The Truth About 'Gypsy Life'

As a Romani American, I see the word 'gypsy' (or 'gipsy') thrown around a lot in casual conversation. Generally, it's part of a joke about stealing away children in the night, or being ripped off (ie., "gipped"). Most people don't realize, however, that gypsies do exist – we are an ethnic group (the Romani people), and (when used by outsiders to our culture), the word ‘gypsy’ is a racial slur (much like the ‘n’ word for African Americans).

There are several misconceptions about the Romani people, one being that they cannot settle down. People believe we are free-spirited and exotic - promiscuous and morally deficient. They may think of crystal balls and tarot cards, fortune telling and other such nonsense. Some think we are thieves.

Here are a few facts about the Romani people:

- They were not nomadic by choice. They moved around because they had to… they were persecuted everywhere they went, and still are, to this day. They were persecuted alongside the Jews in the Holocaust – the Roma & Sinti (Romani nations).

- Despite the belief that gypsies dress provocatively and seduce men, traditional Romani culture has strict guidelines for the way women dress, and how they act around men. The marime code (or Gypsy law) is a strict series of laws that govern all aspects of Gypsy life. Traditional Romani women wouldn't be caught dead in shirts that barely cover their breasts, expose their bare stomachs or in skirts that have hemlines above the ankle.

- We can't tell the future. If we could, don't you think we'd have foreseen Hilter's plan for Gypsies in the Holocaust and gotten the hell out of there? Sorry to burst your bubble, folks. No crystal balls here...

Although most people seem to think that the romanticized version of the “gypsy lifestyle” should be flattering, I’m afraid most Romani people do not see it that way. This misrepresentation and romanticization of our culture is called ‘exotification’ and it is highly offensive. Though the belief among gadje (non-Romani) is that we should be flattered by these stereotypes, it is not up to outsiders to decide what racial slurs are and are not “harmless”.

I am so tired of hearing people talk about the "gypsy lifestyle". That is like saying you want to live the ‘nigger’ lifestyle, or the 'spic' lifestyle. My ethnic group is not a lifestyle or a choice. No one wanted to be a ‘gypsy’ when they were carting off Romanies to the concentration camps. These folks need to read a bit more about the race they're appropriating. This link has more info:

So, to those who think using the word 'gypsy' in this manner is "no big deal", let me ask you this: how would you feel if your ethnic heritage was mocked, or turned into a ‘mindset’ or ‘lifestyle’ by outsiders? No matter how harmless you believe it to be, this type of thing is very offensive to Romani people. I’m sure you wouldn’t like people using your culture simply because people attach a romantic nonsense to it, like they do to the word ‘gypsy’. You should be ashamed of yourself for treating someone else’s heritage and culture as if it is a joke – and that’s what you’re doing, whether you think it’s flattering or not. Romani people are fighting persecution all over the world still. It did not end with the Holocaust. What you think a ‘gypsy’ is, I can assure you, is quite incorrect. You think using this word makes you seem free-spirited, bohemian and unconventional, when the truth is it only makes you seem ignorant.

Here are several links, so you can read about ‘the gypsy life’. Gypsies (Romani people) have had to deal with the following, throughout history (and even today):

*forced sterilization (yes, it is still happening)
*harassment (by law enforcement as well as civilians)
*fingerprinting (this is happening in Italy right now – all Romani people are being fingerprinted, simply because our race is considered ‘criminal’)
*concentration camps
*exclusion from public schools and welfare programs
*bombings (it is not uncommon in places like the Czech Republic for people to throw molotov cocktails into the windows of Romani homes)
*forced into a nomadic lifestyle because no country wanted them there

Unfortunately, it is not as romantic as you seem to believe. I truly wish that it were. If you can read these pages and still not understand why foolish romanticization of a people that has suffered so much (and still suffers to this day) is disrespectful and wrong, then I am at a loss as to what else to say.


I want to say one more thing, which is this… to so many people, the word ‘gypsy’ has a positive connotation, however erroneous it may be, of a free-spirited, bohemian lifestyle.

But, to others, like this burned child ( , being a ‘gypsy’ is a death sentence. It means living in fear.

People need to know her story, and the stories of so many millions of others, the stories of the Sinti and Roma in the Holocaust, they need to know the truth. Outsiders to our culture who would use this word have a perfect opportunity to educate people, but often choose to remain silent and continue to use the word ‘gypsy’, as if it were their own.

WE suffered (and still suffer) because of that word, and it does not belong to outsiders. I hope they will take a look at some of these articles and perhaps they can see where I am coming from, and why it is offensive.

