When In Roma

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I got some traction with this tweet. But also, it’s become clear, a lot of people aren’t really sure what it was getting at. Public consciousness is still a fair way behind when it comes to Roma issues. There seems to be a split between people who’ve never even considered the matter, and between those who are paralysed by fear over whether they’re allowed to say ‘Gypsy.’

So, let’s just deal with a few things head on. Something of a guidebook, if you will. This will all be an oversimplification, there will be a ‘yes, but’ at every turn. This is just a start for people who have questions. 

Gypsy is an ethnic term. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not about clothes. You don’t become a Gypsy just by wearing a load of bangles.  It’s not an Irish bareknuckle boxer. And, I love you, Bruce, but it’s not a short-hand for something vaguely mystical or romantic in a song. “I went to see the Gypsy at the DMV,” probably doesn’t sound as ‘cool’ as getting your fortune told beneath a tree somewhere, but it’s far more likely to happen. 

The word comes from Egyptian. When the Roma first started showing up in northern Europe, they were assumed to be from Egypt. (A similar line of logic in France led to the name Boheme, under the assumption the Roma had come from Bohemia.  And there are regional variations within the Roma. For instance, in Wales the settled Romani are called Kale, in England they’re Romanichal.)

Over time, Gypsy gathered more negative than positive connotations. If you hear the word gypped in relation to stealing or conning, it doesn’t take much thought to figure out how that word came about, and why it’s something you shouldn’t say. Likewise, gypo is often used as a more general insult, to anyone who looks scruffy, poor, has long hair, etc. And again, it doesn’t take much thought to realise why that’s something you shouldn’t be saying. So, is it automatically a slur? No. You can use it, in the right context, with the right people. But the best guidance would be proceed with caution. It’s a variable thing. Some Roma are completely fine with the word. Some are completely against it. Many are somewhere in the middle, depending on how and why it’s being used. 

So, the Roma started to turn up in northern Europe, eh? Okay, where did they turn up from? First, another misconception. Despite the similarities in name, Roma people don’t originate from Romania. Though there is a large Roma population in Romania. The truth, to put it in somewhat romantic terms, is that the Roma wandered north from India around 1500 years ago and have been moving ever since. As you can imagine with any ethnic group migration, communities settled down on every stop along the way. There is a broad distribution of Roma across the world, each with their own history and culture, and each also with some overlap. There’s no one central religion that binds them together as a people, and no claim to a traditional homeland. But there is a flag, which was adopted in 1971 by the World Romani Congress. The world population is estimated to be somewhere between two and twenty million, but putting numbers on this can be near-impossible. How to define who should be included? In countries such as the UK and USA, many Roma families settled down and assimilated into local communities, meaning there are people now who have Romani backgrounds without even knowing it. Some Roma still live on the move, others live in settled, but distinct, communities. Some do live in trailers, many just live in those ‘normal’ things we like to call houses. I know, shocking, right? It’s almost as if they’re just a normal ethnic group trying to live normal lives, and not, as Hollywood attests, bands of roving thieves and mystics looking to turn you into werewolves. Given that they tend to be a persecuted community in every country they settle in, the Roma will also tend to be included within the various refugee and migrant groups that keep showing up in the news, fleeing war, drought, and poverty. Yes, there are Romani people showing up in European countries as refugees, but no, that’s not because they’re automatically travelling people, but rather, because they’re one of the groups most likely to need to flee persecution – or be kicked out of a country. 

What of this persecution I’ve referenced? That’s all just a thing of the past, surely? Nope. As I mentioned before, the Roma don’t have a central religion -they will tend towards whatever the dominant faith is in the country they are settled in, often Christianity- and they don’t have a traditional homeland. Those two factors -combined with over a thousand years of narratives about them being shifty, or criminals, or practicing the occult- continue to make them easy targets. Many Roma who canpass as ‘normal’ in any given country, do. You might well know someone who is Romani, or of Romani extraction, without realising it, because a great many people find it easy simply not to bring it up. They have to sit silent when friends start talking about gypos or blaming the town’s ills on travellers. That’s a large part of why there are so many people in the UK and USA who don’t even know they have Romani blood in their family, because their ancestors settled and tried to fit in. Why would they do that? Necessity. I don’t have to walk far from my house here in Glasgow, to get to Govanhill, which has become home to a very vocal and visible Roma community. And I also don’t have to go far to see how they are smeared in the media, hated by locals, and blamed for everything and anything that happens. There are far-right activists putting up anti-Roma posters on the streets of Glasgow. Literal Nazis pushing their agenda. Faced with this, is it any wonder that many Romani people over the years have chosen to settle down and avoid harassment? 

But more than that, assimilating has often been a way of simply staying alive. Up until relatively recently, it was a criminal offence to even be a Gypsy in England. As early as the 1500’s – basically as soon as they showed up- England started programs of deportation. Oliver Cromwell, that loveable scamp, saw the Roma as slaves. Property. Once Australia started being used as a penal colony, they were shipped there as criminals. 

Okay, but slavery, penal colonies? That’s all kinda old hat, right? Life is surely easier for the Roma now? Well, starting in 2009, France began a program of…ahem…’repatriating’ Roma. 10,000 in that first year. 8,300 in 2010. They set a target of 30,000 for 2011. The European Union stepped in with threats of legal action. There have been persistent rumours that France kept a database of French Roma citizens. Two separate independent studies have proven that to be false, however, imagine for just a moment being Romani in France during that time, with the state enacting a deportation programme, and you living under fear that your name is on a list somewhere. Now imagine that at regular intervals. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Names on lists? Families rounded up? The world has a name for the genocidal ethnic cleansing that took place during the second world war. For the Roma, the cost of those years was so high, that there is a different name. One that is used far less often. The Porajmos. The Devouring. The irony that the Nazis were rounding up and massacring a group of people whose ethnic origin was Indo-Aryan is one of history’s sickest jokes. 

But the world learned from World War Two, right? We all came together and agreed that kind of thing can never be allowed to happen again? Between 1971 and 1991, Czechoslovakia (Later the Czech Republic and Slovakia) enacted a program of forced sterilization on Romani women. It was carried out without the women’s knowledge, during other surgical procedures. A Czech investigation into the matter reported that at least 90,000 women were affected by this program. 

There is a lot of fear about the current rise of the far right. Many people are seeing Nazis for the first time, and getting scared. Others are seeing something they had thought long since defeated. Politically, they’re taking control. And a time when tech companies make it easier for governments to know everything about a person and their movements. Long before our smartphones started spying on us, Romani people were already well practised at concealing details about themselves and refusing to put their ethnicity on forms. Many don’t want to reveal their background on social media, because why make the work any easier for Them. They come for people in a certain order. And the Roma -among others- always seem to be at the front of that queue. But the Roma are also a testament to the fact they come for people in the ‘good’ times, too. And they get away with it. And will continue to, unless we start changing the narrative away from ‘understanding the monsters’ and instead start empathising with their targets. I’m not seeing the need to listen to the bullies when there are people at the other end of the scale who are never listened to. 

There are Nazis on the streets in my home city. In your home city. In my country, the Government is letting them dictate policy. Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can break spirit. Now is the time to start learning the right ones to use, and to start listening to the right people.