The Roma woman, at the edge of the world
written & narrated by izabela marin
I. Me, malady
I’m four when I start going to kindergarten. In the first days, after mother takes me home and we eat together, she starts sweeping the leaves from the courtyard. It’s autumn, and in front of the house we have a few trees, so she sweeps almost daily. I remember she’s next to the sour cherry tree that was going to be cut in a few years, though I cannot remember why. I ask her, “Mom, what are we?”, but, again, I cannot remember why - maybe I had heard something in kindergarten and wanted to make sure it wasn’t about us. About me. Mother answers me without hesitation or regret and confirms, for the first time, my identity and future suffering: “G*psies”.
I cannot remember if my sister is with us, if she is behind mother or not. It seems like I cannot remember many things after I hear this. Shame overwhelms me and I can never, ever escape it.
I’m eighteen, but my pain is older than that - it spreads from the skies and falls slowly into the soil, but without any trace of solace. It is human entirely and time falls over it. We leave Asia slowly, from somewhere at its margins, and when we get to the edge of the world, we end up without pouches, without meals, without tears that we could still cry. Over the centuries the tears seem to come back, it seems we can cry again, but they always dry before their time. It is tiring and we see much too often that our breath no longer is.
"The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being." – Michel de Montaigne
I’m twelve when my breasts start showing, I’m twelve when a man touches me for the first time on the street, I’m twelve when I am honked at for the first time. I’m twelve when I learn that the experience of the woman of color means giving up your identity and becoming an object.
I’m twelve when I learn that there is no one on my side, that men of color and white women are the same when you look at them through my eyes. I’m twelve and still there are those who learn even earlier than me.
I’m twelve when I undress in front of the mirror and analyze my body. I’m twelve when I stand on the tip of my toes and I cannot see my face in the mirror. It seems to me I’m prettier that way. I am twelve, then fourteen, then seventeen, then eighteen.
I’m twelve, fourteen, seventeen, and eighteen when I tell myself “I wish I could whiten my skin”.
[Image description: Sketched portraits of a girl growing up, in red lines over a black background. The girl is depicted at four years old in the low left corner, holding a calendar on the ground between fallen leaves. Above that, she is depicted at fourteen, hands on her hips, with mid-length hair and a blue jeans jacket. Mid-picture, she is twelve, with long long hair, jeans and a t-shirt, holding herself while a white hand from above stands on her shoulder. Next to that, she is seventeen, mid-length hair, in a green blouse and tight jeans. On the right, she is eighteen, standing proud, with a scratch on her knee, in a red-green dress with cleavage.]
II. Constructing identity
Defining the ethnic-feminine experience in regards to the wish of belonging to the white community and maybe even the masculine one, is in itself a misogynist, racist issue. Still, it is too much of a “large” part of it to be ignored or altered.
The Roma woman is defined by two big inseparable coordinates: the feminine wish of being seen and the ethnic shame of being perceived. Although both are strongly influenced by the media and the current moment, their roots are found in the middle of history, where the trees grow upside-down, with their branches buried under the forest’s land.
Some African American feminists say that under the African American slavery there was just one gender, the man. Drawing from these theories, ideas and concepts developed by feminists of color, we can sketch the identity of the enslaved Roma woman. Therefore, the situation changes when we talk about the slavery of Roma women. In the eyes of a world that is structured binary, they were not seen as men, their femininity was vulgar and unwanted.
Their work, both productive and reproductive, was not just for their husband, but for their master and his wife. Moreover, they were seen not only as people without value, but even as property.
Understanding this historical reality can, therefore, ease the understanding of the Roma woman that lives within this epoch.
One of the fundamental characteristics of the socio-economic persecution of women of color is defining them. I know that, in itself, defining a minority group is a discriminatory act because it opens up the possibility of “collectivizing” the mentioned group, associating it with a monolith and it can even lead to their stereotypization. The Roma woman is seen both by the man of color, and the white woman, as that one. She is defined exclusively as all that the man of colour is not and the white woman cannot be.
The binary opposition is the relationship between two concepts or terms whose meaning is in opposition. This was seen for a long period of time as being fundamental in organizing human culture. A well known Italian journalist said on this matter “the essential element of structuralism that sustains that all elements of human culture can be understood only in relation to others and the way in which they work in a system of bigger proportions”.
Therefore, even if people exist outside of it, the matters I will discuss find themselves in this structure that is binary, capitalist, patriarchal and heterosexual. We don’t exist in a binary, but we are taught to live according to it. Moreover, I consider it is more important how we are perceived than what we are, because in our society it is more important how the white man sees us, than how we see ourselves. Therefore, my analysis looks at how the hierarchical racist system orders our possibilities in a capitalist society.
[Image description: A young woman in a flowing red-green sundress is in the center of the illustration, drawn on a black background. She is surrounded by mirror shards that show different views of herself, exaggerated versions of what others might see in her.]
III. The Roma man, gazing at me
The Roma man, although sharing history with the Roma woman, doesn’t consider her dignity, meaning he doesn’t see her and doesn’t want her.
For the man, the Roma woman can only be seen in the extremes. For example, she cannot be emancipated, only hypersexualized.
Between the Roma man and the Roma woman there is a similar relationship as that between the white man and white woman, in the sense that both share one identity that shapes them as persons. But the ethnic reality adds to this human relationship other layers that deepen the ‘void’ between the two, although, paradoxically, it draws them nearer; the fact that there is another ‘version’ of the Roma woman, respectively the white woman, makes the void larger.
