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Gypsy: What’s in a Name?

Gypsy [noun]: A member of a traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and now live chiefly in south and southwest Asia, Europe, and North America: Romani, Rom, Romany

What’s a Gypsy?

A Gypsy is a Romani person. The term is now also often used in the United Kingdom to describe several of the other ethnic traveller groups, Scottish (Narkin) and Irish (Pavee) travellers.

But isn’t a Gypsy anyone who travels?

Not really. Originally, the term gypsy was applied only to Romani people. The word originates from ‘Egyptian’. Because Romani people are historically dark (although now many Rom in Western Europe are ostensibly ‘white’) they were thought to be from Egypt and hence, were called Egyptians, which became shortened to ‘Gyptian’ and then to Gypsy.

But now it means something different, right?

Yes and no. The word has now been taken to mean a free-spirited wanderer but there are many issues with this. This very modern derivation of the word only became a ‘thing’ as hippie counter-culture types began to use the term to describe a lifestyle. The problem with that derivation is that the lifestyle associated with the word gypsy is a fantastical, fetishized, and stereotypical association. So, to use ‘gypsy’ to describe a business, brand or lifestyle plays into these stereotypes and fetishizes a people.

Black guys have big dicks, Native Americans have mystical powers, and gypsies are free-spirited wanderers without a care in the world… Um, no.

Aren’t Gypsies free-spirited wanderers without a care in the world?

No. The Romani people are considered one of the most systematically oppressed people in the world. 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. 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 where in several countries they are ineligible for citizenship (despite being in these countries for more than 500 years), are routinely attacked, and suffer greater attention and persecution by the police.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiziganism

Discrimination still occurs in more latent ways in other countries like the US, Australia, and here in New Zealand. A testament to this casual persecution and ostracisation is the loss of language, and traditional names and customs, which is why 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.

Ok…but there’s no discrimination in Aotearoa, right?

We ARE lucky that the type of racial profiling and discrimination doesn’t happen in New Zealand as it does in Europe. Particularly as most Rom here, despite being part of a BIPOC ethnic group are ‘white’ and are afforded the privilege and advantage that entails. I can’t claim to have been discriminated against in any major way because of my Rom-rat. But that situation can change when people know you’re Rom or posh-rat (literally ‘half-blood’ but referring to people of mixed Romani descent). For example, in a work-situation a co-worker from Europe was talking about the ‘Gypsy problem’ in his home country in Europe and how Romani people are rapists, murderers, and thieves. I mentioned that I am part Romani and he said, “Oh but you’re not like ‘them’…you’re one of the good ones”… I’d also be very wary of showing my arm tattoo of the Romani flag in Europe.

Also, whenever one of our community have spoken about the appropriation of gypsy and Romani dress and custom and this has been picked up by the media, we have been met with racist vitriol that quite frankly really surprised me.

The screenshots below show the response to an article in which we asked for NZ businesses to reconsider their use of the term Gypsy and the fetishized dress and customs of Rom people.

The shots above show just a few of the racist stereotypes and tropes, namely that gypsies are thieves, that they are undesirable immigrants (my family on my Dad’s side first arrived here over 170 years ago for what it’s worth), that they are bludgers (in this country, I know zero Rom on a benefit). Other tropes often emerge, such as that Romani people aren’t ‘part of the country’ and haven’t for example fought for it. In fact, Romani have volunteered in large numbers, especially in the UK (where most NZ Rom derive from) and were especially prominent in the Great War, where they were mostly mounted infantry due to their horse-skills).

Surely it’s OK to use the term Gypsy to describe my product or business?

Not really.

People claim that gypsy simply means travelling or ‘free-spirited’ but if that were the case, why not use those words?

The reason is simple, Gypsy is evocative…and why is it evocative?… because it directly describes the Romani people.

This is a very important point because it is a stylized and fetishized appropriation that does further harm by promoting an idea of a people as free-spirited wanderers, while also pandering to the same perceptions (or swindlers, cursers, thieves) and completely disregards the very real plight of Romani people in Europe who are still being systematically persecuted simply for who they are. It’s also just a shitty thing to do, to be part of the group that oppressed the Rom for so long and to then profit from a stereotype of them because you have a ‘gypsy soul’ or some other rubbish. In a nutshell, using the term and evoking the race in your brand or product is somewhere between playing dress-up (grow up) and being a full-on Rachel Dolezal.

One of the biggest ironies was the black squares and ‘muting’ by people with ‘Gypsy’ in their social handles or business/product names in response to the recent BLM protests and the subsequent upsurge in support for and awareness for BIPOC issues.

Jason Momoa – Not gypsy
‘GypsySoul Designs’ – Definitely not Gypsy

How can I help?

Just be aware. You’re a grown-up and we are lucky to live in a country in which we have the freedom to express ourselves in any way that you want. BUT, if you think that your use of Gypsy isn’t cool, then stop, change your brand, product, or handle. It’s an easy thing to do.

Several companies have done this to great effect.

For example, Fire Tonic (a great product!) realised that their use of Gypsy was inappropriate and changed the by-line on their labels from ‘Traditional Gypsy Recipe’ to ‘Traditional Folk Remedy’:

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