from CEU were walking around 10-11 pm next to the CEU and we were in a hurry not to miss the last metro. There on Zrinyi street we saw a group of guys and girls walking in front of us. One Roma women was coming into our direction. It is crowded at that time you will soon see, if you did not already, there are bunch of people everywhere so at first I did not even notice her. Suddenly, when this Roma woman was passing by this group in front of us, just for fun, this big masculine guy just stepped to the side very close to her and basically she had to step aside. It was obvious from the look on her face that she was frightened. He stepped back and the whole group just laughed and continued walking. This is exactly what he wanted to do, to frighten her. Very small, very decently and modestly dressed, very alone Roma person. I think it was just her color and I would say some of the facial features that gave her away. And yes it’s not nice, but you can say it’s a kind of a minor thing. But just to clarify , this was just for fun. That’s what some Hungarian people do to have fun, and that’s just when they are in a good mood. When they are not, they go kill and burn themselves some Gypsies like in serial attacks as in 2008 and 2009. Now, I try to describe her because it did not make sense to me. I was really very surprised since I pass this street so often and I never saw something like this. Even though it’s a minor thing in a way it’s a soft and powerful reminder. I am never safe. Nowhere.  And if I would make a big deal out of it, and you kind of want to do that when you feel like after 30 years of your life its enough, I  am sure people would potentially try to understand, to find a reason, even to justify this white supremacist behavior. Because that’s what it is.  In essence it’s a reminder of serial killers here. I cannot help it. I am sure for this women it was a lesson also about her safety and I am sure she knows about serial killers which people understood, sympathized and tried to justify, like in USA when people tried and still do justify police killing Black teenagers.

I imagine if it would be an issue at all, here I think people would not even bother to explain or hide. Its absolutely permissible to do whatever the fuck “proper Hungarians” want to do with Roma. Otherwise they would not do it. But if it would be an issue, and there would be some need to “look humane” this big masculine “brave” man could not be scared for his life from “the black devil” like in USA cases, so it would be that “he just slipped and judge, this poor women is just wrong, and her judgment is clearly mistaken. Another thing also, there is obviously no motive. To do bad things to people you need some motive, right, so for good decent Hungarian men to frighten Roma women there is absolutely no motive. These were just friends heading to have some good time. And what is it with this people just trying to make hard working decent Hungarian young men look as killers, thugs and nationalists”. Or alternatively, it would be a story of striping responsibility with “kids” narrative – they are just “kids”, “our, meaning Hungarian, kids”.

And in the case she is not with a degree or if she is poor it would be a narrative of stripping of her reasoning capacities and dehumanization – “obviously judge, this women, is not educated enough and she just has poor judgment, she cannot possibly speak about what happened that night”. And I am sure it would be like this because Roma rarely are taken to be good judges of what happens to them in their own lives. I am particularly keen on learning this from the fine people of science who know better about what being Roma mean and what living a life which they never lived nor they will means. And they know so much. Numbers and theories. I wish I had opportunities in life they did so I could know better how to name what happens to me when they do it, in their language.

And in the case she was maltreated by the police while trying to survive selling things on the street, God forbid, like my mom does, and which usually Roma do not do here from obvious reason, trying not to give an excuse for being a target, but if it would be the case, it would be a great story of proud supremacist of ungrateful poor Gypsy bastards abusing the system, “milking” their “nurturing good mother” Hungary – “She obviously does not have respect for the Hungarian state which provides for her and people like her, look she has a criminal record, she was selling socks on the street! Yes, defense might say this is a minor offence, but your honor, that’s just stealing taxes from the state and its good decent Hungarian people, and if she is able to do that your honor, her credibility and judgment must be taken under scrutiny….yadha yadha yadha…