Although they live different realities, the Roma man and the white woman are “two sides of the same coin”.
When they fight for “human rights” they fight for their rights to be on the same pedestal as the white man. Still, for the pedestal to exist, someone must always be at its feet, humiliated and mocked.
The white man, because he wishes to stay in a white community, because he wishes its perpetuation and that of what he can get from his privileges, he also wishes, implicitly, the white woman. There are, still, exceptions from this case: the white man who explicitly desires a woman of color. He is not attracted to her outside of an “exotic fantasy” (in other words, as a human being and not a sexual object), but because around her, he can fully use his white privilege and all the characteristics he has as a result of this privilege.
Because the white woman is the “object” that the white man desires, she is raised to the level of being a “trophy”. She stays, still, an object. We can infer that the man of color desires the white woman because she is desired by the white man. He desires her, because it means he could cover up, one way or another, his ethnic identity. To stay beside the Roma woman would mean to stay in the same community, and thus to have “less” than the white man. However, within a heterosexual marriage with a white woman, she has the chance to use her white privilege entirely.
During slavery we learned that the master “has”, meaning that he owns something materially, and thus, to stand on the same pedestal as the “master”, we must have. But the Roma man forgets that first of all, the white man is white, meaning he has the identity fundamentally necessary under capitalism, and his ethnic identity is not changeable. His very existence casts out the Roma man from “having”.
[Image description: Figures of humans are sketched on a black background. Mid-picture, a man is choosing between the left and the right figures, which depict two women, one drawn in red, to the left, one in white, to the right. Above all three of them, a huge figure of a man is drawn in white, he takes a lot of space, he seems to be gathering their admiration and attention.]
IV. Feminine betrayal
The white woman is, before being a woman, white.
To define the white woman we need to compare her, to put her parallel to something that cannot be touched, which is, the woman of color.
Even if their pain is somewhat symmetrical, it is not replaceable. Both know the pain of being a woman, of being an object, of being consumed, of giving yourself up to please that which is called a man, of being a fruit that lives for only one summer - of rotting. But the white woman cannot understand the pain of not being white, because this is an experience unknown to her, which disowns and negates her very self.
The feminine experience is unique to those who live it, but women of color who wish to be feminine need, finally, to be hyperfeminine to reach the same level of femininity that white women have only by existing.
Because Roma women live within two big “scenarios”, getting closer to the white woman means trying to “evade”. These scenarios are obvious, not just in the mundane, but also in media: the Roma woman is either a “dirty beggar”, or a sexual object just by existing - it is enough for her to be looked at to be objectified. She is hypersexualized and mocked since childhood and adolescence, as her body is decomposed and picked by each man who desires her - Roma women are not people, they are purely sexual objects. Even more, we can talk about the “kidnapping of childhood”. The girls, the Roma children, are forced to mature early, because to be a child and to be sexual are experiences that negate each other.
[Image description: In red and white lines over a black background, floating objects are drawn, such as lipstick, face cream, make-up, socks, a bra, lacy suspenders, fake eyelashes, rings, sketched kisses.]
I was twelve when I was harassed for the first time in the street. Or at least, the first time I remember so clearly.
Wanting to be “beautiful” I remember since I was five, when I had the feeling that I cannot exist outside of my ethnic condition. I had the feeling that people constantly laughed at my skin, which did happen, but it wasn’t such a persistent event as much as I felt it. The wish, the need and the inability to be white are deep shards in the being of the Roma woman, which can be seen openly by those around her, without much effort.
I’m six when dad tells me, laughing, that if I wash myself with milk, I’ll become white. I’m six when I do it while he and my brothers laugh around me. I’m a child and I’m ashamed that I tried, that everyone knows I wish this. I’m a child when I look at my sisters and I’m ashamed to ask why, from all of us, I had the bad luck of looking like our mother.
I’m a child when I ask my bigger sister: When I grow up will my skin lighten, as well? When I grow up, do you think I’ll be beautiful?
I don’t remember what she says, or if she even answers. I’m a child, but I already desperately want to be white. I don’t know how many white girls ever hated their mother because she made them look like this, because she birthed them and they will never be able to change their skin. I already did it at five years old and I hoped I would not look like her when I grow up.
When I look now, more than ten years later, at pictures of me and my mother from those years, I see that we were not ugly. We were only of color.
In a society like ours, women are seen like fruits. They have their time to flower, and in the summer they must be mature for those that will pick them. Summer doesn’t last long, the cold season will come, and they will rot. White women are a fruit waiting to ripen, then, right?
But they have never worried about being born rotten.
Last spring, while the cherry trees were flowering, I looked for the first time at men of color and white women and I told myself that, for me, they are worse than the white man. Because they know my pain and yet, they push me aside.
[Image description: Mid-illustration, a photograph of a young girl and her mother is drawn in red and green lines. The picture is surrounded by white, transparent splashes of milk. In the right and left corner, red cherry flowers are blooming.]
Written by izabela marin
Recorded by izabela marin
Writing suggestions by M. Martelli, Aron Nor, and Oana Dorobanțu
Illustrations made by Mina Mimosa
Directed by Aron Nor & M.Martelli
Video & Audio editing by Aron Nor