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Racism and the Romani People

In some respects, this is a retread of a blog post I did on Halloween three years ago, about the way we as Americans treat “Gypsies” as imaginary fantasy beings, like elves and wizards. But I keep running up against it. Last week it was someone doing their “Gypsy” accent and talking about their costume. The next day, one of the blogs I follow used an image of an old “Gypsy” fortune telling machine as part of a post about the current political situation.

When I pointed out to one of these individuals that “Gypsy” was a racial slur*, they said they knew, but used it because people wouldn’t understand, otherwise.

Sokka What gif

Look, the treatment of the Romani people throughout history has been horrific, and continues to be to this day. We’re talking about a group who have been persecuted, enslaved, and murdered for centuries. Here are a handful of the many examples:

  • 1749: The “Great Roundup” in Spain. During the reign of Ferdinand VI in Spain, thousands of Romani were “deported, interned, subjected to forced labour, punished, hurt and killed.”
  • 19th-20th Century: The Church of Norway and the Roma of Norway.
    • “End of 19th century: Legal to shoot Roma people, priests that gave baptism, confirmation, wedding or funeral to Roma people were in risk of losing their job.”
    • “Most of 20th century: Children were taken from their parents (1500 children out of a population of less than 10.000 were either brought up at other people’s homes or in institutions) laws were enacted to make it impossible for Roma to continue their traditional living and Roma were subject to forced sterilization, often without their knowledge.”
  • 20th Century: Hounded in Europe, Roma in the U.S. Keep a Low Profile. “One law in New Jersey, enacted in 1917 and repealed in 1998, allowed Gypsies to be regulated more harshly than other groups by allowing local governments to craft laws and ordinances that specified where Gypsies could rent property, where they could entertain and what goods they could sell.”
  • World War II: The Roma Genocide. The Roma were among the first victims of Hitler and his Nazis. “[A]t least 500.000 Roma were victims of the genocide, amounting to perhaps as much as 70-80% of the total Roma population in Europe at the time.”
  • 1979: Sterilised Roma accuse Czechs. Beginning in 1979, Czech doctors sterilized Roma women against their wills. This policy officially ended in 1990, but human rights groups say the practice continued through at least 2003.
  • 2008: This persecution of Gypsies is now the shame of Europe. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni responded to a wave of violence against the Roma people with the quote, “That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies.”
  • 2012: The situation of Roma in 11 EU Member States. “[O]ne in three is unemployed, 20% are not covered by health insurance, and 90% are living below the poverty line. Many face prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion in their daily lives. They are marginalised and mostly live in extremely poor socio-economic conditions.”
  • 2016: NYCC ’16: Anti-Romani Statements Made at X-Men LGBTQ Panel. American author Peter David defended the portrayal of Romani people as thieves, relaying a story about how Roma parents break their children’s legs to make them more effective beggars. David refused to discuss the issue further, and “told the questioner to go away.” (David later apologized, saying he was mortified and ashamed of himself.)

There’s a lot more information out there about the Roma and the discrimination they continued to face. There are an estimated one million Roma living in the U.S. today, but many prefer to keep a low profile. From the Hounded in Europe article linked above, “‘Traditionally, nothing good has come from being identified Roma because the prejudice is so high,’ says Robert Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center.”

I grew up ignorant. I had no clue “Gypsies” were a real thing. I thought nothing of the person in my D&D group who played as, and later dressed up as, a “Gypsy” character. Eventually, a friend of Romani descent helped me start to open my eyes.

In the U.S., racism against the Roma is similar in some ways to racism against Native Americans. We erase them, replacing real, living people with stereotypes and costumes and caricatures. The idea of a white person dressing in black face and putting on a minstrel show would horrify to most of us today, but people think nothing of dressing up in their homemade “Gypsy costume” and putting on their best fortune-teller act for Halloween or the local Renaissance Festival.

