One of the marks of privilege is the ability to put on the mask of the Other and remove—or maintain—it at will. Though Rachel Dolezal is a current and much-discussed example, one need only look at the proliferation of dream catchers on rearview mirrors or the resurgence of the bindi fad for proof that Dolezal is not the first, nor the only, offender. In such cases, ethnicity is co-opted as metaphor, an expression of the free-spirited White self.
The use of the “gypsy” metaphor to describe a gadjo, or non-Rom person, inflects him or her with intrigue, as if the Roma identity were as easily assumed as a peasant blouse. In common parlance, the nickname “gypsy” is applied to such various characters as the world traveler, the peripatetic, the visionary, the Tarot reader, or the laid-back anti-corporate type; used less affectionately, it characterizes those who can’t hold a job, fail to pay bills, couch-surf with friends of friends of friends, or are sexually promiscuous. Roma women in particular have been viewed through a sexy haze, as distorting as it is reductive. Glenda Bailey-Mershon skewers this stereotype of the “hot,” sexually available Romani woman in the essay, “Losing Esmeralda.” Women are as desirous of possessing her allure as men are of possessing her: fragrance, clothing—from casual to costume—and countless pins of “gypsy” makeup commodify her image for gadjo women seeking to polish their boho-chic credentials. Nordstrom even offers a child-sized version of the stereotype. Naturally, White children playing dress-up are not subject to the insults deployed against real Roma children, such as the rock-throwing in Jessica Reidy’s narrative or the spitting in that by Sarah Barbieux.
When cultural symbols are appropriated as personal style, context and history are ousted in favor of ahistorical, consumer-driven kitsch. The skirts created and photographed by Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić and Lynn Hutchinson Lee are perfect examples: what a casual viewer may see as mere garments in fact represent the tense balance between Roma women’s power and the persecution of the Roma people. Some might argue that this popular fascination—indeed, that any publicity, even that which is mistaken and misguided—is a compliment. After all, what’s wrong with taking an interest? The problem is that this kind of cultural co-optation patronizes and diminishes the Other—and constitutes a form of cultural imperialism.
The fetishization of otherness echoes the aesthetic of the “noble savage” whose “primitive” wisdom and lifestyle serve as an antidote to the rat race that is the “White Man’s Burden.” Micaela di Leonardo points out, in Exotics at Home, that “joined to the hip of every noble savage is its nasty savage twin, proof of Western modernity’s superiority and legitimation of Western white domination” (3). Di Leonardo’s summation rings true to the lived experience of romanticization and revulsion: as Qristina Žavačková Cummings notes, “People longed for our “simple, country, nomadic” lifestyle, yet when we were forced to settle in towns and cities, we were feared and reviled.” Indeed, the traits of wanderlust or nonconformity, when perceived in actual Roma, have been used as grounds to support genocide, vigilante murders of local Rom populations, and imposed relocation and settlement campaigns. Arturo Desimone captures the fatal violence suffered by a Parisian Rom whose life was viewed as “expendable” and who was deemed unworthy of municipal burial. Sydnee Wagner describes a “lexicon of thieves” created as an alternative to the dominant languages in the countries hosting the ever-widening Rom diaspora. Language, as well as land, has been the site of countless attempts at exclusion, from the first misinterpretation of Roma origins as “Egyptian,” a term that eventually trickled down to the verb “to gyp,” or swindle a person out of money or valuables.
At the heart of all appropriation is a fundamental arrogance: an implicit or explicit claim that one knows what and whom the other is. Like Rachel Dolezal, the dominant party has the luxury of embracing or rejecting portions of ethnicity, of wearing it like a costume—daily, or on special occasions. Even if one never takes it off in public, it is nevertheless a skin, cut from another being who has been sacrificed in the wearing. Conversely, showing interest in the Other is an act of humility, a statement of not-knowing and a willingness to be taught. It is not adopting, co-opting, or posturing. It involves approaching the Other with the assumption of content rather than deficit, as exemplified by the poems written by Chandra Liviani’s Roma students, their stories of being stopped by the police, of fear—but also of joy—in poignant translation by Olivia Sears. It means that interactions between groups will not always be the feelgood stuff of Disney movies, as in Emerson Whitney‘s narrative about choosing community, only to find no vocabulary and no place for the self within it.
I have always believed that honoring a person’s space and fundamental difference from oneself is the greatest act of respect: to say, as Allison Williams does, “They are not mine to write about,” thereby exposing the position of white privilege that underlies her narratives of Otherness. Chad Evans Wyatt enacts this respect in the romarising project by working in black and white, thereby stripping the color and kitsch projected onto the Rom in popular imagination. My goal in curating this folio has been to open a conversation that addresses the interest in Roma culture by asking authors and artists to share their experiences as, or with, Roma individuals. The featured pieces were selected for the ways their authors described their experiences, variously, of not knowing, of learning, of being. These are not pelts tossed over shoulders; they are living subjects.
T.M. De Vos
di Leonardo, Micaela. Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, American Modernity. Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago, 1998. Print.