11 December 2014
I’m reading Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Peace. He talks about joining in the march to Montgomery in sixty-five. A white priest, he joined the march in solidarity with the black community. He writes how he felt himself become black as he walked in the protest. As he took on the agony, hopes, fears and hateful stares, he took on too black identity. Nouwen was not black and when he left the march he would return to his whiteness and white life, but in the march he felt his identity change. Can you really claim that? I asked his written person as I read him. Can you really claim to acquire the identity of the oppressed? Is that arrogance?
I then walked in a march for Eric Garner, and began to understand. By joining a collective, a collective that is black, you deny, or partially deny, or displace your individual identity to the one of the body.
In Montenegro this summer we did not join a collective cause. We did not take to the streets in protest. But we did take to the streets, and took to them with the Roma, as we walked to the river to swim. We walked alongside the marginalized, and in so doing took on their identity. We would always stand out among (and physically above) the Roma. Walking through Konik, the Roma and Ashkali ghetto of the capital, we were guaranteed to take stares. Even after assimilating with the euro fifty haircut, the gifted t-shirt (beautifully combining a backwards American flag and a British wordmark), and weeks sunned skin, we still obviously did not belong.
Yet on that daily walk to the river we were part of them. When cars honked, they honked at us all, when people yelled they yelled at us all. People did not know why we joined, cab drivers didn’t know why we went each day to Azil za Pse, the house of dogs, but they saw that we did. Unlike our Roma friends we could choose our identity. We could choose whether or not to don the oppressed’s identity. But we could take it on, and did.
But then there was the time at the river in the Turkish part of town. The time when the man yelled at us for being on his property, for being dirty, for being thieves. The time he threatened to kill us if we ever returned. But it wasn’t us, it was them. He yelled at the Roma we were with for being on his property, for being dirty, for being thieves. We, the Americans, were fine and he invited us to stay and come back. We were not Roma. We were American. We could not take on their identity. We would always be privileged.
And yet we could take on their identity. We could feel rage at the man’s racism. We could experience the injustice. We could feel their ostracism. Unlike our Roma friends we could feel all of this without inevitability. We were not forced to experience it. But we could choose to.
Our identity as Roma was not external. It was invisible to the man at the river except to the extent that our association confused him. To take on identity is not to become like but to experience as. It is to suffer another’s suffering, not because you must but because it is true.
Being white, being American, always allowed us an exit, and this dilutes the rage, the injustice, the ostracism we experience. But perhaps it also affords us hope that might be nonsensical to those who cannot shed their identity, to those who receive rather than pick up their identity. That hope, I hope, is encouraging.
Read through my reflections on my summer in Montenegro at bennotkin.com/montenegro.