Is that conscious, deliberate hatred or intolerance? Not always. But it’s still racism. It’s still hurtful and damaging to a marginalized group that’s been targeted for hatred and extermination for centuries.

Harm done in ignorance is still harm.

*The last time I talked about this, a commenter challenged whether “Gypsy” (or the derived word “gypped,” which is essentially equivalent to saying “Jewed”) was really a racial slur, or if I as a white person not of Roma descent was just White-Knighting and making a big deal over nothing. Here are a few links and references for that conversation.

  • Always Romani, But Never a Gypsy. “It is an ethnic slur word for my people. Originally it alleged incorrectly that we came from Egypt, instead of India, but, over the centuries, it has come to imply we are thieves.”
  • The Problem with the Word “Gypsy”. “There are Romanies (like myself) who take no offense to the word, and in fact, have embraced it and there are others who abhor the word, likening it to the word ‘nigger’ when describing an African American or ‘spic’ and ‘wetback’ to refer to a person of Mexican heritage.”
  • I’m sorry, but no you cannot & never will you be. “This little word, ‘gypsy’, makes my skin crawl. It causes aches in my heart and beats at my soul. I die a little inside everytime I must say or write the word. ‘Gypsy’ is a racial slur. It is tantamount to the ‘N’ word. Like the ‘N’ word, ‘gypsy’ was created by people who believed we were sub-human and enslaved us.”

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 3rd, 2016 04:12 pm (UTC)
I was the president of the home owner's association of my condo complex many years ago. It was decided to repaint the complex. A large number of residents were people who fled the Serbo-Croatia conflict, and there was this guy named Dushon who was an elder of their church and respected as an old man of the community.

One evening after an HOA meeting where we discussed colors, he came up to me and shook a finger in front of my face and intoned "No gypsy colors!" Didn't bother explaining exactly what "gypsy colors" were, but apparently the final selection was satisfactory.
Nov. 3rd, 2016 05:43 pm (UTC)
2014: "There's nothing blacker than gypsy magic" is an actual line of dialogue spoken by the hero on NBC's Constantine.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - nick_kaufmann - Nov. 4th, 2016 11:27 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 3rd, 2016 07:21 pm (UTC)
We have a large Romani presence in Portland, and here they have a reputation for selling suspect cars, and in fact, Oregon passed a law that if you sell more than x cars a year, you must have a license as a car dealership. So they buy and sell cars without changing titles while they own them.

When my Dad had his accident, there was a Patriarch of a local Roma family in ICU at the same time, he had been hit over the head with a tire iron (and they never found who did it) and had over 70K in cash on him at the time (which was confiscated by the police). Things were so intense in the ICU area that they had to be moved out of the waiting area (screaming arguments and fights) into a different area with police and hospital security at all times. Just about every family member was there at one time or another, they treated the ICU waiting area as theirs alone, and if the phone rang in the waiting room, if it wasnt for them, they hung it up without asking anyone else there if it was for them. It was not a good experience at the time. They even helped themselves to the food basket stuff we were given (by our friends) without asking...
Nov. 3rd, 2016 07:42 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - jimhines - Nov. 3rd, 2016 08:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Nov. 3rd, 2016 10:07 pm (UTC)
At Whatever a few years ago there was a Big Idea post about a Liaden novel that had been elevator-pitched as "a steampunk Liaden story, with space gypsies": see http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/02/05/the-big-idea-sharon-lee-and-steve-miller/
Nov. 4th, 2016 12:07 am (UTC)

Looks like a few people did try to point out the problems in the comments, but...yeah.
Nov. 4th, 2016 12:27 am (UTC)
That was a very helpful and informative post Jim. Thanks very much for sharing, I really appreciate it.

It's horrible and heartbreaking how Romani people are still hated and feared. It's absolutely frightening they still face so much exclusion and poverty due to discrimination and ignorance. :(
Nov. 4th, 2016 02:06 am (UTC)
I think I was always somewhat aware that "gypsies" referred to actual people. Not sure if I was always aware it referred to people who were still around, though. (I'd guess no, since most references I saw to them were in things with a historical setting.)

