By far, the most repeated anecdote from my brother’s childhood is of him hitting a woman in line behind him and yelling ‘Papuq what did you cover yourself in, you smell!’.
He was trying to use the word ‘magjup’ which is a derogatory term for a person of the Roma community. Every time this anecdote is told to guests, it is met with laughs. When this anecdote was told to me, I laughed as well, I didn’t get the heavily loaded context of it. If I’m being really honest, for the longest time I thought that ‘magjup’ was the only word for people from the Roma community.
I have always thought of myself as a very open minded person. I didn’t care where a person came from, what the color of their skin was, or whether they were poor or rich. To me, everybody deserves the same chance, and everybody was equal.
Though, I always had the thought that somehow the Roma community was different from everybody else, I always kept some sort of distance. For the longest time I wasn’t aware of my internalized racism or, as I don’t believe in racial differences of humankind, of my very strong prejudice towards this community.
After many years I realized that my train of thought was conflicted, I was very much against discrimination against any people, but I never regarded people from the Roma community to be part of ‘any people’.
Later on, I realized that it was utterly insane, so I started to actively speak up when people made racist remarks against the Roma community. I corrected people when they used derogatory terms to indicate that they were speaking of people from the Roma community. However, I still had a distorted image of who exactly the Roma people were. In my mind the whole community was tormented by poverty and faced extreme violence and institutional discrimination.
Recently an article appeared where the story was told of a very brave Roma woman who had testified in Belgrade against the perpetrators that raped her during the war in 1999. When she arrived in Kosovo after testifying, she was apparently neglected by the authorities and passed away a few years after.
Institutionalized discrimination also reaches areas that are not necessarily as obvious as that example. I learned through my work with GAIA Kosovo that in Kosovo the Roma community also suffer environmental injustice. Think of the Roma neighborhood in Plementina that is placed in the backyard of a coal power plant. They inhale all the emissions from this power plant without enjoying electricity that much (or even at all).
For people who do not know what environmental injustice is, this is the textbook meaning: Environmental injustice is the unequal amount of exposure for communities of color or poor communities to pollution. With all of the consequences that are attached to that exposure (e.g. health, not being able to farm land etc.)
During the Roma Summit this year I found that there were many other problems facing the community still in 2019. One of the things that struck me the most was that young people within the community internalized the racism they faced.
According to some of the panelists many young adults in the Roma community did not want to belong to that community. They had internalized the perspective of the non-Roma and thought of their culture as backwards, unwanted and inferior.
This fazed me in particular because growing up as a refugee in the Netherlands, me and my immigrant friends with other cultural backgrounds faced discrimination. However, we didn’t internalize this, on the contrary, we would hold onto more of our cultural heritage and contest the ideas that the non-migrants had of us. Actually, the discrimination we faced partly shaped our identity of ‘the immigrant’, the others.
I asked one of the panelists why there were young adults in the Roma community that have expressed themselves this way. She told me that this was mostly due to the fact that it is also internalized by influential people in their lives, for example their parents. She told me that her parents’ ambitions for her were to become a hairdresser.
To me this example shows very clearly that through the discrimination the community faced, they limit their ambitions. I am sure that it is more nuanced than I am making it out to be and I don’t even want to compare my experience as a refugee in the Netherlands to the experience of the Roma community here.
During the summit, one panelist mentioned that instead of looking at our differences, we should celebrate our similarities. Even though this might not seem very revolutionary, to me it sounded like a very powerful tool. Through emphasizing our differences, we give a place to discrimination in a sense.
We rely on what we heard without understanding, what we have been taught without questioning, and we use labels for other as just that, something that is different from ourselves. That is why I believe that if we start to emphasize our similarities, we will find that we are not strangers from one another. In his opening speech, Albin Kurti said that nobody is a stranger to him, maybe we should all start to embrace this notion.
Feature Image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.