I first read this article some time ago, but I seem to always come back to it when explaining to people what the word “gypsy” really means. The general population has two different definitions, depending on what area of the world they live in… in Europe, Romani people are generally thought of as thieves, vagabonds, scum. We are a “lower race”, and as tempting as it is to blame that on Hitler and his campaign to kill us all in the Holocaust, the truth is that the persecution of Romani people goes way farther back.
In America, however, the word “gypsy” is a cliche’. It is over (and improperly) used to describe a lifestyle rather than an actual race. ‘Gypsy’ is also a popular pet name. I would need more fingers and toes to count the people I’ve met who have (or have had) a cat or dog called ‘Gypsy’. Our culture is exoticized, romanticized, and completely misrepresented.
I get asked often ‘what’ I am, and the conversation is always the same. I say Romani, they ask me if that’s Italian, I say no, and then reference the word ‘gipsy’, and get told that "gypsies aren’t real". I smile politely and explain, for the 4,398,547th time that, yes, actually, we are, and we aren’t a lifestyle, we’re a real race of people with a distinctive culture and distinctive DNA.
But, you can’t really blame them. To most folks, a gipsy is a free-spirited, hippie type who moves around a lot. The truth is, Romani people werenomadic (though few still are today), however they were not nomadic by choice. Anti-Gypsy laws existed everywhere around the world. During the time of emancipation and arrival in North America, Gypsies, like many other immigrant groups, came fleeing persecution, but met anti-Gypsy laws which were designed, as in Europe, to keep them on the move and out of the way. With Congressional intervention, the U.S. office of the Romani Union has been instrumental in bringing about the complete removal of all anti-Gypsy laws in the state of Pennsylvania. It has also begun working with the British legal firm of Bindman and Partners, who have been retained by the Commission for Racial Equality to bring legal proceedings against the businesses in Britain which discriminate against Gypsies and which carry signs outside their premises indicating that Gypsies will not be served. Still, whether meant to be complimentary or insulting, the word “gipsy” is often applied to any people who conform to a perceived image, whether they are ethnic Romanies or not.
You will often see the word capitalized in academic texts and within Romani communities, (if they use the word at all). This is to distinguish us as a race of people, not simply a lifestyle choice. 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. These words would never be used in American media to describe persons of that ethnicity, however, the word ‘gipsy’ is thrown around as if it is nothing. The story below illustrates how some Romani people perceive the word, and the problem with it’s casual use in so many everyday situations.
Always Romani, But Never a Gypsy
by Maria Catherine Trefil
June 8, 2006
I see the sign at the entrance of the thrift store — “GYPSIE’S SPECIAL: 75% OFF EVERYTHING” — and, automatically, my blood is boiling, but I am silent. It’s not the first time that I’ve seen signs like it. From flat-out racism to the encouragement of well-meant, but nonetheless offensive, stereotypes I’ve already heard everything in reference to my people and, previously, there have been few instances, outside of college classrooms, where I felt safe enough to speak out against such things.
From my great-grandfather who, in 1899 Moravia dared to fall in love with a White girl and was subsequently run out of his village on pain of death for it, to my own experience with seeing people clutch their purse tighter the moment I reveal my ethnic heritage, a lesson my family has well understood over the years is that to reveal we are Romani is to risk severe prejudice.
Still, I acknowledge, looking at the sign, that to many non-Roma, the word “Gypsy” is not meant necessarily as an offense. I think of my husband, how he’d react by telling me to be calm. Maybe just ignore it; turn the other cheek yet again. But then I see that the store sells its toys for children only feet from the sign … and I know that I have to say something.
But first I’ll do what I came here to do — donate four gigantic trash bags of clothing. This is a nationwide organization dedicated to helping stray animals, after all; a most distinctly noble cause that my family has supported for as long as I can remember. After dropping off my donation, I even buy something, in the spirit of supporting them further, when my friend Eugenia and I go through line.
