Getting Gypped - On Roma Culture and Its Appropriation

 

OPINION PIECE: Some of the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Her Campus Agnes Scott.

**Trigger Warning** This piece contains some potentially troubling imagery of crime, death and historical occurrences.

 

The sunlight is warm and the breeze is brisk as I walk with my friend and binak (twin), to get coffee in Decatur. We look so similar that most people think that we’re twins or at least sisters. But we aren’t, she isn’t Roma like me. Her eyes aren’t green to mark her as a descendant of magic bloodlines, nor does she have my “stripper curves,” a term that some charming individuals like use to generalize the appearance of Romani women. So when we walk past stores selling pillows and shirts saying “Gypsy life” or signs that say “all your favorite gypsy styles are HERE,” her anger is on my behalf.

Like most of my friends, since she met me, Rhea has become far more aware of Roma issues. Even so, she and the others don’t feel ashamed that my family is represented in this way, though they do feel the genuine confusion that people think that it’s alright to steal my culture and make it into something two-dimensional just because there are so few of us. If these people, these gaja (outsider, non-Roma), knew me, would they still make these “gypsy” products? If they knew the history of my people, would they be so quick to try and make a buck off it? If the people who buy these products knew what it would actually be like to be a Roma in the world today, could they handle it?

    The origins and history of the Roma are brutal, bloody, and rather mysterious. Our bloodlines trace back to India, though that was so long ago that India wasn’t even called India. The Roma began as a group of people who left “India” and emigrated to Europe, however, Europeans chose not to trust us, which made it unsafe to interact with or settle near them. Even with our nomadic lifestyle, Europeans would catch and enslave us, forcing us to work as musicians and laborers. Their actions were justified by creating the term “gypsy,” as in Egypt, to imply that Roma were from there, since at the time it was morally correct to enslave Egyptians. Also, to further comfort their minds, Europeans started the stereotypes that still haunt the Roma today. They started to say that the Roma were thieves, witches, devil spawn, demons, lazy, stupid and generally untrustworthy heathens, the stuff that darane svatura (supernatural stories) are made of. From the combination of these two justifications the term “gypped” was born, an abbreviation of the slur “gypsy” that implies that a person has been stolen from or conned by a gypsy.

    Eventually, slavery was ended all across Europe, freeing the Roma and in 1933 our nation became official as a stateless nation. This means that for the first time, there was a (very) loose power structure that united all the Roma in the world, however, spread out they may be. Sadly, it did not do us any good in 1939 when World War II began. The Roma were persecuted alongside the Jews in Europe under Hitler’s reign. At the time, roughly one million Roma lived in Europe though the numbers are not certain because the Roma are not documented -- most Roma aren’t born in hospitals with birth certificates nor are they citizens of any country. So we died the way we lived, without official records of our existence. This confusion over how many lived in Europe also extends to how many Roma died in the Holocaust, which is believed to be between 220,000 and 500,000. Some were sent to the labor camps, others to the gas chambers, many were used as lab rats for the Nazi scientists, and most were simply killed as their kampania (groups of families that travel together) were found, their bodies left to rot where they fell.  

Sadly most people don’t even know that the Roma suffered under the Nazi regime, let alone that it led to the Roma becoming even more secretive and distrusting of gaja. This increase in secrecy has made it next to impossible to find information on the demographic breakdown of my people in the world. Many Roma refuse to identify as such because they know that they will face discrimination if their neighbors know their heritage.This combined with the decimation of our population has lead to the cultural/ethnic gray area that Roma live in, where it’s more than a lifestyle but the bloodlines are no longer pure enough to distinguish by simple physicality. This forced us to live in a gray area, not different enough to be a separate race, but surely not the same or welcomed into any other group. It also does not help that the term Roma is incorrectly applied to many different groups that should be identified by other names. For example, the Irish Travellers are from Ireland and have a completely different history and culture surrounding them, not to mention that they do not have roots in India and as such do not have the same physical appearance. Yet they are grouped under the Roma category, completely ignoring the extreme dislike that the two groups hold for each other. According to rough and questionable data, the highest concentration is supposedly in central Europe specifically Turkey and Romania, with them making up 3.71% and 8.56% of the population respectively as of 2008. This data is based off of the assumption that there are about 11 million Roma in the world, with one million of them living in the United States of America.

Before I continue I will detail my research process for this data. It is not possible to conduct a search on google or on academic databases using the term “roma” and get results pertaining to the Roma group. Instead, the results are for Romania, Rome, or Roman. In order to find information and data on the Roma people, one must instead search for them by the term “gypsy,” which, frankly, made the whole process feel degrading. In trying to find out more about the Roma, people have to use a slur which undercuts the whole process of attempting to learn more in the first place and leads intelligent caring people who want to be mora (friends) to be misinformed.