It never size to amaze me in which ways supremacist narratives can develop. The whole universe of supremacy fairy tales interpretations privileged people can whirl themselves and everything they think about in, until the sky stops being blue and until actually they start believing in it themselves. Yes, funny thing how the same reality can be different depending on the contingent factors of your birth, of the family in which you are born, the color of your skin or your gender for example. There, the same street, for other passers it’s just enjoyable walk in the beautiful old street of a beautiful city, with a perfect view to the beautiful old St. Stephen’s Basilica, dating far, from 10th century, named in the honor of the first Hungarian king – Stephen I of Hungary. And for others it is just the place where you should watch out I guess of the descendants of these noble and brave Hungarian man and their laws made to ensure their family wealth, to save them from the poor lives of peasants, to make sure poor are kept in their place. Well I guess you should watch out also of the descendants of Hungarian peasants also. No matter how uneducated or poor or stupid or cowardly non- Roma get, they tend to think they are thousand times above the best Roma.

I am studding philosophy so you see I don’t have a clue about much of the legal stuff today we inherited in Europe from supremacist men, but this behavior which I would call hate crime, since it includes threatening behavior with an intention to scare and intimidate, based purely on the ground  of the color of somebody’s skin, nationality, and I would add gender, is never going to be in front of any court and judge, and thinking about mentioned relatively recently judged hate crimes which ended with many dead Roma, especially not Hungarian ones I guess . Even if it would in some crazy scenario, it would be treated as ludicrous waste of time. And if this fine Hungarian men would be sentenced, he would get to pay some silly amount of money, or  say “I am sorry”, to the judge, not even to the women I guess.

So, Budapest is a very nice place, very nice places to sit and drink with your friends and hang around, full of tourists from all over the world. But, if you are a Black person, or an Asian, or a Muslim, or a Roma, if you are in any way going to “stick out”, you just might not want to go with night buses or even the last metro. And no, its not pick-pocketing that CEU people would warn you about. And to add to this that unspoken image of some Gypsy appeared suddenly in my head, and it might be just me having cognitive bias I internalized being raised in white supremacist Europe, but my guess would be that it also probably appeared in the heads of many students trying to fathom this potential faceless  thug. I mean who else would it be? In Hungary at least politicians especially make sure to give a lesson on whom to expect in that role.

But however it is, its not Gypsies, I mean you might take care of your stuff sure from whomever, but really what CEU people would not tell you, at least they did not tell me, is that its never good to “stick out” in night buses or last metro. They said “these areas are relatively safe”. What that means is you don’t usually see much of these “stick out” people there, because they know what it means. For example my Black friend who walked with me the night we saw “brave” Hungarian men in action told me when I told him that we do not need to rush since anyway we can take the night buss “Oh, its not my stile”. Its not his style.  No style there brother. Its not up to you to choose a style there brother. That’s just racism in Hungary limiting your freedom of movement. In a society we call democratic, which wrongly lead you to name your surviving mechanism a style. Democracy- you get to choose your style to survive the night here. You get to choose your style to be discriminated against. But I guess he learned the lesson nice men gave that night to Roma women by now well. I didn’t say anything. People tend to stick to their idea of having control in their life. Me included.

Don’t get me wrong I love my Black friend. He helped me this month, I barely survived these two months on my so called internship I had. You might be here for two years on MA so let me tell you just quick about them. For poor (Roma) students without alternatives and families without accumulated capital, who are one scholarship away from nothing like me, these are dubious practices of being on mercy of different organizations and institutions and a platform for “good” people to exercise their politics, paternalism  and especially charity. And do not expect a job after it. Seriously. That’s a story people use to fish stupid poor people who bought the stinky liberal bullshit. And don’t think you will network your way there and stay with integrity. Be smart and save some money during the year. Provide yourself with an opportunity to get an access to the knowledge usually behind iron pay, wall reserved for privileged people to do science and gain their benefits while they tell stories about you and your life, and learn about things that actually matter for poor, which might actually lead you to a proper knowledge and a proper tools for change. Because you are let in the citadel for a short time, enough for the liberal story to be told, and then you are out, on the other side of that wall, left on the winter only with the things you managed to grab in your hands on that way.  So, if you can don’t waste time, save money during the year and read during that summer.

