Issues

What’s Wrong With Using The Word “Gypsy?”

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As a baby belly dancer, I came across the word “Gypsy” all the time. It’s often used to mean free-spirited, bohemian, or untethered. Don’t want to research and adhere to a specific ethnic style of dance or costuming? You can put together whatever you like and call it “Gypsy,” right?

Many of us have adopted the word from time to time, meaning no harm. To Americans especially, Gypsies can seem like fantasy characters from a children’s storybook. Their culture — and their suffering — are not visible to us. But Romani people (as most of them prefer to be called) are very real. They are nearly invisible in the U.S. because they hide their heritage in order to avoid persecution, but they are here.

Images of “Gypsies” as freespirited wanderers contribute to the prejudice that makes their lives so difficult. Image via Flickr by Lua Ahmed.

Over a million Romany people were murdered during the Holocaust. In Europe and other parts of the world, they are still being persecuted, driven from their homes, even killed. Cultural researchers often refer to the Romani as “the most persecuted minority in the world.” And when we use the word Gypsy in our dancing, we are often perpetuating the very stereotypes that are causing Romany people to suffer.

I asked Kristin Raeesi, a Romani/Métis researcher and activist who is both a dancer and a Romani rights activist, to fill us in on some of the harmful stereotypes so we can  make better decisions about the way we portray her people. Here is a list of myths and realities from Kristin.

~ Lauren “Zehara” Haas


Common Myths About The Romani People (that you probably believe)

by Kristin Raeesi

Myth: We liked to be called “Gypsy/Gypsies”

Reality: While people use this word to describe many different communities/things, the term as it relates to Roma/Romani people is not preferred. The term “Gypsy” is a misnomer, since the origin of the term dates back to our arrival in Europe; Europeans assumed we were Egyptians and coined this term to describe us. Since we are not Egyptian in origin, many people find that using this term is wrong because it perpetuates misinformation about our origins. Both linguistic and genetic evidence indicate an Indian origin for our people. Furthermore, the term has been used as a racial slur and is loaded with stereotypes, which many of us understandably want to distance ourselves from. The word that many of us prefer is Roma or Romani; a word taken from our own language that means “people”. While there may be differences of opinion within the culture about appropriate terminology, the more respectful term to use is Roma or Romani.

Myth: Being “Gypsy” is a lifestyle choice/we are not real people/it’s just like being a “hippy”

photo via Flickr by Cinty Ionescu

Reality: As stated above, both linguistic and genetic evidence confirm our Indian origins. Our ancestors left India around 1000 A.D. We are a distinct ethnic group with our own language, culture, foods and beliefs. We are currently the largest ethnic minority group in Europe; in the U.S there are an estimated 1-1.5 million Roma. We are real people and one cannot “choose” to be a Romani person; you either have Romani ancestry or you do not.

Myth: We have a connection to anything and everything supernatural/are magic/are witches/fortune tellers/will curse you

Reality: These stereotypes have been used to stigmatize and racially profile Romani people for centuries. While it is true that some Romani people practice fortune telling, it also true that many do not; it is not a practice that can be universally applied to all of us at all times. Magic and curses are the stuff of fairytales and should be left there. We are not associated as a people with any particular religion (including Wicca). There are an estimated 12-14 million Romani people worldwide that follow many different religions and some, none at all.

Myth: You can tell someone is Romani by how they look

Reality: Romani people are incredibly diverse genetically, which should come as little surprise given how long and how far flung the diaspora of our people is; all skin, hair and eye colors are represented in our communities. In short, you cannot tell if someone is Romani based on appearance alone.

Myth: We are thieves/liars/cannot be trusted

Reality: Like any community we have the full spectrum of good to bad. However, to characterize our entire community as untrustworthy is deeply insulting. In addition, we would be very happy if phrases such as getting “Gypped” or taking a “Gypsy cab” could be retired as it implies the link between our ethnic group and dishonesty.

