The power of racism, its trauma, and the road to healing

To heal on a societal level is to recognize and repent, so that we can begin to imagine a future in which no one has to feel the painful effects of racism.

“You filthy little one, stop with the commentary and objections, because you reek like a G*psy [sic] from a distance. You crows should be gassed, because if you were shot we would run the risk that one of you might get away. The cancer of society, that’s what you all are!!!”

This is how a young woman addressed me on a Facebook post on my own timeline.

You cannot ever understand, truly, what it’s like to be called a racial slur, until one is addressed to you directly, drenched in syrupy rotten hate, as bitter as it is hard to swallow. I didn’t know what it would feel like either, until it happened to me. Most recently by this young woman from Iasi, whose toothy-smiled profile picture wouldn’t have given away her predilection for ethnic cleansing.

I choose to begin with this violent example of racism that was directed towards me because it exemplifies what I, on an individual level, have had to heal from and at the same time acts as a mirror on society—demonstrating what we as a whole still need to heal from.

In what follows I want to ask two sets of questions: What underpins violent racism exemplified by the above quotation? How can we overcome the power of racism and the injury that comes with it? And then zooming out we might also ask: What does it mean to heal on a societal level? To recognize and repent so that we can begin to imagine a future in which no one has to feel the painful effects of racism.

It is 2 August 2014, I am 24 years old. The sign above my head reads: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” I am at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the Ziguenerlager at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the fact that I myself am Roma, it wasn’t until early adulthood that I learned of the genocide committed against Romani people during the second world war.

I experienced a complete rupture between myself and my ethnic historical heritage; I was shocked and appalled. Appalled that I was completely ignorant of an historical incident that could have targeted and exterminated my own family. Appalled that I, not just as a Romani person, but as a citizen of this planet, was completely ignorant of a historical incident as grave as systematic murder of Roma and Sinti alongside people of Jewish and Slavic origin, and others murdered on the basis of sexual orientation of religious or political beliefs or disability.

I thought about the bus-load of other Roma with whom I’d spent 24 hours traveling to this commemoration. And how they didn’t know either. And it began to feel like an injustice that we, collectively, didn’t know.

And that we extends beyond my fellow Roma on that bus, it extends beyond my American classmates who also didn’t read about the Roma experience of the Holocaust in their high school textbook.

The we extends beyond the national borders of Romania.

It was shortly after the time I spent at Auschwitz that I became aware of the staggering silence and forgetting surrounding Roma persecution during the Holocaust and slavery on an international level. Imagine being African American and learning about slavery at the age of 24. Or Jewish and learning about the Holocaust only after graduating from college. This would never happen. It could not happen. But this does happen often when it comes to the history of Roma. There is something unique about Roma trauma—500 years of enslavement on Romanian territory, genocide during the Holocaust and ongoing discrimination— and the way it has been muted or distorted for centuries.

This experience forced me to start asking: what are the conditions that make it possible for me to have made it 24 years old completely blind to the suffering of my own people?

In searching for an answer, I turned to the tutelage of Black feminist thinkers and came across this brilliant quote from bell hooks that sheds light on the process of historical unknowing I had experienced. She writes:

“One must face a palimpsest of written histories that erase and deny, that reinvent the past to make the present vision of racial harmony and pluralism more plausible. To bear the burden of memory one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited, searching the debris of history for traces of the unforgettable, all knowledge of which has been suppressed.”

She goes on to quote Itabari Njeri, another thinker of color, who laments that „nobody really knows us”; „So institutionalized is the ignorance of our history, our culture, our everyday existence that, often, we do not even know ourselves.”

What hooks and Njeri say is uncannily true when we look at the lack of knowledge of Roma history across the world. Romani history, too, has been lost in a sea of “written histories that erase and deny,” the enslavement and genocide of Romani people. As these women aptly point out this suppression of history serves a very specific purpose; to superimpose a false sense of racial harmony on the world.

But how can we claim to be post-race, when we haven’t even started to grapple with, recognize and repent for the past traumas inflicted on black and brown bodies?

The history of enslavement and genocide of Romani people in Romania, is not “Romani” history. The adjective in front cordons “Romani history” from dominant history. But that’s not how society works. And that’s not how history works. These histories are integral to the historical narrative of this country and we must start telling them. If we are cut off from our history, then we don’t even know ourselves. It is, as Njeri says, especially shocking to realize that the persecution of your ethnic group is ignored to such an extent “we don’t even know ourselves.” However, when ignorance becomes the status quo we all lose.

We all are cut off from our collective history.

In light of all this violent forgetting, we must ask ourselves about the politics of memory. Whose stories, memories, struggles, and cultural artefacts are visible and whose are not? What do we put away for safe-keeping in temperature-controlled buildings with ornate Greek-columns outside and what has been left to rot in the putrid air of a society that chooses to forget?

