Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Roma: Myth and Reality

By Ian Hancock

It is evident that there are aspects of the dominant European-derived cultures which are perceived of as threatening: groups seeking escape from them were well represented among the early settlers in North America. Others have more recently sought to drop out and establish alternative societies; the hippie communes of the 1960s, and the neo-African and neo-Islamic colonies which have sprung up since the Civil Rights Movement within the United States are examples of this. For the most part, such breaks with the mainstream have been initiated by individuals who were originally participants themselves, and who have only subsequently become disenchanted by it.

Perhaps the most vigorous rejection of the dominant culture, however, is typified by those groups who have been insulating themselves from the world around them from the very beginning, i.e., have not grown as societies alternative to, and derived from, the mainstream. Whereas none of the 18th and 19th century immigrant utopian societies survives today, and very few of the dropout communes, people such as the Amish or the Doukhobors continue to maintain their isolation successfully here in North America.

One ethnic minority which belongs in this latter category is the Roma population, popularly, though inaccurately, called Gypsies. Numbering about one million in North America, until very recently Roma have existed unobtrusively here, seldom attracting national attention and in fact not even recognized by most of mainstream society as real people at all. Commenting on this, journalist Nikki Meredith wrote that "the secrecy of the Gypsies makes the Mafia look like an open society" (Meredith 1983:9). Her choice for comparison is revealing.

The history of the Romani people can hardly be matched in terms of oppression and injustice. Since the very entry into Europe from Asia seven and a half centuries ago, Roma have been the victims of slavery and genocide, transportation and torture. No other single human population has endured so widely and so consistently the suffering of the Rom. At first incarceration, then expulsion, sterilization, and finally extermination were techniques employed by the Nazis to deal with Gypsies, treatment civilized individuals now regard in retrospect with horror. Yet within the past three decades--since the late 1960s--all four have been proposed by different European governments as means of solving the "Gypsy problem." And, with the rise in ethnic nationalism since the collapse of socialist governments in eastern Europe, anti-Gypsy sentiment has risen with increased vigor.

Although there were two Romani transportees with Columbus on his second voyage in 1498, Roma began to reach the Americas in any numbers in the sixteenth century, shipped here to work as slave labor in the plantations. Others came to the United States at the end of the last century, fleeing slavery in Europe (Hancock, 1987; Nunes, 1996). However, as victims of discriminatory immigration policy beginning in 1883, they were turned away at Ellis Island, and even those who managed to come in across the Mexican or Canadian borders met anti-Gypsy laws, some of which were still on the books and being put into effect as recently as last year. No other ethnic minority in the 1990s in this country has been the target of repressive laws which named them specifically and forbade (or require a license for) them to establish homes or to work in different counties and states. No other ethnic minority has special police bureaus monitoring its movements or specialists compiling a computerized files of its names, addresses, and genealogies.

Facts such as these contrast starkly with the idealized picture which the gadjikano, or non-Gypsy, population has of Gypsies. One of the items in the Romani Archives in Austin is a lapel-button bearing the slogan "Free the Gypsies." This, along with another with the wording "Free the Unicorns," was on sale in a novelty gift shop. Its intent was obviously to amuse; after all in the popular mind, Gypsies are the very epitome of freedom. There are hundreds of literary pieces, either novels or poems, as well as a great number of songs, which have a Gypsy theme; and the theme has overwhelmingly to do with freedom: freedom from nine-to-five jobs, freedom from having to attend to personal hygiene, freedom from sexual restrictions, freedom from the burden of material possessions, freedom from responsibility, freedom from the requirements of the law.

Dishonesty is also a characteristic fundamental to the Roma stereotype; Isabel Fonseca (1995:15) cautioned her readers that "Gypsies lie. They lie a lot--more often and more inventively than other people". This assumption, of course, simply reflects the imbalance of control over Romani identity, since statements originating from Roma which are not what the investigator wants to hear, can simply be dismissed as "lies."

Antigypsyism is nothing new. In a letter to George Sand a hundred and thirty years ago, which might have been written today (reproduced in Conard, 1929:309), Gustav Flaubert commented on this and offered an explanation for it:

[I visited] a camp of Gypsies at Rouen ... they excite the hatred of the bourgeois even though inoffensive as sheep ... that hatred is linked to something deep and complex; it is found in all orderly people. It is the hatred that they feel for the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher, the solitary, the poet, and there is fear in that hatred.

