Shortly after my return to Vanderbilt in the fall of 2010, France decided to clear the camps inhabited by Roma people. They were deported to Romania and Bulgaria, the countries of their origins. In the ensuing scandal, the news was widely covered by international media. The conversations among my classmates and around campus were more heated than usual, with friends and colleagues turning their head towards me and constantly conveying what they heard in the news. Between school work and ballet lessons, I shared my opinion on the situation of Roma in France and Europe as well as my own “Gypsy story.” The article was published online as an op-ed by The New York Times (Nov 2nd) and in print by the International Herald Tribune (Nov 3).
My classmates at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where I am a Fulbright fellow, are talking more about Gypsy/Roma issues than last year.
I wish I could claim credit for this, but it resulted from the recent expulsion of Gypsies from France. The Sarkozy government initiated a program to clear the camps inhabited by the Gypsies and to deport them back to Romania and Bulgaria.
I don’t even need to watch TV or read the papers to hear about this; I just have to open my e-mail to find a multitude of articles forwarded by friends worldwide. That’s because four years ago, I came out of the closet as a Gypsy.
I grew up in a small city in southern Romania knowing that I am Roma but not speaking the Romani language and living pretty much a normal Romanian life. I heard that Gypsies were dirty, ignorant and dishonest and I vowed that I would be the opposite: trustworthy, educated and accepted.
But years later, in the United States, a friend told me he was missing some money, and I immediately felt accused, even though he was just stating a fact to me. Even after he found the money, I couldn’t rest until I explained the reason for my reaction: I was not only Romanian, I admitted, I was also a Gypsy.
For years, my Roma/Gypsy identity had always been in the back of my mind, but I avoided thinking about it or revealing it to my friends. My dream as a child came true, and I succeeded at not being perceived as “one of them.” It took a “stealing incident” to compel me to acknowledge my Gypsy identity.
The recent actions in France showed me again that I had reason as a child to conceal my roots. Being labeled a Gypsy means that you can’t be trusted, that you have no education, and that your family is probably involved in some kind of illegal activities. It means fearing that you can be accused of stealing at any moment, regardless of who you are.
Gypsies have lived in Europe for centuries. They have been generally ignored, though there have been periodic calls to get rid of them because they were “not like us.” They have been killed, tortured, humiliated and forced to assimilate and deny their culture. Like the Jews, Gypsies were singled out by the Nazis for racial persecution and annihilation, and perhaps 250,000 were killed.
Even in a modern Europe and a globalized world, stigmatization and discrimination are not rare phenomena but a daily reality. Oppression of the Gypsies continues across Europe — in Italy, Hungary, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere. Gypsy settlements have been burned, Gypsy children excluded from mainstream schools or isolated in segregated ones, adults denied employment.
Perhaps we, Europeans, needed the “French expulsion incident” to bring to light the fact that the European Union has a Gypsy side, and that we must explore this side of our new identity. With some 12 million Gypsies scattered across Europe, influencing and influenced by their various locales, the Gypsies form the largest ethnic minority on the Continent.
If there were a Gypsy state, it would be the 9th largest in the European Union. You cannot get rid of the Gypsies without destroying the foundation of the E.U.’s values and principles. The crisis in France is akin to an acute medical incident, where ignoring the ailment is not an option. The problem in France threatens the health of the entire Union; it is a medical emergency that has been neglected too long and now demands treatment.
It is hard to accept a part of oneself that one doesn’t know much about. And who wants to accept a stigmatized side that creates so many problems?
But exclusion, denial, expulsion and deportation are damaging for a very simple reason: This part of ourselves will not disappear only because we don’t like it. It will remain in ghettos and less developed communities, and it will create problems until we, as Europeans, stop playing ping-pong with Gypsies (a sport known as migration, often forced — or, for those fascinated by Gypsies, “the culture of traveling”) and assume full responsibility for our common challenge.
Let’s not pretend that the E.U.’s issues with the Gypsies are new; let’s just accept that our interest is new. We should not be over-dramatic about “the France expulsion incident,” but we should take it as a painful wake-up call, drawing into the light what has so far been confined to a dark closet. It is time to open ourselves to exploring and seeing the situation and looking beyond labels and stereotypes.
Since I accepted my ethnic identity, I have gone from seeing Gypsies as strangers and convincing myself that “I have nothing in common with those people” to affirming that I am “one of them.” This has been more empowering than I could have ever imagined.
I likewise envision, aided perhaps by my “fortune-telling genes,” the transformation of European identity from a configuration of borders and regulations to a wholehearted acceptance of its essence and strength — the meeting of its many peoples on common ground.
Cristiana Grigore is a Fulbright fellow at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.