The People You Only Think You Know

[A disclaimer before this article commences. The use of the word gypsy is a privilege of ethnicity, not of gadje, or non-Roma people. It is considered by many Roma a pejorative. While some gypsies are fine with it as common usage—the Romanichal of the UK are often fine with it, and many Spanish gypsies will insist you call them gitanos—it is by no means acceptable by all. Roma or Romany are the proper terms, unless you are speaking to Sinti or Travellers, who should be titled appropriately.]

“Roma/Sinti/Traveller people are people first…meaning we have  different tastes, ideas, interests, abilities. Our ethnic identity is a core part of our lives, but that’s not ALL that we are.” – @ImaniKushan

Let’s rewind in time, almost twenty years, to me sitting in a dank basement bedroom with a gaggle of my fellow nerds about to play a new tabletop RPG. We’re fantasy nerds, a creepy bunch at heart, and White Wolf’s World of Darkness called to us almost as much as midnight runs to McDonalds for fries and shakes.  I’m skimming the book to pick what kind of vampire I want to play, and I stumble across the clan Ravnos.  It’s a pregnant pause.

I’m going to borrow a quote from the fandom Wiki[1] for the abbreviated version:

“…the Ravnos are charlatans who gleefully practice their arts of  deception and theft. Misunderstood as a clan of gypsies and tricksters…”

They later go on to talk about how Ravnos are all criminals whose vices included plagiarism and mass murder. The mass murder is such a nice touch; hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered during the Porajmos—the Romanes word for the Holocaust. Eighty percent of European Roma were eradicated.

When I say gypsy, gadje conjure an idea that’s been reinforced over and over by our fictions. Picture a traveling wagon (a vardo, in Romanes), an old woman with veils and bells telling your fortune over a crystal ball. She has intuition, or magic, as a result of her ethnicity and, if you jingle your coin, she’ll lay an evil curse in your name. Perhaps the image is of a scantily clad woman dancing seductively for the pleasure of men, her body exposed for a leering crowd. Or perhaps there’s an image of a dark young man stealing babies and running off into the night. (There’s a reason “gypped” is rejected by the Roma people.)

These depictions of gypsy identity are flawed.

First things first, a diddicoy (mixed-blood Romany) raised outside of the itinerant culture cannot possibly outline all you need to know about the gypsy people in a single, short article. If you want to explore the subject, I point you toward one of our foremost scholars, Dr. Ian Hancock, a Romanichal of British descent whose scholarship speaks not for all of us, but for many (Dr. Hancock used his own text, We Are The Romany People[2], to teach Roma culture at University of Texas at Austin.) But know that a straight answer to “Who are the gypsy people?” is difficult beyond a single truth: gypsy people share ethnicity. They are real people, not fictional ones. Gypsy is not for any itinerant identity who wants to claim it. Gypsy is not a synonym for wanderlust. Gypsy is not a fashion to don and abandon. Real, actual Romany people are descended from a performer caste of people who abandoned India between the tenth and thirteenth centuries for Europe and then dispersed, integrating their  Indian culture with the culture of the places they traveled. Other scholarly research indicates many Roma are descended from mercenary troops who were “stationed” far and wide but never made it home.

Then there are the years of slavery and forced relocation at the hands of gadje, which moved people around, albeit against their will.

In all of these eventualities, the gypsy people went, and they went far. This expansive diaspora is why it’s hard to make catch-all statements. There are as many as a million Roma in the United States[3]. Eight-hundred thousand in Brazil[4]. Twelve million in Europe[5] by last census counts. Those numbers are likely short, too—we’re hard to track. Gypsy people often live beyond the rules of the gadje world as the gadje world is unsafe thanks to racism and the prevalent reinforcement in media as Roma being dishonest thieves. For this reason, many Roma have two names—one for the gypsies, one for the gadje—and tend to remain insular, only revealing certain information to their own kind, including birth records. As such, a headcount is impossible, but estimates indicate as many as twenty million gypsy people living worldwide.

