Van Morrison’s song “Into The Mystic” shuffled its way from my playlist into my earbuds during a run one day. While perhaps not a stereotypical workout song, I felt lighter on my feet when the chorus kicked in. And then Morrison sang a lyric I have sung along to many times without thought, “I wanna rock your gypsy soul.”
But this time I knew better. I didn’t sing along. I had recently learned that “gypsy” is a racist and hurtful word to the people who have been oppressed by it for centuries. Then I recognized the word is used everywhere with a casualness that suggests people don’t know the meaning behind it and why it’s offensive.
Before you roll your eyes and tell me and everyone else we are being too sensitive, take a beat. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s not entirely your fault — but soon you will know why you need to stop using “gypsy.” Take a deep breath, refrain from telling me and anyone you think needs to hear your voice that people get too offended these days, and learn.
The word “gypsy” was given to Romani people (not Romanian) who migrated from northwest India into the Middle East and into Europe and North America. Europeans assumed the Roma people were from Egypt and were Egyptian because of their dark skin and imposed the word “gypsy” on them. Roma people are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, where they also have a history of being persecuted. Romani were forced into slavery for 500 years, nearly 80 percent of the Romani population in Europe was murdered in the Holocaust, and they are still victims of hate crimes and experience discrimination in school, access to health care and housing.
According to Ian Hancock, the word gypsy is an exonym—a word or phrase given to an ethnic group by outsiders. Hancock is a University of Texas Professor and born to Romani parents. In an interview with NPR, he says that folks don’t realize that the word “gypped” — as in, “The car salesman gypped me into buying a lemon,” meaning to swindle, cheat, or rob — derives from gypsy and is problematic, too. Too many folks don’t know that a negative connotation is perpetually being associated with a group of people who don’t deserve to be seen as cheap, untrustworthy, or thieves. When people tell him that they didn’t know either word was offensive, he says, “That’s okay. You didn’t know but now you do. So stop using it. It may mean nothing to you, but when we hear it, it still hurts.”
There are roughly 1 million Romani people living in the United States, and in addition to overt racism, they have to deal with the harmful stereotypes that feed into the violence against Romani women. In an article called The “G” Word Isn’t for You: How “Gypsy” Erases Romani Women, Naomi P. writes about these stereotypes that portray Romani women as beggars and dirty or as sexual and mystical creatures (see Morrison reference above) who are out to trick “the man.” Remember the scene in the original Robin Hood Disney movie when Robin Hood and Little John dress as gypsy fortune tellers or “female bandits” and steal Prince John’s jewels? That scene was totally racist.
That was in 1973 — and we while we should know better by now, many folks don’t realize that the word gypsy is a slur. And for the folks who have been told it is, too many of them wave it off as though the person who they offended is too sensitive. This is more of a reflection of the person who continues to offend than the person who is choosing vulnerability to try to repair a hurt that has been done to their community for too long. If someone tells you they are bothered or upset, why not listen? Why not admit you were wrong? Why not try to do better?
I will answer for you, because I have seen this played out when I tell people the language they use is homophobic or transphobic and bothers me as a queer, transgender person. People have very big egos that get in the way of their motivation and ability to learn. I get it; it’s hard to admit when we are wrong. But there are so many important conservations that come in making a mistake, correcting it, and moving on than to willfully continue to make the same mistake.
Why not do better? I also have proof that people just don’t give a fuck and are totally fine with using language that excludes, hurts, and endangers someone else. People don’t want to do better until, of course, they are on the receiving end of danger and need everyone else to improve for their benefit.
I keep “gypsy” out of my vocabulary because Naomi, a marginalized person who has had the word used against her, says that the word is dangerous. “It conjures up a romanticized image of poverty and sexualization, which doesn’t acknowledge that there is nothing romantic about being a victim of institutionalized racism. There is nothing romantic about the link between perceived uncontrollable sexuality and forced sterilization. There is nothing romantic about being a victim of domestic violence but afraid to speak out because law enforcement won’t believe you or it will further oppress your community. There is nothing romantic about lacking political power and representation, and being left out of both anti-racist and feminist politics.”
I can’t and won’t argue with that. She’s right.
I kept running along to Morrison, but I felt gross inside because I know how powerful words are and how, even without ill intent, they can be hurtful. I don’t want or need “gypsy” to be part of my everyday language. There are more than enough other words for me to use to portray what I really mean without hurting someone. I don’t view this as censorship; it’s an act of sensitivity and growth.
Language evolves faster than humans, and this is another example of how we can learn, change, and evolve too.