Roma Stereotype blog

by Monica Bodirsky

Truth and Myth


Racial stereotypes are damaging because they are a distilled version of an entire culture or race. Stereotypes reduce a group or culture to a one-dimensional caricature by ignoring aspects of complexity and diversity. Sadly, despite the inaccuracies and often-ludicrous portrayals of Romani people, media continues to engage in stereotyping because it is easy to be reductionist and easier to bypasses the need for critical thinking, time and effort.


Which is why it has so much appeal and is so rampant. How easy to judge an entire race by one, or, if you are really open-minded, a handful of people you deem worthy of representing their entire culture. A recent American television show “My big fat Gypsy Wedding” is an example of the ridiculous ideas circulating about ‘gypsy’ people. To begin with, people who identify as American travellers are not Romani, but are comprised of American Irish immigrants who live a similar caravan-style existence. To the minority of knowledgeable viewers, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is a portrait of economically challenged American southerners with drinking issues and not a show about “Gypsy’ or Romani traditional values.

Sadly, the word ‘Gypsy’ itself is so entrenched with the romanticized idea of freedom and rebellion, it is hard for most historically unaware people to make the distinction.


My point exactly. In the absence of any real education, media fills in this gap and perpetuates misinformation and damaging stereotypes.


This blog will share examples of common misconceptions and stereotypes, but will also contrast these with the truth of how strong, diverse and accomplished the Romani community is and has been throughout history.


The contrast of these truths and lies, will offer a forum and invitation for the Roma community to explore both truth and lies about Romani people.


Monica Bodirsky




Commodity or Product


Once a minority culture is commodified or ‘packaged’ as a product and sold to the dominant culture, it is difficult for many to see the harm this creates. These are a few of the products that perpetuate the ‘myth’ not the facts.

The myth here is stuck in a romanticized and outdated version of a very small group of people in the community that were painted by non-Romani artists who presented their as an accurate representation of an entire culture.


  • Fashion (boho, tattoos and tattoo-style graphics, hippie-look, flowing skirt, headscarf, provocative, colourful clothing, gold hoop earrings, belly dance apparel, gold coins)
  • Household Goods (Gypsy Soap, tea, skin care)
  • Fortune Telling and Tarot cards
  • Halloween Costumes


Myths: Freedom, non-conformity, close to nature, and mystical.


Truths: Currently Romani people are less ‘free’ than the dominant culture due to racism. Non-conformity is in the eyes of those who belong to a dominant culture who want ‘others’ to assimilate. Most forward-thinking cultures allow for ‘integration’ in which a minority culture has the right to retain unique characteristics while living in a dominant culture, whereas assimilation implies absolute conformity and loss of cultural identity.

The image of wandering caravans of Romani people is so entrenched in the current psyche; it is hard for anyone to accept reality. No one wants to see unhappy, struggling people. It means accepting responsibility to assist any actual social change. It just isn’t fun.


Some members of the Romani community may have retained herbal wisdom or knowledge; many have not since they have been economically depressed and living on lands that do not support the growth of any herbs, plants, etc., and many who live in urban centres have no need for this knowledge, nor find lacking it a threat to their identity.


Being ‘mystical’ better translates as ignorance of the culture. Many use tarot cards as a means of economy but do not possess any special, mystical powers. Survival can depend on how observant you are when part of a persecuted minority; this is often confused with ‘special powers’ that the dominant culture lacks.



Current commodity examples


The cutline for this ‘gypsy water’ reads…

“A vagabond story in scent: bergamot, juniper, orris, amber, pepper and sandalwood nestled in pine needles.”


Much to my horror, Microsoft Word has in it’s thesaurus – tramp, wanderer and gypsy as synonyms for vagabond. I’m not sure why people think it is a compliment to create a product that has nothing to do with the culture just the myth. This person freely admits it is a ‘glamorization; of the culture. I beg to differ. Many Romani would currently settle for clean water, but that doesn’t sell products.


“Gypsy Princess Adult Womens Costume”

From a popular Halloween Product site. Also available as accessories? Gold hoop earrings, finger cymbals, and gold coin shoes.


