Gypsy

The featured image is a portrait of my great-great-grandmother, Mathilde Von Thiele, a Sinti Romani fortune teller and dancer in northern Germany, circa late 1800’s. Isn’t she glamorous in her dancing outfit?

I’m of mixed Romani/Sinti heritage on my maternal grandmother’s side. Sinti are a Romani subgroup or vitsa, similar to how Cherokee are a subgroup or tribe of Native Americans, though Roma are not tribal (anthropologically speaking). My grandmother left WWII Germany (where Roma and Sinti were targets of genocide) at 19 to come to the USA, and she raised her children with few Romani traditions. She wanted them to be safe and assimilated. But then I rolled along, and she was worried that our family would lose the old ways, and she shared as much of her culture as she could, despite the fact that she had grown-up in partial hiding and was forbidden to speak Romanes, the Romani language. Because of my close relationship with my grandmother, my Romani identity feels strong, and I feel proud to carry on our family trades, and to use my voice and education to share my culture with my readers and clients. Below, I have some FAQs for those of you who want to know more about who the Roma are.

FAQs

What does Gypsy mean?

The word “Gypsy” is the racial slur used to describe the Romani people, a diasporic ethnic group originally from India circa the 10th century. It is not an accurate or preferred term. Unfortunately, it’s the word that is most commonly recognizable to most people, and so I often need to use it to clarify my origins.

Who are the Romani people?

The Romani people, or Roma, are a diasporic ethnic group originating in India around the 10th century. Our ancestors’ diaspora likely began with a war which displaced early Roma, who then moved West through the Middle East and into Europe, and then eventually to nearly every continent. Roma were met with hostility early on in Europe, particularly by the church who really wasn’t jazzed that displaced, dark-skinned people with many gods were in need of a place to live. Thus began the persecution of the Roma, and though many Roma today are settled, that persecution is the reason that Roma have historically been nomadic. Unfortunately, that persecution persists, and Roma world-wide are still fighting for basic human rights and representation.

Why is Gypsy offensive?

The racial slur, “Gypsy” is an offensive term because it has been used for many centuries to stereotype Roma, and those stereotypes have been used by outsiders to justify the continued oppression of Roma. Some of these stereotypes include thievery, sexual promiscuity, laziness/wandering, and mystical or threatening magical powers, and are still far more likely to appear in pop culture than an accurate representation of Roma. For instance, the word “gypped,” meaning “to thieve or cheat someone like a Gypsy,” is so ingrained in American English that many people conflate the stereotype with reality so much so that they believe that all Roma are thieves (we aren’t) or that thievery is part of the culture (it isn’t). Simultaneously, many have no idea that “gypped” and “Gypsy” are racial slurs because antigypsism has been so normalized. Due to these stereotypes and systematic oppression, Roma routinely face systemic racism, human rights infringements, hate crimes, apartheid, forced sterilization, employment discrimination, education discrimination, unlawful forced evictions, ghettoization, police brutality, racial profiling, and many other forms of discrimination.

Side note: Check out this TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about stereotyping– it’s excellent!

Why do some Roma call themselves Gypsies, then? And why can’t I?

Some Roma, like many other minority groups, have decided to reclaim the word Gypsy in an empowering way that is meant to communicate that the word that used to harm is is being taken back. America’s most recognizable example of this phenomenon is the reclamation of the N-word in the African American community. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives an excellent explanation of why it isn’t ok to use the n-word if you aren’t black. Essentially, communities who have been disempowered by a racial slur are entitled to use it, but those who can cause further harm by using it (people who do not belong to that ethnic group) should not. Also, some of the older generation of Roma may use the word “Gypsy” to refer to themselves because they grew up in a time where that was the only word used to describe them in the local language. My grandmother is one of those people– it’s the only word she heard in German and in English. Now that she’s heard about reclaiming the word, she uses it with that purpose.

Why can’t I make Gypsy mean whatever I want?

Would you ask this question about any other racial slur? Like, can you seriously imagine saying I want [insert racial slur] now to mean free-spirited and bohemian! So that’s my new Instagram handle, guys. Yeah. Probably not. Also, using the word “Gypsy” to mean free-spirited when real Roma all over the world are oppressed erases our fight for human rights. Using the word to mean “wanderer” whitewashes the fact that Roma were historically nomadic because of persecution. Using the word to mean sexy or seductive reinforces harmful stereotypes about Romani women, and makes light of the facts that Romani women and children are often victims of human trafficking and are more likely to be sexually assaulted. These stereotypes actively hurt us, and using the word in this way contributes to Romani oppression, even if you don’t intend any harm. So stop using the word “Gypsy,” please. There are a lot of other words to express what you want to express about yourself. Search a thesaurus and expand your vocabulary of delightful descriptive words!

