On the complexity of words in our racialized and colonialized world, and my own liminality...
TW: Discussion of the term “g*psy,” which I know may be a triggering word to some of my American followers in particular. I’ve done my best to tag this. Let me know if I’ve left something out.
So I need to talk about this. I really don’t want to because I feel like I’m going to be attacked for doing so. But this is my life in a super literal way, and I am taking time to process all this, with my cultural background, and my personal history, and my non-belonginess, and all the other super heavy baggage I have, and my society has, with this word and this way of life.
I’ve seen the occasional post on here talking about the culture on Tumblr of sometimes oversimplifying their activism and not understanding the full breadth of certain issues, and I’m kicking myself for it even as I type, but… today I’d like to address the international complexity of the term “gypsy.” Specifically, its use in the UK.
(Oh god, what am I doing sticking my foot in this hornet’s nest…)
All I ask is that you really just read this before you rip my head off, yeah? Please. I need to talk about this.
That word does not mean the same thing here that it means in the US, where I come from.
In America, it’s a pretty negative word to a lot of people of any degree of social consciousness. In America, that word is associated almost exclusively with the Romani people, an extremely marginalized group of POC who’ve been subject to every type of violence in existence, up to and including genocide. It is almost always used as either a slur, or an ignorantly appropriative capitalist tool. They’re the only well-known group of nomadic people Americans are familiar with in relatively modern times (since most nomadic Natives were killed or had their seasonal routes cut off long ago), and naturally, it has therefore remained a very racialized term in America. As a general rule, all nomadic peoples known to Americans are POC who have suffered genocide, sometimes to the point of extinction.
It’s fucking heavy. And that is what my brain still emotionally understands, when I hear that word. I’ve felt, and feel, that ickiness listening to someone use that word carelessly, or as if it were a trendy aesthetic™. This post is hard to write, because I have to use it.
So, Americans, I get this. ‘K? Me too. And Brits, if you’ve ever wondered why this strikes such a chord with Americans, that’s why, and this might be some handy knowledge for you to have when traveling to the US: “gypsy” is not a nice word in the US, and “Traveller” isn’t a term most Americans will recognize. We don’t have any legislation protecting Traveller rights, the way you do (inadequate as they may be). If you want to refer to the Romani, use Romani. If you want to refer to Travellers as a diverse group, use “nomadic people.”
But now I live in the UK. In the UK, “gypsy” is a government-official term, and people refer to themselves and others by this term routinely. And most confusingly, to my American sensibilities, it has little to do with your ethnicity. Even ethnic gypsies are most frequently white British, in the UK (the UK has its own native nomadic populations, especially from Ireland and Scotland). But there are also non-ethnic gypsies. It’s a term that refers more to your mode of living than to your race.
My gypsy neighbors are Irish, English, and Romani. The Irish Travellers and Romani obviously have an ethnic history of nomadism. But the ethnically English do not. He’s a Traveller, legally speaking, and part of larger gypsy society. And here, that is legally and culturally legitimate. He isn’t considered an ethnic minority, the way ethnic Travellers are, but culturally has a home under both terms.
There are other slurs in the UK for Travellers, of course. And there are also people who talk about them in a racist way (*cough* Tories *cough*). If I were to draw a comparison to American linguistics, “gypsy” in the UK is much like “queer” in America. It is simultaneously a neutral and inclusive word, and a word which is often found in the mouth of bigots. It has a complex history that has both highs and lows.
I still prefer to use Traveller, because I’m American and “gypsy” leaves a weird taste in my mouth. But that only works in writing, where it is capitalized. In speech, that term could just as easily mean kids on a gap year, and it isn’t useful for specifying nomadic people. So in speech… the word everyone uses is “gypsy.” This word which gives me the willies is now a normal part of my life. It is hard for me to get used to that. But also, apprehensively positive. What a wonderful community this is. It isn’t any stupid stereotypes. I mean, the dude a couple caravans down from me is a graphic designer. It’s just a really solid community of people who are just… really wonderful.
So… this is a major part of my existence right now. Please remember that Tumblr is an international community. Not everyone you see using that word is a racist throwing out a slur. Some of them aren’t even referring to the Romani. If they’re British, they’re probably more likely to be referring to the Irish, or to people of diverse or unknown ethnic backgrounds.
It may also be something I start talking about more often, because this is now my life. I live on wheels, in a mostly Traveller community. Legally, I’m a “New Traveller” (and the idea of referring to myself that way sends off a degree of appropriative heebjeebies that’s just unbelievable, but that is the fact of the matter). That is, I would be if anyone knew I was here. But the way these things are interacting for me, and how simultaneously uncomfortable and necessary it is to learn about them given my cultural background, means that it is something that is likely to come up. Something I will need to talk about. A consuming part of my life at the moment.
These people have taken me in, in a very real way that pretty much makes me cry when I think about it. They’ve fed me, and kept me warm, and helped me keep this hell shed from tipping over. They’ve gifted me things for my craft – the part of my life this blog is about. I don’t want to avoid talking about them as they talk about themselves, or understanding the way my self-perception is changing as this is happening, for fear I’ll be mistaken for an asshole. It feels like hiding who they proudly are, because the culture I come from has a different history than they do. I don’t live in that culture anymore, and probably never will again. I need to find some way of reconciling the dissonance with the way my life is now.
I don’t think any of this takes away from the complexity of that term. And to all you goddamn Nazis, don’t you dare take this as a reason why
it’s ok to fucking harass the Romani, or I swear I will hex the shit out of
you. And since the UK tends to follow American trends, I wouldn’t be surprised if that term eventually goes out of vogue.
But today, it is a very different word from its American counterpart, which is essential for me to fully understand in the context of both my own life, and my experience of adopting my new culture as an immigrant. And I want people to understand where I and other people in Britain are coming from when we talk about it. And I feel a need to be understood in my own life right now.
So… This was probably unwise. I’ll take my blows I guess. I’m just reaching into the dark and hoping I’ll find some understanding. This is very much part of what kind of witch I’m becoming, and more broadly, what kind of human I’m becoming.