I wasn’t surprised that “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” crossed this particular line and featured “Native-inspired” headdresses and clothing. I am Romani, pejoratively referred to as “Gypsy.”
The word “Gypsy” has been used to refer to many separate groups – from European Roma and Sinti, to British Romany and Romanichal, as well as Irish and Scottish Travellers, Spanish Gitan, French Manouche, New (Age) Travellers, and people who want to live an alternative, hippie, or “Bohemian” lifestyle. These days, especially in the United States, “Gypsy” is used mostly to refer to a whole range of things that have nothing to do with an ethnicity. Throw on a couple long skirts, some hoop earrings, and mess up your hair – Gypsy, right? It has become a trope, a stereotype, and even a “fashion statement.”
However, the use of “Gypsy” (or worse, gypsy) is offensive to many of those to whom it has historically referred, particularly to Romani people. It is a term that at best is inaccurate and at worst is highly politically charged and extremely offensive. “Gypsy” dates back to the time Roma first arrived in Europe. With dark skin, hair, and eyes we were assumed to have originated in Egypt and we were widely feared and distrusted. In fact, many countries passed laws banning our way of life and language or preventing us from entering or forcing us to leave with threat of death. We were hunted as a blood sport and even enslaved for many years in the region that is now Romania. During the Second World War over one million Roma and Sinti were murdered during the Holocaust.
Contrary to the early belief that we originated in Egypt, more recent linguistic and genetic evidence indicates that we originated in Northern India and fled to Europe in the early 12th century, arriving in England in the early 1400s. Later, Romani people arrived in America aboard some of the first ships to arrive. We were brought as slaves and indentured servants with little hope of freedom. There were rumors of ships being turned away from port if they were found to contain “Gypsies.” We were denied housing and jobs and more laws were passed banning our lifestyle and culture. We were forced to hide our identity here in order to survive.
Today, throughout Europe and other parts of the world, we are still being persecuted, attacked, driven from our homes, and corralled in ghettos. In fact, Roma are widely considered to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Because of the inaccurate and offensive history of the word “Gypsy,” the name that many of us prefer is Roma (or Romani), a word taken from our own language that means “people.” By choosing to use the word ‘Gypsy,’ TLC, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Sondra Celli are demeaning and belittling our culture, as well as perpetuating inaccurate and negative stereotypes. They have defended this by insisting that participants in the show are comfortable using the word to describe themselves, even though they are not representative of all groups (perhaps even any groups) corralled under the word “Gypsy.”
They have repeatedly ignored our feelings about it and have chosen instead to stress the work and views of someone who is not Romani and who does not understand the broad cultures that exist within the umbrella of our people.
I am highlighting these issues because my community and culture are dishonored and demeaned by TLC, this show, and Sondra Celli on a regular basis. Many Romani here in the U.S. have strong ties and kinship with Native communities. In fact, we share similar histories and continued oppression and racism.
Please understand that we too are a real people, we are hurt by continual misrepresentation, racism, the continued use of a slur, and the continued denial by TLC that they have caused any harm or damage whatsoever.
We are not Gypsies, just as you are not Redskins.
Qristina Žava?ková Cummings is a Romani author, educator, and activist. Born in Slovakia and raised in the North East of England, Qristina’s Romani heritage, coupled with her diverse international experiences, places her in a unique position to illuminate issues of importance to the transnational Romani community. Qristina is also the author of a popular blog.