“My mother, my grandmother, even my aunts and uncles all gave me, my siblings and my cousins the same speech when we were children: they told us to study hard, to go to school, and to be at least as good as them – and by them, she meant the white Romanian majority.”
In an increasingly diverse world, the concept of identity plays a pivotal role in shaping our perceptions of and interactions with each other. For minority individuals, however, the experience of identity and the process behind building and living it in daily life is often far from straightforward. The pressure to outwardly perform their identities, coupled with misguided notions like that of “colourblindness” or the general refusal to acknowledge differences when it comes to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or disabilities creates a complex dynamic that perpetuates inequality and further marginalizes those who are not part of the majority.
The Performance of Identity
Minorities often navigate a challenging balance between authentic self-expression and societal conformity, a delicate split that often ends up with the two aspects at play entirely contradicting each other. In order to gain recognition and acceptance, individuals typically feel compelled to outwardly enact their identities, especially when interacting with the dominant group, because this performance seems to be expected by both parties to overly simplify social dynamics. This notion of “performing” one’s identity draws parallels from theater, suggesting that individuals consciously or unconsciously present themselves in certain ways that align with their identities. This dynamic reflects the delicate tension between staying true to one’s authentic self and assimilating into the mainstream culture.
This performance of identity also encompasses the dynamics of visibility and invisibility within societal contexts. Some individuals deliberately emphasize certain aspects of their identity to challenge stereotypes and gain visibility, while others may strategically downplay their identity to navigate discrimination and marginalization. In certain circumstances, this performance can even function as a survival strategy, since in environments where belonging to a marginalized group exposes individuals to prejudice and sometimes even to real dangers, adopting a performative approach that minimizes confrontation can serve as a means of self-preservation.
Because of this, the concept of identity performance creates a very unique interplay between individual agency and societal expectations, making it clear how malleable the nature of identity can be. While it can serve as a survival tactic in a world that can be hostile to differences, it unfairly places an unfair burden on those forced to perform certain roles, and one that is not nearly discussed enough. The continuous pressure to showcase their identity as a permanent performance or a certain kind of role-playing can lead to feelings of inauthenticity, isolation, and the erosion of their multifaceted selves.
Marian Zamfir-Enache is a queer Roma, and content and clothing creator who grew up in a small city in Romania in the last years prior to the fall of the communist regime. He comes from a family of musicians, which he described as being one of the two most assimilated, or rather, urbanized, types of Roma families in Romania. Due to being raised in a predominantly white Romanian environment despite his family being Roma, he is one of the many individuals who felt an almost inherent and permanent need to perform a certain role in society: at first, in order to belong amongst the majority of those surrounding him, and later, in order to confidently and very actively strive to defy stereotypes present in the minds of those whose understanding of the Roma community was limited and hurtful. In a longer conversation dedicated to an upcoming article discussing the unique intersectional identity of being queer and Roma in Romania, Marian talked about a few of the moments in his life in which he realised his identity as a minority obligated him to put up a certain performance at all times.
According to him, the way he performed his identity, especially that of a Roma person living predominantly amongst the Romanian majority, was divided into two big phases of his life: firstly from five years old, when he recalls first becoming aware of his identity, to 19, and then from that age onwards.
“When I was five years old, I think I at once became aware of the truth that I am, you know, a human being living in certain conditions. And the very first things I found out when I gained this sort of consciousness were these: first, that my father was not my biological father, and second, that I am Roma, and that is something bad. This is why I believe that no matter how hard someone tries, no matter how empathetic someone is, one just can’t understand how hard and how heartbreaking it is for a child and for, later on, a teenager, to grow up in a country in which Roma people simply do not exist.”
This realization regarding the systemic discrimination and injustice towards Roma people in the country, however, was also accompanied by a hard truth on a smaller scale: that the same identity can be performed a million different ways, and what made Marian’s own performance unique was exactly his family’s closeness to the Romanian majority. As a child, he never learned the Romani language and never lived inside Roma communities – which meant that, from a very young age, he made sure to perform and keep himself in line as someone who fit in: “I always had to be at least as good as them. I may have been the best in class in terms of academic results and grades, but I could never be seen or acknowledged as such, because I was Roma, and I was therefore too different.”
At 19, however, Marian recounted experiencing two traumas that made him realise that the performance of his own identity would no longer be catered towards fitting in with the majority, but rather towards educating it and breaking out of its expectations for him. Marian had two main reasons that made him decide to no longer minimize himself in order to please those around him: on one hand, being rejected by a high school fling solely because of his ethnicity, and, later on, coming across a bigoted article claiming to educate on the Roma community but in reality only further perpetuating hurtful stereotypes. Moving away from home in order to go to university, he had these two opportunities to realise that the least he could do was create some conflict in the heads of those trying to reduce him to a stereotype.
“I used to not tell people I was Roma for the first few days or even weeks of knowing them, I was kind of always prepared to spring it on them. Then, I would hear entire groups of my colleagues having the most disgusting conversations about Roma people, saying incredibly gruesome and violent things, perpetuating stereotypes, and even justifying the marginalisation, discrimination, and violence against the community. And in those cases, I’d just ask them “Alright then, and what about me?”. They used to just go silent and then try to negate my identity, trying to convince me that because I was educated, because I didn’t steal or act like what they expected me to act like, I wasn’t actually Roma.”
Starting from that point in his life, Marian realized that, while performing his identity was a burden he had never asked for, he also had the unique opportunity of performing it in a way that would educate those around him: and those who couldn’t be educated, could at least be humbled through Marian’s pertinent and unapologetic love for his identity.
How do we perform from now on?
The burden of outwardly performing one’s identity and the illusion that this constant effort wouldn’t have long-lasting effects on any individual forced to keep it up for entire lifetimes underscore the complex challenges faced by minority individuals in a diverse world. In a world defined by its diversity, the intricate choreography of identity performance takes centre stage, presenting a complex interplay of authenticity, assimilation, and survival. The experiences shared by individuals like Marian illuminate the nuances of identity performance within the context of minority identities. Through his journey, we witness the subtle artistry required to navigate the delicate balance between embracing one’s true self and conforming to societal expectations.
The very notion of performing identity is both a coping mechanism and a demand imposed by the environment. It requires individuals from minority backgrounds to manoeuvre through an intricate dance, where each step taken symbolizes an act of negotiation between personal authenticity and societal pressures. As Marian’s narrative exemplifies, the performance of identity is a perpetual tightrope walk, often guided by the desperate hope to be seen and acknowledged as equal, yet different.