Roma history has been silenced, but Roma have not been silent, themselves. There are counterhistories of the Roma in songs and in oral testimonies. These testimonies have the power to catalyze a remembering of misremembered, passed-over or unwritten histories.

I cannot begin to describe the feeling I had, the first time I sat across from a Holocaust survivor. Imagining that their physical being was witness to and victim to the atrocious violence I had only read about. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I wish everyone had this opportunity.

But recorded testimony is as close as many people will get to intimate knowledge of the experience of the Holocaust as survivors are passing away.

A recent survey conducted on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that “many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened,” during the Holocaust. As the number of survivors continues to dwindle, this study concluded that collective memory of the Holocaust is beginning to fade.

The genocide of Roma and Sinti people by the Nazis and their Allies is a lesser known and even more precarious part of this history.

We as a society and as individuals need to re-ignite collective memory and break the silence around the genocide of Roma. It is imperative to making sure history does not repeat itself.

Returning to hooks’ words, she hones in on one very important aspect surrounding ignorance, and that is the institutionalization of forgetting.

The genocide enacted toward Roma and the enslavement of Roma are collective historical traumas. The discourses surrounding Roma historical trauma is decades behind other work relating to other marginalized groups. Although still highly contentious, in the U.S. there is some recognition of how a history of trauma and structural inequality influences the lives of African-Americans living today.

There are scholars, journalists, activists and teachers who draw a through-line between centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and ongoing systemic and structural racism, oppression, mass incarceration and the way these historical realities affect many generations of African Americans.

When it comes to Roma, a historically informed perspective is utterly lacking. Widespread ignorance results in a double trauma for the Roma. Roma have an original wound—slavery and genocide—that has been re-traumatize for decades because of the lack of awareness of the historical suffering of Roma. The way in which society has failed to bear witness to these historical traumas, impedes 1) acknowledgment of the enduring effects of trauma on Roma lives and 2) impedes healing from the original wound.

Healing requires recognition, only then we may arrive at reconciliation.

We, as a society, need to understand that ‘community’ means “everything I do will affect you, and everything you do will affect me.” And that culture is about what each of us is carrying forward. So, we have to ask ourselves and each other: what are you carrying forward?

Roma carry forth memory of pain and survival strategies to get through the pain. But everything you do will affect me. That is how community works so Roma cannot be the only ones keeping memory alive. What each of us are carrying forward matters.

It is about recognition. This is how individual memory becomes collective memory.

And collective memory is vital to the process of healing. From the Rwandan genocide to the Armenian genocide, groups that have been targeted and murdered on the basis of race/ethnicity all seek one thing in their pathway to healing: and that is recognition.

And this is no different in the case of Roma survivors and the Roma community more broadly. In order for these wounds to heal, they need to be tended to, not ignored, brushed aside, or hastily covered-up by governments, institutions, or people whose interests aren’t served by this recognition of history.

Preservation of memory is important for the struggle for recognition, acknowledgement and reconciliation. But it is impossible to heal from trauma without reciprocity, without someone to listen and someone to care.

Reconciliations can look like reparations, apologies, commemorations, memorials. In enacting these things, we begin to forge civic trust, as well as individual and collective healing after trauma. In enumerating this list, it strikes me how far we have to go still before we can heal together.

Though we have a Holocaust memorial in Bucharest, only now has there been a governmental initiative to establish a Holocaust museum. And in many other ways we fail as a society to treat survivors with the respect they deserve. There are Roma survivors of the Holocaust in Romania who do not received the reparations to which they are entitled to by law for the two years they were deported to Transnistria.

In January of 2018, Roma were excluded from a ceremony in which the President decorated Holocaust survivors on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And it goes without saying that Holocaust education, not to mention Roma Holocaust education, is virtually non-existent in Romania. And things are not much different beyond these national borders.

Healing from the lack of representation, to put it lightly, or violent exclusions more aptly, of Roma history, involves a dual process of healing, of Roma reconnecting to our heritage but more importantly of society learning about a history that should never be cordoned off, marginalized, segmented as “Roma” history.

It is our communal history as a nation and as a human race. Only then do we begin to heal. If we recognize that the original injury was to define Roma almost upon their arrival to Europe twelve centuries ago as not belonging to the Romanian nation, using ethnocentrism and xenophobic logics to Other and dehumanize the Roma, enslave and murder them, then we must also recognize that in order to undo this we must do more than simply revise textbooks and erect monuments.

It is not only about preservation of memory, what is necessary is an insurrection of our current narratives with Romani memory. This would in turn catalyze a radical redefinition of our national historical narratives.