Last I checked, Romani culture was not a monarchy. There are no kings, queens or princesses, and, I’m not sure I would see this rather revealing outfit at the average Roma gathering.

I can’t imagine an equivalent Halloween outfit marketed that uses other cultural stereotypes this way.

This outfit is as ridiculous as creating a “Black Soul Singer Princess” costume, or perhaps the “Jewish Rabbi King” outfit or maybe even the “Latino Gang Prince”. I suspect these might not become popular in light of education and therefore lack of ignorance about these cultures. Often the idiotic phrase ‘positive’ stereotype is used to perpetuate this myth. No stereotype is positive because this is a subjective and often dominant culture’s way of seeing ‘others’ as positive. Positive to some perhaps, inaccurate nonetheless and, therefore, equally harmful.



This is a “Gypsy Relic’ Necklace for sale for $15.

It is neither gypsy nor a relic. It is a contemporary necklace made with an Indian coin, and while, Romani people originated in India, this is a tenuous connection at best and a silly way to market. It panders to popular stereotypes and pop culture to sell a necklace.

This is a popular form of tattoo art and graphics depicting the same ‘gypsy’ woman repeatedly. Always wistful, sultry, mystical, with gold earrings and roses….and it’s nonsense. I have a nightmare in which Roma people begin wearing this foolishness due to internalized racism. No criticism about the quality of the art, merely the content.


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Comment by Stoimen on April 13, 2015 at 13:43

Commentary and article by Sani Rifati, Voice of Roma, organizer Herdeljezi Festival in Sebastopol - San Francisco, California:

Gypsy hype & Stereotype



Since the first appearance in Europe Roma have been stigmatized with stereotypes. These stereotypes are vivid until today in the literature / fiction, Film Industries, Music Entertainment and Media have for centuries been filled with “Gypsy” images. These stereotypes and prejudices are abusive and do have a deep impact on life and tradition of Roma.

For centuries the „Gypsy“ music created a very interesting debate about what belongs to them and what not! If we go back in the 19th century, Franz Liszt stated that the very Hungarian music was actually created by Hungarian Roma. This was disproved some decades later by Bartok. That debate is still actual in Hungarian society, as well as in Spain with Flamenco, Russian Folk Songs, and ultimately the Goran Bregovic becoming a first white „Gypsy King“. It kind of reminds me of Elvis being the first „White King“ of Rock and Roll in the US.

The reason why I am focused on this musical appropriation is due to my identity as a Rom or Roma, as we prefer to be called. Some write the Rom as „Rrom“ with the double „R“ in order not to confuse it with the city of Rome (capital of Italy), or Rroma/Roma tomatoes. Back to our „Identity“, it’s been a constant struggle and suffering. Roma could not assimilate enough in order to be part of mainstream society. Our basic human rights were always abused and ignored. We couldn’t hold into our tradition, costumes and identity. It was always imposed to us by outside sources, weather via political dominant rulers, nationalists, media in print or visual and then ultimately by the „entertainment“ producers and record labels. What do the Roma culture and identity benefit from these clichés? Why is Gypsy acceptable and Rroma not? Why do we have a Gypsy Caravan Spirit? Why they call these kinds of shows: „Gypsy Queens & Kings“ and the irony is, we Roma as people for more than 1,000 years of exodus, never had Queens or Kings and never ultimately went to war. Roma don’t even have a national hero, in order to have it you have to have a Nation. Why does western civilization love these events, what makes them so excited to go to these „Gypsy“ events?

Why Roma artists such as Šaban Bajramović had to die in extreme poverty. His family didn’t even have money to bury him, but in the meantime Goran Bregovic made a fortune from his stolen songs and compositions. Why Goran takes the Roma music and makes sure he’s calling it either „traditional“ or “his” creation and then immediately he patents it and makes it to his composition. Even though, he really stole it from Gypsies, but still the main stream society calls us as „thieves“, but not him??? Now Goran is saying publically: „even the Gypsies are singing my songs“.