Twenty million people is a lot of people to do a disservice to when stereotypical portrayals of gypsies are the only representation we see. Let’s circle back around to the problem examples outlined earlier. The magical gypsy. Remember how I said our culture is the result of where we emigrated from and where we landed? Some places we landed (I’ll speak to the Welsh Kale side of things as that’s closest to me) had customs of magic, and so those particular Roma will have personal beliefs that could be considered magical. But many—I’ll go so far as to say most—don’t have that as part of their living truths, and the  assignment of it can be at best upsetting, at worst insulting. Roma have cultural touchstones that are more spiritual than magical. The concept of marime laws, or spiritual and physical cleanliness edicts, is a widely embraced tenet of daily life (that is, like all things gypsy, different from person to person and dictated by who your family is, where they traveled to, and how they’ve integrated traditional customs into modern living). Misunderstood, it’s magical mumbo jumbo. Misrepresenting it as a parlor trick diminishes a key part of core identity.

An example I use so people better understand this: imagine I say to someone of the Christian faith, “How cool that wizard Jesus is, conjuring fish and wine for great parties!” They’d be offended, and rightfully so.  Reducing gypsy custom and spirituality to “a cool magical aside” is equally affronting.

Reducing any part of a people is problematic—I mentioned the trope of the gypsy woman as a seductress. Like most impoverished communities, gypsies suffer staggering rates of sexual assault. Portraying the women as promiscuous (which goes against the reality that many gypsy women are modest, remember those marime laws) reinforces the notion that “they are asking for it.” When you combine that with police antiziganism, not only are gypsies positioned for victimhood, but there’s little recourse for victims post-assault. That same antiziganism among authorities manifests when  discussing Roma and thievery. Any population suffering epidemic poverty will have higher rates of theft as a matter of survival, but the notion that it’s part of the actual ethnicity is preposterous. And yet it persists.

There is much to understand about the gypsy people—everything from how each pocket of the diaspora has its own microculture to how modern gypsies work hard to advocate for their less-fortunate brethren. Millions of people deserve to be seen, to be included in the arts, but the challenge is to present us honestly and fairly, something gadje have yet to do well.

In pursuit of such inclusion, I presented some of the familija with the same question: “What do you wish writers and creatives would do better in their portrayals of Roma/Sinti/Travellers?” Here, presented without editorializing, are their voices.

i think what I most wish creatives would understand is that we have a very diverse culture and aren’t monolithic in any sense of the word. our customs, language, and other cultural aspect vary by vitsa. Furthermore, write about Roma who aren’t mystical!! there are many of us who follow practices that may be considered magical, but there are just as many who are orthodox religious, or atheist. mysticism is in no way innately Romany. Last, i think it’s important the Roms of all skin tones are represented in creative works. Dark skin Roma have stories that need to be told just as much as lighter-skinned ones.” – @risskybitch

“What can people do better? They can look at the history of craftsmanship and invest in creating skilled characters. If it’s set in the future, look into how those skills can develop in the future. What is a tinsmith going to be doing in 2100? Want a ‘fortune teller’? What will a ‘fortune telling’ look like in 2100? Alternatively, what DID it look like? Also remember that not everyone is fantastical, it’s ok to have normal interests and behaviours.

Don’t confuse Roma culture with poverty and the repercussions of slavery. What does, and what would, the home of someone who abides by strict marime (hygiene) laws look like?

Majority of Roma globally are settled. Do with that what you will.

