We need more spaces free of fear

by Diana

I’m walking out of a creatively arranged, expressive and thoughtful performance and still remain unsatisfied. I feel like there is a dissonance, that something is not working. I collect your opinions about the play, I hear over and over again how relevant the subject matter is, I hear that some of you have dealt with antiziganism for the first time, and yet I can't shake the impression that there is a disconnect between the goals of the ensemble and the reactions of the audience. In my notebook I find countless scraps of sentences and words, next to which I have painted sometimes tiny, sometimes oversized exclamation marks - next to sentences that stick with me, next to moments that resonate with me.

Buried by cheering

"Killing the Germans in Romanistan," I read, thickly underlined, next to one of these exclamation points. I remember how the audience laughed at this sentence, a few cheered. I, too, quietly laugh. Still, something is bothering me. It's not the statement itself that is bothering me, why should it be? It is powerful in its provocativeness, important and has every justification in a play in which the persecution and murder of the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja by the Nazis is touched upon. Rather, I am bothered by myself and the audience, I am bothered by the immediate reaction of us spectators. Was it right? I wonder if we are celebrating the words, or ourselves for our own hegemonic* and system-critical stance. I wonder if it would not have been better to briefly allow a moment of irritation that makes us question why these formidable demands found their place in the play and why they are not only justified but perhaps even necessary? Instead, we tell ourselves that we are not patridiots and bury the sentences with cheering instead of letting them linger on in our minds.


Even in the Forum, there are always moments that resonate with me. Here, the ensemble gives us the opportunity to help shape the performance. First, the moderator wants to know from us which stereotypes we know about Sinti*zze and Rom*nja. "Especially beautiful," we hear a voice call out. "And what are the Sinti and Roma you know like?" - "Solidary, helpful," audience members indicate. I get the feeling that we are lying to each other. Seemingly positive and "nice" prejudices are expressed, the ones that are more hurtful, but present through films like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" remain unspoken - and thus unprocessed. We dare not mention these things, perhaps out of justified fear of reproducing stereotypes, perhaps out of shame at our own racist thought patterns. It seems to me that the question that is troubling me and the audience is rather: How do I get out of this unscathed? – instead of: How can I learn to recognize and overcome my own racial biases?

Accepting the offer to talk

Behind me during the forum work, I hear the legitimate question of whether it is even okay, as a person not affected by discrimination, to decide what might be best for Sinti*zze and Rom*nja and to give them instructions. As if one could explain to a discriminated group how it is best not to be discriminated against anymore. One member of the ensemble responds to this concern by pointing out that the stage act of non-discriminated people does not have to be discriminatory. One could also ask the concrete question of how to support Sinti*zze and Rom*nja in the best case and thus not burden them with the obligation to reduce antiziganistic discrimination on their own. Such a form of support is presented to us by the first small group on stage: here, the people who are not affected by racist discrimination encourage the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja in their efforts for more public visibility. They demonstrate, cheer and applaud, they talk with them, not for them. This small group contribution is important and speaks to the heart of the piece: it is not about putting together a catalog of actions for discriminated people, but about accepting the ensemble's offer to talk in the forum.

Plea for failure

If a dialogue about discrimination is to be sustainable, it must be offered in protected spaces on the one hand and allow for possible failure on the other. Such moments of failure also occurred in the Forum. That we collectively glossed over these very moments is regrettable. For example, an audience member in the forum notes that discriminatory stereotypes were portrayed and thus reproduced in the improvised scene of other small groups. A discussion of whether this was justified in the context of a shared learning process and which representations were hurtful on stage would have cleared up previous insecurities about dealing with stereotypes in theater. That this found no place given the unprotected space in which the play was presented is understandable, but frustrating for the individual learning process.

Evasion or confrontation

In general, the impression remains that dealing with discrimination and one's own prejudices is fraught with fear. Caution in dealing with marginalized groups is central, as non-discriminated people are often unaware of the potential microaggressions their words and actions may constitute. Nevertheless, we must not refrain from attempting to understand, inquire, and thus learn in a sustainable way for fear of moral failure. At times, I felt like I was in a classroom: we evaluate each other based on who uses the most correct terms, who can recite the most rehearsed phrases, and we adulate each other for our own moral infallibility. In doing so, however, we do not enter the grey areas where dangerous insecurities still prevail - dangerous because they can contribute to hurtful behavior in everyday dealings with Sinti*zze and Rom*nja. Now and then, these insecurities could even be tangibly grasped: When audience members formulate speeches in discussions, the moderator repeats the contributions into her microphone so that they can be heard by the entire room. It almost seems as if the speakers then shy away from their own answers, now reformulated. One can feel the insecurities: "Was that right?", "Am I allowed to say that?". The audience then denies, clarifies once again, makes their answers more concrete or less clear. The fear of making a mistake leads to evasion rather than confronting one's own prejudices.

Don't regurgitate phrases

Perhaps the learning process had to fail because the public performance of the play at the TTJ did not provide the necessary protected space needed to talk about one's own experiences of discrimination and internalized racist stereotypes. The fact that the prejudices are spoken directly to the public through the improvised scenes in the forum makes it difficult to have a clarifying discussion and to overcome them. Mistakes cannot be made, recognized and overcome in a small group, but are directly confronted by an audience that boos and judges. Only in safe spaces can guilt-free learning, experience, and inquiry take place, only there can fear of moral failure be minimized, and only there can (residual) insecurities about dealing with discriminated persons be reduced. A classroom can be such a safe space. However, it should not be forgotten that the construction of a safe space for non-discriminated people fissures the safe space of the persons concerned. Nevertheless, I believe that the educational work of RomaTrial is enormously effective - provided that there is also a willingness on the part of the audience to address uncomfortable questions and not just to regurgitate already rehearsed phrases.