Illustration by Lisa Chan.
It’s probably safe to assume most Americans are familiar with the term “Gypsy,” whether it is used as a hashtag on Instagram, another TLC reality TV show, or just a culturally appropriative Halloween costume. However it’s important to consider how this commonly used word is a slur to one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world, the Roma.
The Romani are a group that has faced persecution since their departure from India almost a thousand years ago; in fact, the violation of their human rights ranges from being targeted in the Holocaust to forced sterilizations until as late as the 1990s. Needless to say, the Romani are often unwelcome to any country they reside in. They face blatant discrimination and receive little to no government aid, with 90% of Roma people below the poverty line.
Americans are often ignorant to the Romani ethnicity, often thinking Romani is synonymous with Romanian and “Gypsy” is merely a choice lifestyle. This allows Americans to casually use the slur “Gypsy” to describe their vagabond souls after attending a weekend at Coachella. The ignorance towards this ethnic group is widespread, from those who are unfamiliar with the Romani to those who are aware of them and choose to use the slur in a demeaning way anyway.
The Roma people are better known in European countries, but acknowledgement of this minority and sympathy for their struggles are not one and the same. Antiziganism, or racism against the Roma, is widespread and common in Europe. Racially aggravated abuse is so common that 9 out of 10 Romani children have faced it in their short lifespans. Antiziganism is so widespread that it manifests everywhere, from store-owners refusing to serve Romani patrons to the judicial system neglecting[ADD] the Roma experience oppression from all sides.
Even those in the legal system refuse to acknowledge hate crimes against the Roma as racially motivated. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Crimes that may have had a bias motivation are frequently not registered, investigated, or prosecuted as such,” which has many calling this the “last acceptable racism.” This is a highly problematic and ill-informed ideology, but nonetheless, makes a statement about the level of ignorance directed at the Roma.
There is a long history behind words used to label and discriminate; slurs help those already in power and allows the degradation, dehumanization and belittlement of those who are already persecuted. It seems that the Romani are comfortable referencing themselves as “Gypsies” but are not keen on “gadjos,” or outsiders, referencing them as such.
It’s prudent to acknowledge the position of privilege one is in when adopting other people’s badge of persecution as a trendy adjectival accessory. By simply telling someone not to say “Gypsy,” it opens up an important dialogue. Having this knowledge allows you to educate those who don’t know about the Romani, or walk away from someone who believes that they are undeserving of basic human respect. “Gypsies” are not a commodity, and not an adjective that should be used to describe a persecuted group of people that deserve wider recognition and empathy.