Cyrine Sinti, who self identifies as Gypsy, discusses how brown Gypsies in the United Kingdom face erasure and racism even within their own communities, and how it’s time to celebrate their contributions to culture

Editor’s note: article contains an uncensored racist slur.


I say ‘Gypsy Woman’ and too many people conjure up images of tumblr aesthetics, new-age Instagram profiles and ‘boho’ blonde girls with dreamcatcher earrings and feather crowns. The word invokes a picture of either a Stevie Nicks-esque woman in a flowing gown with meticulously ‘tousled’ hair or a kooky psychic in a tent.

This Gypsy perception may seem harmless to the general majority and even most Romani people worldwide – especially those from the harsher environments of Eastern Europe. It’s worlds apart from the perception of Gypsy people that society held where I grew up. There, the image of Gypsies was of rats, cockroaches, drains on society and vermin to be exterminated – all humanity was stripped away.

“To see your face give way to a Media-created face that is palatable to the masses and the complete opposite of yours is jarring at best. Especially when you retain all the racist abuse but none of the Media representation”

What’s happening with these contemporary images of Gypsy people isn’t stripping away humanity but stripping away identity. It may look harmless on face value, but it is just as threatening to the Romani community.

One thing minorities who suffer from prejudice and bigotry hold on to is pride. Pride in their heritage, in their culture and especially in the identifiers of their race. In many cases those identifiers are their skin colour and facial features that never seem to grace the covers of Vogue. To see your face give way to a Media-created face that is palatable to the masses and the complete opposite of yours is jarring at best. Especially when you retain all the racist abuse but none of the Media representation.

There are documentaries just for ‘us’ and popular events such as Appleby Fair, just for ‘us’. A Bulgarian Roma friend and myself went along one summer to Appleby as we were still in the euphoria of there being a major festival just for Gypsy culture in England – I’m olive skinned and my friend is a couple of shades darker than me. We were both told to ‘fuck off back home’ by a charming woman and called ‘Pakis’ by an equally charming man. I’ve had other friends go to Appleby and have a wonderful time. I did not. That experience was the start of me truly realising how different the portrayal of Gypsies is from reality.

 

Esma Redzepova

Esma Redžepova – highly decorated Romani singer


When I tell people I’m Gypsy – people look at me sideways. They don’t expect it, they don’t believe it. Unfortunately for the majority of the British public, the only ‘real’ exposure to Gypsies has been via television shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a television show masquerading as a ‘documentary’ that not only erases Brown-Gypsies but ignores Gypsies completely for the first three episodes of the first season and focusses solely on Travellers for much of the show afterward also.

The show drew in upwards of roughly 5 million viewers per episode. That’s a hell of a lot of people who are being fed this false image of Gypsy people. The association with Traveller culture and traditions under the guise of Gypsy was criticised heavily by many within the Romani community, the use of Traveller and Gypsy as synonyms was called out and the continual re-affirming and dramatisation of negative stereotypes was also condemned. Which changed absolutely nothing because ratings trumps unbiased, truthful documentaries.

“Within British Media ‘Traveller’ and ‘Gypsy’ are used interchangeably constantly. This is ignorant nonsense as both groups of people couldn’t be any more different. Romani people have strong links to India as the origins of Gypsy people are from North India, specifically Rajasthan and Punjab”

For many people who take their information exclusively via television a Gypsy woman is a fake-tanned, white woman. I have nothing but love for Travellers as whilst our history is worlds apart, the racism and prejudice we face most certainly isn’t. It seems the one thing we can be grouped together in is the fact that racism towards our people is largely acceptable and unchecked.

Within British Media ‘Traveller’ and ‘Gypsy’ are used interchangeably constantly. This is ignorant nonsense as both groups of people couldn’t be any more different. Romani people have strong links to India as the origins of Gypsy people are from North India, specifically Rajasthan and Punjab. Our languages are similar, even identical in some parts, for instance – ‘Water’ in both Romanes and Punjabi is ‘Paani’, ‘Chib’ means ‘tongue in both Romanes and Punjabi, ‘Nakh’ is ‘Nose’ in Romanes, Punjabi and Hindi. Our traditions, cultural norms and traditional dress have strong similarities and we undeniably resemble North Indians a lot more than we do Travellers.