When Czechoslovakia was being constituted in 1922, its criterion for recognizing its various ethnic minorities rested upon whether they were represented by a nation state or not.  Thus the ethnic Hungarians, for example, qualified because of the existence of the country of Hungary.  Roma did not, despite being one of the largest minority populations in Czechoslovakia, because there was no Romani homeland.  Indeed, had more been known about the Indian origin of Roma, and if Indian administrators had been approached for intervention, things might have been different today.  After all, it was India who helped sponsor  the First World Romani Congress in Britain in 1971 and who was instrumental in the achievement of Roma representation at the United Nations.  But instead, false and biased history has been relied upon to define "Gypsies," such as the following account by Hungary’s one-time leading specialist on Roma József Vekerdi, who stated that

The Gypsies’ ancestors began leaving northwest India probably about the seventh century AD.  They are characterized as robbers, murderers, hangmen and entertainers.  These professions were prescribed for them by the rulers of the Hindu caste system.  Thus they belonged to the so-called ‘wandering criminal tribes’ of India and were obliged to lead a parasitic way of life.  Among the numerous outcast groups, they occupied the lowest rung on the social scale (Vekerdi, 1988:14).

Not only is the time of the exodus too early by four centuries, but the identity of the pre-Roma population is merely a guess based on Vekerdi’s biased preconceptions, and his classification wandering criminal tribes is taken from 19th century colonial terminology in the British Raj.  The damage done by such authorities, who give their stamp of academic approval to government policy, and who foster antigypsyism in the press—and hence at the popular level—is incalculable.

In an earlier article I demonstrated that the foolish and offensive idea that the Romani people are devoid of the concepts of ownership, obligation, beauty, truth, &c., has been fostered by writers  whose "evidence" for this is supported by their confident, though naive, assertions that words for these things are lacking in the Romani language (Hancock, 1998).  The same essay addresses the equally silly claim that we as a people think only in the present, and as a result have no means of constructing the future tense in our language.  Along with statements such as "Gypsies don’t feel pain like other people," or  "Gypsies actually enjoyed the punishments meted out to them during slavery" (both found in Hancock, 1987), or that we are dirty because of an "innate fear of water", or that we  prefer to live next to garbage dumps, given a choice (the basis for at least three cartoons in the Texas Romani Archives) when it is usually the only place the local borough council will provide.   Such observations succeed only in reinforcing a "gypsy" image which is diametrically opposed to the Romani reality.  Since Roma have traditionally lacked a voice in the mainstream domain, such statements have been allowed to pass unchallenged.

Cause for concern lies in the fact that this anti-Roma bias is especially evident in children’s literature, and is therefore aimed specifically at a population whose social attitudes, which will carry them through the rest of their lives, are in process of being formed.  The August, 1996, issue of Disney Adventures, a magazine for children, wrote about a condition called "gypsyitis," the symptoms of which are "an urge to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions" and being "footloose and fancy-free."  In her defense, the editor of the magazine, Phyllis Erlich, replied to our complaint that we were over-reacting, that it was in fact "a positive portrayal of the Gypsy spirit."   Exposure to this image is pervasive: in Black’s Gypsy Bibliography, which includes nothing later than 1914, there are 133 ballads, 199 plays, 351 novels, and 262 poems listed which have been written about, or include, Gypsies in the English literary tradition, almost all of which present the Gypsy in fanciful terms.  The reality stands in such stunning contrast, that it is hard to believe that the one derives from the other.

In my book The Pariah Syndrome (Hancock 1987), I document the facts of Romani history from the perspective of the Roma being a targeted population. What emerges is a picture of centuries of almost ceaseless oppression. Whatever periods of freedom may have existed during that time were short-lived, and were the result of the idealizing of the Gypsy population by the writers and philanthropists of the time, people whom Dougherty, in his study of the Gypsy image in literature (1980:273), called "superficial sentimentalists or genteel snobs looking for a feudal relic to coddle and patronize."

Without doubt, there exists an extraordinary discrepancy between the real and the perceived condition of the Roma.  When we examine the reasons for this, a number of possibilities present themselves. Part of the stereotype includes the belief that Gypsies are a "mysterious"  people with an unknown, perhaps otherworldly, past. This is alluded to repeatedly  in the content and even the titles of books and articles about Gypsies.  Roma themselves remain a mystified population, "full of riddles and confusions, and surrounded by an aura of secrecy", as one author sees it (Shcherbakova, 1984:1).  This would suggest that the reason lies simply in ignorance of the facts. And yet a great deal is known about Romani origins and history.

A double standard clearly operates:  for example it is a fact that the vast majority of human populations lack their own written history, and so Roma are not noteworthy in this respect—but attention is drawn to it nevertheless, most recently in the program notes accompanying a national tour of Roma musical ensembles from Europe.  Because of this persistent desire to mystify and otherize, an unreal history has emerged constructed by outsiders, and which is perpetuated from generation to generation in both fictional and non-fictional literature. Brown (1985:22) has elaborated on this:

Although the Indian origin of the Gypsies has been proved linguistically by the fact that Romani, their language, was derived from Sanskrit, most nineteenth-century writers preferred to promote an enigma.  Even today, Gypsies remain an anomaly to the degree that their migrations which began about AD 1000, escape the usual religious, biologic, geographic, economic and political structures used to explain migration as a sociological phenomenon. But the nineteenth century actively cultivated popular legends and theories that obfuscated what little ‘scientific’ explanations existed.  These legends ... represented an effort by civilized Europeans to justify the sense of primitivism inspired in them by Gypsies, [who] were the lost link with the ancient and hermetic wisdom of the East.  The primitive and inexplicable natural force that determined their wandering instinct was thought to be superior to and stronger than modern industrial progress.

