27 June 2012

The romantic, nomadic Gypsies. In real life they're called Roma, and their life is not all that romantic

One of Shakira's latest hits is called ”Gypsy.* It's one of her usual ”not saying much substantial” songs that she began writing after becoming widely popular. Regular story, something about getting hurt and getting over it. Some assumptions are made that Gypsies tend to get emotionally hurt by love more often than the rest of the population, and that their presumed continued nomadism can be compared to something as romantic as flying. However, what particularly caught my attention in the lyrics was the following piece:

'Cause I'm a Gypsy
Are you coming with me?
I might steal your clothes
And wear them if they fit me
I don't make agreements

To summarise: Gypsies steal, and never agree to anything.
In this blog post I would like to investigate this assumption and some of the possible consequences it can have.

First of all, who are the Gypsies?

Gypsy is a popular term for the people also known as zingari, tsiganes, sigøjnere, gitanos, and many other terms. In politically correct speech, however, they are usually referred to as Roma, Romani or Rom, while they designate themselves along more specific ethnic lines, including groups such as Kale, Sinti and Manush.
As wikipedia states it, ”as a term 'gypsy' is considered derogatory by many members of the Roma community because of negative and stereotypical associations with the term.

The Roma are one of the largest minority groups in Europe. Approximately 10 million people live spread over various European countries (though estimates of their number vary between 4 and 14 million). In general they are citizens of the country in which they live, but in a certain way they can still be said to be stateless, given the fact that they don't have a particular national state to protect their interests in a world that is based on nation-states.** This might be similar to the situation that Jews have lived in throughout history, but I won't go further into that here.
I don't have the impression that Roma as a group have any desire of a national state, nor that anyone thinks they should have one, but this also means they will always be a minority. They live in states that would much rather not have their presence and often oppress them and deny them the basic rights that are extended to other citizens of the same country.
A few examples of discrimination, taken from various campaigns of Amnesty International, are, Roma being expelled from their homes by force in Italy, where they are being kept in separate camps and moved about as it suits the government, Roma children being taught in separate classes from other children in Slovakia, racist attacks on Roma in Hungary, and several more that I will not mention here. (Side-note – feel free to sign any of Amnesty's petitions working to defend and improve the rights of Roma. Even if it's just three clicks, it might still make a tiny, tiny difference.)

It's not a scientific paper, so just a short summary of some of the socioeconomical circumstances. According to a German newspaper, Roma on average have a significantly higher unemployment rate, worse level of schooling and live 10-15 years less than the rest of the population. In each country and area there are obviously differences, and one should not generalise, but this is the same story I hear almost every time.

A few anecdotes from my personal life:
In Almería, Spain, I was told that the Roma live in caves. As in, holes in the mountainside. Seriously. Not much romantic nomadism there. There, I also saw a racism so explicit that it left me speechless. (Yes, I am easy to perturb.)
When I was in France, many years ago by now, a group of Roma came by our work camp. I barely paid attention to the strangers arriving, but then someone said “tsiganes.. attention”, and immediately everybody was on their guards. There was a strange air in the entire tiny village until they “finally” left. Gypsies were not welcome.

To put it in short: the Roma are one of the most discriminated groups in Europe. Simply for being Roma, a lot of assumptions are made about them, and these assumptions shape the options any individual Roma has in his or her lifetime. I'm not going to go into the entire discussion here (it's much more complex than my short summary, and I would like you all to actually finish reading it), but this is the point where my criticism of Shakira's song lyrics enters the picture.

First of all – Shakira is using a derogatory term while romanticising a concept, likely not taking into account that these are actually real people. I know that songs have to rhyme, so I'll leave it at that.
What I do care about, however, is the idea that gypsies don't make agreements (and thus are impossible to count on), and that they steal, at random and as it pleases them. The song lyrics play into an already long history of romanticising and representing Roma regardless of reality.
Shakira is moreover reinforcing already negative stereotypes about a group of people suffering under those very stereotypes and assumptions. I care, because she is widely listened to, and even if her listeners don't consciously take the information about thieving gypsies into account, hearing it over and over again will lay grounds to a belief which is already being presented in national media and in hearsay in the neighbourhood. The song is catchy, and you easily find yourself humming, “I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me...”***
Consider also Shakira's main group of listeners. Without going into the demographic details, for some reason I don't think they are the same people that actively seek out Amnesty International campaigns and other socially proactive information.

Let it be clear: I'm not asking Shakira to do political activism. She can make her music and sell it, as much as she likes and in almost anyway she pleases. But, as we would say in Danish, I would appreciate her not stepping on those who are already on the ground.

Disclaimer: I realise I am also generalising, perhaps just as much as Shakira, and I'm aware that not all who are tagged as Roma consider themselves as pertaining to the same ethnic group. I would like to defend the generalisation in this case, on the basis that regardless of how Roma consider themselves, by others they are considered as one group, and thus in many cases they are treated as such. The majority designation in a certain way overwrites the internal definition, and as I am treating the way the majority consider the Roma, following this general definition makes sense.

* It was uploaded to youtube February 2010, so I might just be an ignorant that doesn't pay attention to what is in fashion, but it was only recently that I actually heard it on the radio.

** I recommend reading works by the anthropologist Liisa Malkki, and also Benedict Anderson's “Imagined Communities” for more on this subject.

*** A note: The Spanish version of the song is also romanticising and referring to ”gitanos”, but there are no indications of them being thieves or untrustworthy. The English version is likely caused by being a translation or written by a non-native speaker, but I nonetheless consider it an important slip indicating the underlying conception of the Roma people.


  1. I would also like to mention the widespread legend of child-kidnapping. In Italy (most?) people commonly assume that Roma kidnap non-Roma children. Obviously, there is no conclusive evidence of a single case of kidnapping. A few years ago there was an alleged case of a kidnapping attempt in Naples, in the quarter of Ponticelli. This unleashed an outburst of popular rage against the local Roma camp, which was set afire, forcing its inhabitants to move away. But one of the two witnesses of the alleged child-stealing case was the child's grandfather, a local mafia (camorra) chief, the other witness being his daughter (the child's mother). It's really difficult figuring out someone trying to steal in the house of a well-known camorrista, much less trying to kidnap his granddaughter. It also came out that there was an interest in building in the area surrounding the Roma camp, the presence of which would negatively affect the value of flats. Finally, the girl charged with the kidnapping attempt was not really a Rom at all! An Italian journalist, Marco Imarisio, has written a book on the subject: "I giorni della vergogna" (The Days of Shame).


  2. I didn't know that particular case, but I'm not very surprised. I chose not to go into details with particular cases, especially because I didn't intend to make an(other) blog post only about Italy, but one of the cases I had in mind was one that happened last year in Torino (http://www.diredonna.it/torino-finge-stupro-bruciato-campo-rom-64159.html), where a girl made a false rape accusation, and the local Roma neighbourhood was burned and torn to pieces within no time, in a case of auto-justice. There are many aspects to go into, but one of them is the clear racism that is not addressed when only stereotypes are used in public space.
    I'll try to get a hold of the book you mention and get wiser :)