The „Master thief“ is now having a new record album named „Champaign for the Gypsies“ of course featuring himself with Gypsy Kings and Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello. It’s hard to see this human zoo, it has to stop. Why Goran didn’t choose the Klezmir music and make fun of Jewish stereotypes? Why he didn’t choose the Reggae and make fun of Rastafaris?

Music can influence so much the society. Imagine, Bob Marley educates ignorant American’s about the Reggae and being „Rasta“. If wasn’t for Marley, most likely the white American’s would be still afraid of the dreadlocks.

These reinforced stereotypes that expressed and communicated concept of an enemy, also paved the way for the genocide of the Roma under fascistic regimes in Europe during WW II. Also after the Holocaust this has not really changed. Especially in German literature these projections are still alive. In these cases, it becomes quite obvious that the stereotypes and prejudices are implemented in order to justify the genocide. (Also reparation for the survivors of concentration camps has been denied for several decades using the very same accusations, e.g. Roma were not qualified for reparation because they’ve broken the laws. One of the laws Roma broke was due to travelling and not being settlers). (German author Klaus-Michael Bogdal a.o.)

Today, the very same stereotypes are influencing the EU Right Wing Politicians to capture enormous numbers of votes. Their rhetoric is mostly on Anti-Roma and anti-Immigrants, while at the same time the EU has designed its “Integration Programs”, programs that in my opinion often are close to forced assimilation of the Roma culture. Simultaneously, the EU has very little or no funds for Traditional Cultural events.

Roma have been in Europe for centuries and politicians and the press and the entertainment must stop acting is if we arrived yesterday. We are here to stay and claim our identity, culture, language and costumes.

Sani Rifati

Comment by Stoimen on June 14, 2015 at 22:57

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'Gypsy' No More: Romani Music Festival Combats Stereotypes 

By Matt Saincome @mattsaincome Wednesday, Apr 29 2015


  • Sazet Band

Voice of RomaSaturday, May 2, Croatian American Cultural Center, 60 Onondaga Ave. 3 p.m.; $25-60.

Romani culture is often romanticized and stereotyped; depicted on reality TV shows, news reports, and movies as either carefree traveling musicians or untrustworthy criminals, Roma are rarely given the opportunity to present their culture to the public on their own terms.

"For too long people have just danced and thought, 'Oh, these happy Gypsies,' well, it's actually quite the opposite," Carol Silverman, professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and board member of Voice of Roma, said. "This music grows out of discrimination. It grows out of a long history of marginalization, and we're lucky Roma have preserved, and adapted, and brought their culture through the centuries for us to enjoy — but it's up to us understand Romani history and music in context."

Voice of Roma, a human rights advocacy organization dedicated to the promotion of Romani cultural arts and traditions, holds its 18th annual Herdeljezi festival Saturday, May 2. The one-day-only spring holiday of renewal and fertility aims to put the music of the Romani people in its historical and cultural context by emphasizing the musicians' biographies.

Rom — or the plural Roma — comes from the Romani-language word for "man" or "human being," and is the term most Roma prefer since the word "Gypsy" is based on the misconception that Roma originated in Egypt. In fact, the linguistic and historical evidence proves they left northwestern India around 1100 (probably due to conflict in the region caused by Muslim invaders, but there are still competing theories on why exactly the group left). Much like the term "Indian" for Native Americans, the Roma were misidentified a long time ago, and due to general ignorance on the topic, they have been unable to rid themselves of the improper exonym.

Festivals such as Voice of Roma aim to provide a little clarity — not to mention entertainment. It will feature live music from New York's Sazet Band — a traditional Macedonian Roma ensemble that infuses jazz and funk influences into its music. Musicians interested in learning about the stylings of Romani music can attend Roma-led workshops for singers and musicians. For the casual attendee, there will be traditional food, goods, and a dance class before a live-music party, so everyone will have an opportunity to learn the line dance steps before the Sazet Band performs.

It's all part of the organization's bigger plan to use music, a profession to which the Roma have historically been relegated — and in some ways confined — for centuries as a medium to educate outsiders about the plight of the culture.