After my purchase, I inquire to the man behind the cash register if I could speak to the manager. With a grin, he informs me that he’s the assistant manager and can handle anything that needs handling. I advise privacy is a good idea, noticing the amount of other people around me and, in an effort to let the store save face, I would prefer to address the issue without their customers seeing and misinterpreting the organization as one that supports racial slurs. He won’t allow it though, so I take a deep breath, heart caught in my throat, and, trying to stand as straight as possible, say, “That sign of yours in front is ethnically offensive.” I politely explain how and why and, instead of being surprised or apologetic, he laughs, telling me that “Gypsie” is not a slur word. “Pardon me,” says I, “but it is. Being a Romani-American, I should know.”
Why is it such a big deal, he inquires as I persist? “It’s a big deal,” I say, gripping the counter with tightening fingers, “because there are one million Romani-Americans in this country and they have a right to go in a store and not see something like that. Romani children have the right not to be exposed to it.”
He continues to insist that it’s not a big deal and I finally snap, “Over one million of us died in the Death Camps. Our people did not go through that to be an unseen minority today! If that sign said ‘Kike’s Special: 75% Off Everything’ you wouldn’t dare put it up. For Romani-Americans, that sign means the same thing.”
“Do you even know what Gypsie is?” He inquires with a smirk.
“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 — hence its pairing with a sale sign being so offensive.”
He then sighs condescendingly, “Gypsie is a cat.”
“Yeah,” someone pipes up beside him. “There’s been Gypsie sales here before. It’s named after the cat.”
I think of something a Romani activist once said in a speech about how non-Roma like to say they that they like our race and, as a tribute to it, they name their dogs and cats after us. “Even so,” I say slowly, “considering how it could be taken as an ethnic slur, don’t you think it would be respectful to alter the sign for the sake of future Romani customers?”
Again, laughter. “If it bothers you,” he tells me, “don’t come here.”
I am quiet for a moment, stunned, and, seeing this, he begins to laugh. I feel like I’m dissolving into a mud puddle somewhere where no one will ever find me … or maybe, at that moment, I just want to. And then, one last spark of defiance left is found and, bitterly, but calmly, I inquire if I can have his name. More laughter, but he writes it down, as well as the manager’s. “If you want to talk to her, she’s in back,” he offers.
“Thank you, I will,” I assure him.
I walk towards the back of the store and, unknown to me at the time, my friend shakes her head, hearing the man’s laughter following me. To her, the assistant manager comments, “Must be fun going around with her.” Angrily, she informs him that she’s Jewish and, had that sign said “Jew-Down Special,” her reaction would have been no different than mine was now.
I reach the back of the store, looking for the manager and the other workers, amazingly, already had been forewarned of my upcoming presence. “Here she is,” I hear called out around me. I wait. I will be calm, I order myself firmly. I don’t believe the sign was put up with racial intent and must be careful to be respectful of that fact. If I am discourteous, they will see only my discourtesy and not the bigger argument, and that will only serve to hurt the cause I am protesting for.
A blonde, thin woman in her forties quickly approaches me and introduces herself. She asks what the problem is. I explain. I tell her that the sign is hurtful, but that I understand that it was not meant to be taken as such. Nonetheless, as children will see it, it should be taken down. Yet again, I hear about Gypsie the Cat and, calmly, inform her, “It’s not my business what you name your cat. Your cat’s not the issue. Racism is. A sign like that misrepresents your organization as advertising racism and you should be aware of that … and, being aware of that, I would think that you would want to alter it rather than have further misunderstandings.”
Quickly, she becomes angry and, like the assistant manager, she coldly tells me that I should not come back if such signs so offend me. More so, she decides, I can’t come back even if I want to. I am dumbfounded; then tell her that the word is like “Chink,” “Redskin,” “Yid,” and a variety of other nasty words. Judging by her last name, I find myself tempted to compare it to “Limey”, wondering if that might somehow clarify things to her, but I won’t let myself sink to that level. It’s not who I am, I remind myself as, again, she just orders me out of the store.
