|The stereotype poster|
For me, the stereotypes interfered with getting to know people. I really wanted to ask stupid questions, like "DO Gypsies steal babies?" And that would have set up an adversarial relationship, forcing them to defend themselves, and causing pain and disappointment.
What we did with the stereotypes was collect them on a piece of paper that hung at the front of the room during the week. Instead of the downward spiral of interrogation and defense, I got to hear stories of people's lives -- so many of them stories I know all too well -- a mother slipping money into her son's pocket so he could have a coffee at school, though she would go without lunch; a young man afraid to tell his non-Roma girlfriend that he was Roma; and a non-Roma girl wondering what her boyfriend was holding back.
The big news on my return was the struggle against racism at the University of Missouri. One of the student groups involved was called "Concerned Student 1950," named for the first year black students were admitted to the university. The New York Times found a student from that year, 89 year-old Dr. Gus T. Ridgel, a retired economist. He was admitted as a result of a law suit, but didn't have enough money to attend. Friends raised the funds for one year, but he learned that it was a two-year program. The department chairman said he could graduate in one year, if he did all the coursework and wrote a thesis, something no one had ever done before. He succeeded, and went off to the University of Wisconsin to do his doctoral work.
I found in this story deep resonance with stories I'd heard about Roma life. I was liberated from stereotypes and able to identify, rather than compare.
|The 'real people' poster|