But the golden rule, stereotypes do not need to be repeated to be challenged. Thinking of putting in a line like ‘well some people say they’re x but I’ve only had good dealings with them’ or ‘there are bad apples in my bunch.’ Please STOP repeating and reinforcing stereotypes. I do not see the necessity of having to do this, it’s just racist. This also includes lines such as ‘in the old world they used to call them z but we don’t  anymore’.   Just don’t. If z isn’t appropriate just don’t put it in. I’ve learnt the majority of racial slurs by simply being told NOT to say them.”  – @romagraphic

“Roma/Sinti/Traveller people are people first…meaning we have  different tastes, ideas, interests, abilities. Our ethnic identity is a core part of our lives, but that’s not ALL that we are. We are dynamic. Allow your creativity in making a GRT character celebrate that. It’s too often that you find these character’s sole responsibility is to be the “gypsy” of the story, or their ethnic identity is the main focus of the character in a story where that’s only relevant to that one character. “She’s a detective…and a gypsy…using her powers of intuition” type of things make me want to scream. It corners us back into that ethnic fairy tale box where we are only valuable for the exoticization of us.” – @ImaniKushan

“For things involving GRT people as characters try to include GRT  humour from our own perspective as well as the visual touchstones that are the usual shorthands. I realize that is massively broad, but like, when our culture is so heavily transmitted with stories, jokes, wordplay, multilingual puns and code-shifting it feels wrong to have Gypsy characters whose sense of humour is indistinguishable from that of the gorjers and has none of our collective voice at all.

[Also] you could almost argue that we suffer from hypervisibility-  everyone knows what a Gypsy looks like, but nobody knows any Gypsies. Or, so they think. So, maybe more of us who straddle the line between “fast talking scrap dealer who lives in a twin axle with his wife and six kids” and “settled professional whom you’d never know was Romany unless you asked them directly” because that line is a whole county where most of us live.” – @sivomengro

“Romany traditions are not interchangeable. What is integral to one vitsa may be nonsensical or even marime to another.

– It is not antiziganist to portray Roma in our traditional occupations, like metal work, horse breeding, and divination, but depictions of Roma and crime are so fraught with white supremacy that they’re essentially non-touchable for gadje.

– We are not trapped in the 15th century.

– Most modern Roma are settled. Itinerancy in Europe was essentially destroyed by fascist genocide and communist assimilation, and depictions of our itinerant history, especially whimsically, without addressing its  destruction can be deeply painful to us.

– Most Roma are Christian or Muslim and our ‘traditional practices’ often reflect that.” – @Irish_Atheist

Common themes abound in these answers and act as words of caution re: how books and shows we love inadvertently do harm to an already vulnerable population. The Roma are not here to be racism-enforced archetypes. We’re not token sages, street performers, or thieves. We’re not laying curses (thank you, Thinner) to give other characters agency. We are people. Real people. People with hopes and dreams and identity beyond a handful of misunderstood “facts” that were probably not learned from actual Romany people, but from gadje misrepresenting us.

We wish to be in fiction. We wish to be part of fantasy fandom! We are here, we are part of the wonderful diversity of the world, but we wish to be represented with care, with empathy, and most of all, with an eye on truths and actuality, not opinions and views shaped by people who never understood us at all.

[1] “Ravnos.” White Wolf Wiki, whitewolf.fandom.com/wiki/Ravnos.

[2] Hancock, Ian F. “We Are the Romani People = Ame Sam e Rromane džene.” Univ. of Hertfordshire Press, 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Are-Romani-People-Ian-Hancock/dp/1902806190/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1.

[3] Heimlich, Evan. “Gypsy Americans.” Countries and Their Cultures, http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Gypsy-Americans.html.

[4] Govanhill Voice. “Roma Communities around the World: Brazil.” Govanhill Voice, 19 Feb. 2015, https://govanhillvoice.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/roma-community-around-the-world-brazil/.

[5] “Roma Integration in the EU.” European Commission, 9 Dec. 2019, ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/roma-and-eu/roma-integration-eu_en.

Hillary Monahan

Hillary Monahan is the New York Times bestselling author of Mary: The Summoning through Disney Hyperion. Her ten published novels span three pen names and incorporate everything from young adult horror to romance to adult urban fantasy. She lives in Massachusetts with her family of some parts people, too many parts hound dogs.

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