I blink then and nod. I tell her that I have no intention to come back. Even if I wasn’t now barred, I wouldn’t want to. But there is one thing that I can do if the store refuses to change the sign, I tell her. I can write an article about said refusal. Remembering especially how many people were witnesses to the laughter of the assistant manager, I know that the incident could not be denied.
Mind racing, I was consumed by thoughts of those Roma I’d personally seen persecuted all over Europe; thoughts of my family, from the Disappeared of World War II to my ancestors who I knew suffered unspeakably, always hoping that one day things like this wouldn’t happen anymore. This woman’s ignorance is not the only thing impregnated in her words, I finally acknowledge. She’s just another in a long line of bigots.
I have not been called Romani even once in these discussions by either employee, no matter how many times I refer to myself as it. Though I repeatedly told them it is a slur word, I am “a Gypsy” to them. They say it over and over. A Romani-American would be a person, you see, but a Gypsy is nothing, and, therefore, does not necessitate respect.
During WWII, my family in Moravia had for generations owned a photography business that they’d created and become renown for; a business that put them in suits instead of rags; made them wealthy instead of impoverished. When push came to shove though, they were still dark-skinned and, as my grandmother would always repeatedly sigh to me, “When the war came, they just … lost everything.”
“Everything?” I’d ask her. “How could they lose … everything?” She’d only shake her head in response and repeat those words, looking distant. Now I felt myself thinking of how our family lived here in the States. I had not one cousin who wasn’t college educated and, indeed, our family was riddled with lawyers, scientists, and teachers. That same great-grandfather who fled Moravia later had a city subdivision of Chicago named after him. My father was a physician and my uncle was a best-selling, world-known physicist. Nonetheless, like sixty years ago, it doesn’t seem to matter how hard we work to gain respect. That one word — “Gypsy” — still reduces us to being nothing but a rag-tag band of chicken thieves.
“Gypsy….” I feel the brand of that word deep inside my chest, and, thusly, pulling out a digital camera, I decide to put that flavor of microscopic, laughter-inducing nothingness in the woman who called me it with such disdain. From the parking lot, I zoom in with my lens and snap three pictures in her direction. I do this and, suddenly, the smug laughter is gone. It has vanished, been vanquished, and only feelings of righteous indignation and violation remains. Like me, she is on fire. She feels the hate now too, as well as the sensation of being chained to something she can’t escape. I’ve pinned her, and, as she storms in my direction along with her superior, I know that, for once, I’ve wiped the smirk off a racist’s face.
“Erase those pictures!” She shouts. “You erase those pictures right now!”
“It’s illegal,” she hisses. “You can’t take my picture without asking me.”
“Yes”, I smile with a nonchalant, but very victorious shrug, “I can. I’ve done absolutely nothing legally wrong, same as you with that sign. Maybe now you know how the sign feels though.”
She begins screaming at me and the man echoes her. I feel myself shaking inside despite my semi-genuine bravado. Born with disabling epilepsy, stress is often all that is needed to trigger going into unconscious convulsions. I debate appeasing them, deleting the pictures, and, tail tucked between my legs, leaving. I know that I should, but I also know that I won’t. For my ancestors, I tell myself, there can be not so much as a budge. For them and the history, both ancient and current, of our people, I won’t relent. I can’t.
The woman threatens to call the police. “Call the police,” I shrug again, seeming as unaffected as possible. “I’ll stand here and wait for them.” She pauses, not expecting that response. Again, she threatens to call them, as if, by doing it twice, it’ll somehow be more frightening and I’ll cave in. “If I have done anything illegal by taking those pictures, I will erase them,” I say calmly. “I am not a criminal and I will obey the law … but I will follow what the law says, not you. Produce a police officer, please, and, if he tells me that the pictures were illegally taken, I will make amends.”
