Gypsy Don’t

If you’ve given a “like” to this blog’s Facebook page (see the right-hand sidebar), you saw that a couple of days ago I put up a link to an article entitled The Gypsy In Me from the New York Times.

It was written by a young woman in excellent English (a nice change of pace after reading Ponta’s illiterate ramblings in the pages of Nature) about her experience of being a child in Romania and then moving to America. I’ll let you click and read her story in her own words but it begs the question that I’ve often asked before. Are you still a Gypsy if you move to America, go to university and become an accomplished writer?

My answer is a categoric no. The issue here is what makes one a Gypsy in the first place. Is it just whom your parents are? If you’re born a Gypsy but then go to university and become a technocrat politician working in the European Parliament in Brussels are you still a Gypsy? If you are, well then it’s no different than being a Hungarian or a Romanian, that whatever “blood” you inherit from your parents at the time of your blood determines your ethnicity and nothing else determines it.

It’s pretty obvious what the color of one’s skin is or the shape of one’s eyes or other distinguishing racial characteristics that are purely physical in nature. But when it comes to a cultural identity, a societal identity, that’s where things get a lot murkier. Are you Romanian if you live in Maramures and make your own handmade shoes and work in the fields? And are you equally Romanian if you live in Bucharest and wear a suit and tie to work every day in an air-conditioned office? I think most people would say yes. But are you truly a Gypsy in both of these situations?

From the author of the New York Times piece:

As a little girl, my mother dressed me in pale colors and cut my hair short so I would not look like a Gypsy.

Still, all these efforts couldn’t stop my classmates’ parents from reproaching my first-grade teacher for giving the highest award to me, a Gypsy. That confirmed my grandfather’s belief that there is no use acting “as if I were an official from the Ministry,” as he would put it, since there was “no such thing as a Gypsy teacher, priest or lawyer.” He too wanted to be like “the others,” but he was also aware of the invisible limits that kept Gypsies separate.

I’ve known enough Gypsies over the years to know that the “invisible limits” go both ways. I’m curious what the other Gypsies in this village thought of a young girl with short hair. Gypsies have a lot of very strong beliefs about women’s hair and when it can be cut and how it can be worn. Short hair on a girl for them is virtually equivalent to sending a young boy to school in a pink dress in America.

Furthermore, are there any Gypsy doctors, priests or lawyers? I don’t mean has a person born a Gypsy ever been to law school or the seminary and been certified. What I mean is do their fellow Gypsies still consider that person to be one of them?

My family didn’t speak Romani or follow the nomadic lifestyle. However, my grandfather was a blacksmith, a common Romani occupation. My mother’s light skin allowed me to conceal my roots, but my father, whose darker skin would have drawn attention, avoided coming around my school.

It sounds to me like only non-Gypsies considered this family to be Gypsies. They weren’t nomads? They cut their daughter’s hair short? They didn’t speak the Gypsy language? The author’s parents worked three jobs to send their daughter to university (and buy her lots of books as a child)? There’s a picture at the link of the author’s parents and neither one of them are even dressed like Gypsies but instead look exactly like Romanians from that era (photo taken in 1984). How exactly are these people Gypsy in any sense of the word other than by “blood”?

No. I’m sorry but these people were no more Gypsy than I am except that somewhere along the line on some kind of piece of paper they were labeled officially as Gypsies and so everyone around them lumped them together with the real Gypsies.

For an unrelated reason, the other day I was reading through the Vrba-Wetzler report (link goes to English version), compiled by two Slovak Jewish prisoners who escaped from the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1942. It’s an inside look at what was going on there at the time. And while yes of course it focuses predominantly on the Jewish prisoners, there is a footnote discussing Section 2 of the Birkenau complex:

The Gypsy Camp -app 4,500 This is the reminder of some 16,000 gypsies. They are not used for work and die off rapidly.

Hitler and the Nazis had a burning hated for the gypsies and they were systematically rounded up and left to perish in these camps (in the notation above only 4,000 prisoners are still alive from a remainder (mistake in original translation) of 16,000 prisoners). I think most people know that Gypsies were the targets of Nazis persecution.

