The 'G' Word vs the Invisible Minority

There are days when I almost wish I didn't know my ethnic background, or better yet, that history had been kinder to my people. The racism, violence and persecution my people have faced is not unique to the Romani. Like the African American people, we've been slaves and we've never received any sort of reparations for what has been stolen from us, (of a monetary nature or otherwise). We suffered along side the Jews in the Holocaust, and were slaves here in America during the colonial period. The past is the past, as one might say, and I realize that none of that can be erased or changed, but to not even be acknowledged as a proper race in modern American society? I really don't think that's too much to ask, is it?

As the article linked above states, we are what is commonly known as the 'invisible minority' here in America. You may ask yourself what exactly that means... some may be tempted to believe that we've earned this title because there aren't very many of us, but there are more than 1 million Romani Americans, (likely much more, as no accurate census has ever been taken, or ever could be since many Romani families left their ethnicity behind when they fled Europe to come to America - I have encountered grown men in their late 20's and early 30's that were told their entire childhood that they were Greek, Persian or Spanish, only to find out they were actually Romani). As this article states "unlike the situation in Europe, where Gypsies are much in evidence, Romani in the United States have been called the 'hidden Americans' because they remain by choice largely invisible. There are two reasons for this: first, the United States is made up of minority groups of all complexions, and so it is easy for Gypsies to present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Gypsies. Second, most Americans know very little about actual Romani but a great deal about the Hollywood "gypsy" (with a small "g"), and since people fitting the romantic gypsy image are not actually encountered in real life, the real population goes unnoticed."

There is more to this story than just raising awareness, however. I have learned as I have spoken with people and tried to change these perceptions that while many people are horrified when they learn that the word 'gypsy' is a racial slur or that the word 'gipped' isn't as harmless as they've been led to believe, or that the Romani people have suffered for generations and still suffer today, from hate crimes, death threats, segregation and persecution because of their race there are others for whom the fantasy of what a 'gypsy' is has such a strong pull that even this newfound awareness doesn't deter them. They see it as 'harmless' to continue to perpetuate a stereotype, and fail to recognize or care that in doing so they only make us that much more invisible by ignoring and hiding the truth.

There's an old saying, "the truth hurts", and in this case, it's accurate. The truth about the lives Romani people have been forced to lead is not a glamorous one. It isn't all tambourines, fortune telling and magic spells. In fact, Romani history is quite depressing. While it may be easy for the western world to ignore all of that and just concentrate on the fantasy, it does irreparable damage to the cause of raising awareness, and without awareness, the prejudice and persecution of our people will never end.

I have been told by some who refuse to let go of their perception of gypsies that western culture has formed a 'new meaning' to the word and that the Romani people need to recognize that. What these people do not realize is that it is just as offensive, if not more so, when it is used in this manner, because their usage of it like this (to signify a lifestyle) essentially discounts all the suffering attached to the word. That is what I mean when I say that these folks do not have the right to say whether or not that word is offensive - they claim they have only 'positive feelings' about the word and towards my people, yet they needn't be calling me a 'filthy gypsy' in order for the word to be offensive. It's offensive because they use it to refer to a lifestyle, instead of a race of people.

Some have said that these sorts of generalizations and 'positive stereotypes' are harmless. I can assure you this is not the case. When someone searches for that word on the internet, they should be coming up with sites which show them the truth. Instead, they get blogs like, Halloween costumes, people on eBay and etsy using that word to sell "spells" and "charms" and other such nonsense, bellydance troups who aren't even Romani (but have zero issue with using that word and even our own language in their names), Disney characters, fairytales, and other such rubbish.

Unfortunately, these people have 'decided' they want to use the word to signify something else, but it is never truly separated from the Romani people. Just because the word has come to mean something else in their minds (and, for the record, that meaning was assigned by people who are outsiders to the culture and have no business taking that word and making it mean whatever they wish as it isn't their word to take... have THEY suffered for it? NO.) that doesn't make it right.

It may sound outlandish to make this comparison, but imagine if I decided I was going to dress up as a German, and this is the costume I chose:

I imagine I'd have many German people rather angry with me, ready to knock down my door with protests and explanations about how not all Germans are like that (and they would be right). If my response was simply that I meant no offense but I liked the costume and was going to portray their race any way I chose to, I think they might take issue with that. You may think that example is ridiculous, but when you erase the image of the fantasy 'gypsy' and put the Romani people in its place, you may come to understand where that line is. It's not my place to make the word 'German' mean whatever I please, any more than it is for others to make 'gypsy' mean something else than its true meaning. That word has been tied to the Romani people from the beginning, hundreds and hundreds of years, and it isn't going to change just because some white folks want to play Disney Princess on the internet. It will always be tied to us, and it will always have blood on it... and, it takes more than white people wanting to believe the fantasy to erase the reality.

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Anonymous said...

I, too, have been swept away by the "fantasy" of the so-called "gypsy" lifestyle. I knew it referred in some sense to a European ethnic group, but I really had no further knowledge of the word or the meaning behind it.I saw it as a way to refer to someone who travels a lot, though I tend to use "nomad" more often in those instances. After reading a few posts on your blog, I'm beginning to see my ignorance. I think most people mean no harm by it, and are simply in an innocent place of ignorance, as I was. But I am appalled at the ignorance on this subject; to think that gypsy is derogatory or even a racial slur...certainly nothing the average American would know. But now that I understand a bit better, I do intend to avoid using the word gypsy to conjure up a more "glamorous" lifestyle.

xox Courtney Michele

Anonymous said...

If you are interested, you may want to take a look at an ongoing conversation on one of the belly dance boards.

The dance community is struggling with this a lot recently. It might not help, but I wanted to let you know that there are dancers who are trying to correct this misuse.

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