She pulls out a cell phone finally. “Hey,” she growls into it, “there’s a little girl here causing trouble.” Then she starts to describe me physically. “She’s twenty… one?” She guesses. “Twenty-two?”
“Twenty-four,” I correct her. I am only too eager to give her a description of me, as I know that I am within my legal rights. I am so accommodating, that, by the time she gets to describing my weight, she actually asks me what it is.
I sit in the car as a petit mal seizure hits me and I pull out a cookie, knowing that the higher I keep my blood sugar, the better chances I have of maintaining my lofty tranquility. Getting off the phone, she snaps at me, “Why are you doing this?”
“For the children of my race who would see that sign,” I sigh, wondering why she would even need to ask.
“‘Gypsy’ isn’t a slur word,” her superior informs me. “I know. I used to live around Gypsies.”
“And I’m sure some of them were your best friends,” I mutter lowly.
“I knew the King of the Gypsies,” he snaps proudly, as if this is somehow supposed to impress me, and I burst out laughing despite myself. Affronted, he continues, “I went to school with the son of the King of the Gypsies!”
“There’s no such thing as a ‘King of the Gypsies,’” I scoff angrily. “It’s a myth — a big fat myth for non-Roma.” And it is, despite his ensuing protestations to the opposite. What a “King of the Gypsies” traditionally was, was an elected official who handled interactions with those outside the race. As our society has always been free of monarchies, the phrases of “Gypsy Kings, Queens, Princes, or Princesses” are, among Roma themselves, just all-out jokes. Just another one of the many tools we’ve used as a means to protect ourselves over the centuries from genocide, mutilation, slavery, and prejudice.
I try to remain calm again. It’s ignorance, the voice in the back of my brain says. Ignorance and so it is your obligation to your people to educate. “If you would like,” I offer smoothly, “I will write down Romani websites for you, which could explain why that word’s offensive to us. It would also explain how, yes, Gypsy Kings are indeed a myth.” Neither of them care to see the written proof to back up what I’m saying, however, and the offer is quickly rejected.
“How can you do this to our organization?” The woman protests. “After all the good we do? It’s important work and you’re looking to sabotage it.”
“I came here because I support your cause,” I reply earnestly. “I love animals. But this isn’t about protesting your organization. This is protesting racism and, frankly, I think the company that your store represents is above such behavior as is being demonstrated.”
“If you write an article about this,” the superior threatens, “I’ll sue you. You’re poor. You don’t have enough money to pay for a defense. I’ll get a good lawyer and I’ll keep it tied up in the courts for years.”
I glare, my face scrunching inside itself. “You’ll sue me for printing the truth?” I counter. “How will that work exactly? You’ll protest in a courtroom that you didn’t use an ethnic slur word on a sign advertising a 75% off sale? It’s not like I’m going to lie in my article. I’ll just write down what I saw … and what you refused to remove, even after being warned of its offensiveness. You can’t sue me for printing the truth and you can’t sue me for slander unless you change the sign. That word there on the sign is a slur, just like ‘spick’ or ‘nigger’ — but if that sign had said those words, you’d have changed it, I think.”
Then my jaw drops to where he begins explaining to me how “nigger” isn’t a slur word at all. Originally, he lectures, it comes from the belief that all African-Americans were Nigerians.
“What the word was or was not originally doesn’t matter now though,” I growl. “No African-American would be thinking it’s not a slur word if you called him one today.”
