The man marked out

15 May 1998

Nikolai Gughinski

Recently I opened an old personal telephone notebook. There, among names and addresses of persons whom I could barely remember, I found the name of a person who has been one of my closest friends ever since I first met him six years ago. Although there wasn't anything surprising about the fact that I found his name in my notebook, this entry gave me a powerful and enduring shock. The cause of my shock was the word "Gypsy", which I had written in parenthesis instead of the family name of my friend.

I remembered the day when I made the entry in my directory. It was the day of our first meeting. We were introduced to each other by an oversees lawyer who was trying to start an initiative which later on developed into the first Roma Rights public interest organisation in my country. I remembered all details of this peculiar meeting where each of the participants was somewhat odd in his role – a foreign lawyer whose inspiration sprung from the memory of the US civil rights movement which had its glorious time in the 1960s; a young Rom who at the time knew nothing about that civil rights movement, but could naturally relate to it, and a law student who had never before been involved in any public interest law activity.

To me however, the young Rom, and not anyone of the other two was the oddity, as he was not fitting anyhow into the stereotypical image of Gypsies, which I was so familiar with from the numerous anecdotal stories about Roma which I had heard since childhood. However, the fact that he was not a musician or craftsman, was not dirty, did not speak a broken dialect and in any case did not look much differently from "us" was not odd enough. What really made him different was the fact that he was talking about the
disadvantaged position of his community in society and about the necessity to empower it. At the end of the meeting we exchanged telephones and then, instead of taking his family name, I wrote down his ethnicity.

Ever since I found the directory, my attempts to find a rational explanation of my behaviour have failed. In spite of the strong impression which the personal qualities of my friend had made on me, apparently the perception of his ethnic otherness had been so strong that in my mind it was the single most important feature of his personality, which could ensure that the person behind the name would not remain anonymous among the long list of names and telephones in my directory. Such a decision - to make this man nameless and to refer to him as a member of a larger class of people - the merit of which was to make sure that he will not remain anonymous to me, without any doubt, lacked sufficient rationale.

The embarrassment of the revelation of my own limitations, which the memory of this meeting prompted, was reinforced by my memory of the numerous cases of exclusion, discrimination and violence against Roma, which the Human Rights Project later documented and tried to remedy through the judicial system. In many of these cases, the ethnicity of the victims appeared to be the only reason for the injustice which they had suffered. I think my friend must have experienced a lot of this kind of treatment in various contexts and various manifestations. At this moment, as I was holding in my hands a potent shred of evidence about my own prejudice, my previous con-viction that I had never been on the side of those who humiliate vanished. The fact that I had probably never openly manifested my prejudice did not make me less prejudiced, nor did it make me more prepared to face my prejudice.

I showed the directory to my friend. I know it hurt him a lot. I know that my embarrassment could not compensate even for a tiny part of his pain. Nevertheless, I showed it to thank him for the change which he had prompted in me. I am not sure how deep this transformation is, but I feel that it had gone at least as far as to enable me to see occasionally my own limitations. This is a great experience, although sometimes it may
feel like a mountain on my shoulders.

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