Perceptions of Otherness

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me. ( Martin Niemoller, They Thought They Were Free, 1955)
 
Apathy, repulsion, resentment. These are the products of othering that I have seen the most of in discourses of Roma people. I get it though. I get that we are all products of structural inequality. I get that in order to have a majority, you must have a minority. I even get that in a vicious world run by white supremacists, the further you alienate yourself from the other, the better the conditions for yourself.
So there I am, powering through my last week in Bucharest, three days away from heading out, still extremely wary of conversations surrounding race in Romania. But these Uber drivers never fail to amuse. How ironic that it is in our last week of the term when we begin to truly delve into Roma issues, that I experience first hand the Romanian narrative surrounding Roma. Thank you middle-aged male Uber drivers for really bringing it home, for all the opinions that left me with conflicting thoughts and anger.
Two interactions were enough to send me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. While the first Uber driver asked us why we were going to such a dangerous place filled with “gypsies”, the other said that it upset him to be confused with Roma because the name was so close to Romanian. He blamed this similarity on why the rest of Europe was weary of Romanians. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the very topic that got me here – perceptions of otherness. Before my class with Mihaela in the winter, I had never really taken a class that focused so heavily on the stranger. But coming to terms with how we perceive others foreignness as strange, worrisome, and even unacceptable has given me a lot to think about. For example, why is it that we are afraid of what we don’t understand? Why do we allow systems to tell us what we are and aren’t and why is it so easy to pick the lesser oppression than to fight the hand that dealt us said oppression?
When I was studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, I remember too well the outrage I felt at how easy it seemed for the apartheid government to create divisions between Xhosa and Coloured people. The idea was that someone with an “in-between” identity would always choose the partial privilege, no matter how partial it was, as long as they weren’t completely the “other”. This reminded me a lot of the discourses surrounding colorism. Silence is truly an act of violence.
Leaving Romania today, I am wondering what there is to do. This isn’t something that is particular to Romania. Just as this Uber driver wished to not be associated with Roma, so do others around the world scramble to avoid being perceived as an other. Because otherness is “bad”. Because if you even think about helping the other, then you better be ready to face criticism and even persecution. What happened to all the ANC allies that stood in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement? They too were murdered. What happens to those who speak out against Roma oppression but who aren’t Roma? They are ostracized. I’ve been thinking lately that the bystander effect is human nature, it is a condition of fear of the other or being othered. But this is how fascists rise, this is how racism persists. This is how xenophobia thrives, and this is how the systems in place, keep their place. Lately, I’ve been feeling like a puppet.

Perceptions of Otherness

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