Gypsies have existed as an oppressed people for
a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most significant of these originated
in the time and circumstances of arrival in Europe, but a number of other
factors complicate the picture as well.
Because of the nature of their entry into Europe, Gypsies arrived as
a scattered nation of people united by language, culture and origin, but
at the same time lacking any of the means by which other populations bound
by the same factors assert and defend their identity. Gypsies had no political
or military strength, and no geographical territory with which they could
identify. Nor had they a history, or a religion, or a language which was
familiar to those around them. Association with the Islamic threat, their
dark skin, and the various means of livelihood which exploited the superstitious
nature of the Medieval Europeans, all helped instill a negative image of
the Gypsy in the Western tradition. When a group lacks the conventional
means of redressing wrongs done to it, it will make the most of what is
available; the fear of Gypsy magic was called upon as a means of reprisal
some years ago in Florida, for example: a mother whose child was the victim
of a hit-and-run accident "vowed to cast a Gypsy curse extending over three
generations on the driver and his family if he does not come forward and
pay the child's hospital bill." Such incidents help only to reinforce the
stereotype from which they ultimately derive.
In addition to these external factors, internal factors have also helped
keep the barriers firm. To a greater or lesser extent all Gypsy groups
have inherited from India concepts of pollution and cleanliness, and these
form a powerful basis for maintaining social distance from non-Gypsies.
These beliefs extend into many areas of daily life, regulating involvement
with food and its preparation, animals, personal hygiene, and interaction
with others, both Gypsy and non-Gypsy. Among some groups, these concepts
are vaguely defined; among others, the Vlax in particular, they
are deep-rooted and pervasive. It is because of these cultural beliefs
that Gypsies have discouraged familiarity with non-Gypsies who, by their
manner of living, fall automatically into an unclean category, and are
therefore able to pollute by association. The earliest accounts of Gypsies
unanimously agreed that Gypsies had no religious or cultural beliefs; some
more modern treatments, while admitting that these exist, maintain that
they have all been adopted from outside. It is understandable that writers
such as [John] Hoyland, [James] Crabb and others came to such conclusions-they
were permitted no such information by the Gypsies they were so ardently
trying to civilize. Contemporary exponents of this view, such as Jiti Lipa
or Jozsef Vekerdi are less easily accounted for.
This reserve has had other, further-reaching effects; not often being
able to obtain information at first hand about the true nature of Romani
life, novelists have embellished their prose with fantasies of their own,
and in doing so created in the last century the literary figure with which
the Gypsy is today most often associated: a composite Gypsy, wearing Spanish
flamenco dancer's dress, traveling in an English Gypsy caravan, playing
Hungarian Gypsy music.
The first American account to discuss Gypsies at
any length appeared in the Christian Enquirer for September 29th, 1855;
American readers were given a picture which must have helped set the stage
for what followed:
The Gipsies ... are an idle, miserable race, a curse to the countries
they inhabit, and a terror to the farmer through whose lands they stroll.
They seem utterly destitute of conscience, and boast of dishonesty as if
it were a heavenly virtue ... Laws have been passed in several countries
to banish them, and great cruelties sometimes practiced to enforce these
laws ... So deeply rooted are sin and vagrancy in the hearts of this miserable
race, that neither penal laws nor bitter persecution can drive it out.
They are not beyond the power of the Gospel, however, nor yet beyond the
mercy of the Redeemer.
Attitudes towards the Gypsy today are mixed; while negative characteristics,
usually theft or baby-stealing, often provide the rationale in fiction
for introducing Gypsies into the plot, other, more positive characteristics
also find a place. One such is the supposedly unfettered nature of Gypsy
life, an outlet for the Victorian reader who no doubt longed for simpler,
pre-Industrial Revolution times. But however Gypsies are defined and presented
by the dominant culture, such definition and presentation denies Gypsies
their real identity, and this is ultimately a kind of oppression.
The notion of an "outlet" has been discussed by [Werner] Cohn, who believes
that Gypsies "persist because they, or groups like them, are needed in
our culture," in other words, there exists a need for an avenue of escape,
for whatever reason, and Gypsies, or more accurately the fictional image
of Gypsies, are useful in providing this. [David] Sibley, quoted in the
introduction, goes further and sees the denial of the real Gypsy identity
as one means by which the dominant society can maintain its own parameters.