Roma activists all report otherizing as a common characteristic  on the part of their interviewers who—fully aware of their ethnicity—persist unconsciously in addressing them as "they" rather than "you," placing us at a distance even when in our presence. The same interviewers too, will often include the word "still" in their questions, for example "do they still arrange their marriages?," assuming an anachronistic culture measured against more "modern," i.e. non-Roma, norms.  One encyclopedia entry on Gypsies is written entirely in the past tense, distancing us in time as well as in space (Walker, 1983).

Romani history

It has been documented for over two centuries that Roma trace their linguistic and cultural heritage to India, but following that initial revelation, attempts to fill in the details have been mostly fanciful, less often approaching  plausibility, and it has only been in the past very few years that a likely explanation has begun to emerge.

We know that the Roma have been made up of many different groups of people from the very beginning, and have absorbed outsiders throughout their history.  Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by the first Europeans to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt, or any number of vaguely acknowledged non-European places, and they were called, among other things, Egyptians or ’Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from.  In some places,  this Egyptian identity was taken entirely seriously, and was no doubt borrowed by the early Roma themselves; In the 15th century James the Fifth of Scotland concluded a treaty with a local Romani leader pledging the support of his armies to help recover "Little Egypt" (an old name for Epirus, on the Greek-Albanian coast) for them.  Another façade adopted by the first Roma in Europe was that of religious penitents, which allowed them to carry documents ostensibly signed by the Pope and by King Ladislaus requesting their protection.  But this was not a uniquely Romani ploy, and was probably inspired by various European migrant populations such as the Rubins, the Coquillarts, the Convertis or the Golliards in France, who were doing the same thing.

It was not until the second half of the 18th century that scholars in Europe began to realize that the Romani language in fact came from India.  Basic words, such as some numerals and kinship terms, and names for body parts, actions and so on, were demonstrably Indian.   So—they concluded—if the language were originally Indian, its speakers very likely must be as well.

Once they realized this, their next questions were the obvious ones: if Roma were indeed from India, when did they leave, and why, and are there still Roma in that country?

An answer seemed to be ready-made in a book called the Shah Nameh (the Book of Kings), an historical account of the life and times of Bahram Gur, a fifth-century Persian shah.  It contained an account of a gift which was made by the Maharaja of Sindh, in India, to Bahram Gur’s court, of ten thousand musicians.  After a year, the story continued, the musicians had all disappeared.

Nineteenth century scholars thought that this explanation answered many of their questions, especially because there is still today a population of Indian origin living in the Middle East called the Doms, and who speak a language also readily traceable to India.  The Roma in Europe, they reasoned, were part of that same early population who kept on moving westwards leaving the Doms behind in Asia, and so the Shah Nameh account continues to be repeated, uncritically, in even the most recent books about Roma.

Although this story is still finding favor with journalists and others, few academics at the end of the 20th Century believe it any more, because we have a much greater understanding now of Indian languages and history.  Romani and the language of the Doms (Domari), while both ultimately Indian, are very different from each other; their shared vocabulary is less than ten percent and even demonstrably cognate Indian forms are fewer than two thirds.  The similarities which do exist are because they are both Indian—just as they exist between Romani and Gujarati, say, or Romani and Bengali—and not because they were once the same language.  There are also linguistic features in Romani which tell us that its original speakers must have left India in the 11th century or later, and not six hundred years earlier in the 5th Century.  And when we also examine the words which Romani adopted from other languages along the migratory route, we can get an idea of who the early Roma came into contact with, which in turn tells us where that must have happened.  An example can be taken from one language called Burushaski.  There are a handful of words from this language, such as those for "pull" and "how many," but it is only spoken in a tiny area high in the mountain passes out of northern India, in the Hindu Kush.  Another language spoken near here is Phalura, which has also provided Romani with a number of words, such as "son-in-law", "walnut" and "sleep".  The fact that they are only spoken in such small and specific areas and nowhere else, and keeping in mind what the linguistic picture must have been like a millennium ago, we have to accept that this was the place through which the first Roma left India.

