When I chose the username ‘Irish Atheist,’ I thought I was making the obvious choice. Firstly because I’m a proud Irish citizen, proud to have been born and raised in the Republic, and proud to have strong family ties to Northern Ireland. Irish culture, music, dance, and language defined much of my childhood and brought me through the most difficult parts of my life. My nationality is part of me – a very obvious part. As for ‘atheist,’ well, I fully intended that most of my online efforts would be in opposition to organised religions. I needed an outlet for all the rage and grief religion (primarily Christianity) had stoked over the years, and ‘The Irish Atheist’ provided.
But there are other labels that could have applied as well. One of them is of course my identity as a sexual minority, being an openly bisexual man. And then of course, the one that is the most misunderstood, the most difficult to explain, and often the most maligned. My ethnicity.
I am a Gypsy.
I am Romani.
The Roma people have a long history, much of it not fully known. The Roma are an ethnic minority that probably originated in Northern India. Around 1,000 years ago, the Roma were driven west by invading forces. They moved first through the Muslim empires, into Russia and Eastern Europe, into Western Europe, and then around the world during the great immigration boom of the 19th Century. The Roma are a largely insulated and closed community. Our traditions are mainly oral, our culture can be very rigid, and our social and religious beliefs rarely fall in line with the powers-that-be.
Because of this, the Roma have been and remain one of the most oppressed, persecuted, and marginalised ethnic minorities in history. Despised for their strange customs and largely dark non-Anglo features, they were maligned and hated wherever they went. The Roma developed a transitory existence, moving from place to place because they were never permitted to settle and assimilate. Oppressed minorities are often gravely poor, and destitute communities have a much higher crime rate, and so the Roma gained the reputation of knaves, thieves, and vagabonds.
Not knowing where these dark strangers came from, white Europeans called them called them ‘Gypsies,’ a corruption of ‘Egyptian.’ The slur stuck.
One of the earliest examples of antiziganist (anti-Gypsy) oppression comes from the Diet of Augsburg of 1547, proclaiming that to kill a Gypsy was no murder, leading to organised hunts of Roma people. Romani slavery was legal in Eastern Europe until 1853. And most significantly, the Porajmos, the murder of upwards of a million Romani men, women, and children in the Nazi death camps.
Today, the Romani communities particularly in Europe face discrimination in employment, healthcare, and education. They suffer from malnutrition, higher crime rates, and disproportional sufferance from law enforcement.
This is where I come from, through my mother. Half my family is Romani, and so am I.
I am a Gypsy. And it took so long for me to be able to say that with pride.
Being a Gypsy means listening to Catholic and Anglican Christians in Europe say that Gypsies can’t achieve salvation because they are born without souls. It means staring at myself in the mirror as a seven-year-old and hoping that I was white enough to get into heaven.
Being a Gypsy means hearing my ethnic identity being thrown around like a filthy slur. Gypsy dog, dirty gypsy, don’t be such a gypsy. It means growing up believing there’s something wrong with you.
Being a Gypsy means sacrificing much of your cultural knowledge and experiences for the sake of assimilation, of being another white person.
Today, being a Gypsy means being proud of my ethnicity but also aware of my privilege. As a Romani who can easily pass for fully Caucasian, it means that I do not face many of the trials that Romani people of colour do, but can still experience the prejudice and hatred.
And today, being a Gypsy means watching my culture and identity being bought and sold like a bauble, and that is what I am primarily here to talk about.
Let’s reestablish what ‘Gypsy’ means. Gypsy is:
1. A description created by white Europeans to identify an ethnic minority made up largely of people of colour.
2. A term that explicitly draws attention to the typical dark skin and features of Roma people.
3. A term that is the root of pejorative slurs such as ‘Gypo,’ or ‘gypped/jipped.’
4. A term largely rejected by the ethnicity it identifies in favour of our own terms for our people (Roma, Romani, Romany).
That’s what Gypsy means. That is all Gypsy means. Gypsy is not a term for a love of travel or wanderlust. It does not mean a free-spirited individual who doesn’t let society tie her down. It is not a synonym for nomad or fortuneteller. It is not a fashion or style statement. It is a people. It is a culture. It is a terrible, wondrous, and cherished history. It is the mourning for the extermination of our people in the gas chambers, not a hashtag for your ugly Coachella outfit.
This sort of culture appropriation is by no means exclusive to the Roma. The recent hashtag #ReclaimTheBindi focused on the appropriation of Southeast Asian culture for fashion. Excellent books and articles abound on the appropriation and misuse of black urban culture. And of course, the Native American and First Nations have been fighting the mockery of what’s left of their culture for decades.
This is a problem. A huge one. Culture appropriation is a continued oppression and suppression of minorities. While cultures change and traditions evolve, culture is not a free for all or a buffet table to pick and choose. Doing so removes the meaning behind cultural practises and destroys the significance for the culture of origin.
For some reason, this type of fashionable racism seems to be a hallmark of the pagan and Wiccan movements, and that’s the example I’m pointing to today. A location called the Green Man Store in North Hollywood CA is holding a week of classes on Gypsy spiritual practices and magic lore. For twenty dollars a class you can sit around a cauldron and learn about Gypsy spirit altars, Gypsy healing practises, crystal gazing and scrying, and on it goes. Nothing in the class has anything whatsoever tdo with Gypsy culture, history, lore, or practises. The Facebook event also features an EXTREMELY racist depiction of a Romani woman in front of a teepee with tarot cards and stereotyped ‘gypsy garb.’
I called the Green Man Store to enquire further. I was told that the instructor of the class was not a Romani woman (no one actually knew what Romani meant, thinking it was Romanian). It was then amended that she is descended from ‘Irish Gypsies.’ This is again extremely problematic as the ‘Irish Gypsies’ are the Travellers or Pavee, and generally reject the term ‘Gypsy’ to avoid association with the Roma. The meaning was clear. This is a non-Rom making money off of Gypsies.
I shouldn’t have to say how degrading this is, how insulting and how antiziganist. A non-Roma white woman is making 20 dollars a person per class to lie about the Gypsies, to lie about our culture and our beliefs, to make herself some sort of ‘Gypsy witch’ at the expense of the people who are so often oppressed by actually practising Gypsy culture.
Dear Green Man Store: My culture is not for sale. You cannot separate being ‘Gypsy’ from being a Roma. Playing fortuneteller doesn’t make you a Gypsy anymore than playing in the snow makes you an Inuit. This needs to stop.
My identity culture is not a bauble. It is not a commodity. It’s my heart and my breath.
The’ instructor’ of the classes has tried to take me to task on Twitter, giving her spiritual credentials and calling me out for ‘hatred.’ Because how dare I get angry at blatant prejudice and mockery of my people.
I am a Gypsy. I am a Gypsy because I breathe. I am a Gypsy because I live. I am a Gypsy because my people have been enslaved and slaughtered and mocked and hated.
Take your crystals and your cauldrons and your antiziganism and your snake oil and leave me and my people out of it.
The history and current existence of the Romani people can hardly be fully examined in one blog post. If you have further questions on Roma people or this kind of culture appropriation, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.