Vera Bila

Věra Bílá – legendary Romani singer


I’m half white but people don’t see a white woman when they look at me, to be honest thanks to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding people don’t see a Gypsy woman either, but I have lighter skin than my cousins who are full-blood Gypsy. That’s where the differences end. I still have the same nose, same lips and same eyes as all those I’m kin with and those I’ve grown up with. My neighbours, my family and my friends from all over Europe have similar features. We don’t fake tan, we don’t have white skin and we don’t have Irish-tinged accents.  Where are OUR faces on these ‘documentaries’? Where are the faces that look like Didem, Mitsoura and Sofi Marinova? Why is our name good enough for credibility and to pull in viewers but our faces aren’t?

Portraying Gypsies as everything other than a true to reality depiction is a tale as old as time. We’ve been through many renderings throughout Hollywood and Media. From Jezebels luring men with our dance (thanks Cher!) to haggard enchantresses darkening doorways of pretty, White women begging for silver and threatening curses (thanks Disney!) Nowadays we’re shown as an after-thought of Traveller culture.

The single most offensive thing that signifies the complete lack of understanding and respect the Government have for Gypsies, and the damage the Gypsy White-Wash has done, is the categorisation of ‘Gypsy’ under WHITE on the Equality and Diversity portion of every official form of paperwork. Not only this but we don’t even have our own box, we get ‘Traveller/Gypsy’. This, of course, has trickled down into the Race portions of almost every other form in the United Kingdom.

“I use the word with pride as I AM Gypsy. I refuse to stop calling myself Gypsy… until every person who wants to feel a bit ‘exotic’ and ‘nomadic’ stops using the word. Until these non-Romani people stop using this word, this Gypsy girl will not”

Even the word itself is the subject of discussion as ‘Gypsy’ is regarded a slur. The appropriate name is Romani. So not only does the Government group all of us ‘problem folk’ in one epic mish-mash of a category – they do so using what some people deem an offensive term.

However, in a country that barely recognises you as ethnic people – what else are you supposed to identify yourself as? Romani? – Too many people assume Romanian in my experience. The state of representation what it is in the media, people seem to only understand Gypsy and nothing else.

I use the word with pride as I AM Gypsy. I refuse to stop calling myself Gypsy until Jason Momoa changes his ‘pride of gypsies’ brand, until The Gypsy Shrine change their name, when Zigeunersauce(Gypsy sauce) is re-branded in German Supermarkets, until the clothing brand ‘Band of Gypsies’ change their name and until every person who wants to feel a bit ‘exotic’ and ‘nomadic’ stops using the word. Until these non-Romani people stop using this word, this Gypsy girl will not.

Saban Bajramovic

Šaban Bajramović – the ‘King of Romani Music’


From the Holocaust to mass deportations to the unchecked violent assaults against Romani communities, nobody turns into Race Biologists and Anthropologists quicker than White supremacists standing in front of a Gypsy. We have constantly been branded as ‘Other’, to have our ethnicity grouped with a completely different group of people and under ‘White’ is a slap in the face to the millions of Gypsy people who have suffered at the hands of racists for our Gypsy blood and our heritage.

Pioneers in Gypsy culture and music such as; Esma Redžepova – a highly decorated Romani singer, nicknamed ‘Queen of the Gypsies’,  Věra Bílá – a legendary Romani singer famous for her work in Romani and Indian folk pop and Šaban Bajramović – one of the most prominent Gypsy musicians, referred to as ‘King of Romani Music’ ticking White on the Equality and Diversity sections of paperwork is so ludicrous that it’s laughable.

“My issue is with the imbalance of representation of the full Gypsy community. It seems that flickers of Brown-Gypsies only pass by on TV during news stories or racist commentaries of Immigration infestation”

The persecution and oppression faced daily by Romani Gypsy people due to the colour of their skin being so disgustingly disregarded and erased without acknowledgement is another example of the clear bias towards Brown-Gypsies and the agenda to erase the wider face of Gypsy heritage within British Media.

I’m not denying that there are fair-skinned Gypsies in the United Kingdom. There are Romanichal people, Romany people and people descended from Gypsies that look like White people. My issue is with the imbalance of representation of the full Gypsy community. It seems that flickers of Brown-Gypsies only pass by on TV during news stories or racist commentaries of Immigration infestation.