But why? I’ve read Mein Kampf before and there’s certain nothing in there about Gypsies “taking over the world” or organizing “sinister conspiracies” or being evil bankers or anything else. Hell, I’ve read paranoid literature from the John Birch Society and the Klu Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation and half a dozen other organizations who concern themselves with the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderburgers, the Vatican’s machinations, alien bloodlines and just about anything else you could imagine and not once and I mean not one time have I ever seen the Gypsies being mentioned as to blame for anything or being at the heart of anything or the cause of anything.

So why did Hitler round up Gypsies for his death camps? Why did Stalin consider the Gypsies a “problem” and send hundreds of thousands of them to his gulags? Why were they specifically targeted as social enemies of these two dictators? They have (and had) no political power. I was surprised to learn there’s even a Gypsy political party in Romania because they sure as hell never win any elections on any level.

Why did the residents of the village where the NYT author grow up dislike her family? Why do Romanians today (or people in France, Italy, wherever) have such a dislike and sometimes furious hatred towards Gypsies? They sure as hell aren’t the 1% of the world’s elite. They don’t run a single multinational corporation. They aren’t officers in the military or the police. They don’t impose taxes. They aren’t judges who condemn you to prison sentences. Gypsies don’t run the banks which drive you into poverty. They don’t pass laws which restrict your freedom. Gypsy armies have never attacked your ancestors or enslaved your great-grandparents. So why in the world do so many people from ordinary Romanians to Hitler and Stalin dislike Gypsies so much?

Doesn’t that seem a bit odd if the “only” reason is due to some perceived ethnic difference, that their “blood” is somehow different? Gypsies don’t even look any different than other Europeans. Some Gypsies have dark skin but others are much lighter skinned. Guess what? I know non-Gypsy Europeans who have dark skin. You can’t tell a Gypsy from another kind of European by looking at their face so we know it isn’t biological differences, we know it isn’t fear of Gypsy’s political power, financial power, military power, historical power or anything else. You’d be hard pressed to find a people so consistently downtrodden, enslaved, misused and pitifully treated than the Gypsies and this has been ongoing for the past 700 years or more. So why in the fuck do people dislike them?

The reason is cultural. Hitler and Stalin hated the Gypsies because Gypsy culture emphasizes freedom and artistic expression and nomadism and this was completely contrary to Nazi and Communist ideas about hard work, conformity and subservience to the greater good of the state. More modern people dislike Gypsies because they are terrible citizens. Gypsies don’t vote and don’t consider themselves to have a civic duty (or responsibility) to the state. They carry the passports they can get and their only allegiance is to their own kind. Gypsies don’t believe in paying taxes and they sure as hell don’t believe in spending $50,000 to spend four years buried inside of a university reading books so that you can get a piece of paper to hang on the wall that says what a top notch individual you are.

Gypsy is not a race but a culture. And the author, although she suffered somewhat because her neighbors mistakenly identified her as a Gypsy, is not herself a Gypsy. She just isn’t. Her grandfather might’ve been one but she’s a literate, educated woman who spends her days inside buildings with fluorescent lighting, speaking English and not Gypsy language. She is not a Gypsy. What makes you a Gypsy is the culture, and it is a culture that these people have hung onto tenaciously (which is why I respect them at the same time I have no desire to emulate them) DESPITE persecution from every tinpot dictator, king and tyrant that Europe has had over the last 700 years.

Gypsies have remained Gypsies not just in the face of Hitler and Stalin but also under Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Napoleon, Benito Mussolini, Henry 8 of England, Queen Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War (and then Franco), the 30 Years War in Germany, the Russian Civil War (Bolshevik Revolution), the Second Northern War of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Holodomor, the rise of the Ustashe in Croatia, the fighting in Kosovo, Bosnia and the break-up of Yugoslavia and many, many more.

