Taking control of our identity
05 September 1999
When people ask me about Romani identity, the writers Erving Goffman, Kurt Lewin, Franz Fanon always come to my mind. These are scholars who have elaborated the stigmatised and colonised peoples' identity and given a clear description of the psychological aspects of marginalised groups in society. When I read their work for the first time, I experienced a kind of enlightenment and they helped me to understand that discrimination and oppression is able to deform our identity.
First of all, I think we have to deconstruct what identity means. I cannot speak about only my ethnic identity. I am Romani, which is of course one of the most significant elements in my identity. But I also have to mention my gender identity - I am a woman - and that I somehow share Hungarian culture as well. I am also a teacher and sociologist. I could make an endless list of the aspects comprising my identity. But it is certainly true that one of the most fundamental components of my identity is my belonging to the Romani people.
Why do I consider this part - the Romani part - as one of the most important components? Because this identity is not optional; it is given by the fate. Many identities could be chosen or could be subject to changes that I might wish. But the fact that I am Romani is evident by the colour of my skin and therefore definable by the majority as well.
We are suffering from ages of societal oppression, discrimination, violation and exclusion. This has led us to develop our inferiority complex. We are politically, socially and economically oppressed and have subsequently internalised inferiority. I agree with Aime Cesaire, who has spoken about the colonised people as millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement. I think this statement is true today concerning Roma. Most of the time, the majority can take advantage of our inferiority complex in order to control our political activities or even the Romani movement itself. Here, I have to say that one of the biggest challenges facing the non-Roma who work with us is how to work for Roma Rights without controlling the movement.
Some Roma feel that they would be placed in a disadvantaged position if they adopted and affirmed the Romani identity. These people therefore hide their Romaniness. This type of reaction to society's hostility fosters self-hatred. Of course, some Roma take advantage of the fact that they are Roma and use it as a tool to build their career. In general though, we have to overcome our negative belief that we deserve abusive treatment and our subordinated position in society. This is, of course, a big struggle, because society, the majority, power and the governing groups want to force us to be outcast and socialise us in our oppressed roles.
Another complexity amongst the Roma is that there is a big controversy about who is a real Rom and who is not. In the course of this controversy, we question each other's identity. At this point I would like to emphasize strongly that no one has a right to tell who is the Real Rom. Internal exclusion won't help to fight for Roma Rights and for equal treatment in society. We will attain one of our biggest victories when we make it through the process that I would call "self-liberalisation". By this I mean that we need to become more tolerant of the differences among us, within the big diverse group called Roma. Now is the time to break the historical continuity in the oppression of Roma and take control of our identity. We need to engage in an intensive and positive discussion to overcome this psychological exclusion - it is one of our biggest enemies!
I would like to preserve my identity as my own creation and eliminate as much as possible those forces which deform my identity. I strive for an identity which is a colourful picture painted by me. Of course I would be idealist if I thought that my identity was not formed by interaction with other people. Unfortunately, the Romani identity is very much dominated by the perceptions of the majority population. Their attitude towards us is a very significant factor. Discrimination and violence against Roma are overwhelming in the region, and this has a significant effect upon Romani self-esteem. Roma-majority relations resemble what Father Paul M. Washington has stated about black-white relations in the U.S.: they are like "the relationship between a man and a woman. You can either have a relationship based on integrity or one based on force. Either you respect her or you rape her. Now, black people are not willing to be raped any longer."