The Roma from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’: meaning is in the eye of the beholder  

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We all see the world through thick distorted lenses. By the time we grow up, we acquire tunnel vision, limited by the many personal knocks we have suffered; by the fears of things that happened or we think may happen; but limited most of all by the prejudices that surround us like a deep fog, by ancient beliefs we unthinkingly inherit from family, teachers, the media and society at large.

Meanwhile, reality moves on, changes and evolves. Even individuals we thought we knew grow and transform and make new lives for themselves. But groups of people, nations and peoples as well enter new spaces, physical and imaginary, and within a generation, they may be nothing like their ancestors.

And still, the weight of unexamined and unchallenged pre-conceptions robs us of the miracle of this transformation – of ourselves and others. We look but we cannot see. Family, group and national history bears down on us without our knowing it, and forces us to believe what is no longer true, or perhaps never was.

Tomorrow, an exhibition I am curating opens at the Romanian Cultural Centre. The Roma – from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’  is an invitation to make a conscious effort of moving beyond, moving out, moving towards those people from whom we have been separated by prejudice, fear and passivity.

The exhibition is but a small step towards the Roma people, who for centuries have been stolen from us by the distortions of slavery, racial profiling, state-sponsored xenophobia, economic inequality and yes, romantic notions of ‘a different race’. And for all that time, in reality – they were just people like us, thoroughly ordinary and as different from each other as we are from our neighbours.

The organisers, Roma and non-Roma activists, academics and artist want to challenge you, the visitor, to look again at those we used to call a number of pejorative names and today, we call respectfully ‘Roma’ (meaning person). As you move through the displays, try to keep in mind a phrase from that great academic and film maker, Trinh T Minha, ‘I see life looking at me’. Allow yourself to take three different viewpoints:

As you walk up the stairs, take a different look at the corrosive media messages that surround you like a thick coat. Do it through the eyes of Roma actor and activist: what do you see? do you see differently?

As you walk into the dark room, take a different look at your own history. Look squarely at slavery and the holocaust through the eyes of those caught up in those horrors: what do you notice? what do you learn?

Finally, as you walk into the room of light, take a fresh look at ordinary Roma lives, at people living, loving, working, celebrating, immigrating, raising children, making art, organising, sharing history. Try to look through ordinary Roma eyes: what do you feel? what if these people became your friends? or family?

Then take a moment to reflect and tell us what thoughts or questions your visit has engendered. Ask again that ancient question: who is going to steal our children? Perhaps it’s no other than ourselves, by failing to make the effort to go find out what racism has done to our minds and by failing to keep up with them, our children, whose reality is ever-changing.

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