Now, to get back to my story, my friend and me were walking and this group of fine Hungarian people decided to walk now in our direction. Interestingly without any reason my friend made sure I know when we passed next to this joyful white supremacist group: “If they attack you, I would not save you, I would run. I have a family waiting for me back home”.  Well, I just did not know why he said this and what to say back. “Hell, you sure know what friendship is and how to make a friend feel safe”- I was thinking .I could not even make a gendered joke about it. “What a brave man you are”. I just changed the topic.

And it left me with a lot of questions you see my friend is interested in ethics and political philosophy and justice, in academia. But interestingly you can be very keen on defending world from injustice and holding high moral standards there, but its seem to be much harder to stand for justice in the real world. Academia teaches you very little about the real world, doesn’t it? In the real world my Black friend would live in peace with himself if they attacked me and he just run away while still being able to talk about and write papers on ethics and justice and human rights.

Well, he obviously does not speak very highly about himself and his ethical standards, does he? And it seems that if he would argue in a paper about moral justification of this kind of moral action of a moral agent it would be seen as debatable if nothing. But somehow, the trick here is I think he takes that he as a moral agent is to be excused from some reason in this case. I wondered a lot why this is.

I wondered if he would say the same if I am from his country. He says that all people from his country in Africa are his friends and we, Europeans, we are something different. I didn’t ask. I wondered also if his family in Africa would accept him and respect him, knowing what he would hypothetically do, what he said he would do. Interestingly I think standards of humanity and ethics changed for him also when he stepped into European ground.  Usually when I try to speak about racism and injustices in Europe, the ones which befall on him also, he just tries to show me how it has nothing to do with him. He didn’t want to come to speak today also. I feel sorry for that. Black people do not get many chances to talk in academia and we do not get to hear from them so often, how it is to be Black in Europe. Europe is just the place where he came to take the diploma you see. That’s what he tells me.  I was thinking isn’t it just amazing how people can disassociate from themselves to save themselves? I had a friend who was raped. She shattered and split her mind and her body and then she stayed calm while it happened. She survived. “As if it was happening to another person” she said, “and I died but I was aware”. Amazing survival tool nature gave us. She picks up the pieces until this day.

Not just as a moral agent but as a Black African person my friend thinks he is invisible. He is not interested in injustices, not even when they happen to him, well not at least in this part of the world I guess. No. He will save his morality and sense of justice for Africa. That’s just precious to me. It must be very, very hard and costly to repress your dignity, in this case for a diploma. This must be also part of the answer why Black people die much sooner than White people in USA (or why Roma also die much much before non-Roma all over Europe). Your dignity comodified and traded for a degree. European and in general white people’s educational system with educational legacy of their ancestors based on so called “meritocratic” standards is an unfair market where Black, Roma, Asians, Muslims, and all kinds of minorities come to trade their culture and dignity for a place in another again unfair market.

Funny enough, I am kind of “sticking out”, but I still feel safer going with night buses. He on the other hand is black, very black, so, I guess if fine white supremacist Hungarian men would attack anybody, they would attack him. If they would attack me, it would be because of him. But there, my Black friend found his way to deal with racist and white supremacists European society, be individualistic, care just about yourself, try to blend in, try to be invisible, try to be unnoticeable, don’t “stick out”. Unfortunately we cannot not to “stick out”, we cannot take our skin off and wear it when it’s convenient, neither we can do this with our moral agency, or our cultural background, our social or educational background, even though academia makes you think its possible, for all of us to be “divers community” behind merit academic doors, without really being treated as anything else but “the same” as white, well at least middle class, educated people, with at last 2 generation of university educated relatives behind us. Because that’s merit based. Don’t get me wrong, most of these people here are fine decent people, but it is how it is, and what happens often does not look fine to me.

