The “G” Word Isn’t for You: How “Gypsy” Erases Romani Women

By Naomi P., Communications Intern

Being an ethnically ambiguous person comes with a lot of privileges; however, answering the constant questions about my identity is not one them. Like many other exoticized women, I am asked on an almost daily basis: “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” followed up with “No really, where are you from?” after I reply “Brooklyn” to their line of questioning.  

When you tell folks in America that you are Romani, nearly 100 percent of the time they will ask if you mean Romanian. Often times, I will reply “No, Romani, which is gypsy but please don’t call us that because it’s a slur.” I’ve learned that Americans are familiar with the word “gypsy,” using it to describe a vagabond, free-spirited lifestyle, and have a faint idea of us as mythical creatures, but are ignorant to the plight of actual Romani people.

So, who are Romani? More importantly, why do we need to remove the word gypsy from our vocabulary?

Simply put, Romani are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, originating from northwest India, migrating through the Middle East, and some through North Africa, to Europe. There are Romani living around the world, with estimates of 10 and 12 million living in Europe and another million in the US. Europeans imposed the word “gypsy” on Romani when they came to Europe, believing that we originated from Egypt because of our dark features. Romani have a history of persecution in Europe; it is estimated by Roma historians that over 70 to 80 percent of the Romani population was murdered in the Holocaust, a fact that is little known or recognized. Even lesser known, Romani experienced chattel slavery in Romania for over 500 years ending in 1860.

Although it is rarely talked about, the situation for Romani has not improved much; we are still victims of hate crimes, receive inadequate health care and housing, experience segregated education, and die in prison. While policies in the US systematically discriminate in covert ways, many of the policies against Romani in Europe are overt, which is apparent through opinions from political officials. In 2013, Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of the Fidesz Party in Hungary, said, “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the ‘achievements’ of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

These ideas are not reduced to words; according to a study by the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups and Anglia Ruskin University, 9 out of 10 Roma children have suffered racial abuse in the UK. In Hungary, 60 percent of Romani live in secluded rural areas, segregated neighborhoods, and settlements. The fact that 90 percent of Romani in Europe live below the poverty line is an even more extreme illustration of current living conditions for Romani.

We cannot have a conversation about the use of “gypsy” without mentioning what it specifically means to be Romani and a woman facing racism, classism and sexism, excluded from traditional feminist and Romani activist movements. Romani women experience particularly disparate treatment in the areas of education, reproductive health care, and in the labor market. Only 1.6 percent of Romani women attend college in Romania, while 90 percent of Romani women are unemployed in Hungary. Romani women in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were victims of forced sterilization, a practice that ended less than 10 years ago. Romani infant mortality remains an issue; it is double the national average in the Czech Republic. These policies that impact actual lives of Romani women are upheld by cultural attitudes, some of which people don’t notice they are perpetuating.

“Her complexion was dark … She danced, whirled, turned around … Her large, black eyes flashed lightning … With her smooth bodice of gold, her colorful dress that swelled with the rapidity of her motions, with her bare shoulders, her finely turned legs that her skirt now and then revealed, her black hair, her flaming eyes, she was a supernatural creature…’In truth,’ thought Gringoire, ‘she is a magical creature, a nymph, a goddess, a bacchanae of Mount Menelaeus!’ At that moment one of the magical creature’s tresses came loose, and a piece of yellow brass that had been fastened to it fell to the ground. ‘But no,’ he said, ‘she is a gypsy!’ The illusion was shattered.”—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The media offers two stereotypes of Romani women: the beggar, who is dirty and exploiting social welfare, and a hypersexualized magical being who threatens the patriarchy. So, while the use of the word “gypsy” seems innocent, it is dangerous to Romani women. It conjures up a romanticized image of poverty and sexualization, which doesn’t acknowledge that there is nothing romantic about being a victim of institutionalized racism. There is nothing romantic about the link between perceived uncontrollable sexuality and forced sterilization. There is nothing romantic about being a victim of domestic violence but afraid to speak out because law enforcement won’t believe you or it will further oppress your community. There is nothing romantic about lacking political power and representation, and being left out of both anti-racist and feminist politics.

However, that doesn’t stop the rampant consumerism and pop culture references associated with “gypsy.” Just to name a few examples: The Gypsy Shrine, Gypsy Warrior, Shakira’s song “Gypsy,” Fleetwood Mac’s song “Gypsy,” Cher’s song “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” and the latest, Netflix’s original series Gypsy. There are over 2,000 “gypsy” costumes on Amazon and over 250,000 “gypsy” items for sale on Etsy. When folks unknowingly or knowingly profit off of the word “gypsy,” claim they have a “gypsy soul,” or use “gypsy aesthetic” for a day at Coachella, they are reinforcing racist stereotypes of Romani women and dehumanizing us. People in the US must recognize the link between the language we use and how cultural depictions inform public policy for marginalized groups. Beyond language and the word gypsy, this is about how gypsies are struggling for liberation, and how Romani women suffer while gadje (non-Romani) profit off of our likeness. So before you put on that coin skirt and scarf, or proclaim your “free-spirited gypsy-ness,” remember that we already exist and will be always be gypsies and Romani.

7 responses to “The “G” Word Isn’t for You: How “Gypsy” Erases Romani Women

  1. Great piece! Very well written and informative. I’m going to be keeping this in my “sharing library” to help educate folks.

  2. I do not start by telling people that I am Jewish, and Grew up in Brooklyn.
    People can pretty will figure it out, I would much rather talk about whatever reason we are having a conversation.
    People insist on asking the question, I do not get upset, I do not care what words they use, And it doesn’t matter what those words had in the old country, My parents or my grandparents Came to America, With great difficulty, Have better lives. We can pray however we want to, And we like foods the way that we like to make them.
    And they took whatever jobs they were able to get, and Told the children to get as much of an education as possible. I want your life to be better, And that is the lessons that I want to pass along to your children.
    If someone asks them about one of those words, They will be able to say they use the worriers.

  3. Thank you fo r this article. I am writing a book with a story about a gypsy in it and found little material at libraries to help me find a true depiction. I will hold on to this for reference.

  4. Thank you for writing about this! So few Americans have any idea whatsoever of the Romani plight despite being one of the most discriminated groups.

  5. Your absolutely correct. Keep up the good work. Must start somewhere and will take a few generations to instill these values but well worth it.

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