A Letter, To the Gadje I Used To Be
August 6, 2012
Gadje, listen to me. That means you are an outsider, and you are still an outsider, but not as much of one as you might have believed.
Yes, we are German, we are Swedish, we are Finnish, we are Irish, we are Scottish, we’re probably also Dutch and French. It’s hard to say with families like ours. But there is one thing we are that is different from what we thought we were – we’re Rromani. We’re of the traveling people, outcasts from India who were mistaken for Egyptians. Our family, though, is so divorced from this history that no one knows. You only figure out through circumstantial evidence and a penchant for curiosity in following last names. It’s hard, though, to find out when we became Gadje. It’s hard, though, to find out where our name comes from or how we got it.
It’s hard because of the shame and the fear wrapped up in being Rromani and how it’s penetrated the world around us. One thing is certain, though, we are not a gypsy. That is their insulting term for us, and we don’t use it. We’re rrom. We’re better than that.
I am an outsider. I’m a geek, I’m a nerd, I’ve got an atypical neurology. I’m heavily invested in the people I’m close to (and the more I like you and respect you, the more I love you, the more aware and focused on you I get – I’m creepy, in other words, but I try to be respectful). I don’t like many people. I’m smarter than most people. I’m poor. I’m reasonably well educated. I know how to fight with swords and axes, but have never fired a gun. I’ve lived in gang violence but I’ve never been part of a gang. Socially, I’m white. I grew up in mixed race neighborhoods. Physically, I’m part Rromani.
These are all little things, sometimes big things, that push me out of social groups. My entire life has been swinging from one system of ostracism to another, always finding out what little ways I don’t fit in. I’m ugly, I’m too smart, I’m not smart enough, I can’t run, I can’t play, I can’t speak clearly, I’m creepy, I’m weird, no one likes me. My childhood was built out of being rejected by the white kids at school for being too poor and being rejected by the Hispanic kids for being too white. I occasionally got along with the few African American kids that went to my school, but most of the time I was off by myself reading and avoiding getting bullied. That frame of reference, that understanding of the world, would be true for me until I became an adult. I always knew what the problem was, though, and I always wanted a means of fitting in. I used to tell stories, to create weird and fantastic alternate lives for myself where I was interesting and charismatic and people liked me. Sometimes, they’d believe me. Telling stories and believing them led me through a lot of things, including religion. I could always feel it, I could always bask in the glory of my own stories, so I thought they must be true.
So when I figured out that, somewhere along the lines, my family had been Rrom, I was excited. I was suddenly an interesting teenager. I was a gypsy! That’s so cool! Right?
I don’t tell people anymore, if I can avoid it. Unless I’m in safe space where I’m not going to get mobbed by people asking me things, I don’t talk about it. I’m white, I don’t have to explain that. My family’s white. Our culture is white. We’ve never been anything else. My family, at some point, was Rromani, and I think that’s interesting but not in the same way others do. It’s interesting because there’s a mystery in my family that someday I might figure out. But likely I won’t. It’s interesting because growing up I always thought of the Rrom as being an Other, as being a people that no one interacts with anymore. A caricature that was never, truly, real. It’s interesting because my family’s history has a rich story hidden behind it somewhere that is more than just farms and immigration.
It is not, however, a vast and untapped wealth of wisdom and cultural awareness. It isn’t interesting because I can’t speak any of the language. I know few of the traditions. I can’t even identify much about my family other than it was probably in Finland where the tribe I’m from commingled with the locals. It’s not interesting because now I’m hyper-aware of the use of “gypsy” all over the place, and how there isn’t a suitable avenue to pursue a character created by my ancestors to caricature themselves for protection. It’s not interesting because racism breeds racism in people who aren’t racist. It’s not interesting because I’m not actually Rromani, I’m just related to them.
It’s not interesting because I wish I could answer those questions to myself, then it would be a lot easier to answer other people’s questions.
It’s not interesting because having a family history is, in many ways, a privilege. Coming from families that could be recorded. Even now, my family is largely invisible. It’s not interesting because there is no story to tell.
It’s not interesting because I am not just a story, or a collection of stories, like I always wanted to be.
It’s not interesting because, underneath all of this, I’m a person and not just a Rromani. People can forget that.
People forget that I still have feelings, and I still think of them when we’re apart, and that I remember what they say and do. People forget that I am not just an interesting conversation piece because of my odd heritage, but that I’ve got a personality outside of those quirks.
It is what it is. No more, no less. I wish I could speak the language, knew the traditions, knew the customs, knew my family. But would it make it any different?
No, I’d still be a gadje. I’m related, but not one of the tribe.