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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 “One law in New Jersey, enacted in 1917 and repealed in 1998, allowed Gypsies to be regulated more harshly than other groups by allowing local governments to craft laws and ordinances that specified where Gypsies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.



( 29 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)
Nov. 4th, 2016 11:27 am (UTC)
I was already on my way out by then -- the show just wasn't very good, IMO -- but that was definitely the kicker.
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)
Nov. 3rd, 2016 08:38 pm (UTC)
For clarity, what is the conclusion you're hoping people will draw from your comment?
Nov. 4th, 2016 10:57 pm (UTC)
as far as I can tell, they really want to convince us that it's all true because of that one time 70 people of one race (out of how many hundred thousands in USA) were so rude to them.
Nov. 4th, 2016 12:51 am (UTC)
This is clearly rude behaviour but if they hadn't been Romani would you be holding it up as an example of how 'this entire race is bad/see the racist stereotypes are true' ?

ETA: which is what your comment makes it look like you are doing.

Edited at 2016-11-04 12:52 am (UTC)
Nov. 4th, 2016 07:04 am (UTC)
the were others in the ICU waiting room, the family of a young black man from a gang related shooting, several medical emergencies (stroke, heart attack), a young white felon who had been shot by police while being taken into custody, and our group, which was mostly law enforcement, since my Dad was riding funeral escort at the time of his accident. I know our group wasnt popular with some of the folks waiting there due to the number of uniforms from various agencies, but, out of all the different people there in the ICU waiting room over the days we spent wondering if my Dad would live or not, they were the rudest and most inconsiderate people I came into contact with at that hospital and didnt abide by the ICU rules.
Nov. 4th, 2016 10:50 am (UTC)
Which still has nothing to do with their race or the fact that people have and do treat them horribly (per Jim's *entire post*) so I don't quite see your point?

They were rude because they were rude, trying to make it about their race just means your racism is showing.

Nov. 4th, 2016 08:50 pm (UTC)
after 4 days of watching the family (and it was the entire family, so about 70 people over 5 generations) I did form an opnion,its my opinion and its not positive. Would I actively pursue discrimination against them? No. Would I say they couldnt attend schools or buy property? No. Would I vote for a measure that says that particular group cant be here? No. Would I leave a restaurant or a business because they were there or owned it? No. Think that they can only hold certain jobs or professions? No, this is America, and a person can strive for any goal.

Nov. 4th, 2016 10:55 pm (UTC)
Just because you haven't reached Trump levels of overt racism doesn't mean your opinion is not racist.

You still used this post about racism against an entire persecuted people to bring up the local prejudice against them in your area and that one time a minuscule percentage of said people behaved badly in your vicinity.

It doesn't matter if you personally would not "actively discriminate", you still have racist views towards the people.
Nov. 5th, 2016 10:13 am (UTC)
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.
Nov. 5th, 2016 10:19 am (UTC)
I don't know what kind of argument that's supposed to be but whatever, I'm done with your racist self
Nov. 5th, 2016 08:01 pm (UTC)
So a single family is supposed to be emblematic of the entire people?
Nov. 4th, 2016 06:59 pm (UTC)
There was this white woman, obviously pregnant, who came up and asked me for food because of her baby, and when I offered to buy her a meal on the spot, said quite rudely that she just wanted me money.

This one time a whole truck full of white men stopped at a light near me while I was walking alone and shouted slurs at me until the light turned green.

I sat on the bus in front of two white men, and listened to them bragging to each other about how much money they'd gotten begging at intersections with a sob story on their cardboard signs.

A white woman yelled horrible things at me and threatened to do violence at me while I was walking down the sidewalk.

I keep turning on the news and seeing reports of white men who are rapists, and white men who are committing murders. Sometimes I hear about white people being killed, and it's funny how often it's also white people doing it.

I know about this white family with all sorts of children who just keep having more, and they were investigated for sexual child abuse, too.

There's a large white presence in Austin, and when I see people making threatening statements about their weapons, it's usually crowds of white people. They get together in these big groups and intimidate other people. It's part of their culture. And of course in the exact same city, where white people have all this free time to get together in big groups, and enough money to buy lots of guns, you keep seeing them begging at intersections with signs about how they're disabled, or veterans, and totally can't afford anything.

A white man pressed up against me on the bus and whispered sexual comments at me while leering. I reported it to the people in charge, but they never did anything about him, or even got back to me about it. And most of the administrators of that bus company are white, too.

I just heard about this one white man who works in a place I used to attend school who's been accused of being a child molester. I always got a creepy vibe when I walked past him.

Whenever I pass one of those shops that caters to people who do drugs--you know the type I mean--I see white people going in and out of them.

I had this one friend, once, who was white. I thought she was a really nice person. One of the good ones. But it turns out she was going behind my back, lying, and she was lying to other people too to get free gifts from them, and always talking about how she needed more money, even though I know she and her husband had a lot of money. And they kept complaining about government regulations and wondering if they could get around them, too. He was white too, of course. Those sorts of people mostly stick with their own.

I mean, I'm not saying all white people are like that. Some of them assimilate and do well for themselves. But when you see a lot of white people together, knowing what white culture is like, and how they keep sticking together in these big groups... Well, it makes you think.
Nov. 4th, 2016 09:06 pm (UTC)
when I was in Hawaii, I did a demographic study for a Sociology class. I chose "who parks in the handicapped spots at the Post Office without a handicap tag" It was a pretty cut and dried study, the worst offenders were white blonde women driving cars with officer military stickers on their cars. The second highest group was older asian men without military stickers on their cars. I even had a subset for people who pulled into the spot and then saw the signs and then moved. That was just about everyone else. My study was over several days at different times at the same Post Office. I had to add a block with people who came up to me and asked "why are you sitting there with a clipboard?" I had asked permission from the Post Office to do the study, and their only caveat was to let them know how I did in class.
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.
Nov. 5th, 2016 08:03 pm (UTC)
Apparently there's some argument over whether or not there's an actual etymological connection or if it just unfortunately sounds similar... but whatever. People think it's related to "gypsy", it certainly sounds like it might be, and it's just as easy to say "cheated" or "scammed".
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.
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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