Myth: We are all the SAME

Reality: What many people are not aware of is that withIN our communities we are incredibly diverse. Similar to the concept of “tribes/clans/kinship” that exists for Native Americans in the United States, Romani people have complex affiliations and ways to identify based on our overarching group, sub-groups within the main group, our location, the dialect of Romani that we speak (or other associated sub-dialect), our families or working arrangements. Within our communities we are very conscious of our internal identities and associations. Although we are diverse many of us hold core values across groups, such as loyalty to our families and passing on our cultural traditions and values to the next generation.

Myth: We are nomadic

Reality: No. Throughout our history the impetus to move surrounded work opportunities, or was the result of persecution or threat of death—not an innate wanderlust. Packing up and moving an entire family, or extended family is extremely difficult and was not done without a specific reason.

Myth: Romani people are only in Europe

Reality: Today, Romani people can be found on every regularly inhabited continent.

Myth: We are sexually promiscuous

Image via Flickr by Hillarie

Reality: This unfortunate stereotype has been used and continues to be perpetuated against Romani women. In fact, almost universally Romani groups require strict behavior from young women, and older and married women must also follow culturally appropriate guidelines when in mixed company.

Myth: We are all dancers/musicians/singers

Reality: Although many Romani people love music and dance, and culturally there is not a stigma against the performing arts, we are not all involved in these professions. The vast majority of Roma are engaged in regular occupations, although we are probably not as visible. Due to the continuation of stereotypes, many Romani heritage people choose not to identify as Romani in the workplace, for concerns about how their fellow employees may perceive them, which also decreases our visibility.

Myth: Our lives are characterized by total freedom and a carefree lifestyle

Reality: Don’t we wish! This is far from the case. As mentioned above there are strict rules for behavior for individuals within the community that most outsiders would realize stands in sharp contrast to this stereotype. Not only behavior is regulated but due to our cultural beliefs about cleanliness, luck, etc., there are rules for almost everything from how to dress, how to speak to different people in the community, how to prepare food, how to clean, and on and on.


Kristin RaeesiKristin Raeesi is a Romani/Métis researcher, activist and performance artist.  She has been heavily involved in activist work on behalf of the Romani community for several years, serving on the Board of Directors for the California-based non-profit Voice of Roma and as an independent consultant, lecturer and administrator/creator of a free online GED program geared towards Romani-adult learners.  She has worked on many projects involving Romani representation and was a panelist at the inaugural Conference on Romani Studies at UC Berkeley.  She has given media interviews and written op-eds for national news outlets such as The Daily Beast on the topic of Romani rights and representation.  In addition to her research and activist work, Kristin is a performance artist who uses music and dance to promote a greater understanding and appreciation for a diversity of cultures through the arts.  She holds a Master’s in Communication with an emphasis on critical and cultural theory and audio-digital storytelling.

18 Comments

  1. Folk Dance Caller

    March 30, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Are you aware of the use of the term “gypsy” in traditional English Country Dance, Contra Dance, and Morris Dancing?

    • Lauren

      March 30, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      I’m not — we’re strictly a belly dance site. But if you have a related resource and you’d like to drop a link in the comments, that’s fine.

      • Lee

        March 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm

        The “gypsy” in contra dancing just means when 2 dancers circle around each other looking into each other’s eyes but not touching. It is usually followed by a swing or an allemande.

        You can see what the move looks like here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5O7KpQ56LE

  2. Kristin Raeesi

    March 30, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Hello folk dancer,
    I am aware of the term “Gypsy” as it is used to describe steps/movements in contra dance.
    -Kristin

    • Folk Dance Caller

      April 1, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      … and is there an opinion/consensus about it?

      The term was first added in the early 20th century by an Englishman Cecil Sharp. I am assuming by that time the term “gypsy” already had widespread racial connotation.

      Is it cultural appropriation to use this term in English / Contra dancing, when it was not introduced by someone of Romani ancestry?

