Antiziganism, and Rage Therupon

| Sunday, April 10, 2011 | |
Gypsy is a racial slur.

I haven't written about this before because most of the arguments I've had (always arguments, never discussions) and the behavior people have demonstrated make me so angry and upset that I just can't deal with it anymore. A lot of the time it's very difficult for me to remain calm and "reasonable" when someone says something that offends or upsets me so profoundly that I either want to yell at them or burst into tears, which happens most often with the kind of people who get a kick out of continuing to be hurtful or offensive just to upset you even more (similar what often happens when someone sees you not eating the baklava and discovers you're a vegan, and immediately tosses out an obligatory "hurr hurr Ima go eat a hotdog now hurr hurr".)

In a lot of circles, the encouraged response when met with such Rapier Wit is to smile beatifically or even mentally chant a mantra (I'm looking at you, Colleen) and say something like "I'm sorry you feel that way. Care for some literature?" because doing otherwise would convince said raconteur that you're "crazy" and subsequently destroy any effort to convince hir of anything. That's what's encouraged, anyway.

But I just can't do it.

I've tried, believe me, I've tried. And then it occurred to me: Why can't I get upset? Why can't I become infuriated and demonstrate it? What are the odds that someone already so smug and sadistic could be truly persuaded by anything I might say?

I've had it with that bullshit. And I'm going to get mad.

(And if you ever pull some crap of the "don't get all emotional, little lady" variety, I will publicly, mercilessly, verbally destroy you.)

That said, I'm finally going to write about one of those things I can't be calm about.

In whichever language you speak, gypsygitano(a)Zigeuner(in), gitane, is a racial slur. More politically enlightened countries have made serious efforts to stop the use of them in more politically enlightened countries (and no, I don't apologize for my use of "enlightened".) The proper name is Roma or Romani (or Sinti-- more on that later); in the U.S. you'll probably hear Romani more often, so I'll be using that name here.

I've pointed this out before, and have at times gotten responses that go something like: "I met a Romani person... uh, somewhere... and xe called hirself a gypsy! So I'm not racist!" 

Frankly, I don't care what the person you met said. Gypsy is a racial slur.

When this comes up in conversation (not very often, but it's happened), and the person I'm talking to isn't actively aggressive about it, I try to give hir the benefit of the doubt, because most of the time, people truly don't know that it is a racial slur, and use Romani from then on. Some people don't understand why anyone would have a problem with gypsy, and some people get strangely defensive and insist that they have the right to use it, for reasons unknown and unexplained. (Some etymological background: the term gypsy stems from the medieval, and mistaken, idea that the Romani people originated in Egypt, and carries very offensive historical baggage, mostly related to the systemized persecution and and attempted genocide of the Romani people.)

Using any other racial slur in public would get you shot down in an instant, probably also with expressions of disgust or outrage. But not gypsy. (And even more bizarrely, many people seem to think that it's perfectly all right to do absolutely hilarious impressions which often include said person tying the sleeves of hir hoodie around hir head to resemble a scarf and intoning something similar to "Iyam gooingk to thell yourrr forrtyune! Oooooh!" (waving hands around))

don't understand how any of that is funny. I also don't understand why anyone, upon giving the situation serious thought, could still insist that it's okay.

My most recent, and so far, most upsetting, encounter with behavior like this happened when I joined a history forum that looked interesting. I registered, did the whole email back-and-forth thing, and finally got to see the discussion boards. And the first thing I saw was a thread called "the gypsy solution". 

The use of the word solution was unnerving enough, but I figured that there would be some people commenting in the thread who would call out other people on their racism. Unfortunately, this was not the case; the thread consisted of various people opining on how awful gypsies are, including this little gem:

[Jerkass]  just sent me this video about Gypsies in bulgaria, it is amazing, and almost unbelievable. They actually have pick-pocket and theft schools, etc.!!
It's hard to believe things like this go on in the 21st century.

Honestly? It's hard to believe that people like you exist in the 21st century.

