notice: racial and lgbt slurs mentioned from a woman within the groups.
I’m an author of YA fiction and long-time lurker on this page. Thank you so, so much for creating and maintaining this resource. I finally decided to submit my profile because IF I HAVE TO READ ONE MORE USE OF THE WORD “GYPPED” IN A PUBLISHED NOVEL, I WILL SCREAM.
I’m sorry this profile is so long, but I’m assuming the reader here is starting from zero. Romani are in a unique position in the United States right now. Our ethnicity and customs are treated like lifestyle choices. Even the most liberal, politically-correct allies think of us as unicorns.
A quick few quick notes about terminology:
“Romani” refers to the race—our people as a whole. “Roma” or “Romni” are the terms used for women, depending on your family tradition. (We use “Roma” in my family.) “Rom” is universally used for men—you would never call a man “Romni.” You will see people use “Roma” to refer to the entire race, and particularly to one extended family, because we’re a patriarchal society but a matrilineal people.
“Gypsy” is a word given to us by our oppressors. Like the word “Indian” for Native Americans, it assigned us a race that had nothing to do with us—Ancient Greeks and Romans once thought we were from Egypt. The word refers to both Romani peoples—of which there are hundreds of subcultures—and the Irish Travellers, who aren’t related to us ethnically or culturally. We do use this word to describe ourselves, but that’s in an effort to reclaim its power.
In the USA, the word “Gypsy” is used like an adjective instead of a noun… whenever that happens, it’s racist. Just like using the word “Indian” or “Native” to describe a rug pattern, or using the words “African-style” to sell a dress made in China. There is no excuse for calling something Gypsy if it is not made by or related to a Romani or Traveller person. Remember: the dictionary has more than one meaning for “f**got,” too. These aren’t overt cruelties, but rather the casual racism we all fall prey to when we aren’t paying attention. It’s just gotten extreme because, in the United States, you’ve all forgotten that the noun form of “Gypsy” even exists.
My mother is Sinti Roma and German. My father is English and German.
Ethnically, I am one quarter Roma (or thereabouts—it’s difficult to measure with so much intermarriage). Culturally, I’m half Roma as my mother was my Romani parent. If my father had been the Romani one, I would be considered “less Romani” than I am now. Biologically (according to my DNA test), I am 40% English/Welsh, 32% German, with the remaining divided up between Norway/Sweden, Ireland/Scotland, the Indian subcontinent, and Russia.
I have red-auburn hair and blue-gray eyes. My skin is extremely pale—paler than any of my relatives, on either side. I don’t freckle. I’m average height for an American and wear a US size 12 dress.
I identify as a cisgender female, and I am bisexual.
I’m 33 years old.
I pass for white. I mean, I think I technically am “white,” since that word refers to color and not culture. My entire Romani family passes, and that is typical of our race. My ethnic heritage is Sinti Roma, which is a Central European group. My mother always says we are “white” the way Jews in America are white—we have defining features and practices, if you know what to look for, but the burden/blessing of identifying as “other” usually falls to us.
Romani don’t have one particular “look,” per say, because we have intermarried with our neighbors all over the world. This is a massive misconception in popular culture, where the “Esmerelda Look” is considered the standard of beauty for our women: tall, tan, svelte, with giant breasts and SO MUCH black hair. And incongruously blue eyes? Not that the combination is impossible—anything is possible—but I’ve never actually met a Roma person who looked like this.
Representation for all non-white races was limited in the 1980’s and 90’s, but for Roma women it was basically just Esmeralda, Scarlet Witch, and the mystical Trash Heap on Fraggle Rock.
While I was growing up, the “Esmeralda Look” became the absolute beauty standard for Roma in the USA. Women started dying their hair black, getting fake tans, wearing colored contacts. I know many with breast implants. If you’ve ever watched My Big Fat Gypsy anything, you’ll know exactly what look I mean. (If you haven’t seen it, please don’t seek it out. It’s the actual worst.) This is an example of the incredible and sometimes devastating power of representation. We had one—just one—positive role model in the media, and we were desperate to meet that standard.
I don’t. Never have. Other women in my family, though, have worked hard to get pretty damn close.
Of course, on top of all this, we aren’t immune to the universal standards of beauty in the countries where we live. I was born blonde and blue-eyed in a sea of dark-haired cousins, so I was the automatic beauty of the family, even though my hair shifted to gingery auburn in childhood. My reign lasted until my youngest cousin stole the title when she was born—you guessed it!—blonde and blue-eyed. Before the two of us, no woman in our Romani family tree had ever been naturally blonde. It was a Big Deal.