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Michigan Bridge Ministry said...

Very well written. I work with a Romani church in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. These are my brothers and sisters. I get particularly defensive when people say, "I got Gyped".

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Rob said...

I just got finished watching 'My American Gypsy Wedding,' which is reality show about gypsies living in America. In the show, one of the main actresses? (I'm not sure what to call someone who plays a role on a reality show) of the show describes what it means to be a gypsy and she says, in so many words, it means to live a nomadic lifestyle. So there's your problem right there.

Anyway, what drew me to your page was my curiosity about what a gypsy is.

First of all, I want to say that after reading your post, I was immediately struck by how many times you used the terms 'stereotype' and 'offended' and 'offensive' etc.

So I guess my initial reaction after reading your post, assuming you represent the mentality of most gypsies (which I'm sure you don't, but for argument's sake, let's say I think you do), is that gypsies are extremely thin-skinned people with an enormous chip on their shoulder like all minority groups.

Now, I live in New York, which is a place where no one talks about gypsies or cares about the plight of gypsies. No one knows what a gypsy is. There are a lot of people out there who are like me, who also have no idea what a gypsy is, but who have an open mind to find out.

If you and I were to pass each other on the street, most likely, I wouldn't know what to think of you. I might smile, I might not. But from your perspective, if you take the position that because maybe I looked at you the wrong way, I must think negatively of you because you're a gypsy, then who is the one doing the judging here? It's obviously not me.

So now that you are my very first contact with a gypsy and you've shown me how you think, I'm beginning to form conclusions now. Through your attitude, you're teaching me that a gypsy is a very insecure person who is hyper sensitive about her culture and the way others perceive them.

Hopefully, what I'm saying makes sense. My point is that you shouldn't judge how others are going to perceive you because you never really know. Every person is different and for the most part, people make decisions based on individual experiences.

I hate to see someone let a deep-seeded sense of insecurity eat at them and cause them to feel bitter toward others.

God bless,


Gypsy Appropriations said...

Hi, Rob. First of all, there's nothing real about that 'reality' show. Most of the individuals portrayed on that show are Irish Travelers, not Romani people. So, there's your answer to that...

Moving on, I'm not sure where you get the idea that I speak for all Romani people, or that I would make any of the judgments or assumptions about you (or anyone else) that you have indicated here. When I speak of racism, those comments are directed towards people who have demonstrated actual racism - not people who may or may not smile at me during any average day on the street. You say that you live in New York, whereas most of the incidents of extreme racism I speak about in this blog are happening in countries outside of the USA.

You also say you're not the one doing the judging, however you came here to my blog and without knowing anything about me or Romani people made a vast amount of assumptions about our character, calling us insecure, thin-skinned, etc., while also admitting to the fact that you've never even spoken to or met a Romani person before. If that speaks to anyone's insecurities, I'd say it speaks to yours.

ianj said...

I'm with Rob (not literally ;)). I came here looking to educate myself about 'gypsy life' (as per your page title) and read what you had to say.
The term gypsy is in common use in many countries as a general term for travelers. No distinction or racial intent is often behind its use. I'm sure your 'gadje' is equally racist as your perception of gypsy but you seem to be terribly one sided. You speak on behalf of your people, in defense of Rob, by using the term 'WE'. Clearly you are someone who feels your specific Romani peoples have been victimised. The truth is minority groups are victimised wherever they exist. The unfortunate thing is that often people make general assumptions, as you have about what other, non-romany?, people think about them. We're not all alike, just as I'm sure you don't represent the general view of most romanies, at least I hope not.
Think about the effect of what you're writing on people looking to educate themselves. We can only draw conclusions from what people such as yourself write and if it's in a negative tone then we're bound to think that you, and maybe your whole group have such an attitude.
My great grandma was a romany who married a non-romany, unfortunately I never had the opportunity to know her.
Hopefully you can write more positively educating posts in future to change peoples perception rather than bitterly holding onto the past of the war where everyone suffered and you probably weren't even born.
Peace and light to you.

Gypsy Appropriations said...


As I said to Rob, comments about people being racist are directed at those who have displayed actual racism, not people looking simply to learn about our culture. That isn't what my blog is for.

I'm sorry to hear you never got to know your grandmother. In reference to holding onto the past, this is what a lot of people fail to understand... it isn't the past. These things are still happening. Please read the other posts in the blog to educate yourself further - that is, if you truly wish to do so, instead of reading one post and making sweeping conclusions.

Gypsy Appropriations said...