Clues like this help to answer when and where, but not who or why.  However, if we look at the vocabulary of Romani, we find indications of  a specifically military history.  For example, the most common word for someone who is not a Rom is gadjo, and this comes from an old Indian word gajjha, meaning "civilian" or "non-military person" ("civilians" is still used by Roma to refer to non-Roma in parts of Europe, e.g. in Slovenia and Italy). Another word for a non-Rom is das, which originally meant a prisoner of war, and which means "slave" in modern Hindi and Panjabi. Yet another is gomi, from a word for "one who has surrendered", presumably as a captive taken in war.  It has the same form and meaning in Bangani, a modern Indian language. A fourth word for a non-Romani person is goro, which in some Indian languages, such as Hindi, means ""pale-skinned person," but which in others, e.g. Sindhi, means "captive" or "slave." The words for "sword", "battlecry", "spear" and "gaiters" are also all Indian, and all belong to the military semantic domain.  A further possible connection with the Rajputs is the fact that their ancient clan emblems, symbols of the sun and the moon, survive among some Roma in Europe today with a similar function (Sutherland, 1975:125).  With these kinds of clues, the next step was to discover what soldiers, if any, were in the Hindu Kush in the 11th century.

At the very beginning of that century, India came under attack by the Muslim general Mahmud of Ghazni, who was trying to push Islam eastwards into India, which was mainly Hindu territory.  The Indian rulers had been assembling troops to hold back the Muslim army for several centuries already, deliberately drawing their warriors from various populations who were not Aryan.  The Aryans had moved into India many centuries before, and had pushed the original population down into the south, or else had absorbed them into the lowest strata of their own society which began to separate into different social levels or castes, called varnas (colors) in Sanskrit, each one higher than the other, with the Brahmins or holy men at the very top, then the Kshatriyas or warriors below them, the Vaisnas or merchants and producers below them, and the non-Aryan Shudras at the bottom.  It was forbidden to marry, or even touch, a person who was not from the same caste as oneself.

The Aryans regarded Aryan life as being more precious than non-Aryan life, and would not risk losing it in battle.  So the troops which were assembled to fight the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni were all drawn from non-Aryan populations, and made honorary members of the Kshattriya or Warrior caste and allowed to wear their battledress and insignia.

They were taken from many different ethnic groups who spoke a wide variety of languages and dialects.  Some were Lohars and Gujjars, some were Tandas, some were Rajputs, who descended from non-Indian peoples who had come to live in India some centuries before, and some may also also have been Siddhis, Africans from the East African coast who fought as mercenaries for both the Hindus and the Muslims.  Together they made up the Kshattriya warriors who moved within the far northern parts of India between the years 1001 and 1027 to try to prevent Ghazni’s Islamic troops from entering their land.  But their resistance was ultimately not successful, and northern India was eventually occupied by the Muslims, and Islam remains the major religion throughout the area today.

This composite army moved out of India through the mountain passes and west into Persia, battling with Muslim forces all along the eastern limit of Islam.  While this is to an extent speculative, it is based upon sound linguistic and historical evidence, and provides the best-supported scenario to date.  We can even more cautiously venture to establish a particular year for the exodus out of India; of the seventeen Ghaznavid raids between AD 1001 and AD 1027, only two of them took place in the area which matches the linguistic evidence, and the second of these was the Muslims’ greatest defeat.  These took place in Kashmir, in 1013 and 1015, and the Ghaznavids were chased westwards out of the Hindu Kush.

Those involved in unraveling Romani history are not only examining the linguistic and historical material they do have, but are also looking at earlier hypotheses in an attempt to validate or dismiss them by process of elimination. Thus we cannot place the migration of the ancestors of the Roma out of India before the 11th century, because of certain linguistic characteristics which didn’t exist at an earlier time.  If we are reluctant to accept those things which point to a military history—the original meanings of the various words for non-Gypsy, for instance, or the apparent retention of Rajput clan insignia amongst some Vlax Romani populations in Europe today, we are left having to accept that these parallels are merely coincidence, and having to provide alternative explanations.  And while it has been suggested that the Romani migration consisted of many different groups leaving India at different times over a period of centuries, we must then explain how such groups, separated by vast distances of time and space, managed to relocate and reunite into the one population which eventually entered Europe.  We can also venture to specify the route taken out of India, not only because of the non-Indic lexical adoptions which are found in Romani, but because of what we don’t find: significant representations from Semitic or Turkic languages, for instance.  And since there were only a few roads through the mountains out of India, the geographical possibilities are narrowed down even further.

Because Islam was not only making inroads into India to the east, but was also being spread westwards into Europe, this conflict carried the Indian troops—the early Roma—further and further in that direction, until they eventually crossed over into south-eastern Europe about the year 1300.  Marushiakova & Popov (1997:63) write of the Roma coming into Europe as auxiliary detachments with the Turkish armies, demonstrating that their military identity had not been lost even three centuries after leaving India.