And throughout all of that, including enslavement, death camps and blatantly genocidal policies by governments all over Europe, what did the Gypsies do? Did they conform? Did they adopt the lifestyle and the culture of their oppressors? No, fuck no they didn’t. The left India all those centuries ago because they were determined to hang onto their language, their traditions and their culture and no one, not Stalin, not Ante Pavelic, not even Hitler himself could convince these people to convert, to give up their nomadic, free-wheeling, artistic, thieving, musical lifestyles. You know why? Because if they relinquish their culture and become like their neighbors then they have ceased to exist as a people.

And yet still I forced to read lukewarm pap like this:

The European Union will eventually consider the Roma minority in Central Europe as a potential labour force, Hungarian Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog said on Thursday.

Talking to MTI after a meeting of his European counterparts in Luxembourg, Balog said that Roma job seekers could fill positions in areas where the EU now uses workers “imported” from third countries.

Let me express this to Mr. Balog in words that he can easily understand.


17 Comments Add yours

  1. poppy says:

    i know loads of gypsys in the uk from romania and bulgaria who have come and embraced work, they also have kept gypsy language and culture and brought it with. what your saying here is below contempt.


  2. Alex says:

    By your definition there are no gypsies in America than. If you steal in America from a live person than depending on where you are you stand a good chance of getting shot. And if you camp on other peoples land, than again, depending on where you are you will soon be educated in the meaning and interpretation of the second amendment.


  3. adina says:

    I don’t think people have something against their lifestyle just because it’s different. People dislike them because their so-called freedom harms other people’s freedom. If they steal and they are aggressive, then you can’t feel safe on the street, you can get robbed or harmed. If they don’t pay taxes or fines, but they benefit from child support, that’s not fair either, because no one wants to support them, since they are healthy and pretty smart and perfectly capable of working, but they decide not to. I’ve personally seen lots of the more traditional gypsies in the country side, where my grand parents were living. They were nomads, some selling wood or cheap clothes, some were blacksmiths. When they were setting their “camp” in the village, they would send the children from house to house to ask for food, even though they were selling stuff, so they had money and they could have payed for food instead of begging. There were countless stories about them stealing stuff from people’s yards during the night. My grandmother once invited them into our yard to buy something from them and they stole a few of her turkeys. I was also there and I didn’t notice anything, I just cannot imagine how can you steal a huge living bird without making any noise. When we realized what happened, we went after them by car and got our birds back. I think it’s really a shame, that very old and ill people (like my grandparents) could still make the effort of taking care of birds and animals and crops in order to survive, but the young and healthy gypsies were only trying to cheat. Stealing and begging can never be a lifestyle, because it cannot exist on its own, it needs another “host society” to take advantage of. I’m not saying all gypsies are like that, but those that fit the description, together with people of any other ethnicity that are like them, are just parasites.


  4. hotcoffee says:

    Sam, Sam. You were correctly saying in another post that we don’t get to decide what another ethnicity needs. But apparently you *do* get to decide who is and isn’t a gypsy now, despite the woman clearly identifying as one? That’s rude. And also, it’s a naive way of looking at things: you build a checklist for being gypsy/Romanian/whatever in your head, and a person only gets to “pass” if they check all the points. By those standards, I’m not sure I’m Romanian myself. I’m an atheist, not particularly hospitable, and don’t wrap my sandwiches in coloured napkins ;) Sure, there obviously has to be some way of telling who is and isn’t X, but it’s always a delicate topic to discuss, even more so from the outside.

    I find it interesting how you assume you have “the right image” of gypsies because you’ve met some. Sure, you’re not buying some of the stereotypes (both Romanian and foreign) that are associated to them. But you still don’t have the right image of “what is a gypsy” simply because there isn’t one. No group of people is homogenous. Just like Romanians are not all Orthodox, for instance (like I keep hearing on TV casually every now and then), or all straight or whatever, despite these being hilariously strong stereotypes, not all gypsies are the same. There are the traditional ones. There are the ones who do their best to hide that they’re gypsies, like the author’s family. And there are lots in between. The latter are invisible to you, probably because only the “traditional” ones ever register as gypsies. By the way, I’m saying this because I have met some of the “in-betweens”, so it’s not purely theoretical. Some of them were model citizens, others worked desk jobs where they tried to figure out how to steal a bit here and there, on paper. So no uniformity here either.