(oh, and, by the way, Ian, the term 'gypsy' comes from the term 'Gyptian' or 'Egyptian', referring to Egypt which is where the first people who encountered Romani assumed we were from... the term originated with us, and other nomadic groups have been lumped in over the years, because of displaying lifestyles similar to our own - as far as I'm aware, the only other group routinely referred to as gypsies who aren't Romani are Irish Travelers).

ianj said...

Thanks for your reply.
I did read the wikipedia page but thanks for explaining where the term 'gypsy' came from. I'm sure others that didn't go there yet will find it of interest.
Don't forget the new age travelers, basically anyone traveling and living in a van / caravan would be called a gypsy / pikey by the average person here in the UK.
I was talking specifically about your references to the Holocaust rather than drawing sweeping conclusions, I did mention the war.
The things that are currently happening are the ones to address. Surely being of a mobile nature they can up and leave if they're being persecuted by way of forced sterilization or anything else? I think I may have seen something on tv regarding this though and from what I remember it wasn't forced per se, it was more that they would be given housing / monetary benefits in exchange for their willing participation. I'm not quite sure how forced sterilization could be allowed to happen in the modern world, it's against all human rights.
Anyway, my search was really to know how Romani people got by day to day, kept clean, washed their clothes, how they passed their time and earned money while on the road (both current and past). I'm actually considering moving into a van and I guess I too have a bit of a romantic vision of it all but at the same time I have enough common sense to know it's not going to be all fantastic views, changing scenery, sunrises and sunsets and that possible difficulties with either the police or ignorant public (of which there are many) are at some point inevitable.
The more knowledge people have about something the less afraid they are of it and the less likely the are to react with fear / anger toward it. I would say incidents where a caravan has been attacked would be very rare and probably in retaliation for something. Speaking for myself I would stay well away from traveler encampments as would most sensible people.
The average person probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between New age travelers, Romani, Irish travelers or anyone else parked up in a van / caravan. I don't think I'd know the difference either.


Gypsy Appropriations said...


I encourage you to do more research, both on the atrocities happening (yes, even in our modern world) to the Romani people, as well as your aspirations of living in a van. In terms of the Romani, you can start here:

Incidentally, while it may be common knowledge where you live that the Romani people were victims in the Holocaust that isn't the case here in the US. References to the Holocaust are here for a reason (to make people aware that it happened).

The average person cannot tell the difference - again, this is another problem unique to the USA. The awareness, perception and culture of Romani in the UK is quite different than here.

I'm afraid I can't be of much more help to you. I think it's wonderful that you want to study and learn more about the Romani people... even if you did start your journey by needlessly harassing one. I hope you'll understand that further comments won't be published. Good luck in your future travels, wherever they may take you.


AnyaTheodora said...

Hi Rob,

I can appreciate your perspective, I hope that you will entertain mine and attempt to view the entire situation from my point of view, however brief. I'm of Romani heritage, but wasn't blessed with that knowledge until I was in my 20's. You see the small portion of my family who made it to the US came between the 1920's and 1940's, they didn't want to leave Europe, but were left with no other option, even before the holocaust racial persecution was life threatening. Coming to the states was no easy feat, if you were found to be a gypsy you were considered undesireable and barred entrance, the ship that brought gypsies were required to return them to Europe. To strengthen the chances that some would make it through my family split up, first my great grandfather came, then my great grandmother, both traveled as members of white families willing to help with false documents. My grandmother then traveled over with a Dutch woman they pretended was her aunt along with 12 other children at the age of 14, my grandfather at 17 came across alone. That is all of my family that made it, the rest were found out, turned back, and disappeared durring the holocaust. Romani families are very close, the fear over what happened to her sisters made my grandmother keep secret what our heritage was until she was well into her 80's, I only learned of it 2 years before she passed. Though she told me stories of the old world and taught me traditions I didn't know it was Romani culture and history until I had a family of my own. Fear of persecution denied me my roots, though I understand why she did it. Now I am trying desperately to reconnect with what a bigoted society denied me, trying to give my children an understanding of their roots and a sense of pride in their heritage, the same as parents of any race or culture do. The inaccurate portraits painted by the media and pop culture make it difficult. Only my oldest child is willing to embrace the Romani heritage and learn where we came from, the rest don't want anything to do with as their middle school friends make fun of the "uneducated freaks" they see on programs like Gypsy Wedding. These thing do harm, while it may not be meant to, while comments are made innocently, while people just have a slip of the tounge or simply want escapism entertainment it doesn't make it right or harmless to some.

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