I love all of my people; however, it seems the love returned is selective based on what is appealing to non-Gypsy eyes and better suited to the narrative of these so-called ‘documentaries’. The word G Y P S Y includes the people who have strong Asian features, the people who have dark Brown skin, dark hair and dark eyes. We must continue to fight not only for representation but correct representation – we continue to suffer for our heritage internationally and we can not be only recognised when crime and immigration is the topic. If you want us, you must have ALL of us.


Cyrine Sinti is a Bellydancer, writer and aerial performer. She enjoys writing about current issues and issues faced by women of colour worldwide. Cyrine is a fiction-writer who is passionate about injecting more ethnic protagonists into the literary world. Follow her on Instagram

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One thought on “Race rewritten: Brown Gypsy erasure in British media

  1. I disagree with a lot of this post and feel particular upset by the “Brown Gypsy” designation. As a Romani woman who is also half white, I can tell you that many of our family are very light skinned and many are very dark skinned. I am blue eyed and brown hair and my sister is olive skinned with black hair and brown eyes. This is common in Romani families and not exclusive to Romanichals. My abuela Gitana even had one blue eye and one Black eye. We are Gitanos, from a very well known Romani Flamenco family and we present with the full spectrum of colors of skin. Some of the lightest ones of us are or were 100/% Romani. Romani people with light skin also experience racism and are not less Romani, or less involved in the social movement against discrimination. Don’t make us an other. That in itself is an internalized function of racism, and it hurts. Also, “Romani” is not simply the “proper” term – it is the endonym. The endonym is the word a people give themselves in their own language. “Gypsy” is an exonym – a word given by another people for a people perceived as a lower status other. Another example is calling Indigenous peoples of the Americas “Indians” and similarly contains a false origin story in it’s etymology. I think this writer who assumes that light skinned Romani folks have some privilege that she doesn’t have which demands the distinction “Brown Roma”, would do well to consider her own privilege in the diaspora of Romani people. Those of us who have the privilege of living in places where the word “Gypsy” is upsetting but not physically dangerous, owe it to our brothers and sisters in more dire situations of routine violence and state sanctioned contempt (Romania, Ukraine etc) to respect the devastating impact of this word. In some countries it is THE ONLY WORD for slave. In some countries it is the only word for liar. The only word. Think about that. So, keeping this word as acceptable is telling those Romani people that we should all call ourselves liars and slaves. Romani folks who passionately fight for “Gypsy” to be the accepted term for us have likely not experienced a constant threat of violence and access to resources – like water- because of it. I think the writer has a lack of insight into where this word comes from and how it is and was used. WE Romani people can use it. NON-Romani folks cannot. As with the N word – When Roma use the word “Gypsy” it functions to humanize and recognize, while when Non-Roma use it it functions to dehumanize and identify an untrustworthy and less human other. We must understand as a united force that the G-Word is a Racial slur, and the fact that for many of us it is the only word we have ever known is due to intentional attempts at genocide and the decimation of our culture, and is a signal of the success of those attempts. We ONLY have the oppressors invented term for ourselves and fight amongst ourselves to keep this word as the word for us? That’s a buncha BS. GYPSY is a racial slur. It always has been. THEY succeeded in getting us to internalize it by criminalizing our language and constantly attempting to eradicate our culture. Most folks who support the word “Gypsy” also do not speak Romanes. The word for our people, in our language, is ROMA. It means the People. The word Gypsy means “exotic foreigners from Egypt”. Having our name give credence to a false origin story is the beginning of handing our historical narrative to the oppressor. A united front in understanding what these terms mean and why it is NEVER ok for any non Roma to say Gypsy is the imperative and urgent beginning our out entire movement to be recognized as an ethnicity, and achieve the human rights we are owed. A lot of the thinking of this writer is valuable but a lot of it is sorely misguided. The truth is – we are Romani people. The racial slur invented in their languages were Gypsy, Gitano, Tigan, Tzigani, Gitane etc. WE Roma may use those words because we have born their impact for the duration- but if we do it is our obligation to all Roma, to check any non-Roma who use use and vocally acknowledge that it is a slur, and to explain why. Endonym, Exonym. Their word, our word. We most reclaim our narrative, our history, our community, and our language, and this begins with our name.

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