It did take me a long time to learn that I should be using the terms Romani and Roma. It took me less time to learn that "gypped" was a slur, but I might have figured it out sooner if I hadn't thought it was spelled "jipped."
Nov. 5th, 2016 01:05 pm (UTC)
I, too, thought it was spelled "jipped." I was in my 20's before I learned of the other spelling.

I always knew that Gypsies (gitanos*) were real, but I thought the fortune-teller depictions were just a TV thing for entertainment, not real-life. Just as there are cats in real life and cats in cartoons -- not the same thing at all -- so I though about people on TV. Flying nuns, cowboys who kill black-hat bad guys every week, astronauts with live-in genies, gypsy fortune-tellers with ominous voices: not real life.

* Once in a while, when I was a kid (in South America), I'd see two or three tall, slim women wearing colorful gitano clothing walk through my neighborhood, and somewhere (probably because of flamenco dancers) I got the idea that gitanos were from Spain , therefore these women must be too. I was used to people wearing different clothes: different school uniforms; different regional clothing; and everyone knew about the tall gringo downtown who walked around in a large Russian fur hat. *That* really stood out.
(no subject) - conuly - Nov. 5th, 2016 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 4th, 2016 02:28 pm (UTC)
It does have the problematic "G word" in the title, but I found this book to be very accessible to learn about Romani history and culture:

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca
Nov. 5th, 2016 01:46 am (UTC)

Likewise, there's a lovely tune that the British folk-rock group Oysterband wrote, inspired by the book. In this concert performance video, the lead singer uses both the G word and Romani in explaining what prompted them to write the song:

Bury Me Standing by the Oysterband (Youtube link)

Nov. 5th, 2016 11:35 am (UTC)
Having read your post I will never use the term 'Gypsy' in the USA. Thank you.

I live in Scotland, UK and terminology is a little bit different over here. As far as I'm aware the preferred term for Irish and UK travellers is Gypsy/Traveller. Roma are still Roma. For the past five years I've worked on an annual art exhibition with many different charities. One of these is Mecopp who run a Gypsy/Traveller project. They work with rather than for the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community and do a lot of work to reduce stigma and abuse that Gypsy/Travellers face on a daily basis. At this year's exhibition they made a Traditional Bow Camp in one of the rooms and had people's stories playing in the tent.

That said it's definitely not all sweetness and light in the UK. One of the most common terms of abuse is the word "Pikey." It still gets used a lot. And Channel 4 has a programme called "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" which just loves to bring out all the negative stereotypes. Two years ago as part of out exhibition one of the youngsters did a photography project on the negative impact that show and others have on her life.

I really hope that makes sense. I'm fighting a cold, a chest infection and an asthma flare up and have barely eaten or slept in the past few days. I'm definitely not at my best.
Nov. 5th, 2016 03:23 pm (UTC)

Any thoughts about Romani vs. Roma? This is the first time I've seen Romani.
Nov. 5th, 2016 08:36 pm (UTC)
You've probably seen the older spelling, Romany. Wikipedia says Roma is a subgroup.
Nov. 7th, 2016 01:16 am (UTC)
I worked at a movie theater in the summers in my hometown in Idaho. We had a group of Romani (not what my co-workers called them) who would come by for about a week each summer. Without fail, when they would enter the movie theater each member of the family (mostly girls aged around 15-20) would lie about their age to try to get the under-13 discount (to R-rated movies), and would try a variety of other games to try to get free or discounted popcorn, candy, or soda.

This was my sole experience with anyone associated with that cultural/racial group. I long ago cleaned up my language from using the racial slurs, but were I to encounter another group of them, based on my experience and until I see otherwise, I'll still keep my eye on my belongings.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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