University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Gypsies: A Persecuted Race

Non-Gypsy populations receive most of their knowledge of Gypsies from fictional literature 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. A traditional, fictional image of the Gypsy has emerged, of non-Gypsy origin, which has become so deeply entrenched in the popular mind that the real people remain unseen. In Britain and France, Romani Gypsies in dirty roadside sites are condemned as unsanitary squatters who give the "true Gypsy" a bad name; in the United States and Canada, the average citizen is likely to think that there are no Gypsies in those countries at all; they never see the campfires and waggons they associate with them, or violin-toting individuals wearing earrings and embroidered jackets. Books and articles have been written which refer to Gypsies as "hidden" or "invisible" Americans.

Much is made of two attributes in particular in sustaining this fictional stereotype: stealing and wandering. Certainly some Gypsies -- just as some Irish or same Berbers or Eskimos -- steal; others don't. It is social behaviour, and is not transmitted genetically. 'there may well leave been some moral justification for this in the past, although this is not likely to be taken into consideration in a court of law; historically, stealing has meant survival, and there are still many shopkeepers throughout Europe even today who will not serve Gypsies; there are homeowners,too,who will refuse to give Gypsies even a glass of water;* given the choice between seeing one's family starve, or 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 Romani Union archives of crimes such as shoplifting being perpetrated by people reported as Gypsies, who in fact turn out not to be Gypsies at all. The label is freely applied by police reporters on the basis of behaviour assumed to be typical of ethnic Gypsies -- which of course it is, it the model sought is the Gypsy of fictional literature. There are hundreds of thousands of Gypsies who deplore the illegal activities of those few who make the news, and there are hundreds of thousands who try to maintain decent and honest lives in the face of adversity. Gypsy priests and ministers don't seem ever to generate media interest.

"Wandering" or "roaming" is the other commonly-repeated attribute, and are words which frequently find a place in accounts about Gypsies. This is an example of the oppressors' taking a condition they themselves have imposed upon the subordinated group, and interpreting it as what they perceive to be a positive characteristic. 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 farmily and keeping it clothed and warm is trivialized out of existence.

If I am fancy free,
and love to wander --
It's just the Gypsy in my soul°

° copyright Messrs. Boland & Jaffe (1936)

Gypsies in western Europe have traditionally been kept on the move because of laws created by non-Gypsies which have given them no alternative. Means of livelihood have been developed which are adapted to this kind of life, ,end have subsequently become part of the stereotype. Individuals not conforming to these -- which include a growing number of those politically involved in the Romani 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, lie's a total disappointment.

This ignorance on the part of the non-Gypsy population is a direct result of centuries of 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, such as the Jews and the Afro-Americans and Afro-Britons, have begun to redress the wrongs perpetrated against them; there are no laws now operating against these people, nor are they maligned and misrepresented in the popular press; hooks portraying them negatively are removed from school libraries. 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, Beck (1985:103) 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 them.

Gypsies use their language and core-culture as a kind of movable 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 discus'sed at the beginning of this work prove to belong to one 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 divide the contemporary populations, and they are not considerable, they are overwhelmingly the result or 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.

*A newspaper item which appeared in the "South Ealing Post" for January 18, 1974 carried the headline "Residents scared by the Gypsies." Speaking for the Wayfarers' Tenants Association, spokeswoman Norma Halford said "it is terrible, some of the things they are doing: they are knocking on doors and asking fur water."

Bibliography - excerpted from Land of Pain: Five Centuries of Gypsy Slavery

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