We cannot continue to relegate historical atrocities only to the realm of the past-tense. They continue to happen into the present day.

The rise of populism in Europe goes hand in hand with an attack on its most vulnerable populations, most notably in Salvini’s reign of terror against Roma in Italy and in Ukraine with resurgent neo-Nazi violence towards Roma, or the decades of evictions of Roma in France, and the ultra-right Hungarian Jobbik party’s near-constant anti-Roma propaganda. Roma are one of Europe’s most vulnerable communities. The unparalleled way in which Roma trauma has been muted, distorted and erased has, undoubtably, contributes to this vulnerability.

Given current events in Europe with regard to rising anti-Roma sentiment, violence and xenophobia exasperated by the current economic and public health crisis, it is easy to understand what brought Roma Holocaust survivor and artist Chaja Stoika to say that “Auschwitz is only sleeping.”

We live in terrifying, fascist times, in which white supremacy is normalized by world leaders, a world of mass shootings, police violence, pogroms, in which Roma lives, along with other stigmatized groups across the globe are in peril. This is why these issues are so urgent, so pressing. And why the stories we tell about Roma desperately need to change.

As Toni Morrison said “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”

Narratives have the power to constitute who we are.

Telling and listening to story has the power to heal, they have the power to define who we are as a society. The current stories we tell about Roma simultaneously feed into and are borne of an ideology of white supremacy. They are false caricatures, that hyper focus on negative stereotypes. And as critical race theorist Jose Medina describes this fetishization of alterity alienates us from each other making it difficult to sympathize or empathize and see the “Other” in all their beautiful specificity.

“Stereotypes, are,” as bell hooks says, “like fictions, created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are fantasy, a projection onto the Other that abounds when there is distance, a pretense that one employs when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken—are not allowed.”

Let’s make real knowing possible. How do we heal as a society? Heal from this widespread plague, called racism. Maybe the change begins with things as small as speaking up when someone says I was “I was gypped” or “let’s not be G*ypsies about it.”

But also, by intimating the distance that is too often filled-in with fiction. Replacing it with specificity, humanity, voice, nuance, subtlety as an antidote to stereotypes, which dominate discourse around Roma. Our society historically has stripped Roma of their subjectivity and by telling stories we might have a chance to re-enliven them.

The challenges faced by Roma to overcome deeply engrained mechanisms of structural racism, are too many to list: segregation, access to healthcare, jobs, housing, stereotypical representations in media, hate speech, etc.

So I often struggled with what to say in order to have an impact about the kinds of stories we tell about Roma as a society. I didn’t want to write another tokenistic Roma intervention that begins with a story of ethnic stigmatization and ends on a heartwarming note of interracial harmony.

We are far from achieving that and I cannot pretend to have the answer to how to set us on that path. I’ll close with three small pieces of the “truth,” that might begin to illuminate the road towards the “longed-for world.” As Minnie Bruce Pratt stated: “I am speaking my small piece of truth, as best I can…[We] each have only a piece of the truth.

So here it is: I’m putting it down for you to see if our fragments match anywhere, together, make another larger piece of the truth that can be part of the map we are making together to show us the way to get to the longed-for world.”

First, two pieces of truth from my community of Roma women: “They have so many privileges. We don’t begin the game with the same chances as you. We retain in our DNA trauma that we have internalized, and we pass on with each new generation and the entire system on which our society is built does nothing but perpetuate that trauma.”

And an 18-year-old who says: “Life is sometimes unfair and very easily our dreams are shattered due to the people around us judging us harshly. When I started school, our professor made a derogatory comment about Roma. Moments like this cut away at your strength but it is important not to let yourself fall and believe in yourself and show them that you can do more.”

Before healing comes hurt, a racial slur, a minor trauma, a major trauma, like genocide. And injury needs attention.

Time does not heal all wounds.

To eschew infection Roma need to be able to tell their story and incite a collective exorcism of centuries of accumulative trauma not limited just to the pain of slavery and genocide, but also every day hurt.

It hurts me, when I imagine someone seeing my father’s dark skin and judging him. It hurts me hearing stories of my mom being called G*psy in her home of 30 plus years of Portland, Ore.. As I’m sure it hurt my father hearing his dad being called t*gan in restaurants where he played.

We carry the burden of the injurious words others direct to the ones we love. I know it hurts my friends when I am addressed as a “little dirty G*psy.” Or when someone uses the word ț*gan pejoratively at work.

This web of hurt is called empathy. And it is the only hope we have as a society; As it grows, in ever-widening circles, perhaps, then, we can gradually begin to heal.

This essay is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

A previous version of this essay was presented on 18 October 2019 at The Power of Storytelling conference.

 In this piece, that word, “gypsy”, is spelled “g*psy”to signal that it is often used a racial slur in Romania.