The thread eventually reached a point where I had to jump in, because I thought that maybe people were just ignorant about the stereotypes they were subscribing to and their consequences. (And because of one thing that really upset me: a joke about seeing a Romani man driving a BMW and asking "Whose BMW was it?" Because apparently a Romani can't possibly be successful enough to earn an income, and must have stolen the car.)

I'm going to quote my comment in its entirety, because I thought I put it pretty clearly:

LaScaramoucheI suspect the long history of Antiziganism in Europe contributes tremendously to the deemphasizing of O Baro Porrajmos (the Romani Holocaust), and probably that same discrimination actively encourages the general (and appalling) ignorance of Romani history. It's hard for me to adequately express how angry it makes me when I see pernicious stereotypes flung around, and how shocked I was to see those very same stereotypes in this thread. "Whose BMW is it?" Is that meant to be funny? (And really, is no one aware that "gypsy" is an ethnic slur?)

Right now I don't have any statistics on the current levels of poverty and crime in European Romani communities, but try to understand the effect a long history of state-sanctioned brutality and persecution has on an as of yet still marginalized and persecuted minority. For the past eight centuries, the interaction between Romani and non-Romani communities has usually gone something like this:

You're a member of a newly-settled Romani community (kumpaniya in Vlax Romani), but one day the indigenous people of your new homeland decide that you're too different to be considered fellow human beings, and that the best course of action is to:
  • burn you alive in the town square (common throughout Europe until the late 18th century)
  • terrorize you with periodic Heidenjagden (lit. "heathen-hunts") in which the local nobility attack your settlement with hunting dogs, murder everyone in sight, and subsequently display the mutilated corpses of your children as trophies (common in Germany until the 19th century)
  • torture you for the entertainment of the populace (Giessen, 1727)
  • enslave you (Ottoman Empire; Romania until 1864)
  • kidnap your children and give them to 'good' non-Romani families in order to eradicate your culture (Austro-Hungarian Empire, late 18th century)
  • attempt to exterminate your entire people (1939-1945)
Oh, yes, and also use a variety of racist stereotypes to prevent you from getting any well-paying job, forcing you and your family to scratch out a living in godawful poverty in dilapidated slums without running water and next to (if not actually inside) the local landfill, and fend off nightly assaults by drunken hoods who think flinging rocks at your grandparents as they walk home is a fun way to spend the evening.

The morality of stealing a wallet would be the least of your worries.

Only an hour later, this particular charmer (henceforth known as Schmuck) put in his two cents:

SchmuckForget political correctness, no one is going to stand up for a group of people who are nothing but petty thieves. 

You can harp on all you like, but the GYPSYS only have themselves to blame, for their current state. All the above mentioned crimes happened to other ethnic groups in Europe at one time or another, and you don't see them living in squalor constantly commiting petty crime. You can't help a people who don't want to be helped.

Being the insufferable pedant that I am, my first impulse was to snarkily correct his spelling. I'd been trying to keep calm so far, but I got too mad and did resort to snark:

LaScaramouche: Exhibit A, everybody!

SchmuckYup i am bigoted by my own experiences with the GYPSIES in central Europe, and i was only their for 3 months so how can you expect people who live with them constantly to feel.

At least his capitalization's consistent. Could use spellcheck, though.

We went back and forth for a while, with him growing increasingly more abusive, and the topic of Romani in North America came up. I mentioned the Mexican Kalderash, and...

Schmuckdid a quick google search on it why are their Romani in Mexico????

quick Google search indeed, Schmuck ol' buddy!

LaScaramouche: The Mexican Kalderash people originally emigrated from Romania to Mexico after emancipation (mid to late 1860s), in order to escape local poverty. (A lot of people went to the U.S. and Canada too, but they came mostly through Ellis Island during the periods of mass immigration from southern and eastern Europe.)

No response. Nothing. Not even from the three Eastern European guys who seemed to take so much delight in insulting the Romani communities in their countries. (Dude, I don't care if you're Czech and an OMGtotalexpert!!! You are a racist.) The following day, in the "introduce yourself" thread, Schmuck left a comment saying that the two of us got off to a "rocky start", but we should keep talking. I never responded and left the forum, but I'll respond here:

No, I'm not talking to you. You're a fucking racist with no desire to learn anything new, and I don't want anything more to do with you.