Despite being the baby beauty, my sibling and cousins are considered better looking by current American standards. There are almost all taller than I am, and they are all thinner. They mostly have dark hair and tan easily. Many people in my family, men and women, have tattoos—this includes my mother and my grandmother. My grandma got her eyeliner tattooed on! And they are all incredibly well dressed and immaculately groomed. I am the family “hippie” because I regularly go without makeup and nail polish.
Romani traditions put a lot of emphasis on cleanliness and grooming. The stereotype of the unwashed gypsy couldn’t be falser—we are pretty much always the cleanest people in the room, because we have cultural rules about hygiene. Part of the reason that stereotype got started was because Romani were forced to live in the worst parts of town, where water wasn’t safe to drink or bathe in. That’s still true in many countries.
Roma women wear makeup, get their hair done, paint their nails. I’m generalizing, but that’s because we’re talking about “standards” here. Those are ours. I do very little of that on a daily basis, and ALL OF IT for big family events. I married a Gadjo (non-Romani), so his expectations of my appearance are very different from my family’s. I wear much nicer, fancier clothing when with my Romani relatives, and I make sure my daughter does, too. It’s important that my family see my husband as a good provider, and this is a major way to demonstrate that.
The ancient ancestors of Romani people were Hindu, and there are some who still practice. Every Romani I know in the United States is either Christian, Agnostic, or an Atheist, but that is because we live in the United States—there is no “Roma Religion,” and we are master chameleons. Most Romani people practice the dominant religion of the region they live in. We celebrate the same holidays, attend the same churches/temples/mosques, and our traditions look a lot like everyone else’s. My great-grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor.
The exceptions to this are cleanliness and generosity: They are the central tenets of our daily lives, and treated with the seriousness of religious practice. The home and person should clean at all times. The Romani kitchen is expected to be spotless (although not everyone lives up to this, myself included). You might notice that some Romani don’t shake hands upon greeting—this is because it’s considered unclean. Anything you have should be available to someone in need, but particularly food. We eat often and well, and sharing food is an important part of Romani life.
The first rule of being Romani is: You do not talk about being Romani.
Secrecy and assimilation have, literally, kept us alive for thousands of years. There is no part of the world where Romani have settled that has welcomed them. There’s a misconception that Romani are travelers by choice, but the reality is that we had no other option for most of our history. We were major victims of slavery in the medieval era, forced into assimilation throughout the 17- and 1800s, and targeted for genocide during the European Holocaust.
In the modern era, our children have been taken by the state “for their own safety” at rates higher than any other ethnic group in the United Kingdom. Since the end of the Kosovo War, Romani communities in that country have been systemically annihilated. Our women have been forcibly sterilized as recently as the 1970s. In 2008, two Romani children died at a crowded Italian beach while onlookers stood around doing absolutely nothing. There were witnesses quoted saying things like, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
France 2010: the government demolished at least 51 Romani communities because they planned to “repatriate” them—to send them back to their “countries of origin.” Except France was their country of origin. This led to years of violence and illegal deportation.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because I’m not going to tell you much about our culture. My family has spent their entire lives blending in with US mainstream culture, and blatantly lying about their ethnic origins. We don’t want you to be able to recognize us. We don’t want what happens to Romani in other parts of the world to start happening to us here. If you have a Romani friend or coworker, you probably do not know it. I’m considered a dangerous radical for even admitting I’m Roma to outsiders.
If you’re interested in Romani cultural customs, I suggest reading/watching:
American Gypsy: A Memoir by Oksana Marafioti
We Are the Romani People by Ian F. Hancock
Ceija Stojka: Even Death Is Afraid of Auschwitz
That’ll be a good start.
Dating and relationships
Most of us date like any other American would, although I have noticed a tendency to marry younger. I married at 25, which was considered old in my family and very young in the rest of my community. I’d been with my husband for five years when we married, and this is also typical—we don’t “date around” as much as our Gadjo (non-Romani) neighbors. This has started to change in the new 20-somethings, I think, but my brother and similarly-aged cousins all followed this pattern.
I will mention that boys have more dating freedom than girls do, but less marital freedom. There is a lot more pressure for a boy to marry a “good Roma girl” than for a girl to marry a Rom. I think this is because Roma mothers handle most of the child-rearing, and therefore a child is thought to be “raised Romani” if its mother is Roma. (You can research the concept of “Romanipen” to understand this better.) That said, my brother married a non-Roma, and that was totally fine.
Divorce is really rare for traditional Romani couples, but not as uncommon if you marry an outsider. Probably about the same as the national average. For reference: My mother has only married Gadjo men, and she’s been married three times. HOWEVER, all three marriages occurred before she was 25, and she’s been with her third husband for 30 years. They actually lived in separate homes for years rather than divorce. There’s a strong stigma against it but, again, I think this is fading for the new generation.
