Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Changing the narrative on Roma

The stereotype poster
I spent the past week in Salzburg, Austria, as part of the faculty for a seminar called, "Changing the narrative on Roma in Healthcare Settings." There were not many Roma people in Orange, NJ, when I was growing up there, yet we had lots of ideas about them, ranging from "Gypsies steal babies," Gypsies "gyp" you, to "Gypsy" as a great Halloween costume. Before going, I learned a fuller story, one of a people migrating from India to Europe 1000 years ago, and facing constant abuse and exclusion between then and now. In the course of a remarkable week, we examined how we might change the narrative that justified Roma oppression.

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
Ilona Notar, a Roma member of the seminar faculty, hated our stereotype poster.  On the last day, she proposed that everyone write qualities of real Roma people on Post-Its and stick these over the stereotypes.  This was a joyous exercise for all of us -- we "subjugated" the false knowledge of the stereotypes to our new narrative -- nuanced, authentic, and universal.