(And all I wanted was to talk about Ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire. I had my Tenth Doctor icon and everything.)

A lot of the time, when I use concrete historical examples of Antiziganism, I'm met with "you're one-sided," and "you just don't want to admit that gypsies are all petty thieves". Putting aside the complete absurdity of labeling an entire ethnic group as criminals, statements like these don't do much for your credibility: "My friend knows this guy whose cousin's grandmother once had her wallet stolen by a (gaspgypsy! I went on a Rick Steves tour to Prague, and when we were at the Starbucks located conveniently next to a local cafe, a gypsy playing the violin for spare change played music that I DIDN'T LIKE! Once I was in Frankfurt in the winter and a gypsy woman using a garbage bag as a blanket stared at me mournfully and made me uncomfortable because I didn't give her one of my five hundred or so Euros!"

But I'm the one who's one-sided, of course.

Before I continue, I think I should give some relevant background:

The people later known as the Roma/Romani/Sinti began to migrate from northern and central India c. 1100 after being pushed out of the area by invading armies from the north, and slowly traveled westward until reaching Europe sometime in the fourteenth century. The reaction of most communities was predictable: upon being confronted with a migratory people who didn't resemble them in appearance, language, or culture, they labeled them "Saracens" (Palestinians) and proceeded to attack them. Despite this, the Romani people and culture survived, and the group fragmented several linguistic/cultural subgroups developed, including:

Eastern Europe: the Kalderash (kal-deh-rash)
Balkans: the Vlax (vlah-ks)
Germany and Austria: the Sinti (seen-tee)
France: the Manouche (ma-noosh)
Spain: the Kale (kah-leh)
Britain and Ireland: the Romanichal  (roh-man-ee-chal)

Also, some people identify themselves with their clan/family group, so named because they at one point specialized in a specific skill, such as the Lautari (musicians), Rudari (carpenters), Argintari (silversmiths), ex: "I'm Rudari" or "I'm Ursari" (bear trainers).

Another point that deserves mention is the Romani concept of marhime (lit. impurity), which descends directly from medieval Hinduism and its specific rules for cleanliness, and is decidedly misogynistic in tone. And here we go: "Gypsies have a tradition that's sexist/misogynistic/(often racist, ex. labeling non-Romani people, gazhe, as also unclean))! So I'm not racist! Hah!"

Yes, marhime is ridiculously sexist and racist. However, that ridiculous sexism and racism is what's causing it to die out, and the younger people (Millennials and their Boomer-aged parents) who still adhere to it are in the minority.

And here we go again: "Yeah? Yeah? Well I heard a story about some gypsies who kidnapped a little girl to marry her to their equally young son! Gypsies are criminals and freaks! So I'm not racist!"

Ah, okay. I see. So, following this train of thought to its logical conclusion:

"An Australian committed a crime! Because Australians are, uh... all descended from 18th-century convicts! Yeah, all of them! Therefore Australian=criminal! I got logick, see?!"

The idea that Romani=criminal makes the same amount of sense.

It's ideas and prejudices like that caused many Romani emigrating to North and South America to deliberately hide (and still hide) their cultural identity to avoid possible persecution, and identified themselves only with their nationality, i.e. Turkish, Greek, Romanian, etc. (According to my grandmother, the most common Spanish term she heard was ungaros, or Hungarians.) And these prejudices culminated in the much-ignored atrocity that was the Romani Holocaust, or O Baro Porrajmos (lit. "the great devouring"), during which nearly 500,000 Romani were murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies as part of its/their genocidal campaign. 

But it didn't end there.

Amnesty International lists most of the more recent examples of Antiziganism, including Czech gangs attacking tenements housing Romani families with Molotov cocktails and machine guns, a city evicting Romani homeowners without notice, bulldozing their houses in front of them, and leaving them standing in the road with their furniture, and, more famously, how Romanian president Traian Basescu decided to silence a female journalist of Romani heritage by shouting "Tziganca imputita!" ("Dirty gypsy!")

(And to France: Really, guys? Really?)

