Expressing Individuality amidst An Oppressed Collective

The world is art, and we are music, finding our own melody in the stream of creation. We move with the rhythm of our routine. And we impose a harmony on the mural before us. Sometimes, in an effort to have our songs heard, we suppress the melodies of others. To amplify our voices, we band together with the other players who superficially resonate our sound, creating a musical meta-narrative to categorize the confluence of voices before us. Our conceptual baton that divides the world’s orchestra into its notes and sections creates a hierarchy between the voices and instruments that compose it. This is an imperfect harmony, with clashing tones and discord, however, it is beautiful in its ever transient nature. When lost in the effervescent yet discontented harmony, it becomes harder for the subdued to find their voice. Yet the louder players can assert their story with a sonorous ease. This explains the staunch individualism imposed by a largely white, “Western” society. When one has social privilege, one has greater narrative space in singing their story of the Self. This imposing Self can subsume the weaker identities into its own story; it requires power to assert it. On the other hand, from the position of oppressed minorities, especially the Roma, to obsessively pursue the Self is to risk extinction of their identity– their melody — as it stands.
“We need to bond together as a group,” Dr. Nicoleta Bitu asserted, “We are stronger as a group than as individuals pursuing our own interest.” I found Dr. Bitu’s statement exceptionally intriguing, especially considering her strong personality– her quiet yet amplified sound– and rhetorical finesse in establishing an original understanding of her people, the Roma. It made me think about the impossibility of transcending our social bonds in an effort to find ourselves. While I am skeptical of the formation of cohesive groups, often constructed by political entrepreneurs who assert differences alongside arbitrary lines, we cannot ignore how these constructs influence our positionality today. A potent social narrative that keeps groups subjugated is individuality, as it is the easiest way to dismantle the cohesion of oppressed groups fighting for their civil rights. In order to mitigate lasting social change, I think that oppressed social groups like the Roma cannot afford to lose themselves in the Western paradigm of the Self. It is best for scholars to respect and listen to the Romani social movements and their political assertion of their identity. While we should acknowledge each Roma as their own individual, with their own intersectional identity and life experiences, we should avoid subverting their identity through imposing definitions and narratives that suppress their melody– their story: a fundamentally human need to express oneself as a social being.
By profiting from group separation of race, class and gender, today’s political leaders reinforce sectional inequality. The perfect example is Trump’s rhetoric concerning “shit-hole countries” and “America’s crumbling inner-cities” all of which are employed to condemn a group for internal failure under the guise of addressing a problem; he speaks solely to ingratiate his white, rural voting base. Similarly, scholars can approach the situation of the Roma with the the same condescension. They often fall guilty to imposing certain representations of the Roma people that are incongruent with how they live and the plurality within the community itself. They disregard the Romani’s desire to be acknowledged as the “Roma” and impose the contemptuous terms Tsigani and gypsy upon them . The gadje scholars also include people within the Roma diaspora such as Egyptian Albanians who have follow distinct customs and neither wish to be lumped under the label gypsy. Adrian Marsh brings up the importance of language in forcing someone into an orientalizing definition, often based on racist pretenses. While he does make a good point as to not stereotype all non-Roma research to be essentializing, he falls into the trap of scholar apologeticism– not focusing on the responsibility to promote more of a Roma voice– and still uses the derogatory term, gypsy. As Dr. Bitu mentioned, changing language and ascribing a new lens, a new framework, helps us understand the structural inequities in society today. Using stereotyping language like “exotic, mystical, and oriental” and employing frameworks like “undeveloped, poor, and backwards” makes it near impossible for the Roma to break out of these self-fulfilling definitions. New terms like intersectionality and structural oppression helps us understand the relative nature of inter-group positionality.
It is responsible for those who conduct and lead the orchestra to take initiative in enhancing the melody of the instruments and voices that are silenced. It is unfair for those in power to expect a sudden resurgence of Self and individual for those who lack the power and positionality to express it. Furthermore, it is impositional and hypocrictical to demand individualism and Western-centered values from a collective of individuals who have all decided to collaborate in representing themselves. Instead, the conductors of the world should adhere to suggestions of scholars like Dr. Matache and Dr. Bitu, including more Romani representation on academic committees and conferences while funding this scholarly research through institutional means. Afterwards, they should seriously, and humbly, consider the social changes the scholars are suggesting as they possess a salience of current Romani issues that does not exist among scholars who are distanced and biased on the issue. Allowing the more subtle melodies to shine will enable the individuals to find themselves in context to the collective they represent, a shared struggle for emancipation amidst an enclosed world.
This change in heart has come from exposure to problems endemic to places outside of the United States. In the process of finding my own song– my own voice — I feel like it always needs to change— that such a finding is in accepting that once it is found, it has fundamentally changed. These experiences make me consider the way the Self can be re-imagined to fit the context of different cultures, even different individuals. I don’t think we can look out for ourselves without looking out for others. Our individuality doesn’t stand alone. We are a part of a greater cacophony of voices– an orchestra not necessarily headed in any particular direction. Perhaps pursuing the separate Self is a luxury only a few can afford, and it is a privilege that I have become too wary to accept.

Expressing Individuality amidst An Oppressed Collective

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