Taking all of the evidence to hand into consideration, the likeliest scenario is that Romani gradually came together into the one language of one people outside of India, in the period spent between India and  Europe, emerging from a composite military koïné into a stabilized linguistic cluster, which then subsequently fragmented into different dialects within Europe after arrival there.

Not all of the Kshattriya warriors left India.  Some of those who remained continue to be known as Rajputs, which means "sons of kings," and while they see themselves today as true descendants of the Kshattriya caste, the Brahmins delight in reminding them that they were drawn from the Shudras.  Some populations in India which identify themselves as Rajputs, such as the Banjara, also recognize that they are related to the Roma outside of India, and make an effort to keep in contact with Romani organizations in Europe and America.

One problem has been that, when the British were occupying India, they applied the label gypsies in a broad way to numbers of nomadic groups in that country who had nothing at all to do with real "Gypsies", i.e. Roma.  Only some of those populations are connected with the history described here, and with the Roma throughout the world.  But it has had the misleading effect that Westerners have assumed a relationship which isn’t there, and have even written books or produced documentary films perpetuating the idea of such a connection.

From the very beginning, then, the Romani population has been made up of various different peoples who have merged together over time.  As the ethnically and linguistically mixed occupational population from India moved further and further away from its land of origin beginning in  the 11th century, so it began to acquire its own ethnic identity, and it was at this time that the Romani language also began to take shape.  But the mixture of peoples and languages didn’t stop there, for as the warriors moved northwestwards through Persia, it took words and grammar from Persian, and no doubt absorbed new members too; and the same thing happened in Armenia and in the Byzantine Empire, and has continued to happen in Europe.  In some instances, the mingling of small groups of Roma with other peoples has resulted in such groups being absorbed into them and losing their Romani identity; the Jenisch in Germany and Switzerland are perhaps such an example.  In others, it has been the outsiders who have been absorbed, and who, in the course of time,  have become one with the Romani group.

In Europe, the Roma were either kept in slavery in the Balkans (in territory which  is today Romania), or else were able to move on and up into the rest of the continent, reaching every northern and western country by about 1500.  In the course of time, as a result of having interacted with various European populations, and being fragmented into widely-separated groups, the Roma have emerged today as a continuum of distinct ethnic groups constituting a larger whole.  While non-Roma specialists tend to classify these divisions according to linguistic criteria, the same distinctions perceived within the Romani population are far more complex, incorporating national and occupational as well as dialectal boundaries.

Origins of the Fictionalized Gypsy

A hundred and twenty years ago, Simson (1865:8) called the fictitious image of the Gypsy as wanderer "very erroneous," and pointed out that "nomadic Gypsies constitute but a portion of the race, and a very small portion of it." In 1902, American romanologist Albert Sinclair wrote in his journal "How little people, even those who are much interested, learn about the American Gypsies! They do not know they own real estate, lend money, join the churches, how many or how few there are, etc. In fact, they know little about them" (quoted in Salo 1993:42).  Okely has made the same point: "Gypsies do not travel about aimlessly, as either the romantics or the anti-Gypsy suggest" (1983:125).  Scholarly treatments of Gypsies are numerous and readily available, and lack of information cannot be the reason for the perpetuation of the myth.  But the idea that a lack of information exists has itself become a part of that myth. The reasons for its persistence must, then, be sought elsewhere.

The contemporary, created Gypsy persona is the result of a dynamic which got out of hand in the last century, and which then acquired a life of its own.  It was  stimulated by a combination of the responses to industrialization, and emerging 19th century ideas of racial hierarchy.

As mills, mines, factories and rail transportation transformed the land, so perceptions of the pre-industrial, rural world of the earlier century acquired a magical quality which was fostered in the poems and paintings of the mid-1800s.  This nostalgia idealized the world of the farmer and the shepherd and of rural life; Gypsies were seen as the ultimate latter-day bearers of this vanishing world, a remote population unsullied by civilization, content to live in and from the fields and forests.   Meanwhile, western European powers were claiming large areas of the non-white world, and becoming increasingly powerful and influential.  Technology was seen as being more of a mark of civilization than spirituality, and writers of the age such as Darwin, Gobineau and Knox produced scientific treatises ranking human groups in terms of their "development."  These studies were based upon classifications belonging to the emerging disciplines of botany and zoology, but were being applied to human categories.  The notion that some "races" were more highly developed than others, and that some of them exhibited "mixed" developmental characteristics due to genetic interbreeding—invariably seen as having negative consequences—gave rise to the idea of racial purity.  From here it was but a short jump  to establishing the identity of the "True Romany, " i.e. the individual who fit the epitomized persona, who caused no trouble, who didn’t want "in," and who lived safely at a distance on fruit and game animals, and the occasional vegetables stolen from the farmers’ fields, and who stayed with his own kind.  This was who became flesh and blood in the fiction and (increasingly) the non-fiction of the day, and who is with us still.   This philosophy also allowed writers and policy-makers to dismiss  people called variously "mumpers" or "posh-rats" or "diddicois" or pikeys" as an unwelcome social blot on the land, people of little or no Romani blood who gave the True Romany a bad name.  Such people did, and do, indeed, constitute the greater part of the Gypsy population.  A millennium after leaving India as an already-mixed population, there are no Roma anywhere in the world who are genetically pristine.  The concept itself is unproductive and unscientific, but it laid the foundation for racial policies which, in the 20th century, led to the attempted extermination of the entire global Romani population in the Holocaust.  In the 1880s an Anglo-American organization called the Gypsy Lore Society was established, predictably having no Gypsy members, and the early numbers of its journal contain the genealogies of Romani families (called "pedigrees," as though the subjects were cocker spaniels) and contain articles glorifying and glamorizing the True Romany.

