“Gypsies” and Other Fantasy Beings

“…Romanies turn up with some frequency — never as charac­ters who happen incidentally also to be Gypsies, but because they are Gypsies, and because they serve a specific purpose. This purpose has, broadly speaking, three manifestations: the Gypsy as liar and thief either of property or (especially) of non-Romani children; the Gypsy as witch or caster of spells; and the Gypsy as romantic figure.”Ian Hancock


The SF/F genre has a particular fascination with “Gypsies.” Maybe it’s the romanticized freedom of the road, the independence of a people who reject the soul-shriveling laws of the civilized world to live however and wherever they choose. Maybe it’s the mysticism, the magic of old Romani women and their curses. Maybe it’s the sex appeal of eager young lasses and virile men. Or maybe it’s just the fashion sense, because scarves and sparklies are cool!

I’m sure most of us recognize that by now, this has become a pretty common trope, even a cliche, in the genre. But hey, they’re fun. They’re part of the history of our genre. And stories never hurt anyone! “Gypsies” are just another fantasy race, like elves and mermaids and dwarves, right? It’s not like we’re talking about real people with real cultures and histories. [/Sarcasm]

  • “The 1997 figure reported by the late Dr Sybil Milton, then senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute in Washington put the number of Romani lives lost by 1945 at ‘between a half and one and a half million.'” (Source)

Have you ever wondered where the term “gypped” came from? Let me put it this way. Saying you got gypped is right up there with saying you got “jewed,” based on the bigoted presumption that those people are all swindlers and cheats and thieves. But it’s not like those stereotypes cause any real harm or damage today, right?

  • “In the Czech Republic, 79% of respondents to a 2003-04 survey said they wouldn’t want Roma as neighbors.” (Source)
  • “[P]olice in Liguria gave out preprinted complaint templates for theft, which included a tickbox labelled ‘gypsies’ i.e. offering theft victims the chance to report Roma as the culprits. No other ethnicity was included on the form.” (Source)
  • 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.” (Source)
  • Italy’s highest appeals court overthrew the conviction of six people for racially discriminatory propaganda, saying that their aversion to the Roma people, “was not determined by the Gypsy nature of the people discriminated against, but by the fact that all the Gypsies were thieves.” (Emphasis added; Source)

As long as we’re talking, how about a few more examples of prejudice and discrimination?
One of many "Sexy Gypsy" Halloween costumes.

  • “The European Court of Human Rights has affirmed that school segregation of Romani children (in schools for children with disabilities and in separate schools or classes in mainstream schools) constitutes illegal discrimination in judgments against the Czech Republic (2007), Greece (2008) and Croatia (2010). Despite these rulings, educational segregation of Romani children is systemic in many European countries.” (Source)
  • “The [Czech] government expressed its regret to Roma women who were sterilized without their consent but admitted the practice may still be taking place.” (Emphasis added; Source)
  • “[T]he Roma populations face considerable obstacles to the enjoyment of basic rights, notably in the fields of access to health care, housing, education and employment and are often disproportionately affected by poverty. Discrimination and racism, also resulting in violence, remain serious problems throughout the continent, and present a major impediment to the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Source)
  • Police recently removed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl from the Roma family she was with. Because everyone knows those gypsies are child-stealers, right? “DNA tests have proved that a seven-year-old girl taken from a Roma family in Dublin on Monday is their daughter.” (Source)

Well, at least this kind of racism isn’t a problem here in the United States, right?

I’m not saying science fiction and fantasy is full of people who are actively trying to be racist, or deliberately working to continue the kind of hatred and violence and bigotry described above. I suspect a lot of us, especially in the U.S., barely give it a second thought.

We don’t even realize the term “gypsy” is offensive and/or distasteful to many, basically a racial slur.

Overt, deliberate, blatant racism tends to be easier to identify and denounce. I doubt most authors are deliberately trying to base their writing on racist stereotypes, any more than I think costume companies said, “Hey, the world doesn’t have enough racism or sexism yet, so let’s do another line of ‘Sexy Gypsy’ costumes!”

That doesn’t change the fact that we’re buying into the racism. As authors, we’re perpetuating it. We’re reinforcing the stereotypes and teaching our audience that this is what the Roma people are — that they’re magical, hypersexual thieves.

I remarked this past weekend that I love my SF/F geeks, but we’ve got some issues. Our complicitness in ignoring or erasing real people and replacing them with cliche and stereotype is one of them.

We need to do better.