As a bisexual Roma, I didn’t come out to my parents until after I married my cisgender male husband. HOWEVER, this wasn’t because I thought my parents would react badly—the only girl I was romantically involved with in high school was deeply closeted, and it would’ve immediately outed our relationship if I were known to like women. I kept quiet to protect her. When I did tell my parents, they were supportive and sad that I’d waited so long to tell them. None of my aunts, uncles, or cousins cared at all. Some of my extended family are bigots, sure, but definitely not more than in non-Romani families.
People wear my race as a costume EVERY FUCKING YEAR. At my neighborhood Halloween party, the storyteller told my daughter she’d dressed as a “Gypsy Roma"—complete with coin belt and head scarf. She said this to a Roma child. Not that she knew that. I honestly wonder if she’d care?
Every Gypsy I’ve ever seen on TV or in movies is either a) magical or b) a criminal. Sometimes both. That’s a really hard thing to take in as an adult, and heartbreaking to explain to my child.
Country music really sucks for us. We are blamed for everybody else’s shitty behavior. Remember that Zac Brown song? “You gotta gypsy soul to blame and you were born for leaving.” That’s the usual sentiment.
Because my family doesn’t want to be outed to their communities, I’m under pressure to keep quiet about my race. That means, as a writer, that I can’t openly call myself a Roma in my biographies or press releases—if I do, I out my entire family. People still lose jobs over being Romani. They still have their families targeted by Child Protective Services. And, of course, most of my relatives have been lying to the people around them about their ethnicity for years. If they’re caught at it, it will only reinforce the stereotype that Romani people can’t be trusted.
Secrecy is always a struggle. It’s hard to bite your tongue as a kid when people mock and denigrate your family, without even realizing they’re talking about you. We don’t educate ignorant outsiders, the way I’m trying to do now. We don’t tell our own stories. Most of us don’t even want to.
1) The word “gypped.” This is a word meaning “cheated or swindled,” and it is a racial slur. STOP USING THIS FUCKING WORD.
2) Seeing the word “Gypsy” slapped on everything from travel trailers to face wash, none of which is EVER being created or sold by a Romani or Traveller person. I cannot fathom an actual Gypsy putting that word on their products, unless they were an author or entertainer of some kind.
3) “Can you tell fortunes? Was your grandmother a psychic?”
4) When non-Romani people wax rhapsodic about their “Gypsy souls.”
5) “Do you live in a caravan?” Ugh. Some people do, sure. I never have, but my grandfather did for a while. My great-great grandparents lived in a traditional wagon, or “vardo”—they were forced to live in them from birth to death because it was illegal for my ancestors to buy property pretty much anywhere in Europe.
6) So, bonus micro-aggression: Seeking to recreate a “Gypsy wagon” for fun is racist.
7) People name their pets Gypsy all the time. When is the last time you met a dog named Chinese?
8) Assuming our elders (parents, grandparents) are racists, homophobes, or under-educated.
Things I’d like to see less of
1) The MAGICAL GYPSY WOMAN™
2) Similarly, The ROUGISH GYPSY CRIMINALS™
3) Romani living in caravans—the majority of us live in permanent homes and travel for fun
4) Anything where we steal/find/get handed a baby that isn’t ours
5) Undereducated Romani children
6) Romani women who sleep around or walk out on relationships—everybody’s an individual but, culturally, Romani are expected to be virgin brides and grooms, and divorce is frowned upon
7) Super-hot Romani men and women in revealing outfits, dancing
8) Roma child marriages—yes, they happen, but this is a VERY OLD-FASHIONED practice that makes most Romani cringe, and the “children” are 16-19
9) Our incredible singing voices and instrument playing (although, full disclosure: my family is extremely musical, and I don’t personally know any Romani people who aren’t)
10) Submissive Roma brides and domineering Rom men
11) Violent Romani athletes—particularly in regards to boxing, which was something Rom did in the past as a way to make money in communities where they couldn’t legally work
Things I’d like to see more of
1) College-educated Romani
2) Romani characters married to non-Romani (we call them “Gadjo”)
3) Romani love interests who aren’t Manic Pixie Dream Gypsies (I see you, Johnny Depp)
4) Unmarried adult Romani
5) Romani working in fields other than physical labor or the arts—science, for example, or education; hell, even a coffee shop
6) Modern Romani who are mixed-race (as most of us are)
7) Romani with horses! Because that’s a real, significant cultural legacy!
8) Romani leaders of non-Romani people
9) LGBTQA+ Romani (we exist! And our families don’t hate us!)
10) Teenage Romani exploring their own culture and history