    Through lack of understanding and underrepresentation, the treatment of Roma today hasn’t improved much in Europe. In Italy, Roma are forcefully evicted from homes that they legally own and are forced to live in Roma-only slums, in makeshift sheds with few sources of water. Across Europe, Roma children are taken from their parents if they are born with non-Roma coloring, despite the fact that few Roma today are pure blooded, and many do have “European” looks that mirror those of the people around them. In schools, Roma children are put into special education courses for dili (mentally disabled) kids regardless of their actual mental abilities. Crimes against the Roma are not fully investigated and many are ignored entirely. But this isn’t just a governmental problem, as was shown when two young girls, Violetta (12) and Cristina (13), drowned on a beach in Italy, and their bodies were left on the sand for an hour waiting for the police to come. The other beach-goers continued with their fun day around the little bodies, covered only by a towel, sunbathing, playing soccer and frolicking in the water where the girls had died minutes before.

    Attitudes like these led to my own family ending up in America. My great-grandmother, Alexandria, fled an arranged abiav (wedding or marriage) while pregnant and with my nagymama (grandmother), Marie, who was very young at the time. Alexandria left behind a cruel man, the only roma her father could find since it wasn’t safe to look outside of their own kampania (group of families traveling together). She disobeyed her phuro (head of family) for a chance at being equal to those around her. On the boat ride to Connecticut, Alexandria gave birth to my grand uncle.  When she arrived she did her best to raise her kids and married Stephan, a Lithuanian warlock who had fled similar circumstances. Marie and Alexandria both worked in factories and lived across the street from each other in houses they built themselves until the day they died.  I still have the babushka (headscarf roma were when traveling to hide their heads from non-Roma) that Marie wore while traveling, and take it with me wherever I go. It was my good luck draba (charm) each of the sixteen plus times that my family and I moved across the country, and whenever I travel by myself it reminds me that the cardinals are watching over me. For Roma, cardinals are the spirits of one’s ancestors coming to visit, give guidance to and watch over them. The small scrap of fabric serves to remind me of the struggle that my family went through to get to America, a place where life was going to be better for us, but it also reminds me that the struggle isn’t over yet.

    In America, the Roma are treated with the same disregard as most other minorities are. Our culture is commercialized in movies, plagiarized by tarot readers, and elaborated upon in most things it is mentioned in. There’s even a Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Roma characters, and even though it attempts to promote an anti-discrimination message, it is a truly horrible depiction of our culture. The term Roma is never even used, instead only gypsy is. Quasimodo is the son of two Roma parents yet he is whitewashed in this film. In the original text, Esmerelda is not ethnically Roma, just culturally. Yet in this film, she miraculously is ethnically Roma, and as such, she is extremely sexualized. At one point in the children's film, she pole-dances and a key part of the movie is the bishop’s obsession with sleeping with her, although to be fair, every male character in the film is obsessed with her. It is sexual harassment and completely disrespectful of the Roma’s history of being enslaved, sexually assaulted, exoticized, and mistreated by Europeans.

    The representation of Roma in America has not gotten any better since The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1996. Since then the best example of Roma culture in media has been My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, both of which are horrible shows. It makes up marriage traditions of Roma in America and presents them as facts. For starters, the creators could have called the shows My Big, Fat Abiav (a Romani wedding). One of the “traditions” it shows is called grabbing, which is when men grab women inappropriately, namely the women’s berk (breast) . It was presented as a gypsy courting ritual, which, I am very happy to say, definitely is not. These shows also demonstrate that Roma kids are pulled from school at young ages, though it incorrectly implies that this is because Roma parents don’t want their kids to have an education. Roma kids don’t stay in school because in most areas they face bullying and persecution not only from their fellow students but also from their teachers. One Roma woman wrote an open letter to Channel 4, the channel which shows My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, detailing how the spread of these cultural lies had negative impacts on her own and her family’s lives. She herself was kicked out of school, and her younger sister was chased, and beaten by classmates who were fans of the show and believed her to be a gypsy whore.

One might read this essay and think that I am baxtalo (lucky) as a Roma to have received a high school diploma and to be going to college as many of my people never do. In part they are right. I am baxtalo to pass as non-Roma, as gaja, but it means that I have to put up with the racism directed at my people, even here at Agnes Scott College. Just this semester, the class of 2020 wanted to dress as gypsy fortune tellers for the costume of their class mascot, the Visionaries. Fortune teller costumes are a gross parody of an actual profession that people in my own and many other Roma families practice. When questions were raised as to the cultural appropriation and frankly, racist nature of the costumes, members of both the student body and staff in the Center for Diversity did not see a problem with the costumes. No one cares about the Roma because no one sees us.

Roma are told that we are good thieves, so we embraced the stereotype and stole our own voice, letting others speak falsehoods about us, content to be separate from societies that didn’t want us. They took advantage of our absence, erasing a history that reflected badly upon them, replacing it with one they could profit off of. Because of this, when I look around now at how Roma culture is portrayed, I can’t help but feel as though now we are the ones who are getting gypped.