You see, I am Roma. Gypsy, as uninformed well meaning Hungarian students from advance college in Hungary, who is also volunteering and teaching high school poor Roma math, and their uninformed Hungarian professors would say. And there are fine Hungarian people off course. But I always seem to see some to me obvious things that somehow they miss. You see this advance college provides the best professors for these students. They said so themselves. They are much better than the ones in public universities, and for a reason. So you see people on this college want things done differently. They want change in the world. So they know you need excellent teachers to do that. They want different society and they do try. So they have this program where they send well intended, unskilled students, without a day of learning of how to teach, without a day of experience, white privileged boys, from their I guess nice homes, where there are no broken windows and its not cold in the winter time, where they do not go hungry to sleep, where they live with their educated families, giving them no payment, to teach in their free time, the most demanding learners ever to exist in Europe, probably for centuries behind, well, except probably the migrants these days, but the poorest Roma kids from the settlements, without any social or educational capital, without any living or dead relatives, generations behind who had even elementary school, belonging to the sickest population, in the worse living conditions, in a country where “their kind” is killed and burned, who abandoned and maltreated went through God knows how many and how ugly discrimination in a hostile, all white institutions,  called schools, where they were mostly learned how they do not belong, how to disassociate and survive, with learning and probably emotional difficulties and huge gaps in knowledge to teach them. And they do not even go to their place, these Roma kids have to come to them.

Does it seem to you as plausible that these Roma highs school students, survivors, are actually going to succeed? These Hungarian students tell me odds are very very low. Even they know its too little too late.  And don’t get me wrong, they are fine people. Not a word of bigotries, very open and joyful, easy to talk to people really, who want to listen, who can accept arguments, who are kind and decent. But isn’t it amazing. How little is needed to feel you are doing a good thing, you are doing what you can. Killing and burning on one side, teaching kids on the other. Well, its commendable, but hardly, hardly enough. And there is nobody to tell them how to do it better. Their professors also have no clue either. The best ones. How much they know and how little academia thought them about the world that is not theirs.

And I don’t want to trash CEU or Hungarian people here. I enjoy CEU and Hungary. If there would be a place for Roma on academia that must be CEU, in Hungary. But I need to say also that I did not have much choice when I choose my future path, coming from poor and uneducated parents, being the first with BA diploma for example, even with high school, without any relative alive or dead having higher education, still privileged however comparing to many Roma! Yes, do not think I am not aware of my privileges. There are many of Roma barely surviving on this day while I stand here in this nice room, with a decent scholarship and a decent home, with an access to knowledge and diploma and speaking to you, probably mostly coming from better off parts of population in countries  from which you come, being listened, actually being listened. In my country not even 1% of Roma has any level of higher education. And there are between 300.000-500.000 Roma they say. An average for majority is 10%. So I am like you, here on MA , privileged. Still, I am far far away from many of you here. We are not the same. These students and me, we are also not the same. We all study, but academia for me and them is different. Let me give you one example.

They are as I said  well intended Hungarian people. They try to help the best they can. I met these fellows on undergraduate conference on the Philosophy department. And they are studding business. And for me strangely one of them had a paper on affirmative action so there they were. I know what this action means for Roma, I also researched this topic for a while, I care for this topic personally since I know what it meant for me. Without it I would never even think about going to philosophy, field highly reserved for American or European, white, educated, males. I went on a program which prepares Roma students for MA here on CEU. First I did not want to apply on Philosophy department, I thought I was not good enough, but some very stubborn and unusually committed people, my tutors, PHD students, convinced me it is possible, so I did, and I was in. But that was just the start. I still have difficulties believing. It does not go away. I think any Roma person who went through the educational system in Europe cannot not to have this difficulty. So, when I came there on the first year I asked,  and indeed I was the first Roma ever enrolled. And I do not know any Roma ever with MA in this field. It might be I just did not meet this person, but if you think about it, how very few of Roma all over Europe enter MA levels, I mean it’s quite plausible that there are none. Can you imagine this? To be the only one belonging to your nationality that entered into some discipline, basically owned by people so much different then you? How would that make you feel? Before I came here I dreamt about this building. That it’s the end of the world and the only place I can hide is this building. That was my dream. And I am here feeling very, very lonely. Like I am the only one saved. Strange feeling when you get surrounded by so many people, but still you do not feel you belong. I guess its only natural you start asking yourself what you are actually doing there, far from your family, from your friends? Is it the right place for you to be? Where nothing what people are saying or doing is familiar and does not relates much with your life?