While the misrepresentation of ethnic and social groups is challenged, in the course of time, by members of those groups, this did not happen in the case of Roma.  Being a disenfranchized and unschooled population, few were even aware of the Romani golem coming to life in the world of the gadjé.  Visitors with notebooks coming into Romani homes were nothing new, and were tolerated one way or another.  That they were provided with misleading information is evident from an examination of their published findings, as is the fact that, in the absence of detail, they filled in their own later, from their imaginations.   Both Romani protective behavior, and the non-Romani response to it, continue today.  The image has become too deeply entrenched to ever be completely eradicated.

More recently, there have been signs of a grudging acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Romani identity and history, but a resistance to it--as though it were driving away something more valuable. Even when discounting the fictional image, it is reinforced by being repeated; thus in an account in which none of the trappings of that image formed a part of the reporter’s actual experience, they were alluded to in an article in the Toronto Sun which appeared in the Spring of 1985 which began "Gypsy. Even the word is impossibly romantic. Dark eyes, crying violins, and wanderlust. A life of pleasure and abandon. But the reality ... is vastly different." In August, 1986, one Boston newspaper ran a six-page feature on one of that city’s Romani families, claiming on the first page that to judge from their appearance, they could have easily been "Spanish, or French, or Italian, or Irish", but by the second page calling them ... 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" (Brink 1986:5).  A student of mine who was a journalism major came to me at the end of a course I give on Romani history to thank me for what she had learned. However, she admitted to some disappointment because I had made Gypsies become real people for her.  She preferred the image she had of them before taking the class, she said.

It is clear that Gypsies give fledgling journalists a chance to exercise their skills in creative fiction, but truth gets distorted considerably in the process. Despite showing two pictures, one inside and one out, of the house of the Romani-American family it discusses, another article is entitled "Hustle, hustle aboard the caravan." Crystal balls, non-existent in the community described, are alluded to in the headline, "Authorities gaze into Gypsy con-game."  The same clichéd association is found in an article which appeared in March this year in the New York Daily News entitled "New York Gypsies peer into their future: An ancient culture debates joining the modern world."  Despite its serious intent, a twenty-minute documentary film about a Romani school in California closed with the observation that "Although Gypsies still dance around the camp fire, the fire is slowly flickering out as Gypsy life gradually fades into oblivion ..."  The film dealt with education, and it included no dancing and no camp fires.

Most people still get their information about our people from books rather than from first-hand experience.   A surprising number still don’t believe that we really exist.  A letter to the editor of The Daily Texan (for May 17th, 1976) protesting the use of the word "gyp" in an article, received the printed reply that "‘gyp’ is not an ethnic slur, for the simple reason that gypsies are not an actual people."  More recently, and for the same reason, a letter which appeared in The Anchorage Daily News (for March 12th, 1999) condemning the same use of "gyp" in a headline drew a number of letters in response: one from a Gerry Godfrey maintained in part that

Perhaps Mr. Sewell does not know that the word ‘gyp’ deriving from ‘gypsy’ is not the least bit a racial slur.  Gypsies do not imply a race or ethnicity, but rather a nomadic lifestyle.

And another from John G. Stevens said

Rich Sewell states that the term ‘gyp’ was a racial term that offends Gypsies.  Now correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t racial slurs supposed to be offensive towards a race? Last I checked, Gypsies weren’t a race, but a rather unique lifestyle.  Now most everyone knows that the term ‘gyp’ is often used to describe being on the receiving end of a shortcoming, hence to be ‘gypped.’ I’ve used it before, probably will use it again, so have a lot of people I know.

