Note: This post includes an ethnic slur commonly used against people of European nomadic cultures, as well as discussion of hate crimes and social perspective of Romani people. While spoken of from a deconstructionalist point of view, it may still be triggering. Please keep this in mind before continuing.
And yeah, I know I said I was taking a break. This needs to get out there, though.
So there is a popular music video about in Romania right now. I’ve actually written about it before, albeit not here, not too long after it was released. Even then, it bothered me as it did others.
This video, entitled Sarkozy vs. Gypsy and produced by the Romanian band Vama, has been gaining significant levels of publicity since its initial release. Much more than I had hoped it would, but hardly surprising.
The general core of the video is the band members, backed up by Roma musicians and dancers, as they prance around and climb on chain link fences. The music and attitude behind the video are very upbeat and carefree, in direct contrast with the lyrics that go through the various levels of racist oppression the Roma (one of many subgroups of the Romani peoples) have been facing throughout Europe, particularly in France in light of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to evict them by the hundreds – and destroying their camps to go with it. Throughout the song, Sarkozy is asked several times why he is doing what he is doing, and what he has against the Roma.
The problem here though is that while the band had very good intentions with their video (or at least that’s what its seeming like, that’s what I’d like to think), it comes with several problems. Major problems. Ones that make me wonder why it’s gotten such a foothold as a result, and then I remember we’re catering to a white society here.
- The Roma are not referred to by name.
What many people don’t realize is that the term “gypsy” is a slur. While used toward many European nomadic cultures as a whole, when used for the Romani and others such as the Dom, it is an ethnic slur. It’s derived from the misconception that they (originally) migrated from Egypt, and continuing to push its usage in modern societies erases the known history of these people. What wasn’t known then is known now – the origins of these ethnic groups are Indo-Aryan, not Egyptian.
When dealing with slurs, the people they are systematically used toward often make an effort to reclaim them through their own chosen use. When a person of an oppressed minority reclaims a slur used against them, it’s stripped of its power. It can be reformed into new ideas, new impressions for that person instead of used as a weapon. It’s a very powerful method of healing.
However. This does not work if someone else is applying the term to them. Even if they mean it in a positive or “endearing” manner. If that someone else is in a position of privilege and power, the negative connotation can and will still be there if these terms are used for people without their consent. The only people that have a right to reclaim destructive terms are the people that they are used as weapons against. They are the ones that can turn that around as a force of healing, no one else. To take that power away from them is to put the power back into one’s privilege – the source of such slurs and their strength in the first place.
Throughout the song, the Roma of Romania and France (and many other countries throughout Europe, though not addressed) are stripped of their name. That part of their identity, their culture, their language, who they are, is taken away from them in favor of a slur that is to this day used as a force of violence. The only time that the Roma are even alluded to by name is during the verse that’s spoken entirely in French, a verse that many people listening won’t understand, especially given how it’s not subtitled. The rest of the time, they are referred to by a slur, as they are throughout public reference all around the globe because that is what they are best known as (how sad is that?).
- The culture and people are glossed over and exotified.
This is a dreadfully common trope, by the way. When the band is shown playing, the male Roma musicians are shown as background props. However, they get a bit more limelight than the female dancers, at least in the sense that their personhood is without question. When we see the scenes with the lead singer and the female dancers, they become little more than oversexualized puppets. Their heads are cut off, emphasis is shown on cleavage, bare stomachs and exposed legs as they pull their skirts up all sexy-like for the viewers. And the male vocalist just relishes in this as he sits in his chair in the center of the camera’s view.
Sound familiar? It’s an awful lot like how white media portrays women, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. The culture of these women is being erased to cater to a wider, whiter audience. The depth of the culture is no longer taken into consideration, dance and music watered down and put on display for the gadje. Even color is bleached out, as the women are shown dancing entirely in white (likely to emphasize their darker skin tone, and it works), despite the fact that Romani culture embraces bright, bold color. Even the stereotypes in story books are more accurate than that. That’s saying something.
