Learning anti-racism from Romani women: a lesson for our time

Learning anti-racism from Romani women: a lesson for our time

Giovanni Picker

Racism is on the rise. Yet rarely we stop and reflect about its actual characteristics: the key concepts we usually have in mind are quite vague and range from “discrimination” to “enmity toward one group” and “hate speech”. Indeed, unlike other topics such as, for example, inequality and political elections, racism tends to be debated episodically and with a certain haughtiness. This is because of a widespread assumption that racism belongs to individuals, not to society as a whole. Therefore, it is seen as a symptom rather than a real and serious social problem. This sort of individualization of racism often prevents debating poignant questions, for example what exact forms of enmity, discrimination and hate racism actually takes in practice, and how they vary according to context and circumstance.

“Gadjo Dildo”, a theatre performance recently produced in Bucharest, breaks through this individualization of racism. The show addresses the banal intersections of racism and sexism against Romani people in an entertaining, critical and hilarious way. The title of Tony Gatlif’s 1997 movie “Gadjo Dilo” (“crazy stranger” in Romani language) is here overturned by a simple, queer “d”. The 45-minute show is the Theatre Company Giuvlipen’s (“feminism” in Romani language) first work and features three Romani actresses engaging a cabaret-like story telling of their own experiences. The idea is to showcase and overturn some of the most widespread stereotypes about Romani women across the world, like “exotic”; “chic”; “submissive”; “mysterious”; “domestic”, and “Indian” – as exposed in one of the first scenes. Every story is rhythmed by “The Gypsy experience”, the slogan which the drag-queen presenter of the show proudly and loudly heralds. One “Gypsy experience” is especially hilarious: after having a coffee with one of the characters, a “gadjo” man takes her first to an Italian catholic church, to make sure she is “a serious woman”, and then to the sex shop – “What attracts you most of all – I’ll buy it for you!”, he tells her. Her satirical descriptions of different gadgets and toys, however, ends with a refusal – “You, gadjo dildo. I like it natural!”. Hence, “Foreign dildo” is the emblem of (non-Romani) men’s hypersexualized projection of Romani women. Yet along with a harsh critique of the anthropologist in Romani communities (“profiteer”), the state employee dealing with Romani people (“psychopath”) and other typically non-Romani figures, Gadjo dildo also addresses sexism and patriarchy within Romani communities.

“Gadjo dildo” is one of the actions that Romani women’s groups are carrying out across Europe. Often silenced by both their own and non-Romani communities, they keep on inspiring individual and social change, as Giuvilpen actresses explained in this interview. The task is important, given the deep-rootedness of taken-for-granted assumptions about Romani people and women in particular. The myth of the Romani/ ”Gypsy” woman as a sinister person – typically represented as child stealer and fortune teller – has often played a role in denying motherhood and healthcare rights. Since the 19th century, this twofold stigma has been reinforced by hyper-sexualization, like in Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and the 1918 Ernst Lubitsch cinematic representation.

Contemporary signs of how gender, race and sexuality intersect in confining Romani people within a limited representational space include the super-popular British TV series “My big fat Gypsy wedding”. Notwithstanding this timely history, however, today’s debates about racism, and anti-Roma racism in particular, remain largely void of any reference to sexuality and its role in racial exclusions in schools, housing projects, and, even more surprisingly, healthcare. The human body as the epicentre of 19th-century racialist theories, which later became the Holocaust’s rationale, seems to have left the scene in favour of very abstract categories, such as “culture” and the polite “ethnicity”. Are we sure racism can be understood through abstract categories?

Gadjo Dildo squarely brings the body back on stage. It exposes the tragic banality of racialized sexuality and sexualized raciality through the intimate experiences of three women, whose hopes, fears and desires often clash with male (and female) Gadje’s (and Roma’s) gender attitudes.

One of the closest examples of overturning “bodily racism” may be a scene of the Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful (2000), in which an Italian Fascist educator is teaching pupils about how a “perfect Aryan body” looks like. Indeed, parody and irony are part of anti-racist carnivalesque-like expressions ever since. Yet Gadjo Dildo does not fall into Life is Beautiful’s family-centred sentimentalist reconstruction of a tragedy. While intimate tragedy is there, and beautifully performed (for example when the lesbian Romani woman confesses, in deep pain, “I only want to love. And to be loved…” followed by a few seconds of silence), the act is political, not confined to personal or family sorrow. The choral voices of the three Romani women who often speak and sing together, and perform multiple-arm dances standing behind each other, is the choreography of a collective movement. The aesthetic and emotional pleasure is political, because it crosses the boundaries between the family and the city, between the Romani community and the gadje, between sexed men and sexed women, and finally it crosses the colour (or appearance) line. In queering our assumptions, perceptions and ideas, the show critically opens our eyes.

Racism’s current popularity in the media, politics and everyday life should better be addressed as a structural, historical and social issue. And as an intersectional one, comprised of various dimensions, including sexuality, which, as Foucault has brilliantly explained – is at once highly exposed and very rarely discussed. Gadjo dildo shows all this, by offering one hour of pure and intense political pleasure.


Giovanni Picker is a sociologist at the University of Birmingham School of Social Policy. He is the author of Racial Cities: Governance and the Segregation of Romani People in Urban Europe (Routledge, 2017), co-editor of the special issue Durable camps: The state, the urban, the everyday [CITY, 2015] and coordinator for Central and Eastern Europe and Russia of the Summer School on Black Europe.