Quoting from [Kai] Erikson, Ronald Takaki has also elaborated upon this
notion of parameter-maintenance by keeping non-members in their place:
Deviant forms of behavior, by marking the outer edges of group life,
give the inner structure its special character and thus supply the framework
within which the people of the group develop an orderly sense of their
own cultural identity ... one of the surest ways to confirm an identity,
for communities as well as for individuals, is to find some way of measuring
what one is not.
Yet another rationale is provided by [William] Kephart, who explains
anti-Gypsyism in terms of Gypsies being seen as a countercultural population,
a group of people actually working against the values of the majority:
American Gypsies, too, continue to face prejudice and discrimination
... Some observers contend that it is a matter of ethnic prejudice, similar
to that experienced by blacks, Chicanos and other minorities. However,
it is also possible that the Rom are perceived as a counterculture ...
If people perceive of Gypsies as a counterculture, then unfortunately for
all concerned, prejudice and discrimination might be looked upon as justifiable
The Rom least well-equipped to retaliate against
such social pressures are those best represented in the American Gypsy
community: the Vlax, most of whose history in Europe has been one of enslavement.
Existing for centuries in a society which provided all of what little material
possessions they had, and which allowed them no involvement in any kind
of decision-making, their modern descendants still look to the establishment
as a source of support rather than as something to be worked with for the
long-term good. British and Hungarian Gypsies, subject to more assimilative
pressures in their countries of origin, for better or for worse have learned
to melt more effectively into the larger society, and have a much higher
proportion of "professional" occupations represented among them in the
United States. An exception among the Vlax are some of the Machvaya
and other Rom of Serbian origin, a number of whom have also acquired mainstream
occupations as well as high status within the Vlax community. It is likely
that this is also due to assimilative factors. After abolition, those fleeing
from Rumania westwards into Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia fared very differently
from those who went eastwards into Russia.
In Serbia, the leveling power of Turkish rule, exerted for successive
ages, had the effect of elevating the Gypsies somewhat toward the social
status of the other rayahs. Here, therefore, although they are still
an inferior caste, and not allowed to exercise the rights and powers of
citizenship, the Gypsies are perhaps less widely separated from the peasantry
around them than anywhere else in Europe. They fought bravely with their
Serbian neighbors against the Turks, and as smiths, farriers, and dealers
in live stock, have many of them earned a comfortable livelihood, and proved
themselves respectable members of society.
It cannot be denied that the fuel for much of the
discrimination against Gypsies in contemporary America is provided by the
media. It requires very little effort on the part of those writing for
the popular press, whether as journalism or fictional literature, to consult
the existing sources and come up with material of their own without ever
approaching Gypsy agencies themselves for their information. Almost all
of the thousands of works relating to Gypsies have been written by non-Gypsies,
and it is probably true that most of those have based their creations on
the works of other non-Gypsies without ever checking their facts at first
Despite the enormous responsibility that journalists have in transmitting
information to the public, with very few exceptions the media continue
grossly to misrepresent Gypsies and to perpetuate negative, and often defamatory,
stereotypes. It has become so commonplace for the press to define Gypsies,
an ethnic people, solely by behavioral criteria, that Gypsies themselves
will frequently deny their identity:
A Houston builder and Gypsy ... now doesn't tell anyone he's a Gypsy
because he says it would ruin his business. "I'm not ashamed of it," he
says, "but you've got to understand the effect it could have."
It is also true that, because of the widespread enforcement of laws
over the past centuries which have forbidden Gypsies to stop anywhere,
and consequently to attend school, Romani cultures have developed as non-literate
cultures. Even in countries with long-settled Gypsy populations-and today
the majority of the world's Gypsies are not nomadic-a way of life which
does not include literacy as a primary skill continues to be perpetuated.
As a result, the kinds of organized approaches made to television stations,
congressmen, newspaper editors and the like which other minorities have
used to bring their point of view before the public, have simply not been
within reach. Lacking access to lawyers, and other establishment means
of seeking redress, Gypsies have not, until recently, been able even to
take the first step towards challenging media misrepresentation. A situation
exists today in which those who write for the popular press feel quite
at liberty to say the most outrageous things about Gypsies, while they
would be aghast if they were ever expected to put their names to the same
kind of article about, say, Italians or Jews or African-Americans.