There I was on this conference, listening to the paper dealing with an issue important for my life, and it was not in any way related with my life. I mean you should know by now, this is allowed in academia and it is nurtured in academia, this disassociation. Basically what you have to do is to show you know some theoretical framework and exercise some formal way of thinking. Now, does this really relates to what’s going on with this action, its not an issue you see. It can, but it does not have to be. “Its not policy”. Also, “its just undergrad conference”. But it can go to resume, can’t it? I have no presented papers by now. I didn’t dare you see. So it’s the same with life. You can talk about justice and ethics, but it does not have to be related to life of yours, or of people whom you are talking about, much. Well, at least that’s the privilege which some folks indulge in here in academia in my opinion. I find this disturbing. I find these disassociation of thoughts of the things happening to me with my experiences hurtful. It cuts me. It takes my voice away. It humiliates me.

I really struggle now while trying to come up with a topic of my theses and the content which would escape this pattern. Studding like this made me lose my enthusiasm for studding, for school, for academia. If the place is made to have so little in connection with your life, if metaphorically speaking the language is barely known to you, if the practices and customs and the ways of communicating and doing things are so much different and the things even which should be close and important are spoken about so that they are made unrecognizable, if what you are is made unrecognizable, invisible, what would you do? I felt first very angry and then I felt very sad and lonely and at the end I just wanted to go out from the room.

But I have to say I admire these people. I would never dare to write and submit papers not in my field. Hell, I don’t even dare to do it in my field. No, not philosophy, it would never be my field how it looks for now without some help, serious help. Like a city in which you come and you just go around looking big houses and museums but you never go inside, or you come and see what’s there, but you never have a tour guide who can teach you how to see, or if you do you never have an alternative to that story of how to see what you see.  So no, not philosophy, I mean policy and education and affirmative measures, which were the topics of my BA theses, which are usually the fields where Roma students can have the slightest chance to prosper or find a job. I cannot afford not being knowledgeable in ways white non- Roma can, as I guess Blacks or women or minority people cannot.

Similar as Black students in USA, I know that my knowledge is not just about me. People have strong tendency to see individual acts of minorities as group related. Let me clarify, If a crime, lets say mass murder is done by a white person, then its just crazy individual. If a crime, or mass murder is done by black, of god forbid a Muslim, well…. Similarly its very expected from Roma to fail. Its very well known “fact” that Roma do not belong into the advance classes and to the group of, how I would call them, “golden children”, white, properly dressed students, with caring parents, who had higher education, nice, also well educated affluent grandparents who worked hard, benefited from state interventions when it was possible, accumulated assets and knowledge and invested in their “golden kids”, who now, very well nurtured and educationally and financially supported can go to posh and special universities, and can shine away their “golden” inherited privileges, participating in contests and predictably winning prizes for their neatly written papers on conferences, such as the one I was on.

