Don’t Call a Gypsy a gypsy

by Tamuira Reid

Bucharest, Romania, 2009. Madonna gyrates her way across a brightly lit stage in front of 60,000 screaming fans. Suddenly she stops, looks sternly out into the crowd. “It has been brought to my attention … that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and gypsies in general in Eastern Europe,” she says. “It made me feel very sad. We don't believe in discrimination [where I come from] … we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone.”

And then it happens. Nearly all of the 60,000 adoring fans turn into a huge jeering mass. They boo her.

But this doesn’t faze Madonna. She dusts off her thigh highs, clicks her heels and goes on with her show, resuming the usual bumping and grinding that has made her so famous. She did what she set out to do – to give a “shout out” to her gypsy peeps, seeing as she has recently become an admirer of several Gypsy dancers, even going as far as to invite them on her tour. Maybe the pop icon will inspire others to jump on the “Gypsies are cool” bandwagon (no pun intended).

First things first, Madonna: never call a Gypsy a gypsy.


There are somewhere between 8-10 million Roma or Romani (derogatively referred to as “gypsy”, the lowercase “g” insinuating that it’s not a proper noun) currently living in Eastern Europe. It’s impossible to get an accurate count because of the number of Roma who are undocumented by governments that still refuse to claim them or to acknowledge their existence as anything other than outsider.

With the resurgence of hate crimes against the Roma throughout Eastern Europe, the Western World is starting to ask, “Who are these people exactly?” Even though the Roma have been persecuted and murdered in droves since well before WWII, it has taken the general global public decades to become interested.

Roma did not have proper representation in the EU until fairy recently and no one has been held accountable for them — they’ve been left to fend for themselves — and this lack of belonging only heightens their status as outsiders.

They have been forced from their homes, whether burned out, bombed out or physically dragged out, and have had no choice but to live in a parallel universe, existing on the periphery of a society that does not and will not claim them. They are travelers not driven by wanderlust, but driven out by hatred.


Molotov Cocktail.

I have to admit that I had no idea what this meant until I looked it up. A Molotov Cocktail is a petrol bomb, a gasoline bomb, increasingly popular amongst poorer East-European communities because of its fairly straightforward and inexpensive manner of production. Put the gas in. Light it. Throw it. There you go.

Currently, in certain regions of Hungary, it is the bomb of choice. Especially when attempting to exterminate “those damn gypsies.” A single Cocktail can, when thrown properly, demolish a pretty substantial section of a single-family house. It can also level the typical gypsy trailer with spare petrol to boot.

This particular method of extermination and intimidation has replaced the previous, apparently more archaic method of just shooting a gun.


Membership is difficult to define. While migrating across the continents, the Roma spread and multiplied, both by strengthening their own communal ties and by attracting outsiders as they moved. The approximate number of Roma spanning the globe today totals more than twelve million. It’s an arduous task, however, to truly assess the Roma population in terms of numbers due to the insular tendency within these groups to lie about their heritage for economic, social and political reasons.

Wander: to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal.

Wandering has certain laziness to it, certain romanticism. What’s romantic about being forced into exile, about living a life on land that feels borrowed, never really yours?


“The Devouring”, translated from the Romani “The Porrajmos”, is the term adopted by the Roma when describing the Nazi’s success at annihilating nearly one million members of their community during the Holocaust, many of which were children. They were carted away — with the ugly, deformed, stupid, mute, blind, gay – the “others”, the non-Jews. This hatred devoured them.

December 16, 1942: Heinrich Himmler ordered all gypsies to the concentration camps. A select few were taken to the “Special gypsy Family Camp” located at Auschwitz where “doctors” and “scientists” would torture Roma children and adults by putting them into pressure chambers or injecting them with drugs. Some men were castrated like bulls, while their female counterparts were sterilized in exchange for the promise of a freedom that never happened.

As a staggering number of Roma were and remain illiterate, many were not registered at the camps. A generic Z was placed where their names should have been. Most Roma were killed during transit or within hours of imprisonment, with no record of their deaths.


They are not Christian. Speak a foreign tongue. Restless. Lazy.

They are dark-skinned and dark-minded, and if you’re not careful, they will put a spell on you.

They will eat your dog, take your wife and steal your kids.

They can play the violin in their sleep, read palms coming out of the womb, put curses on you with nothing more than a sideways glance, a quick click of their fingers.

Propaganda: to present information primarily to influence an audience.


It is scary to admit that communism had its benefits. It feels dangerous to make this statement. Yet, it is the lesser of two evils. On one hand, you have an oppressive communist system that didn’t allow Roma to be Roma in a cultural sense — not to mention often paid women to be sterilized and then hid away any existing children in orphanages — but that protected them from ethnic-persecution and kept them consistently (and sometimes, gainfully) employed. On the other hand, you have a free society that tolerated (and sometimes even celebrated) their arts, let them dance and sing and create but that unabashedly condoned violent acts against all things Roma.

I am not a communist. But.