Ignoring me, he continues to threaten me about what will happen to me if I write the article and the woman continues to rant about the illegality of her photo being taken. I just sit back and wonder which of them I resent more. Then I realize that I don’t resent either of them. That would be giving them too much credit. I shake my head back and forth. Again, the voice of reason speaks. They really just don’t know any better. Again and again, I am asked what the big deal is. “The big deal is that thousands of my people were ‘disappeared’ by the Nazis,” I snap, finally losing my cool, “and a large reason why is because non-Roma see our people as that word inside your store, rather than as human beings. And, by the way you’re acting, you’re not really inducing me to hold to my belief that, whether it’s a slur or not or whether or not it’ll make your Romani customers with similar backgrounds twitch, shudder, or feel unwelcome, you give too much of a damn.”
I am cut off suddenly, as I see a police officer walking up. Obviously predicting trouble, the officer approaches with baton drawn. Recognizing me from the description given on the phone though, he looks me up and down for a moment and then, rolling his eyes, puts the baton back in his belt. Feeling a distinct sigh of relief pass through me, I tell him quickly, “If I’ve done anything illegal, I would very much like to fix it.” I can’t get more than that out though. The woman begins assailing him with her protestations about her rights being trod upon. I look at him sympathetically as he tries to calm her down. He doesn’t seem much more able to get a word in than me though. Finally, he politely asks both the woman and her superior aside out of my hearing.
I sit up against the car and shake my head back and forth. “It’s cold out,” an old man who’d been standing to the side, watching, the whole time calls to me. “Don’t you think?” As he urges me to put a sweater on, I regard the sympathy in his face; an expression echoed by many other customers in the store, and, near to tears, I am grateful for it.
At last, I see the employees storm away from the policeman and I wait for the officer to speak to me. “You can keep those pictures or not keep them,” he finally tells me. “What you did is perfectly legal.”
“If you told me that it wasn’t, I would have deleted them.”
“They said that this dispute is all over … a cat?”
“It’s not about a cat. I’ve known other cats named that and I’ve thought it was silly, but I’ve never complained about it. This was about the word, which is an ethnic slur, going out on a public sign only a few feet from where they sell toys to kids. I was just afraid of Romani children seeing it and it leaving an impression on them. I grew up with those stereotypes, just like my family before me did. This is a new generation and it deserves a fresh start.”
Calmly, politely, I explain the whole episode to him. This police officer doesn’t seem to have even heard the word “Romani” before, but the idea of an ethnic insult is something that he very much seems to understand. “You can keep the pictures,” he finally says, his tone gentle. “They don’t want you to come back to the store though.”
“I wouldn’t go back to that store if someone paid me to,” I say firmly, but sadly. Again, I think of the nobility of the organization and how I’ll now have to go to more respectfully run branches.
Holding my face in my hand as the policeman leaves, I then hate to admit it, but I’m on the verge of crying. I know those cruel words of theirs will stay with me. I know that I will not forget… . At least I stood up this time though, I remind myself. At least I stood. And, in standing, I was no Gypsy. For once, I was not forced into the role of Esmeralda.
I knew that not one of those three employees had learned anything from my protest. That wasn’t the point though. With them, I had acted as a human being; not encouraged a stereotype or stood by in silence as one was encouraged. A small step in this case to be sure, but it’s the small steps, I know, which better pave the road for tomorrow’s children of all races, when there may be, if we are lucky, some increased degree of the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and compassion over indifference.
Reaching home, I assaulted my laptop, careful to write down everything while it was still fresh in my mind. When the article was finished, I took a deep breath and shook my head. The incident had been so hateful that I knew it would poorly reflect upon the company which stood to benefit so many in need who, being animals, lacked the ability to speak for or defend themselves. Thinking of them, I knew that I could not, in conscience, publish the organization’s name therefore. Regardless, I could bluff that I would, and that, most firmly, I intended to do.
It took a few games of phone tag, but I was eventually able to locate the woman who truly ran the local branch of the foundation. I informed her that, while I did not want to go public, due to everything that had happened after I brought the sign’s vulgarity to the attention of the managers, I felt ethically pressed to do so.
