We Are Rom
We are Rom
Please don’t call us Gypsies!
By Elizabeth Artemis Mourat
This article is about a word, a word that most Americans find magical, romantic and intriguing. This article is also about a dilemma, a dilemma that I have and that I share with many of you. We use and have used the word “Gypsy” all of our lives. We have done so with innocence. Indeed, this is the only word we have known for this group of people. After a decade of research on the Turkish members of this population and years of study about racism and the dynamics behind it, I have learned that this term, which we dearly love, is offensive to these people whom we claim to love.
I must warn you that this will be a controversial article, but I feel that it is my duty as a researcher to print the facts. I will try to be fair in my presentation of both sides of the subject.
In order to understand this dilemma, I will answer three questions: Where did this term come from? What is the objection to it? What can we do?
Where did the term “Gypsy” come from?
The word “Gypsy” comes from the word “Egypt.” The group of people we call “Gypsies” (Roma) migrated from India and some of them went to Egypt. By the 14th and 15th centuries, there were Gypsies (Roma) in most parts of central Europe. These Roma were very likely not from the Egyptian branch of the Rom tree, but it was easy for the Europeans to believe that they were because of their dark coloring and exotic clothing.1 Some of them claimed to have been from Egypt. They said that they had been forced to leave Egypt because of their Christian beliefs. There are some accounts from the first decades of the 14th century from Byzantine writers who referred to troupes of jugglers and acrobats who were thought to be Egyptian. It is, however, difficult to tell if they were actually Egyptian of if they were Gypsy (Roma). It is also difficult to tell if it was assumed by the Europeans that they were Egyptian or if they were claiming to be Egyptian. One early account of Gypsies (Roma) who claimed to be Egyptian is from Romania, in 1415. “Master Emaus from Egypt, with 120 followers, received money and food from the city council…” Some Rom groups claimed that they had to atone for their sins by wandering the earth for seven years. As a result of all of this, some of them travelled with letters of safe passage, and some of them said that they were from “Little Egypt.” It is possible that they even obtained a blessing from Pope Martin V.2 It is interesting to note that there were groups of Roma who claimed for well over 100 years that they were forced to roam for seven years. They had obtained a special status in these Christian countries by making people aware of this persecution.
It is easy to see how this group, who had been despised and discriminated against by everyone, might latch onto a ploy that would offer them safe passage and status. Since the fifteenth century, the word “Gypsy,” along with its many European versions, has been most commonly used for this group.
What is the objection to this term?
The term “Gypsy” is not accurate. The group is not originally from Egypt. They are from India.
Secondly, it is a name that has been linked with a bad reputation born of poverty and racism. There are numerous stereotypes associated with this population, many of which are very negative (e.g. “dirty Gypsy” or “thieving Gypsy”). There are Gypsy cab drivers who do not belong to the group at large. Gypsy moths ravage our foliage. People talk about being “gypped” when they mean that they have been swindled. Gypsy dancers are people on Broadway who perform with no attachment to any company. We also have stereotypes of them as a group, always singing and dancing.
But what of the Rom doctors, lawyers and politicians who may not be able to sing at all? Any time a group of people is stereotyped, it robs them of the multidimensional aspects of their true selves. Stereotypes come in clusters and if you believe that any one part of the myth is true, then the other parts of the myth are given credence. Think of the many pervasive stereotypes that we still combat: the alcoholic Irish, the passionate Hispanics, the miserly Jews, the arrogant French, the militant Germans, the stingy Scots, the Latin lovers, the Arab terrorists, and while we are at it, the notion that all people of African descent can dance. These stereotypes are blatantly inaccurate at best, and narrow-minded, cruel and dangerous at worst. This is racism. Stereotypes are always disrespectful, no matter how benevolent they may appear on the surface, and always inaccurate because there is never a universal phenomenon that applies to all members of any ethnic group.
I asked many Roma and Rom scholars how they felt about the expression “Gypsy.” I was not prepared for the intensity of this controversial topic. I was told that the word is a pejorative, racist term. Sani Rifati, a well known political activist who is Rom, said to me, “Please don’t call us Gypsies. We are not Gypsies. We are Roma.” He has wonderful tee shirts that he sells in order to raise money for the desperately poor Rom children in his village in Serbia. On the shirt is printed the universal flag of Romani people which depicts a red wagon wheel, the green earth and the blue sky. He has also printed these words:
Gypsy = an inaccurate term for Rom
Rom = human being
Rroma = 12 million people worldwide
Rromani = language of the Rroma, a people persecuted for centuries
Persecution = human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, job discrimination, ugly stereotypes, etc.
Then printed on the shirt is a small wagon wheel followed by an equal sign and the words “movement, life, journeying; the wheel of fire.”3
I interviewed the world famous Romni singer Esma. She said, “We are not Gypsies. I do not speak the language called ‘Gypsy,’ I speak Romany. When we Roma meet for the first time, we ask each other, ‘Are you Rom?’ and reply ‘Yes, I am Rom.’ We just don’t need this term. In our language we have no word ‘Gypsy.’ We call ourselves Rom.”
I have discussed this controversy at great lengths with professional collegue and ethnochoreologist Laurel Gray, who researches and preserves regional dances from Central Asia. She sums it up like this: “The refusal to change our terminology suggests that our personal fantasies of the ‘Gypsies’ are more important than the very real feelings of the Rom people.”
The most shocking thing I heard was from Sonai Seeman, who is doing doctoral research in Turkey on Roman (Gypsy) music and identity. She has lived there for two years and her research is impeccable. She said, “Some of them feel that it is like calling them niggers.” I bit back tears when I heard this last statement, but had to be willing to listen and learn, regardless of how painful it was for me.
On the other hand, I have also been told, “This is the American term and that is that. Why should we change our vocabulary?”