In her writing, Silverman points to a 2009 Madonna performance in which the singer was booed for pointing out discrimination against Gypsies. It was a prime example of the paradox that Roma, loved for their music, are often hated as people.

"You like to be entertained but don't want to talk about real issues. It's important we talk about those blind spots (that's what I call them) because the culture is suffering enormously because of these stereotypes," Voice of Roma's founder, Sani Rifati, said, comparing the situation to black Americans. "We love to watch NBA, and sports, and when they are singing — but we don't want to talk about the prison industrial complex in America."

Rifati spent much of the '80s touring Yugoslavia with his band, playing weddings, baptisms, and circumcisions. According to him, Roma in Yugoslavia had more human rights before the collapse of the Soviet Union — but he still faced bureaucratic discrimination (Rifati has a master's in chemistry but was never hired as a chemist). Upon immigrating to the U.S. in 1993, he founded Voice of Roma to help foster a sense of community, and to assist refugees from Yugoslavia. Settling in Sebastopol, Rifati didn't feel the same bureaucratic discrimination as he did in the Balkans (although there are still police departments in the U.S. that have "Gypsy crime" units), but he did feel like his culture was being romanticized, appropriated, and exploited.

"California is obsessed with political correctness, but everyone still wants to be a 'gypsy' and be not lectured about the real culture. Even people on the left say, 'Oh, I love the gypsy part of me,'" Rifati said of our reality-TV-shaped perception of his culture. "Even in California people are using the phrase 'I got gyped' and no one dares to correct each other."

The festival is Rifati and his 200 volunteer's way of showing misinformed outsiders the true Roma culture: the one that saw up to one fourth of its entire population perish in the Holocaust, was forced to play in Nazi orchestras, and only very recently, after years of lobbying, was given a memorial day to commemorate those who died in concentration camps. The culture that has survived for centuries without a nation, army, or war despite a toxic European political environment plagued with xenophobic parties, "Roma Patrols" in Eastern Europe, and mass deportations. And the one for which Rifati is very proud to be a part of; an attitude, he hopes, will inspire more Roma in America to acknowledge their heritage.

"We have so many young Roma coming out of closet when they attend our festival. Many Roma are hiding their roots and origins, because of these stereotypes," Rifati said. "We have Roma who are doctors, and engineers, and other professions — but these educated Roma don't reveal their ethnicity. We have been quite successful bringing people out of the closet and building activists. It's not just all about music and having fun."

According to Silverman, there are non-Roma-Americans playing in up to 20 "gypsy music" bands in the Bay Area, under subgenres titles like "gypsy punk." In her book, Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora (2012), Silverman argues that there is no one unifying root of Romani music, instead each different geographical population of Roma have distinct styles, all united by their focus on improvisation and a willingness to incorporate local sounds. The Balkan Roma sound — the most popular Roma music in the U.S. — is one the Sazet Band, whose family history traces back to Macedonia, excels in. The group's complex rhythms and time signatures are punctuated by the technical skills of its members, including those of Sal Mamudoski, the band's clarinet player who can bring his instrument (which he first picked up at 11) up to the fourth octave.

"It's traditional wedding music, but we try to change it a little. We play a New York style because we're from New York, but it's like a mixture of funk and jazz incorporated with traditional music," Mamudoski, 26, born and raised in New York said. "Playing Voice of Roma is really big for us, because we're a community band. I'm making a CD, a tribute to Voice of Roma, to have at the festival."

Rifati and the rest of Voice of Roma hope that the festival, and continued efforts by the community to combat stereotypes, will increase the general population's understanding of the estimated 1 million Roma living in the United States.

"'Roma' is how we preferred to be called. It means 'human being,' but the first thing that comes to people's minds is roma tomatoes. Or roaming. Or the city of Rome. Or Romania. Or the Roman Empire," Rifati said. "We are talking at a high institutional level. I've lectured at USF, in Chicago, Boston, New York — really most of the time students don't know so much about this. There's very little knowledge about our culture, and that's what we are trying to change."

Tags: Music

About The Author

Matt Saincome



Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's music editor.

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