Non-Gypsy populations receive most of their knowledge of Gypsies from
works of fiction and from the media, rather than from Gypsies themselves.
Journalists and novelists for years have had completely free reign to exploit
their fantasies in print, comfortable in the knowledge that no one would
be likely to challenge them-and certainly that no Gypsy ever would. When
Peter Maas was asked in a Washington Star interview (November 25th, 1975)
why he felt he could make such negative claims about Gypsies in his book,
he replied that no Gypsies had challenged them, that protesters were "just
not out there." A traditional, fictional image of the Gypsy, of non-Gypsy
origin, has emerged and has become so deeply entrenched in the popular
mind that the real thing remains unseen.
From an urban perspective, "real" Gypsies-that
is, those conforming to the romantic myth-are a rural people; from a rural
perspective, "real" Gypsies no longer exist; they are a part of a vanished
folk culture. We might compare Brody's description of the "real" Eskimo
as conceived by the white community in the Canadian North: "the tough,
smiling, naive, ultimately irrational soul who, animal-like, is deeply
attracted to roaming the open spaces of the limitless tundra and ice."
Again, the mythical individual is removed from the dominant society and
merges with nature.
Little has changed in the intervening century. [Judith] Okely, in a
recently-published work on the British Traveller population shows how "Outsiders
have projected onto Gypsies their own repressed fantasies and longings
for disorder," and makes the point that "Gypsies do not travel about aimlessly,
as either the romantics or the anti-Gypsy suggest." Much is made of this,
as well as of stealing and promiscuity, in sustaining the stereotype. Stealing
in particular is seen as a Gypsy trait; specialists such as Lombroso or
[Terry] Getsay have even implied that it is a genetic characteristic. Certainly
some Gypsies steal, just as some Eskimos or Berbers or Englishmen steal;
others don't. It is social behavior, and it is not transmitted biologically.
To believe that such a thing is possible reflects not only prejudice, but
an ignorance of scientific fact.
Problems which exist today are the result of a continuum of circumstances
going back for centuries. Few could argue that there has not been moral
justification for subsistence stealing in the past, or that in some places
it continues to be necessary, although this is not likely to be taken into
consideration in a court of law. Historically, stealing has meant survival,
and there are many shopkeepers throughout Europe even today, who will not
serve Gypsies. There are homeowners, too, who will refuse to give Gypsies
as much as a glass of water. Given the choice between seeing one's family
starve, or else stealing, the latter is going to be the likelier option,
whether one is a Gypsy or not. But the public doesn't seem to be interested
in Gypsies who don't steal; perhaps it spoils the image it has created.
There are a number of cases on file in the archives of the Romani
Union, of crimes such as shoplifting being perpetrated by people
reported as Gypsies, but who in fact turn out not to be Gypsies at all.
The label is freely applied by police reporters on the basis of behavior
assumed to be typical of ethnic Gypsies-which of course it is, if the model
sought is the Gypsy of fictional literature. It is to the credit of the
Saint Paul Chief of Police that he apologized publicly in 1985 for thus
misapplying the word in the news bulletins issued by his department. There
are hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in the United States who deplore the
illegal activities of those who make the news, and who make a clear distinction
between themselves and "le Rom kaj coren," i.e. Gypsies who steal,
and there are hundreds of thousands who try to make a decent and honest
living in the face of adversity. Gypsy priests and ministers don't ever
seem to generate media interest.