Those journalists for whom we are real, and who do manage to win the confidence of actual Roma, and thereby gain temporary entry into the Romani environment, quickly find their preconceptions shaken. There are no camp fires and tambourines, no crystal balls and violins. Yet their non-existence is not interpreted as evidence of the inaccuracy of the Gypsy Image--but rather that true "Gypsy life" is disappearing. This was the sentiment in the closing words of the documentary film from California; it is the sentiment expressed by journalist Ira Berkow in an article called "Americanizing the Gypsy soul," which appeared in 1975: "Gypsies are shockingly," he wrote, "also becoming homeowners."  Berkow’s distress echoed a sentiment not new to journalism. "Even gypsies lose romance" (20 November, 1921); "Vanished Gypsies" (1 February, 1926); "Alas! Gypsies are progressive!" (26 August, 1928) and "Reality overtakes the gypsy" (30 July,1938) are headlines from earlier in this century collected by Eric Metzgar in a survey of  articles about Romani Americans all of which have appeared in the New York Times (1985).  They reflect their authors’ disappointment in discovering that the "real" Gypsies they visited were so different from the image they’d obviously hoped to find. That newspaper’s failure to acknowledge the legitimate ethnic status of Gypsies by writing the word with a capital G remained its editorial policy until November, 1992, when pressure from Romani organizations persuaded them to change it—though this was a style-change it complies with only erratically even now.

The editorial written in 1928 concluded that "[r]egretfully, we have come to believe that there are no Gypsies," and 12 years later in yet another New York Times editorial (11 February, 1940), sorrow was expressed at the disappearance of traditional Romani professions, specifically trading in horses and gold, but with some resignation, gladness that despite this, "the gypsy symbol lingers in the hearts of man."

The need for a "gypsy symbol to linger in the heart" was the argument made by Werner Cohn in his book The Gypsies (1973:61), where he suggested that Gypsies survive as a people only because they "are needed in [non-Gypsy] culture" (my emphasis), the implication being that Roma exist merely because of non-Roma sufferance.

Certainly there is a need, perhaps in all cultures, for an avenue of escape for those individuals who cannot function fully in their own society, either because of personality traits or a genuine grievance against its standards. But Cohn’s statement is misleading, however, because he does not make the point that what attracts the "hippies and fanatics" he speaks of are not, in fact, Gypsies Roma at all but the imaginary popular image of Gypsies which those same individuals help to sustain.

A number of alternative reasons have been suggested, by sociologists and others, as to what motivates such people to be attracted to the Gypsy Image; one possibility is that the normalizing pressures of mainstream, Anglo-dominated American  society has robbed some of those in it of their identity; ethnicity for such people becomes a precious commodity, and since (unlike for Italian, Irish, Serbian, and other Americans) there exists a tangible, mythical Gypsy identity to which "hippies and fanatics," musicians, actors  and others apparently belong, it serves as a useful all-purpose ethnic receptacle. Since it exists quite independently of Roma themselves, there is never a conflict with the actual ethnic community who may even make use of it in turn for their own purposes.

Fantasy projection harms the Romani people by keeping the stereotype alive, and by making it difficult to convince the media of more serious Gypsy-related issues. But another reason for the maintenance of the Gypsy Image by the establishment has been more harmful in the past, though it is far from dead: the Gypsy as scapegoat.

Since the 14th century, Gypsies in Europe have existed as a people without a geographical homeland, and without any kind of political, military, educational, or financial strength; an easy target for the application of blame. Gypsies have been accused of theft, poisoning wells, poisoning cattle, spreading diseases, stealing children, and even of cannibalism. The most recent charges of the latter crime were made in Slovakia as recently as 1928. Kephart has recently suggested that prejudice against Gypsies is based in their being perceived of as a countercultural population—a refinement of the notion of Gypsy as Scapegoat:

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 retaliation (Kephart 1982:43).

Yet another explanation, and an attractive one for this writer, has been proposed by Sibley. He believes that there has been an intrinsic manipulation of the Romani population by the establishment which, for its own purposes, keeps the Gypsy Myth alive and resists efforts to adjust it to something more realistic. Since that image is the antithesis of all of the values of that establishment--morality, work ethic, hygiene, and so on, it serves a useful purpose in helping to define the boundaries of the dominant culture:

It is notable that myth contributes in a significant way to the shaping of images of groups that do not fit the dominant social model. The possibility that the characterization of social groups like Gypsies may be based on myth is rarely considered, particularly in governmental circles, probably because these myths are functional--they serve to define the boundaries of the dominant system. Accounts of non-conforming behavior assume the form of a romantic myth, or they involve imputations of deviancy, which are also largely mythical; the romantic image, located at a distance or in the past. necessarily puts the minority on the outside (Sibley 1981:195-196).