“I want to stress that this is not about me,” I e-mailed her. “That I am banned from the store, I admit, I am not pleased by, but I respect the store’s decision and wouldn’t feel comfortable there anymore anyway. I didn’t write the article because I was kicked out though. I wrote it because I feel very strongly that it was a racially biased expulsion and, because of that, any other Rom that spoke out against the sign would be similarly treated.
“That ‘Gypsie’ happens to be a cat’s name is not my business. It’s not my cat and I have no right, nor would I presume to have the right to dictate to others what they name their pets. The perspective which I made in my article and tried to make to your employees is this however: the sign didn’t say, ‘Gypsie the Cat’s Sale.’ It said ‘Gypsie’s Sale.’ Gypsie is a slur word which has come to be synonymous with thievery; hence its pairing with a sale sign is particularly racially offensive. When the sign just mentions a slur, how’s one to know it’s in reference to an animal? How is any Romani man, woman, or child to know that the sign is not meant as an insult, which is how I, like other Roma, would take it?
“I’m pointing this out to you because, contrary to your employee’s assumption that I am poor and have no legal recourse, I do have two first cousins who are lawyers and I’m quite sure that if I were even half as inclined to sue as your employee is, I’d very quickly win. However, I would never sue. Don’t mistake this as a threat to do that. I’m simply warning you that if your employees treat other minority members like they treated me, sooner or later, they will mistreat someone, assuming, based on their race, that they have no funds or recourse when they do … and that person won’t be thinking about what’s best for the strays your company takes in. They’ll just hire a lawyer and, in the end, it’s the animals who’ll pay the price.”
For good measure, I included the address for the racial slur database and awaited her response, which turned out to be a very polite and speedy call to my house. This woman, who’d lived in Eastern Europe, as luck would have it, happened to be familiar with the Romani persecution there and, understanding the full-scale implications of the actions of her employees, did not take the situation lightly. She requested to see a copy of the finished article and, reading it, promptly assigned all three of them to sensitivity training. She assured me that the sign had been changed and would never again read as it had before. Furthermore, she personally invited me back to the store, telling me that she wanted me to come directly to her office so that we could shake hands.
I impressed it upon her that I knew she was not responsible for what had happened and I would continue to support all branches of her company while, at the same time, she tried to stress that none of the employees had meant to be racially offensive. I disagreed, but didn’t say it. I could hear in her voice that she didn’t really believe it and, in addition for resenting them for it, was highly embarrassed that they’d put her in the position they had. She assured me that she was glad that I’d brought the matter to her attention, saying again that neither she nor the organization endorsed such behavior.
“I know,” I nodded, “which is why all names will be edited out of the article.”
Nervously she agreed with what I’d been planning to do anyway. I sympathized with the place she’d been put, having to clean up someone else’s mess, but, as the conversation ended, I grinned.
I once read a Romani proverb that states, “Bury me standing, for I’ve been on my knees all my life.” And, true, throughout our extensive history of inflicted horrors, there are few mentioned Romani uprisings. Indeed, we are a people who have been on our knees for well close to a thousand years.
Maybe that’s why some think it strange when I refuse to be called a Gypsy. After all, it cannot be denied that, back in the day, the word “Gypsy” could occasionally carry a kind of protective cloak, hiding who our people really are as well as our way of life, and, by its implication that we are thieves and, therefore, not to be trusted, it also implied that others should just flat out leave us alone. Maybe back in the days of my great-grandparents it even saved a life or two … .
But if it saved a life or two by encouraging others to remain too distant to attack us, it doubtlessly is responsible for twice as many deaths specifically because it labeled us as nefarious … which is the very reason why it is important for us — the American Roma — to come out from under the cloak and, even if it makes us meet with prejudice, we must fight … fight hard and intrepidly, just as our Indian ancestors, the warrior Rajputs, did … against any and all who would mold us into what we are not, even if it is, at surface value, merely a two-syllable word.
Maria Catherine Trefil is a Romani writer and researcher based in Fort Bragg, California. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.