For Case Magazine, April 2014

“I Am Roma,” I whispered.

Our own worst enemy: An American-Romanian-Roma perspective

The real history of consciousness starts with one’s first lie. I happen to remember mine. It was in a school library when I had to fill out an application for membership. The fifth blank was of course “nationality.” I was seven years old and knew very well that I was a Jew, but I told the attendant that I didn’t know. With dubious glee she suggested that I go home and ask my parents. I never returned to that library, although I did become a member of many others which had the same application forms. I wasn’t ashamed of being a Jew, nor was I scared of admitting it. In the class ledger our names, the names of our parents, home addresses, and nationalities were registered in full detail, and from time to time a teacher would “forget” the ledger on the desk in the classroom during breaks. Then, like vultures, we would fall upon those pages; everyone in my class knew that I was a Jew. But seven-year-old boys don’t make good anti-Semites. Besides, I was fairly strong for my age, and the fists were what mattered most then. I was ashamed of the word “Jew” itself—in Russian, “yevrei”—regardless of its connotations…All this is not to say that I suffered as a Jew at that tender age; it’s simply to say that my first lie had to do with my identity.[1]

“I am Romanian. I am American. I am Romanian-American. I am a Gypsy, A Roma. No Roma isn’t just short for Romanian. Roma as in Romani. They were a group of nomads who travelled from India ten centuries ago. No, I am not Indian.”

This has always been my convoluted answer to the overly intrusive question: “What are you?” My parents immigrated to America in 1985 to escape Ceausescu’s communist Romania. They left behind all the family they ever knew and set off to make what they could of some small hope in the American Dream. They are both of Roma descent. The word ţigan[2] in Romanian has a definite pejorative connotation. So I, like Brodsky, often lied about my identity. To the naïve grade-schooler I could simply say, “I am Romanian,” and she would accept that because she’d never met another Romanian before. As I got older, however, people began questioning me: “But you don’t really look Eastern European.” Sometimes if I felt comfortable enough I’d say, “I’m a Gypsy,” which I felt conjured stereotypical images of Disney’s Esmeralda or Bizet’s Carmen. I found having to make such an involved explanation of my identity to be exhausting to say the least.

In some respects, it seems like an increasingly fashionable time to be “gypsy.” The essentializing and self-essentializing of gypsy culture is at an all time high—an abundant and international trend from where I’m standing. In America, I see advertisements for musical groups that play some sort of diluted mix of Roma, flamenco, and jazz music profiting from this gypsy craze by wearing the tagline, “Release the inner Gypsy in you!” It’s cool to be a Gypsy so long as you can pick and choose which stereotypes you want to bolster. Gypsies who celebrate “La liberte!” like Bizet’s Carmen are the kind of Gypsies we like. We love a Gypsy who embodies freedom, creativity and artistry, who lives on the fringes of society and wears colorful clothing, but we hate those mean gypsies who lie, steal babies and cheat or “gyp” us.

On the flip side the headlines are full of controversy regarding Roma status in Europe. From the stories of Roma deportation in France, to the alleged abduction case in Greece in October of last year and the uproar surrounding UK opening it’s boarders for Bulgarian and Romanian workers, these issues are neither few nor far between. Anti-Roma sentiments are strong, a fact made clear by protesters in the Czech Republic chanting, “Gypsies to the gas chamber.”[3] From conversations I’ve had with Romanians[WB1]  I’ve learned that Romanians share similar sentiments regarding the “Roma problem.” One might be able to empathize with the absolute and immediate need to throw up upon hearing the words, “the best solution would be to put a bomb in Ferentari (the district where members of my extended family live),” exit a fellow human’s mouth.

Romanticized notions of Roma are perpetuated in conjunction with this current of racism and stereotypes that flows through society and infiltrates Roma families. This attitude of selective tolerance of Roma-ness resonates with my own experience of being raised in a Roma family in America. Growing up, the only mentions of our heritage were to use ţigan in a derogatory manner and of lautar music[WB2] , a Romanian-Roma musical tradition which my parents (together with Romanians) glorify despite its predominate Roma origins. Only recently, after having read an article in The New York Times written by a young Romanian woman of Roma descent discussing the adversity she faced because of her heritage, have I become comfortable talking about my ethnicity. I would have never spoken of my mother hushing my father when he spoke openly of his heritage or of my efforts to avoid tanning during the summer so I would look less like a Gypsy and more like a “real” Romanian. I have been endowed with a general sense of shame concerning a heritage I knew little to nothing about except that it was something to be hidden.