Sonia Seeman has an uncanny ability to get close to this very closed society in Turkey and she says that she is still unraveling some of the mystery about which name the people prefer. She has asked them what group they belong to and she has heard, “I am not Rom, I am Cingene;” or “I am not Cingene, I am Rom,” a distinction which alludes the researcher since both terms have also been used interchangeably to describe the population we call Gypsy. We have had a similar experience in the United States, when some Native Americans still prefer to be called Indians even though they were given this name by Columbus who thought they were from India. We also know African Americans who still say, “ I am not African American, I am Black.”
You may ask how this can be resolved if they, themselves cannot decide on a universal term? In short, it is safe to say that the majority of people in this group who are trying to raise the awareness of outsiders, prefer the term “Roma” for Gypsies, “Rom” for a male Gypsy and “Romni” for a married female Gypsy. The adjective is Romany and the language is called Romany. Some groups spell these words: Rroma, Rrom, Rromni, Rromany and Rromani (respectively).
You may ask, “What is in a name?” I will never forget the time I used the word “mulatto” for a person who is of mixed heritage. I was in a racism class in graduate school. The teacher jumped on me rather ferociously with, “Would you like to be called a mule? That is what ‘mulatto’ means, and this is what you have called these people, a mule, the offspring of a jackass and a mare.” I was shocked and tried to explain that I had been taught that this was a proper term and that I had no idea it was pejorative. She told me that now I knew and that it was up to me to tell others. Another term often used is “squaw” when referring to female Native Americans. I was stunned to learn more about this term. This word became popularized by Caucasian traders and trackers. It means “vagina” and to make matters worse, it is the four letter word for vagina. Who among us knows this? The point is that now that we know, what are we going to do about it?
What can we do?
My hope is that we can change the way we say things, and will correct others when they use these expressions. How can we not do so, now that we know?
The great negotiations of this world are based on compromise, and I think that we can work something out that will be acceptable. There are many fine organizations, dance troupes, bands, songs, poems, paintings and dancers with the word “Gypsy” in their titles. It is not practical to expect that we can change things overnight. Nor is it realistic to think that we can change names that were given in the past. We may not need to change everything entirely. We cannot (at this point in time) go into the Louvre and demand new nameplates for the paintings. We cannot tell songwriters and playwrights (dead or alive) to undo what they innocently have done. We cannot rename troupes and bands that have been in existence for decades and who are known to the world by this name. Imagine forcing the “Gipsy Kings” to call themselves, “the Roma Kings.” Most people will not recognize their ethnic heritage if they do.
I am particularly affected by this controversy because I am known for my research on Turkish Roma dance, history and culture. I am practical enough to realize that when my book and documentary film come out and are released to the world outside of Oriental dance, if I put “Turkish Roma” in the title, people will think it is about something Turkish and Rumanian or Turkish and Italian. They won’t realize that it has anything to do with the group they call “Gypsies.” I know that it is awkward for me to refer to my workshops as, “Dance from the group formerly known as Gypsies” as in “the artist formerly known as Prince.” I have my series of articles entitled “Gypsy Dancing: Separating Fact from Fiction,” and I have other products, such authentic Turkish Rom music cassettes and antique reproductions of Romni, not to mention that I have a lifetime of use of this term in my vocabulary. This is hard to overcome, and frankly, sometimes it is easier to just use the term everybody else uses.
I sometimes use the term “belly dancing” that same way, even though I do not prefer it. I get tired of having to explain that, “It is properly called ‘Oriental dance,’ but this does not mean that I do Asian dances.” When I am booking a dancing job for Joe Blender’s 60th birthday party, he does not want to be educated. He only wants to know if I can do the dance he calls “belly dancing.” So, I say “belly dancing” even though I do not like it. But sometimes I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that I have taught myself to not say, gyp, mulatto and squaw and I can overcome this too.
I am trying to resolve this. As I told Sani, “I have to get the people in the door before I can educate them. The only name they know is ‘Gypsy’ and I have to use it in order to identify what I do.” Once I have people’s attention, I can teach my readers and workshop participants about the other words. At my workshops and in my writings, I give more and more information about racism. I will try to use both words in my advertisements, articles and products. I can request that the people who sponsor me to teach use both words in their advertisements and introductions of me. I will also try very hard to use my words carefully. I ask, in advance, for your forgiveness because I may not always succeed. Old habits are very hard to break and it is sometimes awkward. It took time to become comfortable with the term “people of color” and now it sounds like music to me.
What else can I do? I will simply ask others who are reading this article to reconsider their terms. If they are doing a genuine Rom dance, they could call it “a Gypsy (Rom) dance.” If they are dancing out of inspiration from this ethnic population, or if they are doing an interpretive piece, then they should say that this is where their inspiration comes from. They should not say that their music or dance or style or costume is authentically Rom if it is not.
I think the most poignant argument I can offer is this: If most of these people do not like being called by this name, then this is reason enough to work on our awareness of it. It is a matter of respect, not convenience.
1. Soulis, p.
2. Tomasevic and Djuric, p. 17
3. If you would like to help buy coal and blankets for Sani’s village, you can buy a tee shirt from him for $17 (postage is included). His address is: Sani Rifati, 2075 South Brush St., Graton CA 95444
Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis, “Gypsy Dancing—Separating Fact from Fiction,” self-published, Maryland, 1996.
Soulis, Angus, The Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans, Dumbarton Oaks Essay Collection, 1961.
Tomasevic, Nebojsa Bato, and Rajko Djuric, Gypsies of the World, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1988.
Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, MA, MSW, is a dancer, historian and workshop instructor. She is currently writing a book and creating a documentary film on the history of Turkish Gypsy (Rom) dance, history and culture. www.serpentine.org