What is perhaps the most well-known example of this attitude occurred in 2008 in Naples, Italy, when two young Romani girls drowned in the surf. The lifeguards pulled them out of the water and covered them with towels while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, in front of a crowd of curious tourists who gawked for five minutes or so, and then proceeded to return to their spot under their beach umbrellas.

But of course, the chorus continues wailing: "Those gypsies who moved into that dilapidated tenement across the street are going to make the crime rate skyrocket! They're going to build ugly shacks right next to our scenic railroad tracks! Now our young people are going to spend their free time throwing rocks at them instead of studying! Woe!"

And, unbelievably: "Now a bunch of palm-reading con artists are going to follow me around begging for money and creeping me out! And you know how those gypsies are!"

First of all, it's possible that a con artist offering to read your palm or whatever may be Romani or of Romani heritage, but the majority of con artists are/do not. Secondly, this particular sentiment leads into one of the dumber stereotypes I've heard, that the Romani have some kind of magical cursing power. (It's hard to believe that some people take this seriously in 2011, but it exists.) The odd thing is, the people who believe superstitions like that never seem to ask themselves why an ethnic group with omgmagicpowahs!!! would have a huge number of people living in abject poverty. And no, I don't care if said magic powahs comprise a local Croatian belief or whatever and is therefore Uncritiqueable. Think about it. It's stupid.

But even after all of this, a lot of the time, these conversations end with: (shrug) "I don't know who's going to care whether I say gypsy or not. I've never met a Romani person."

Actually, it's possible you already have. It's possible that some of your classmates, colleagues, or professors, or maybe the people who work at the local bookshop or hospital or who volunteer with you at social justice or environmental organizations, or the law-abiding citizens next door, are or have Romani heritage.

They've just chosen not to tell you.

Interestingly enough, another common response has been: (snort) "Why are you getting so upset about this? Why do you care?"

Ah. So you have to be a member of an oppressed group to give a damn about their welfare. Who'd've thought. I guess all that time and energy I've spent getting upset has been wasted. Getting upset about the brutal murder of a transgendered person by a police officer, or getting all worked up about people who think prison rape is fodder for jokes on late-night TV, how the U.S. government completely ignores Native Americans living in homes without heat or running water, the genocide in the Eastern Congo, the violence in Libya and post-Mubarak Egypt, the human rights violations in China and Burma, or the thousands upon thousands of Japanese people who are now homeless and grieving. Oh, and that probably applies to the environment, too: don't bother getting worked up about drowning polar bears or global warming, or deforestation or whaling. What's the point?

I'm not a transgendered person. I'm not in prison or the military. I'm not Navajo. I'm not Congolese, Libyan, Egyptian, Chinese, Burmese, or Japanese. (And I'm not a polar bear, either! Shocking, isn't it?!) But it's just so much easier not to give a damn about human rights, animal rights, and the environment. I guess I can drift around in a state of Zen-like bliss now.

And for the other answer to "Why do you care?" Read: What the hell do you have to do with this?

Well, it has something to do with my answer above: chances are you already know someone of Romani heritage. But as I said, xe's chosen not to tell you.

I wonder why.


Coda: My faith in humanity was somewhat restored by the comments on Le Monde and other French-language news sites, and also major Spanish and German news outlets, where huge number of commenters demonstrated outrage at the incidents mentioned above, and the subsequent behavior of the authorities.

Coda Mark Two:

Interesting Cultural Thing: a clip from poet and playwright Gabriel García Lorca*'s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), later adapted by choreographer Carlos Saura into a flamenco ballet. Note: the Romani people are almost entirely responsible for the development of this dance and music style, brought from India to Spain via north Africa, and with North African musical influence.

The Plot So FarLa Novia (the bride, in white) is at her wedding to El Novio (the groom, wearing hat), with a wedding party including La Madre (the groom's mother, in gray wig). However, La Novia leaves the wedding to run away with her lover Leonardo (not present), and La Mujer (Leonardo's wife, in black) discovers that La Novia has run away with her husband, and interrupts the celebration.

*The author often mentioned how Andalusian Romani culture influenced his work.


quinn Says:
March 26, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Great post, I learned a lot, thank you.

Post a Comment