So funny enough, it does not matter even if people are actually fine, ok, nice. I have it in my mind and I behave as if it is to be expected. So you know, with a stereotype threat, I do not perform well under stress and I have perfectionist disorder. This does not mean “oh, I do things really well”. It means I cannot but do it well. There is no place for mistakes, I have to know things well, and that takes time. And on academia on MA you do not have time. Well at least on universities that do have some better ranking. In Serbia, where I finished my BA, eventually, you could struggle for 10 years or more, nobody fuckn cares. I nearly lost my opportunity to be here for that. Had to defer the enrollment here since I did my BA theses one year. Bloody three interviews. Laughable. You cannot imagine the amount of things I read. More then 150 pages work, in addition 20 pages of references, 80% not older then 3years I think. Got the highest mark and all praises for “serious” work I did, and still I was not happy. You see how this internalized “not being good enough” lesson I learned all so well during my education and living in a supremacist country takes away my opportunities to learn with benefits, and accumulate some symbolic capital and actually cash in this fabulous magical thing called access to education which suppose to resolve all the problems of the poor. People often presume here I am on PhD, and in addition they think I am younger. I have good comments and critical mind they say, people like that usually are on PhD and people with my actual years are actually on PhD, or finished it, got married and have years of working experience by now. Not me. Not that I specifically wanted not to, but there I am. That’s social and educational background for you. Funny little unnoticeable malfunctions.

And let me tell you one more thing -its very humiliating when you recognize yourself in numbers and books about effects of systemic discrimination. As I said, people tend to hold to their idea of being in control in their life, and not being one of “those” people. And its humiliating going to the professors and telling them you don’t understand a bloody thing they are saying. And going again after they gave you some more readings, which you also do not understand. And especially again if you are told that these are not meant to be introductory classes. And again when it is said to you that feeling stupid all the time is just the way philosophy is. And again when professors with PHD say “oh, it’s the same for everybody” and equalize you not understanding and having imposter syndrome, with them not understanding some talks by other professors. Its not the same. It cannot possible be the same. You, white PHD educated women with accumulated benefits of this white supremacist society, and me, Gypsy poor women with a lot of shit thrown for 30 and something years on me. Its not the same. Don’t negate my reasoning and my experience. Its not nice. Don’t universalize your white privilege. Its not nice. And also what is hard is going to your professors  to tell them you do not understand again after you searched for a psychological support and your choices were between two well intended and well educated, experienced but white women, who seem to know nothing about your world, I am sorry but being Black or minority does matter. And again asking for clarifications after you see Black cleaning and security personnel but no professor of yours is Black for example. I realize Europe is mainly white, but come-on. Isn’t it strange to have a diverse student body and mostly to have white privileged people to teach them? It does matter. I felt it all my life, it matters. All studies show that it does matter. Students perform better when you acknowledge that it matters. I know some students would say it is wonderful, they do not see it like I do. I am sure for some it is. To learn you need safety. You need to feel familiarity, a home. And the more deprived you were from this in your education, the more you recognize its absence and the more you need it to continue with learning.

You see, this is why our Roma poor high school students in the special program of the special college will simply fail to step through these doors of Hungarian and many other universities. There is nothing telling them they belong. For example no Roma professors in academia. No. Well from this year on CEU we would have 2 Roma professors, even though Roma issues are thought here for a long time by non- Roma, so I am not saying CEU is not trying really. And again CEU is my choice and nothing made me happier then when I saw that big sign on CEU dorm. Its my choice, even though I can say I did not have many other choices, but still and if there is a place for Roma in academia CEU would be that place. I just more less in resignation wonder what would happened with me, poor , Gypsy, girl, without access to “old boy networks”, with my total novice status in philosophy and my inglorious and not “golden” GPA, after surviving, alone,in academia. And I mean that, surviving and not losing my mind, disassociating or not losing my courage, as many Roma and others who “stick out” do, all over the Europe and world, who are called “drop outs”, like they just ripe and they drop, like its in their genes to drop, who are better be called “push outs”, even next to affirmative measures, due to systemic critical whiteness, for me in the field in which no Roma stepped before I guess. Will I be able to cash in what I decided to trade off, or will I disappear in my poor uneducated family background, as many of CEU Roma students coming from this preparational program on which CEU is so proud of, do. And when I think about this, I think about the story of justice and diversity and well, how it does not mean so much in a real life. So when you do your “impact for change” and “passion projects” and write your papers on social issues, especially on Roma issues, its good to have in mind how the people who need some change first need you to change and keep changing your ways in academia,  in your life, with passion, yes. That’s all I am saying.