ART: Daniel Baker (Bird Diptych, 2009 | Photo, Courtesy of © Daniel Baker)
As I joined the watch party for the confirmation of Deb Haaland to become the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, I found myself filled with conflicting emotions. As a 2019 Lantos Congressional Fellow in Haaland’s D.C. office and as a person of color, such moments give me hope for a different future for all womxn around the world.
It was a historic and emotional moment, and I can’t even begin to comprehend the magnitude and the relevance it had for Indian Country and Native American people. As I watched the counting of the Senate votes I felt immense joy and pride, but I also felt a sense of creeping sadness.
While the United States finally appointed a fierce Native American woman to lead a Cabinet agency—in Europe, 50 years after the First World Romani Congress (held on April 8, 1971), the Roma continue to face harsh judgements and criticisms when they demand a literal seat at the table, let alone access to decision making or political power.
As a Roma person, I struggle with the “two-ness” of invisibility and hyper-visibility. While Roma are the largest minority in several European countries, the educational system treats us as if we never existed. An impersonal and uncontextualized mention of Roma as passive victims of the Holocaust in our textbooks is typically all we are afforded.
The chances of learning about enslaved Romanian Roma, or about the legacy of the World Romani Congresses, the existence of a standardized Romani dictionary, or artworks through which Roma cultural producers reclaim narratives about the dynamics between Roma and non-Roma, are practically non-existent.
Roma are made purposefully invisible, but through daily and varied manifestations of anti-Roma racism in society we are made hyper-visible. In school we hear our peers use “g*psy” as a curse word and we hear our teachers do the same, further legitimizing such bigoted ideas like “g*psy criminality.”
These daily encounters make us both invisible and hyper-visible. The hyper-visibility of being Roma manifests itself through everyday discrimination in all aspects of life.
As a Roma, when entering a store, you learn that you never approach an isle until you find a store assistant and show them your bag’s contents. As a Roma, you better carry your ID at all times because we are more likely to be stopped for an ID check.
The true nature of these experiences is of course never directly addressed. From institutions and teachers, to store managers and nurses; they all want to change the topic and bend visibility to fit their narrative:
“No, the young man wasn’t followed! Anyways, he was just doing his job, the g*psy woman kept touching her pockets!”
“The police raiding 19 Traveller sites in order to arrest 30+ people was about disrupting a Traveller criminal enterprise!”
”No, it’s not segregation; they are in remedial classes!”
“It never happened that someone could not accompany the young woman in labor to the maternity ward because of the costs of mandatory garments!”
“Profiling? The officer gave them a ticket because their bike did not have the standard equipment; and how would the officer have known that THEY were ROMA?”
“Those checkpoints by the corners of Roma neighborhoods are there to curb the pandemic!”
In each of these cases the non-Roma pretend they are acting reasonably because they THINK they SEE us.
We are hyper-visible. Though you will not find our history taught in the classroom, or our representatives in proportionate numbers where substantial decisions are made. There we are invisible.
The determination to push back on injustices like these are at the heart of the Roma movement(s). Gaining control over our own visibility and claiming spaces in a system not created by us, or for us, sparked the people decades ago and still burns today.
Many times, we are not alone. Some non-Roma activists, non-profits, and developmental agencies are great allies and have flagship initiatives tackling educational inequalities, improving housing, and health situations for Roma.
But one crucial element is missing. The Roma rights movement(s)—just like other movement(s)—are not only about the literal protection from discrimination and hate crimes. Roma people are also claiming their right to representation of Romani culture. But we need resources in the hands of Roma communities and the recognition of Roma as constituents.
We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We want the memories of our giants to be celebrated and our victims to be mourned. Roma people deserve to be hired for permanent and high-level positions. We deserve to be protected and we deserve to be seen.
Now is the time for wider anti-racist solidarity. Please stop telling Roma the boundaries and limits of how they might and should be visible. Instead of taking personal offense when critiqued, more allies should protect Roma activist voices and go above and beyond to secure spaces for them to be heard.
Until this is SEEN the pressure needs to be intensified on those who bear the most responsibility in controlling our visibility. Only then will we be able to resolve our “two-ness” and become one.
Kata NémethKata Németh is a Roma woman from Hungary living in the U.S. She is an alumna of the Romani Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. In the past she was a Lantos Fellow in the Congressional Office of Rep. Deb Haaland (D- NM - 01, 116th U.S. Congress), and worked at the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.