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.

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 “One law in New Jersey, enacted in 1917 and repealed in 1998, allowed Gypsies to be regulated more harshly than other groups by allowing local governments to craft laws and ordinances that specified where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