There is a kind of racism that Roma people themselves, ourselves, tend to underline out of fear in a twisted, masochistic, “beat them to the punch” gesture. An obsession with whiteness has been passed down in my family even to younger more liberal generations. The fact that my extended family still bickers about which sister was the whitest is a prime example of this inherited self-effacing anti-Roma sentimentality. Even while there are thousands of people fighting for the rights of the Roma, they themselves, we ourselves, continue to perpetuate the stereotypes we’re ashamed of simply through our fear of realizing them. This allows the stigmas to infect and dictate our lives. Perhaps, we are afraid to become “the other” within – that the evil tigan inside us will surface – so we barrage the younger Roma around us with warnings not to act like a Gypsy. I find myself explaining to my family, “You shouldn’t tell the little brown girl not to steal because people will think she’s a Gypsy. You should tell her not to steal because stealing is wrong.” We all play a part in perpetuating myths. Fear of realizing stereotypes leads us to instill the same fear in Roma youth, which causes us to continue the cycle – to perpetuate racism, and inflict self-hate on our youth. We ourselves keep the racism alive. Inherited shame is a huge hurdle to overcome because, while stereotypes are ingrained in society, they are also ingrained in ourselves.

Alina Serban, a young Roma woman living in England, told a story on a Romanian news broadcast recently that hit close to home.[4] She was on the metro in London and she was wearing a scarf she deemed to be a Roma scarf. The scarf got caught on a fellow passenger’s briefcase. When he tried to get off the train he felt the resistance of being caught on Alina’s scarf. She immediately felt self-conscious about her ethnicity and became worried that the man on the train thought she was stealing his briefcase. Her default defensive thoughts kicked in: “Even though I’m Roma, I’m not trying to steal!” In that situation Alina was the first one to jump to the conclusion. We become defensive in order to keep others from accusing us: we beat them to the punch with the stereotypes and racist thoughts. That, among many other things, is what needs to change: how we view ourselves and how we think others view us. In the words of Livia Jaroka, a Hungarian anthropologist, “We Roma,” she said, “also need to learn to emancipate ourselves.”

When I was in Italy last month I had a similar experience of anxiety in a situation where theft was involved. I was getting gelato at a hole-in-the-wall shop in Florence. As I was ordering there was some commotion behind me. Quickly thereafter a women starting yelling that her phone was stolen during the shuffle and started to accuse a group of young Roma women. I don’t know if anything was stolen or not. The point of the story is that my defensive/protected reaction was to get out of the way to avoid being implicated in the potential crime because of the color of my skin. Did anyone accuse me? No, but I was terrified that someone would.

I have been in Romania for six months now and my experience has not been exactly what I expected it would be. I’ve spoken to many Romanians about their personal experiences with Roma, experiences upon which they base their negative impressions. I have often been saddened by what I hear. As someone of Roma descent listening to these stories I feel myself torn between trying to understand their racism, feeling repulsed and offended by it, and feeling once again ashamed of my ethnicity. I’ve only recently come to terms with my identity and find myself very often oscillating back and forth between accepting it and resenting it. When I witness racism toward a Rom I feel deep empathy for them. Do I sympathize with the man on the train who’s pretending to be disabled for pity and money? Yes, I do. Very much so. Do I feel this way because his skin tone is kind of close to my own? Or do I sympathize because I know that living where he does, in the social climate that he does, he probably hasn’t been afforded a lot of opportunity? I cannot say this with absolute certainty, but I would like to think that I would feel the same empathy for anyone in this situation. On a purely humanistic level the racism bothers me. I am also aware that it must on some level also hit closer to home.

I thought it would be so clear when I came here – a huge epiphany– that people would suddenly understand exactly my situation when I said my parents were Roma. And yet more often then not I find myself answering the same questions as before. “No, my parents lived in an apartment in Bucharest. No, they had jobs.” The notion of a Rom that is integrated into society is still fairly unfathomable. Even my own extended family interrogates me about the language that I heard growing up at home because they're are convinced I picked up some specific Roma expressions. I’ve realized that the closer I hone in on my identity the more convoluted it becomes. This is all to say that in some situations I feel vastly more connected to Roma identity then in others. When my family or any one else is trying to explain to me how ‘gypsy’ I am, I can feel myself physically rejecting the label. Why? Because they don’t understand me and how “America” I am? Or because I, too, am a victim of inherited self-hate?

In terms of my own experience with coming to terms with my Roma-ness, I’ve learned that there is no one Roma identity. Many people, including myself, have tried to evaluate the extent to which I embody Roma culture. But now I ask, as measured against what standard? There exist infinite possibilities for how a person lives her life and therefore infinite permutations of an individual Roma life. My parents’ story is different from any I’ve heard. And now rather than desperately trying to see it reflected in someone else’s, I’m beginning to revel in the uniqueness of theirs and my life and take pleasure in the small resonances with other people’s stories.

Alina explained that when she speaks openly about being Roma people advise her: “You shouldn’t say that.” She responded, “Why not? I’m proud of it.” I have indeed struggled with my ethnic identity. I have come to terms with being Romanian and American and Roma. But I’m also a musician, amateur filmmaker, reader of fiction, lover of cats, etc. And those things seem vitally more important to my personhood than the false notion that due to the Roma blood that runs through my veins I can play gypsy music with great facility. Thanks to these inspiring women and other people I’ve met I feel like I am finally nearing the place where I, with Alina and Cristiana, can also say: I am Roma, and I’m proud to be Roma.


[1] Joseph Brodsky, “Less Than One,” 1986, pp. 7–8.

[2] Ţigan, pejorative term for Roma in Romanian language.