Perception is a tricky thing. Perhaps, to be misunderstood or misperceived is one of the worst feelings. And dislodging preconceived notions of something or someone is, in so many cases, impossible. Prejudice survives, in fact thrives in nearly every corner of the world. It is insidious. It has gradations. How we perceive the world and the people in it has a lot to say about who we are and where we have come from.
When I posted the piece about Diana Mirea, an immigrant from Romania living in Sicily, I thought her representation about herself balanced and in many ways, brilliant. She spoke with some desperation of her situation, but also with sheer guts and determination of knowing herself—knowing who she is in the world and not afraid to be vulnerable in the piece. She is a woman, living in the world, grateful for what she has, but understands she deserves more. She has experiences many prejudices due to the fact that she is a female, Romanian, and immigrant and educated. You are probably wondering why anyone would discriminate against her for being educated. Well, think about that. So we have the first parts: female, immigrant, Romanian. If I just gave you those three words, perhaps you might form a picture in your mind of the stereotype of the “Roma” the gypsies of Romania. Your minds’ eye may very make Diana or someone like here look like this: gold tooth, long skirt, uneducated, rude, aggressive. But Diana Mirea is not a Roma. And she is not a gypsie. And she fits none of the descriptors I’ve listed above.
That did not stop a self-professed “occasional reader” (of my blog) from e-mailing me , somewhat confused about my latest post. His confusion seems to have stemmed from the fact that Diana Mirea simply was not what he was expecting in my immigrant profile. She was too beautiful. Too educated. In addition, she seemed to be getting by without any of the breast-beating angst and poverty he felt befitting of someone who deserved sympathy. Make no mistake: Diana Mirea does not need nor want sympathy from anyone. She wants a job befitting her level of experience and education, which is impressive, to say the least. She wants a chance at having that just like anyone else. My reader was not rude—not at all, and, as I would with my students, used the opportunity to seize upon a “teachable moment.” I needed time before I could respond to his message. I wanted him to understand, but, in the end, that would be his responsibility, not mine.
Shahram Khosravi, an Associate Professor of Social Anthropolgy at Stockholm University, details in his 2010 book Illegal Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, of how those who cross borders are expected to present themselves in ways that fulfill the expectations of what many believe, in Khosravi’s case, a refugee, to be. But this applies to immigrants, migrants and asylum-seekers, too. That often means speaking the language in a broken way, groveling, or of acting with an air of bad luck and willing to bear the responsibility of what is wrong in any given society. And perception rears its head, once again.
And so, I wrote to my “occasional reader.” I began , “ I want to challenge your perceptions. . . “
I waited, not sure how long it would take him to respond. But he did, in short order.
I held my breath and read his words:
“I accept your challenge. I’m listening.”
Understanding often begins this way and these are the kinds of conversations i love to have And I am grateful that I have the opportunity.