History has shown time and time again that oppressor
nations either attribute their own techniques of domination to the people
they dominate, or else reinterpret their oppressive acts in what they perceive
to be a positive way. Shifting blame onto the victim is a self-exonerating
response well known in psychiatric circles. Dougherty devotes a whole appendix
to the theme of Gypsies stealing babies, but gives no irrefutable evidence
to support this widespread belief. The documentation gives another side
to the story: it has been Gypsy children who have been stolen from their
parents by non-Gypsies. The Swiss situation which came to light in 1973,
discussed in chapter XIV, is one recent example. The author's own father
was taken from his parents in 1918 for the same reasons, ostensibly for
his own good. [John] Hoyland writes that "from such Gipsies who had families"
in Maria Theresa's Hungary, "the children should be taken away by force;
removed from their parents, relations, and intercourse with the Gipsey
race." One child, "a girl fourteen years old, was forced to be carried
off in her bridal state. She tore her hair for grief and rage, and was
quite beside herself with agitation." [Heinrich] Grellmann recommended
that taking Gypsies' children be used as a means of coercion:
The Gipseys, in common with uncivilized people, entertain unbounded
love for their children. This excessive fondness for their children is,
however, attended with one advantage: when they are indebted to any person,
which is frequently the case in Hungary and Transylvania, the creditor
seizes a child, and by that means obtains a settlement of his demand, as
the Gipsey will immediately exert every method to discharge the debt, and
procure the release of his darling offspring.
In the introduction to the new edition of her book Gypsies: The
Hidden Americans from the Waveland Press, (1986), Anne Sutherland tells
of a communication from the Chief of Police of one northern city who, having
read the first edition of her book, expressed gratitude at having learned
of such close family feeling amongst the Rom because he could now use it,
by exerting pressure upon Gypsy children, to keep their parents in line.
"Wandering" or "roaming" is another commonly-repeated attribute, and
are words which frequently find a place in accounts about Gypsies. Yet
the words imply aimlessness, as though Gypsy lives have no purpose or direction;
they are often qualified by words like "carefree." The harsh conditions
of life on the road are never dealt with, and the day-to-day responsibility
of feeding a family and keeping it clothed and warm is trivialized out
If I am fancy free,
And love to wander-
It's just the Gypsy in my soul.
Gypsies in western Europe have traditionally been kept on the move
because of laws which have given them no alternative. Means of livelihood
have been developed which are adapted to this kind of life, and have subsequently
become part of the stereotype. Individuals not conforming to these-who
include a growing number of those involved in the Romani civil and political
rights movement-are not infrequently denied their Gypsy identity by sociologists
and others whose investment in them depends upon their remaining passive
and traditional. A Gypsy in a horse drawn wooden caravan is ideal; in a
motorized trailer, not quite so authentic; in a house, he's a total disappointment;
as journalist Ira Berkow said in a 1975 feature story, "Gypsies are, shockingly,
also becoming home owners!"
Gypsy women have for long been represented as sexual temptresses, and
Gypsy men as a sexual threat to non-Gypsy women, in both song and story.
The Impressions' Gypsy Woman has been recorded by a dozen artists
since it was first released in 1961, and tells of the singer's watching
the girl, longing to kiss and hold her as "all through the caravan, she
was dancing with all the men" in the "campfire light"; Gypsy Davy is a
traditional ballad about a lady who left her mansion and her husband to
go off with a Gypsy; Lawrence's novel The Virgin and the Gypsy is
a typical literary work along the same lines. And yet it was the European
slaveowners who took Gypsy women at their will and used them, while calling
them "whores," and it was the European slaveowners who castrated their
male slaves to protect their own women from their servants' lust.
[Werner] Cohn may be right when he argues that non-Gypsies need a Gypsy
image to project their fantasies onto; an example of this appeared in the
Sunday supplement of one Boston newspaper in August, 1986. Describing a
Romani family in that city, the writer stated on the first page of her
article that from their appearance, ". . . they could be Spanish, or French,
or Italian, or Irish," but by the second page she had already begun to
be carried away by the lure of the stereotype:
They are glitter and gold, decked out in bright babushka of legend.
They are exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls. They
are dark men with smoldering eyes. They are carefree spirits playing the
tambourine. The entire image is crowned with a halo of mystique, shrouded
in a cloak of mystery. And there is some truth to all of it.
The article also stated that Gypsies don't work, have no professional
people among them, and are not officially recognized as an ethnic community
in the United States.
In addition to the popular observer, there exists
a substantial body of academics who specialize in Gypsy Studies, and who
have established scholarly reputations for themselves by doing so. The
opinions of these individuals are perhaps even more important than those
of the untutored, since these are the specialists who, if it is sought
at all, are approached for information about Gypsies. Romani scholarship
rests upon the work of these people: Grellmann, [August] Pott, [Franz]
Miklosich, [Graziadio] Ascoli and others have laid the foundation for what
we know of Romani language and history.