      Are you also aware that there are many folk dancers who self-identify as “dance gypsies”? If so, what are thoughts of Romani people of this kind of use. From this article, I would assume that it would be similar to those who bellydance and identify “gypsy”, which a negative view was expressed.

      Thanks!

      • Kristin Raeesi

        April 3, 2016 at 4:14 pm

        Hello again Folk Dance Caller,
        I feel that moving forward, the usage of the term “Gypsy” as it applies to a dance move is something that needs to be determined by the community using it; the Contra dance community should come to a consensus about how or if the term should be used based on the information you have about this term.
        However, calling themselves “dance Gypsies” seems a little more problematic. Although without more information about the context and implications behind why this label is applied and to who I can’t be sure.
        Thanks for your thoughtful questions!

        • Folk Dance Caller

          April 3, 2016 at 8:14 pm

          Kristin,

          Thanks very much for your reply. I can understand why there may be a difference between having a dance move named it, versus people self-identifying as “dance gypsies”.

          Are there other Roma resources that I could look into to get additional opinions on the matter?

          Thanks,
          Folk Dance Caller

  3. Heather

    March 31, 2016 at 9:15 am

    What is the current standard terminology for the belly dance style I remember being called ‘Gypsy Fusion’? It was/is one of the American fusion forms, I think. (It isn’t one I particularly participated in, so I have nobody to ask, but the question comes up now and then.)

    • Heather

      March 31, 2016 at 9:17 am

      That is, is the name considered offensive by Roma dancers/others, has it been changed, etc.

    • Lauren

      March 31, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      I think if a dancer is creating fusion using a specific, well-researched Romany dance, they can use the name of the dance style or group where the dance originated. Turkish Romani dance is very popular, for instance, and is called “Roman Havasi.” So if someone created fusion from it, it could be called “Roman Havasi Fusion” or “Turkish Romani Fusion.” (I used to put the word “Gypsy” in parentheses when I did Turkish Romani dance, so my American audiences would understand what it was about.)

      A lot of what was called “Gypsy Fusion” was not based on ethnic dance, though. It was a fantasy dance that came from Hollywood and Disney stereotypes of fiery, passionate Gypsy women dancing around a fire, often with tambourines. It was fun, but it is the type of dance that perpetuates a lot of stereotypes. I don’t think anyone ever meant any harm by doing those dances, but now that we know better, we should really stop portraying Romany people inaccurately. They have a hard enough time without that.

      Doing ethnic dances involves a lot of responsibility to research, get things right, and do a respectful portrayal. Sometimes we just want to have fun and that’s fine too, but it’s best not to use the names of persecuted ethnic groups as labels when we’re doing that.

      • Heather

        March 31, 2016 at 5:49 pm

        Thanks. I know people who do Turkish Roman Havasi, and I assumed they were different things.

  4. Amelia

    March 31, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I would love to get some perspective from a Romani person about this…. I completely agree and understand about the word Gypsy being offensive and derogatory, as well as smacking of Orientalism and white cultural appropriation. For instance, when I studied Turkish Romani dance in Istanbul, it was clearly Roman dance of the Roman people and the word cingene (Turkish for Gypsy) is clearly derogatory and not to be used.
    However, as a Flamenco dancer and performer, it seems that the Romani of Spain do not call themselves Romani at all (at least I have never heard it in over a decade of being immersed in Flamenco) but Gitano- lit. Gypsy. This is a word they use freely and proudly, as a mark of pride in their art and their heritage. Obviously this word can be (and Im sure has been and is) used in a derogatory fashion in Spain, but they do seem to embrace it, to the extent that those of Romani blood often announce themselves to be from this or that Gypsy family, and encourage others to present them as such. This isn’t to say there isn’t perpetual and institutionalized racism in Spain against Gitanos, as unfortunately there is, but to say simply that somehow they seem to have turned Gitano into a word that proudly announces their culture and traditions openly.
    I run into trouble when trying to explain to American audiences the origins of Flamenco without using the word Gypsy- unfortunately as someone stated above the word Romani still often needs translation in the States. It makes it tricky that outside of Spain the consensus seems to be to reject the use of the word Gypsy as derogatory, and in Spain the norm is to embrace it (or at least, the direct translation in Spanish) as a mark of a distinctly deep and powerful style of Flamenco that comes from a rich tradition of people who have suffered greatly and continually emerge proud and strong. Any perspective or thoughts on this?