Romani reactions to their treatment by non-Gypsies have taken two main directions.  There has, on the one hand, been a withdrawal from all unnecessary social and physical contact with non-Gypsies.  Cultural pressures to remain aloof have existed since before the exodus out of India, and no doubt have their origins in the Indian caste system.  Among contemporary Gypsies in the United States, their actual manifestation differs from group to group, being most strongly maintained by those who came here directly out of slavery.  But children are taught from the beginning that a clear-cut division exists between people who are Roma and people who are not, and that it must be maintained at all costs. This is reinforced by notions of cleanliness, eating habits, the handling of animals, sexual behavior, and so on. The desirability of being a Rom is emphasized; and, while there are no illusions about the difficulties of maintaining Romani values in a non-Romani environment, very few Gypsies would want to be anything else. At the same time, great lengths are gone to in order to protect the ethnic identity; it is still the case that only a handful of Gypsies admit their ethnicity publicly, one reason for the apparently tiny number of identifiable Gypsies in the professions.

On the other hand, there has been an internalization of the stereotype, and a regurgitation of it for the public: if this is what fascinates the gadjé, and if this is what they are willing to pay for, then they shall have it. David Nemeth has recognized this, although his observations are rather extreme:

More traditional Gypsy power-brokers ... may prefer being portrayed by the media as hustlers, even predators, than as the pathetic prey of Nazis and other racists (Nemeth 1986:117).

Media attention of this sort can in fact harm the whole community. Police routinely step up their harassment of all Roma in an area, even when just one individual or family is under investigation. Nevertheless, an image is not untypically projected from within the Romani community itself which can mislead the public, and thereby serve to protect it.  Sometimes this seems to be done instinctively: in the article by Brink mentioned earlier (assuming that she did not put words into his mouth), her interviewee claimed that Roma do not work like other people, and that there were no Roma in the professions, no Romani doctors. And yet the individual involved had attended a World Romani Congress in Europe and had met its leaders, all Rom, who numbered among themselves physicians, professors, politicians and engineers.  His own nephew is majoring in computer science at the University of Colorado.  In the same way, outsiders are discouraged from learning the Romani language and may be told that it is Greek or Spanish. This misleading representation from within the Romani community serves as a shield; it is believed that if inquisitive non-Roma are busy pursuing the myth, they will leave the real thing alone. The myth is a mechanism of liberation which allows a minimum of interference from outside. The function of this, however, is beginning to be affected by contemporary changes affecting the Gypsy community.

In the past few years, the American Romani population has begun to organize itself in ways previously non-existent in this country. Some have called such efforts "fantastic", others "a mere toying, a waste of energy" and "artificially contrived" (Lípa, 1983:4). In an article which appeared in 1984, the leading Hungarian scholar of Romani studies mentioned above wrote that "it is a grave mistake to suppose that either racial factors, or the idea of ethnic identity, unite the different Gypsy groups" (Vekerdi 1984), although a report by a team of geneticists working at the Boston General Hospital and published in The Lancet in August, 1987, made it clear that

... the analysis of blood groups, haptoglobin phenotypes, and HLA types, have established Gypsies as a distinct population with origins in the Indian region of the Punjab; this finding: is supported by the worldwide Gypsy language, Romani, which is notably similar to Hindi (Thomas et al. 1987).

Romani self-determination is a threat to those scholars whose investment in Gypsies is in their value as anthropological subjects. We are taking their toys away, and they react accordingly. Like Inuit [Eskimos] without igloos or Indians without tepees, Gypsies without wagons cheat the investigator of something. While Anglo-Americans can progress from horse and cart to automobile, "exotic" minorities are seen to be losing something of their identity if they do too.

New conflicts for American Gypsies are becoming evident as these movements grow: since obtaining permanent representation in the United Nations in 1979, the International Romani Union has entered the international forum; trans-Atlantic communication is on the increase; because of the sharp increase in racist violence against Roma in post-Communist Europe which has led to a massive influx of Roma coming here seeking asylum, Washington has become very well aware of the Romani presence in this country. Indeed two Congressional hearings on human rights abuses of Roma have been held in Washington, the first on April 14th , 1994 and the second on July 21st last year.  Romani organizations were involved in the Washington meetings on the disbursement of the assets stolen from Holocaust victims and placed in Swiss banks; it is not possible to remain invisible and still be involved in such matters. More and more Romani Americans are seeking legal recourse and challenging discrimination in the courts, and winning. There is an increasing rejection of the word "Gypsy" and all of the negative connotations that go with it.  But if the existence of the Gypsy Myth is to be eradicated in Euro-American society, both Roma and gadjé are going to have to find alternatives to fulfill its functions, and this is not likely to be accomplished soon.


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This paper was originally written for the symposium "Creating the Other: The Causes and Dynamics of Nationalism, Ethnic Enmity, and Racism in Central and Eastern Europe" at the University of Minnesota, May 1999.

Ian F. Hancock, of British Romani and Hungarian Romani descent, represents Roma on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He is professor of Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and has authored nearly 300 publications. In 1997, he was awarded the international Rafto Human Rights Prize (Norway), and in 1998 was recipient of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice (USA).

This paper is reproduced by the Patrin Web Journal with the permission and assistance of the author, posted 05 September 1999.

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