The Victorian preoccupation with the "purity" of the noble savage is
understandable in the light of those times, and the attitudes of 19th century
"Gypsy buffs" whom Dougherty says "tended to be either superficial sentimentalists
or genteel snobs looking for a feudal relic to coddle and patronize," must
be interpreted with that in mind. But it is a singular characteristic among
some of the contemporary students of Gypsies that the same attitudes persist.
Where these people could do more than any other outsiders to help the Romani
cause, they stubbornly refuse to disturb their anthropologists' and folklorists'
perception of the Gypsy. We may compare 19th century statements made by
such specialists with those made in the 20th century: [Alexander] Paspati
maintained that "it is in the tent that the Gypsy must be studied, and
not in the villages of the bastardized sedentary Gypsies," and [Richard]
Pischel believed that "the Gypsy ceases to be a Gypsy as soon as he is
domiciled and follows some trade."
Twentieth century investigators have sometimes challenged reality in
the light of direct evidence. Jaroslav Sus, a Czech, claimed that it was
an "utterly mistaken opinion that Gypsies form a nationality or a nation,
that they have their own national culture, their own national language."
The former sub-editor of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald,
scorned the Romani nationalist movement as "romantic twaddle" (The Birmingham
Post for July 14th, 1973, p. 2), echoing the words of Dora Yates, honorary
secretary of the same society, to which she belonged for 63 years and who,
referring to the same movement, asked "except in a fairy tale, could any
hope ever have been more fantastic?" Another member, Werner Cohn, believes
The Gypsies have no leaders, no executive committees, no nationalist
movement ... I know of no authenticated case of genuine Gypsy allegiance
to political or religious causes.
The most recent denial of the nationalist movement has come from
yet another member of the Gypsy Lore Society, Jiti Lipa:
To be exact, there is no one Gypsy culture nor one Gypsy language ...
If in the process of looking for native assistants and for training them
[the Gypsilorist finds that] literary talents should appear, so much the
better ... In reality, however, it is mere toying, a waste of energy and
material means which are not abundant for Gypsy studies. While a missing
attribute is being artificially contrived, which is supposed to make the
Gypsies an ethnic minority in the conventional sense in the eyes of wishful
thinkers and bureaucrats, irreplaceable values of Gypsy culture are being
lost in our time.
These attitudes on the part of the non-Gypsy
population, whether academic or popular, are a direct result of centuries
of oppression, an oppression which has denied Gypsies the wherewithal to
make their voices heard and to challenge discriminatory laws and widespread
negative media stereotyping. Other persecuted peoples have begun to redress
the wrongs being perpetrated against them; there are now no laws operating
against American Indians or African-Americans in this country, nor are
they maligned and misrepresented in the press. Books presenting them in
a defamatory light are removed from school libraries now as a matter of
course. Not so for Gypsies, however, who continue to provide a source of
romantic and other exploitation, and who continue to be taken advantage
of because of their traditional lack of organized political, academic or
military strength. Writing of the post-emancipation situation in Moldavia
and Wallachia, and of the gains made by other linguistic and cultural minorities
in modern Rumania, [Sam] Beck makes this point well:
Romania's German-speaking populations have received support from the
West German state, Magyars are supported by the Hungarian state, and Jews
by Israel. Groups like the Tigani did not have such an advantage.
Lacking a protective state they have no one to turn to when discrimination
is inflicted upon them as a group. Unlike ethnic groups represented by
states, Tigani are not recognized as having a history that could legitimize
Gypsies use their language and core-culture as a kind of moveable
country; wherever they have gone, ethnic identity has usually been maintained
despite fragmentation and, until recently, a lack of international cohesiveness.
Whether the three branches of Gypsy ... prove to belong to one migratory
stock or not, it is clear that the Western Romani people were united linguistically
and culturally at the time of entry into Europe. Whatever factors divided
the contemporary populations, and they are not inconsiderable, they are
overwhelmingly the result of involvement with the non-Gypsy, and are directly
relatable to the oppression here described. If Romani Gypsies are to regain
that unity, the causes and nature of the oppression which destroyed it
have to be understood and challenged.