Under communist rule and by living in police state, the Romas were protected because they provided the Eastern bloc with labor; and labor, no matter your race or gender, was needed and coveted. The “Gadje”, (non-Roma) tolerated these nomads during communism, mostly because there was plenty of work to go around.

After the fall of communism, things changed.

The Roma were the very first to be dismissed from jobs in the bankrupt privatized factories. If they farmed, they were stripped of their land as cooperative agriculture was phased out and Roma did not possess proper documentation of ownership. The days of forced inclusion were over and a full-blown exclusion to this new way of life pushed Roma to the borders of their hometowns, their countries, in both a literal and figurative sense. In 1990, so many of the Romanian Roma fled to West Germany by way of East Berlin that the German’s actually paid the Romanians to take them back.

Under communism, Roma were looked down upon, whispered about but not hated. Not yet.

In 1989-90, nearly 80 percent of Roma children were enrolled in kindergarten, while today that number has dropped drastically, hovering somewhere above ten-fifteen percent, with a large number of those children enrolled in schools intended for the mentally handicapped.

Roma make-up the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Interestingly enough, they possess the least economic and military strength. High unemployment rates, widespread housing discrimination, and lack of access to proper schooling cause the majority of the Roma to rely on the welfare system. This, of course, only perpetuates the image of gypsy as a social liability.

The bleak truth is it seems impossible for the Roma to maintain their identity to their ethnic group while advancing within their new society. Get rid of everything Gypsy, maybe they have a shot. Embrace homogeny, they could be in business.

Western capitalist culture doesn’t necessarily appeal to the average Romani. So what happens to them then? What happens when the outsider doesn’t necessarily want to be an insider?


The decade following the fall of the Wall made it clear to the rest of the free world that Europe’s problem remains its prejudice towards minorities. And when prejudice exists, so does an exclusion from all things democratic.

Transition to a democracy from a totalitarian regime is not easy. With change, comes uncertainty; with uncertainty, fear. The post-communist nationalistic “glow” eventually wore off, and the truth of the complexities involved in determining and securing one’s place in this new social structure surfaced. It was during this transitional period that feelings towards the Roma went from a “controlled” prejudice to full-blown racism and hatred. Zero tolerance. Gypsies fell into the cracks of a shaky new system and have stayed there ever since.



Slovakia. A Romani child is the survivor of a hit and run that killed both of his parents. The driver of the car, a Slovak businessman, is let of the hook. The boy’s family is threatened by local authorities to keep quiet.

Belfast, Northern Ireland. Several men armed with bricks and bottles force more than 100 Romanian Gypsies from their homes, sending them to the safety of a nearby church.

Czech Republic. A Roma man was shot with a crossbow and a Romani woman was kicked and punched in the head before being stabbed.

Slovakia. The police detain six Roma boys and force them to strip naked and then hit and pee on each other. The incident is videotaped by cell phone for the officers’ future viewing pleasure.

France. French President Nicolas plans to deport over 700 Roma back to Romania, sending several airplanes full of them out and away from his country.

Budapest, Hungary: A Romani woman is shot to death and her daughter is seriously injured when racist thugs enter their home in the early hours of the morning.

(And I try to imagine her lying there. In her nightgown. Her hair pulled back into a neat bun. Asleep.)


Non-Roma love their gypsy music and gypsy dancing but not the gypsies themselves. When the show is over and the lights come up, when the violin is laying back in its case, when the exotic woman with the flowing black hair calms her hips and ceases to twirl, everything goes back to normal. And normal, to the Roma, is anything but.

Yet, there is a currency here. The Roma see an opportunity to sell the only thing they truly own at this moment in time, that which they hold most dear and guard most fiercely; their identity.

Perhaps it’s their way of relating to a world that they see no common ground with. A way of fitting in, of proving their worth. Perhaps it’s a way a to simply make a living.


I am not exempt from being an opportunist myself.

On a date, when he drops his line about the unusual color of my eyes or my dark hair, I reveal that I’m “part Gypsy”. Tell the story of how my great grandmother left Transylvania with nothing more than the clothes on her back. My hope is this will somehow make me more exotic. More unattainable. Perhaps a bit wilder than I really am.

But the Roma are more than dangling gold bracelets and caravans and wagons parked at the edge of a river. Such stereotypes only feed the negative connotation the very word “Gypsy” or “Roma” evokes.


Roma discrimination inevitably sets in motion a cycle of poverty, homelessness, crappy health care and sub-standard educational resources. What we sadly begin to see is a realization of the typical Gypsy stereotype; the Roma as thieves and beggars. They became the eternal scapegoats for everything wrong with the past and the present.

And where is the record of Roma history? Is it real, did it happen if it is yet to be written?

It’s astounding how the majority of scholarly writing to date has failed to focus the same amount of attention on the Roma condition as it has on other groups targeted by the Nazis. Lack of representation and ownership is largely to blame for this discrepancy.

Ian Hancock, a Romani scholar and advocate, once wrote: “If this [deficit] is not a cause for concern among the non-Gypsy population, if that population is reluctant to be reminded about what it has done, and what it continues to do, then the Romani voice must be louder. But one way or another, it will be heard.”

A quick click of their fingers.