    • Lauren

      March 31, 2016 at 5:29 pm

      I’m not of Romani heritage, and I hope Kristin will come along and add a reply as well, but i’ve also traveled in Spain and met Gitano people who are involved in the Flamenco world. I agree that you almost have to use the word “Gypsy” parenthetically when talking to Americans, and it might be worth mentioning that in some contexts it’s considered a racial slur, although in Spain that’s not the case.

      I think the use of Gitano or even Gypsy in flamenco is very different from what we’re discussing in this article, which is the use of the word Gypsy as a catch-all term for fantasy dance styles that aren’t genuinely connected to any ethnic group and that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

    • Kristin Raeesi

      April 1, 2016 at 1:22 am

      Hi Amelia, this is a great question! I’m not sure if you were able to view this post from the Facebook page it was posted on but I had also discussed this a bit there (sorry if this is a repeat): Not all Romani people speak the same dialect of Romani and some groups have totally different sub-dialects that are not mutually intelligible, so their word for themselves might be based on what the dominant society called them, however problematic the term may be (because they no longer have command of the language and terminology in our own language). Because of this some groups use terms like gitano/gitana or tsigan to describe themselves or their group. Terminology can vary based on who you ask and what their own background is, or what their group’s historical experiences have been. For example, the group I am descended from was enslaved in what is today Romania and Moldova between the 13-14th centuries until the mid 1800’s and were forbidden to speak our language. After emancipation we left to what is now present day Hungary and Croatia and our language is similar to very old Romanian; the terms we use to describe ourselves as also taken from Romanian, not Romani. I hope that’s not confusing…;) The point is, there are many groups with diverse experiences that were at times not allowed to speak the language or afforded the right to choose how to identify themselves on their own terms, this is more recent thing. However in general it is more accurate (and respectful) to refer us as Romani or Roma (pl.) when in doubt.

    • eszter-maura

      April 6, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Amelia,
      in Hungary where I am from, the name Roma was introduced to mainstream speech exactly because the Hungarian word ‘cigány’ (lit. Gypsy) was loaded with racism. Organisations working with and/or representing Roma people use the word ‘Roma’, while the people themselves use both in everyday speech (when speaking Hungarian). The word Roma has also been “eroded” quite a bit, as many thought they could make racist statements PC by saying Roma instead of ‘cigány’, so nowadays it can get tricky 🙂
      I have the impression that the best we can do – as with any minority – is to call people they want to be called *in the context in question* (and take into account that the fact they call themselves/each other one thing is not always a permission for the outsider).

  5. volk45

    April 1, 2016 at 12:05 am

    As a non Romani man from Ireland I see a lot of people use the word gypsy as a pejorative umbrella term for both Romani people and Irish travellers, I just wait for the day when people don’t feel the need to live in hate

  6. Karen Blackburn

    April 4, 2016 at 9:18 am

    I knew a gypsy years ago, he is dead now, who found any term other than gypsy offensive. Especially offensive were comparisons with the Irish travellers or the Romanian Roma, both of whom were classed as work shy thieving ***** who gave gypsies a bad name. He was one of the old school who travelled in a horse drawn caravan and spent spring to autumn (fall) travelling around various farms in the English West Country before spending winter back in Birr (Ireland). His children and grandchildren still followed this way of life although they now travel by motor caravan instead of the horse drawn one used by him and his wife.

  7. Ami

    April 4, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    I’m Romani and a friend posted this to my wall. These are points I make over and over when people use the term gypsy. I’m glad to see this posted by a belly dance group. Hopefully it will lead to some understanding.

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