Much like many other attempts in the past to “represent” the Romani peoples, this attempt falls short through catering to the perceptions and stereotypes of the dominant societies around them. There are ways to do it – try actually embracing the culture itself and show that instead of trying to choreograph it based on what you think people will like or want to see. Including the entirety of women’s bodies instead of just snippets of exotified, sexualized parts would also be a good idea.
- Sarkozy and his actions are just the symptom of a larger problem.
What people don’t realize is that his actions aren’t new. People have been doing what he is doing for centuries. A classic example is Hitler, who threw the Roma into concentration camps along with the millions of Jews, people with disabilities, gender and sexual variant people, religious variant people, and countless others. But this is often erased. People don’t realize just the sheer diversity of people Hitler and the Nazi Party assaulted and murdered, often we only hear of one or two. Roma have been experiencing expulsion and racial oppression all throughout Europe. Italy is shutting them out. Hate crimes litter the continent, ranging from arson against the homes and families of Roma in the Czech Republic to 18 different attacks on one Roma settlement in Hungary.
The problem is not that Sarkozy is an asshole. Even though yeah, he is. The problem is deeply rooted into a hatred of Romani people and their culture all throughout Europe (though it’s hardly limited to its borders) and the reinforcement of systematic oppression through negative stereotyping and bigotry. He insists that the Roma in France are the cause behind an increase in crime, without addressing the fact that the Roma are struggling for food, shelter and work. Some people, regardless of ethnicity, resort to theft just so that they can feed themselves and their families. Others do things that people interpret as theft, such as dumpster diving and other various forms of scrounging. People insist that the Roma are filthy and diseased, without addressing the fact that they are not given access to adequate health care. They forget that Romani culture includes purity customs, but even these can be difficult to work with when you’re forced by the people around you to live in broken down slums or in the streets. They can’t be treated for illness because many aren’t even considered citizens regardless of where they go, and people will turn them away because of the preconceived idea that they are filthy, when the problem is a cycle that they’re contributing to by turning people away for being ill. Work is hard to come by, especially when you’re forced to move from area to area due to racism and bigotry, because many don’t have access to education for training in new skills. Roma children are thrown into separate schools or not accepted at all, and trade skills traditionally used to support one’s family aren’t in as high of demand with the progression of modern times. And while some will integrate in order to raise their chances of success in the modern world and yanno, maybe not be hated as much, others try to preserve the culture that is dear to them instead of having it taken away from them by the dominant societies around them. But this is seen as the “refusal to integrate”, and people from positions of privilege (such as white) hold their standards in such high esteem that if others want to keep their own customs and cultures, it is very bad and wrong because they’re not the same as the world around them.
Sarkozy’s little stunt isn’t new. It’s just a manifestation of the same old bullshit, this time with a figure head attached at the head of a political system. That figure head is what makes the issue popular, because this time people can point fingers at someone specific, someone that isn’t the world around them, someone that doesn’t include themselves and owning up to their own privilege. It’s an issue if someone else is an asshole. But we won’t take the time to look into the why, the construction of the system that oppresses these people, and how the people and that own system contributes to itself. As long as we have that figure head, the world’s problems have a source.
- The voices of the Roma are not being centered.
To be perfectly frank, the people we need to hear from regarding experiences of systematic discrimination and oppression throughout Europe aren’t “allies” such as band mates in Romania. The people we need to hear from are the people experiencing it themselves, the people whose lives are in danger simply by living. How about we hear more from the National Agency for the Roma instead of the Romanian government, who is wringing their hands about whether or not the Roma should be able to keep their name instead of a slur? (it’s too confusing, they say.) How about we hear more from Dosta!, a Roma activist and awareness campaign? How about we hear more from Colorful but Colorblind (though I have problems with that name), a project designed to shatter the world’s perspective of Roma through stereotypes? How about we hear more from people who actually give a damn, maybe because they have to instead of hiding behind walls of privilege, because this is their lives at stake? Instead of people who use such dire issues as publicity launching points?
I’m looking at you, Vama. Yeah, I know. Good intentions, you meant well, yadaya. But really, you’re not fucking helping matters. So please do us a favor and cut the bullshit. You’ll lose some publicity, but you’ll gain more respect from the people you’re trying to represent that way.