    One more thing: because I’m female, I find it annoying when people cling to preserving traditions unchanged for traditions’ sake. Do I like villages, and home-made food, and folk costumes and dances and celebrations? Of course. But if culture and mentalities remained completely the same since the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t be here to write this, because as a female, I would’ve been illiterate. This is why I support *some* things changing, while preserving as much cultural richness as possible. If things don’t change, they don’t improve. And they’re obviously not rosy for everyone, including some of the gypsies themselves.

    And while we’re here, are you sure you want to claim that gypsy culture emphasizes freedom when they even have rules on how a girl should wear her hair? (We all know there’s much more than that, gypsy women always walk behind men in the street, and so on). A gypsy is not free to do as he or she pleases. They disregard our laws, but are still bound by their own. Sort of an unrecognized state within a state. And if you really think about it, their traditions give them even less space for self-expression than we get as Romanians.

    You do idealise them a great deal, though you’re not aware of it. Also the “artistic people” thing… sure, some of them are artistic, just like some Romanians are artistic and others are not. There is nothing inherently artistic in being a gypsy. It sounds romantic to roam around and not be locked in a room all day, but it’s not like they’re playing their violin every waking moment while they’re at it. Sometimes they just hit people or horses with a stick, spit on the side of the road and not much else. A few do that all their lives, and a few others become famous musicians. It’s the same in every society.

    I find gypsies a very interesting topic and I’m glad that someone finally approaches it from a more neutral ground, but I think you’re not being completely objective yet (not that I am, either). Why don’t you interview some of your gypsy friends for some inside opinions?


  5. Andreea says:

    I must admit I’m rather disappointed by this idyllic picture you are trying to draw here Sam. It is obvious you’ve never had to suffer because of a gypsy in your life and that is why you find them so cute and cuddly.

    I think gypsies never got integrated with local populations because that meant they would require to:
    – actually do real, hard work, no more singing and stealing
    – study; oh boy do they hate learning something foreign to their own culture, these people aren’t curious at all!

    Oh and on why everyone from Hitler to ordinary Romanians hated them – I think it’s because they ARE threatening , even though they aren’t a military or financial power – they are a threat to our own culture, but in an insidious way. They don’t come upon us with weapons, but they do infiltrate and can harm just as much our culture. (f**k manele!) Not to mention they are reproducing at a crazy rate, how long till they overcome us numerically?! :S Would you like to state your opinion on this, Sam?


  6. assur17 says:

    Jen, I don’t know if you are Romanian or just a foreigner considering the same thing: poor souls are so discriminated. I said I based my ideas on every day life. And no, if you read well my message (and now I regret that I post it, because it will once again be considered freakin’ racist and I’m soooooooo tired), you can see that I’m not making generalizations. I said: I RESPECT AND ADMIRE those who are decent human beings and I also gave the closest example I have in the end. No matter the debates, however, facts speak better than words. That’s all I have to say.


  7. Sitara says:

    Your article paints a fairly idyllic picture but, sadly, most of the Romanians get to see a different world. And this happens not every now and then but practically every single day. The woman wearing colorful skirts and even more colorful scarves jostling her some months old baby through the crowds during a bus or a metro ride and begging for a “loaf of bread”, a woman dressed in the same fashion harassing you at every corner to “tell your fortune”, the kid pestering you for a coin in the markets, near subway, bus or metro stations, churches or supermarkets, the “dealers” bullying some peasants in the markets to get their products for the “right” price…I think it sounds familiar to all of us.

    I’d like to say again what many other Romanians had said when it came about Gypsies: we (or most of us, anyway) hold nothing against people who work, pay their taxes and abide by law as any Romanian citizen is required to do. Not part of their culture? Then it would come down to this, in my opinion, either their culture or ours. It seems like the two cultures cannot coexist in the same space. Because if you want to receive all the benefits and services a civilized state should provide to its citizens, it’s only natural to abide by the laws of the same state. Otherwise you can build your own country wherever you like (or you can) which you may rule as you see fit. As long as you are a Romanian citizen you are required to act like one. But you cannot tell me that it’s part of your culture to steal, to beg, to act like a social disaster, to pay no taxes and then start to whine about discrimination. No culture should be placed above the law, I think.

