by Cliff Harvey
The term Gypsy is commonly used in all manner of brand-names, products, and product descriptions. It has become synonymous with a free-spirited, wandering lifestyle, and thus, is evocative for those people who use it. But the use of the term by non-Romani people is incredibly problematic.
Gypsy is an exonym for the Romani people. This means that it was a name given to the people by those external to the culture, in this case, Europeans who mistakenly thought the Romani people were Egyptians, and thus, this became shortened to ‘Gyptian’ and eventually ‘Gypsy’. This takes on other forms too, like Gyppo (or Gippo/Jippo), which have negative connotations, and lends itself to the pejorative ‘gypped’, meaning ‘cheated’ or ‘swindled’. While most people would agree (at least when they become aware of the etymology) that using ‘gypped’ to describe being cheated or swindled is flat-out racist, the use of Gypsy, it would seem, is seen as less clear.
Romanticising and caricaturising ethnicities is a form of racism
Romanticising a lifestyle and the inevitable stereotyping that occurs, is in itself a form of discrimination. It is discriminatory because Romani have been systematically persecuted for their entire existence. Being Romani-Gypsy was, until recently a very precarious existence!
Many of our forebears could not openly practice their customs, dress, or language, and so, to see those things poorly imitated now by new-agers and modern-day hippie types is incredibly hurtful to Roma.
Romani have endured systematic oppression, criminalisation, and genocide for around 1000 years since the diaspora from northern India. They have been criminalised by race, forbidden in many places from owning land, enslaved (Romanichal, English and Scottish Romani, were rounded up and sent to the Americas as slaves), and killed.
As recently as 70 years ago, 25-50% of Europe’s Romani population were killed in the Porajmos (Holocaust), and many had been victims of periodic pogroms in eastern Europe.
This discrimination still occurs in more latent ways. Romani are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and bear some of the worst socio-economic statistics in the Union. For example, while 17% of Europe’s population overall is considered at risk of poverty, 80% of Roma face the same risk.
Romani still suffer systematic, societal, and individual persecution, especially in Europe, but also in other countries such as the US, Australia, Canada and here in New Zealand.
Testament to this casual persecution and ostracisation is the loss of language, and traditional names and customs. The reason why so many of the Romani population in countries like New Zealand, descended from Romanichal forebears have distinctly ‘normal’ surnames like Cooper, Lee, or Smith; names, taken to avoid persecution.
Using ‘Gypsy’ and imagery associated with Romani is cultural appropriation
Using the term Gypsy to describe a business ethos, product, or fashion statement of some type is clearly a case of racial appropriation. There is typically no consideration for the plight of Romani throughout history, nor for the continued oppression they receive, in Europe especially. Thankfully, people are now waking up to caricaturising of Romani and other ethnicities at Halloween and the backlash against ‘gypsy’ costume (and war bonnets, ‘blackface’ etc) and yet, having a ‘gypsy fair’, or a ‘gypsy caravan’, or ‘gypsy-style’ that caricatures Romani customs, tradition, and dress, seems to fly under the radar.
A common retort is that the word simply does not mean the same thing anymore, but that argument holds no water. The very identity that people are trying to claim and evoke stems from Romani, misidentified as Egyptian, and thus called Gypsies. It is almost identical to calling oneself an ‘Indian’ because you like dream catchers and wearing a feathered head-dress… or even worse, calling that lifestyle ‘Injun-style’.
Much of the ‘Gypsy’ lifestyle simply conflates many minority and indigenous cultural memes with a mish-mash of new-age concepts…that’s why you see dream-catchers, crystals, poi, and many other things labelled as ‘gypsy’.
It is not the prerogative of non-Romani to determine the fair use of racial exonyms and pejoratives.
Many Romani do self-identify as Gypsy. This has occurred for many reasons, namely that as Romani were referred to as that for so long, it became a lingua franca, so to speak, and something that others could also understand. Try telling someone that you are Romani and they will, more often than not, simply stare back blankly. Whereas, say, Romani-Gypsy and they’ll at least have some idea. But it is also a way to reclaim the disempowerment of being misidentified, ridiculed, and caricaturised. That’s why, it’s not so much a case of the word itself being offensive (unlike Gypped, which is!) but that the use of it, especially for commercial purposes, by non-Rom, is.
If you slap the name of an ethnicity onto a product, you’re profiting by appropriation
Think of a few hypothetical examples:
Imagine a food truck that served faux Kosher cuisine, replete with yarmulke wearing serving staff and called itself ‘Kike Caravan’. Would that be OK?
What about a bunch of pakeha wearing fake moko, and wearing grass skirts, calling a restaurant ‘Hori Hangi’….
Or a bunch of people dressing up in blackface and touring the country in the ‘Original Negro Fair’ because they liked African American culture and traditional music and felt that they had a ‘negro-soul’.
I think you get the point…
There is practically no other racial grouping for which caricaturising, appropriation of cultural icons, or the blatant use of racist terms (like gypped) is still so accepted.
Now, I understand that a lot of people don’t really think much about it, and don’t mean any harm.
The question though, is not whether someone is racist by ignorance, the bigger question is, are you brave enough to change your actions when you learn more about us?
I have contacted several people about their use of Gypsy, and the reaction has typically been heartening. Several have immediately changed their twitter or Instagram handles or made commitments to change product names. Others, even those who claim to be holistic or spiritual, have instead come back with patronising responses like “well we’re all the same deep down”, or “I feel like I have a gypsy soul/was gypsy in a past life” (excuse me while I throw up in my mouth just a little), or that ‘the word means different things to different people”.
Uh uh. No, it doesn’t. Gypsy means Romani. Any implication that it simply means a free-spirited traveller doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when the etymology of the word is clearly from Rom, misidentified, into Egyptian and subsequently, Gypsy
So, just don’t.
There are better words to use, like traveller, carny/carnie, showie, new-age, wanderer, nomad etc. And I guess, at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, do you want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history?