What’s in a name? GYPSY

This post is how I wanted to start my blog. A good researcher always defines her terms. But I keep wimping out. It’s personal this time. It’s taken me a while to really get to the bottom of why I’m finding it hard to write about what it means to use the term gypsy and whether we should even use it at all.

This week at my Māori language course I proudly (well actually, nervously) stood up and said my pēpēhā in front of the class without my notes. I moved to New Zealand a couple of years ago and a pēpēhā is something that the indigenous culture, Māori, use to introduce themselves to other people. The idea is to describe your ancestral and cultural heritage to make connections with others. I started with:

Nō Ingarangi ahau, otera he Romani toku kuia. (I am from England. Also, my grandmother was Romani).

What what does it mean to say this? No one else in the class had heard of the term ‘Romani’, but it was really important to me to include this as being from England doesn’t say everything about my cultural heritage.

Now the word ‘gypsy’- that’s a whole other ball game. Everyone has an opinion about that one. I made the mistake of googling ‘gypsy’ when I was plucking up the courage to start a public blog. What a mistake that was. Google helpful pointed me in the direction of Urban Dictionary. Now I’m not naive enough to think that this was going to give me an accurate technical definition, but I was literally taken aback and then pretty angry about what I found. It’s probably easier to show you:

Fucking scum of the earth (not the traditional gypsies, but the c**** found all over the United Kingdom.)
I used to lodge in a cottage in a small villiage in Gloucestershire that happened to have a Gypsy colony about 500 meters away. These scumbag bastards stole my landlords motorbike, large stone garden ornament and even a CAST IRON BATH TUB. The c**** also used to order taxis from town and get out at the cottage then skip over the back fence without paying, meaning that taxis would refuse to come out to the cottage to collect me because of the damn fooking gyppoes.
Biggest scumbag wankers to walk this earth, and that’s a fact.
Being a gypsy c*** gives me the right to steal anything unless it is nailed down.
by Tony Johnson March 24, 2006

Four thousand seven hundred and fifty five likes. I bet good old Tony Johnson thought he was fucking hilarious. Interestingly, though Tony makes a distinction between ‘traditional’ gypsies (I’m assuming he means Romani gypsies) and others (ethnicity versus lifestyle) but in practice (and certainly in the definitions of others) he is really demonstrating how these become conflated and ethnicity describes undesirable cultural and personality traits. I’ve even experienced this from non-Roma members of my own family who deny this heritage as ethnicity or culture and instead describe personality failings of my ancestors to provide themselves with ‘proper’ jobs or homes.

Let me start by saying that this Urban Dictionary definition is clearly is pretty low down on the scale of persecution that the Romani have faced; from slavery to the holocaust and beyond. But it’s not just Tony Johnson. There are over 100 definitions of the word that have been submitted by the public to Urban Dictionary, and while the above has been declared the ‘top definition’, and I couldn’t bring myself to read all of them, it didn’t get much better. However, a few brave souls took on the Tony Johnsons of Urban Dictionary:

The Romani people, commonly called Gypsies are an ethnic group of people originally from India. They have faced persecution, discrimination and genocidal policies since entering Europe in the early 1100’s or so. They have been denied their traditional means of livelihood and then are condemned for surviving.
Even today they are subjected to programs across Eastern Europe and forced deportations from Western Europe.

I am appalled by the virulent racism evidenced on this site.
It’s interesting that the site rejects inside jokes yets allows this murderous slander of an entire group of people.
I am appalled and outraged by the virulent racism shown in most of these submissions.

A Gypsy is a member of an ethnic group of people.
by Focarile June 08, 2010
Yes Focarile, but just 49 likes. Now, clearly I can’t compete with good old Tony Johnson as probably only about 4 people are reading my blog, but hey this is mostly for me anyway.

Luckily Tony Johnson is not the only authority on the matter and there is an increasing body of academic literature on the history, culture and identity of Romani people. I’m currently reading the linguist Yaron Matras’s (2014) I met lucky people: The story of the Romani Gypsies. Yaron puts this troublesome word right up the front in the title alongside Romani. He describes gypsy as the outsider view that often lumps culture and lifestyle together and has been shaped by outsiders (aka our friend Tony Johnson). Roma instead refers to the insider perspective of a population now dispersed across Europe and the Americas, whose ancestors hail from India and speak a language called Romanes.

It’s interesting distinguishing between this insider and outsider perspective because I’m not sure where I fit into this binary. I can claim to be an insider because a significant part of my ancestry is Romani. But at the same time, my link is a historical one. I can read about the Romani language and culture, but I’m looking in from the outside. I know that many, including in my own family, have reclaimed the term ‘gypsy’. Rather than rejecting it in favour of a more politically correct term without the negative connotations; they embrace it and aim to change the meaning rather than the word. I’m sat firmly on the fence and when pressed I tend to say Romani…and then quickly add gypsy on the end to make sure that they understand what I mean.

This awkwardness was re-enforced when a while ago a friend corrected me when I said ‘gypsy’ and told me that it was a derogatory term and that I shouldn’t use it. I was both embarrassed for using the ‘wrong’ term when I, if anyone, should know better, and also insulted that I wasn’t being allowed to define my heritage in my own terms. To me it just shows how sensitive this language is because of the mainstream acceptance of casual racism of ‘gypsies’ and how important it is to have these conversations.

Now it’s easy for me to play around with language as I’ve not experienced any real discrimination, and have the choice to ‘out’ my ancestry if and when I choose. I really appreciate that this is not the case for so many. Occasionally I have chosen to out myself to try and challenge some of this stereotyping. Take yesterday. Now I’m in New Zealand which is not known for its huge Romani population, but I guess they can access Urban Dictionary here too right. I was chatting adoption with someone who mentioned that they wouldn’t think about international adoption because they might end up with a gypsy from Romania. Ok- so where do I start with what is wrong with that?! Let’s just say that I’m not one to hold my tongue in that kind of situation!

I guess what I really wanted to do in this post is highlight some of the challenges that I have in using the term ‘Romani gypsy’. When you see these words in my name, my blog title and my posts you will know that I’m struggling over my use of them and trying not to use them thoughtlessly as I explore my place in relation to them through exploring my family history. I’d love to hear if you have similar (or different) experiences.

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