    I apologize for any mistakes but my English is not very good. Thank you for giving me such a fascinating reading material (I discovered your blog only yesterday) and have a nice afternoon.


  8. assur17 says:

    It’s funny how everybody considers that only Gypsies were slaves in this history, but completely ignores the fate of thousands and thousands and thousands of Romanian peasants that had the same condition But wait! they were conveniently called “serves” not “slaves”, even though their villages were sold just like the gypsy settlements. The thing with the Gypsies, based on my own humble life is that they are not discriminated based on the fact that they are not ethnic Romanians (that may work for a bunch of ignorant a*holes, a situation you can find all over this world), but on how they act. To be very clear: I RESPECT and ADMIRE WITH ALL MY HEART those people, Gypsies or non-Gypsies that don’t spit me on the street if I don’t give them money, that work for their families, that don’t steal, that don’t beat each other in the middle of the street or on hospitals with baseball bats and crowbars, that are simply normal human beings, whatever their traditions may be. It’s funny how no matter the facts in Europe or elsewhere, people still think they are so discriminated without being guilty of anything. Are we still living in the same world? When I was in Italy for the first time in 2005, Italians were so nice to me and even considered Romanians “their Latin brothers”; last year I was called “Gypsy” a few good times and felt like I was about to be smacked just for walking on the street because I was Romanian. It didn’t matter that I’m snow white, I was from Romania and therefore a Gypsy. Why is that? Look what happens in France, UK, Spain and everywhere around.
    Sam, you give a sad example, you mention Hitler’s dungeons and then the same conclusion: poor souls. Indeed, there were poor souls that perished in those awful places, just like a lot of Polish people, Czechs etc, not to mention Jews. But are you living in the real world? I invite you in my block and then where I work to see why the majority of Gypsies don’t become judges or generals or bankers. Because they could give a shit on education. I’m tired of seeing millions of Euros going down the drain. They don’t care. Those who care, just a few sadly, will never whine that people discriminate them. I see this and experience it every day.
    “Because if they relinquish their culture and become like their neighbors then they have ceased to exist as a people.” These are your worlds. Again, sadly, this is not the real world you’re talking about. It’s the same idyllic image falsely perpetuated for decades. The fine clans of discriminated gypsies in Banat,especially Timisoara rub their hands with satisfaction. And those like the Meresanu family living in my block are seen like losers for becoming decent Romanian citizens and giving up their “traditions”. Oh well, that’s life.


    1. says:

      So what you’re saying is: The majority of the gypsies you saw are thieves, so you think it’s OK for all of them to be considered thieves. The majority of Romanians the Italians met are gypsies, but it’s not OK for them to consider all Romanian gypsies. Double standards much?

      Yes, they are discriminated against based on their ethnicity. I do it too. When I see someone darker-skinned I’m wary and I don’t see the point of saying this isn’t happening. A gypsy will have to prove s/he is not a thief. A white-skinned Romanian will be innocent until proven guilty. I’m not saying the solution lies with us – they have to meet us halfway – but ignoring the reality won’t help anyone.


      1. Jen says:

        I fail at writing my username in the right field -.- Sam, if you could edit it a bit…


    2. Giuseppe says:

      Nope, that’s not what he’s saying… or at least it’s not how I read it.


  9. Marian says:

    Even understanding this, and not hating them just because they’re different, they still are a problem. What would be a reasonable solution or compromise here?

    I can’t see any viable solution that would allow them to remain culturally Gypsy? Uneless they would want to move to Mars and roam there as much as they like to.

    We either let them be and face the consequences in 30-50 years or we assimilate them and let them change their culture into something else.

    As much as I hate cultural assimilation I think it would be the kinder thing to do. While they would lose the Gypsy identity, they and everybody else will live more comfortable lives…..


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