I have very distant Romani heritage. Can I call myself a Gypsy?

Maybe. I think it depends on the traditions you were raised with. If it’s distant and Romani culture hasn’t shaped your life, it doesn’t really make sense to claim it as your culture. For instance, several generations back (we’re talking great-great-great grandmas), it’s likely that I have Native American heritage on my father’s side. However, I wasn’t raised with any Native customs, and I have not faced any of the issues that Native people face. It would feel appropriative to me to claim that I’m Native American. I think motives are important too. If you want to call yourself a Gypsy because it sounds romantic or exotic, that would be furthering the problem. Typically when marginalized people reclaim a racial slur, it’s because that slur has been used to hurt and discriminate against them. If that haven’t been your experience, it seems unhelpful to reclaim it. Your distant lineage though is a great opportunity to study Romani culture and support the Romani rights movement, and create awareness around the racial slur “Gypsy.” That’s a much more authentic and helpful way to celebrate your connection to this culture.

I feel like a “Gypsy at heart.” How should I express that?

I get this question a lot, and I am answering it with love. I think it’s awesome that you feel an affinity to the Roma. It’s probably worthwhile to you to check if you’re connected to the actual culture or the stereotypes. A good way to find reliable sources about Romani culture is to read the work of Romani academics, artists, writers, and activists. So if you feel a love for us, we would love it if you expressed that by informing people about who we really are v. the stereotypes; lovingly teaching people why it isn’t ok to use the racial slur “Gypsy”; supporting and highlighting Romani artists, writers, business owners, musicians, and other Roma who you think are doing good things in the world; and supporting Romani-led activist, arts, and community organizations.

Are Roma from Romania?

No. Roma have nothing to do with Rome or Romania– those words just sound coincidentally similar. Roma do happen to live in those places though, as they do all around the world. See “Who are the Romani people?” above for details and links.

Are Roma and Travellers related?

No. Travellers are a distinct ethnic group with origins in Ireland with totally separate culture, though they are ethnically distinct from settled Irish people. People often use the slurs “knacker,” “pikey,” and “Gypsy” (among others) against Travellers, and Travellers today face oppression much like the Roma and struggle against education, employment, and housing discrimination.

Suggested reading

For more about Romani spirituality and the goddess/saint Sara la Kali (among other names), read “The Romani Goddess Sara Kali” by Ronald Lee

Here’s a list of Romani writers for you to read! “Twenty Gypsy Women You Should Be Reading,” The VIDA Review,  by Jessica Reidy

“The Harmful History of ‘Gypsy,'” Bitch Media, by Jessica Reidy is a look at Gypsies in pop culture

If you’re interested in one of the greatest Romani poets and Romani folklore, read “The Magic Word: ‘Gypsy’ Witchcraft, Love, and Breaking Tradition in Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s Poem ‘The Apparition of Choxani’” by Jessica Reidy, The The Poetry Blog

“Why TLC’s My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding Doesn’t Represent the Romani” by Oksana Marafioti, Slate  explains the difference between reality and reality TV

“American Gypsies are a Persecuted Minority That is Beginning to Fight Back” by Nina Strochlic, The Daily Beast is a helpful look at Romani life in the US

“The Erasure of Romani Women” by Alexandra Oprea, Kopachi is by one of my favorite Romani feminist writers

“Intersectionality Backlash: A Romani Feminist’s Response” by Alexandra Oprea, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is a fantastic response to discrimination against Roma within academic feminism

Ethel Brooks on Roma Genocide Remembrance by Ethel Brooks, ERRC addresses the many ways Roma are excluded from Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies, monuments, history books, and reparations

This is one of my favorite anthologies of Romani writing: Roads of the Roma: A PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers, edited by Ian Hancock, Rajko Djuric, and Siobhan Dowd

If you’re interested in Romani cooking, check out “Romani Cuisine and Cultural Persistence” by Jessica Reidy, Paste Magazine

Romani-run arts and activist organizations

E-Romnja: The Association for Protecting Romani Women’s Rights

RomaPop

Romedia Foundation

RomArchive

Guivlipen: Feminist Romani Theatre Company