Derogatory Joke About Romani People

Main Piece:

Subject: This is more of just like a classic- I think- Old man folklore. My Grandfather was basically like, “Yeah you know, you can’t trust gypsies.” He’s from Alabama. But he said, “You can’t trust gypsies. One time when I was little, we had a gypsy neighbor go around and ask for sugar and what not. So every time he came to my house my mom would give him some sugar. And what he would do is he would take the cup of sugar, he would walk out to the yard and stick his thumb in it so there would be a dent in it. Then he would come back to the house and say, ‘Oh you didn’t fill it all the way.’” And he was like, “Yeah that’s what gypsies will do, you know. They’ll put their thumb in the sugar and take twice.” And I was like, “Huh?”

Interviewer: Huh. Um… Where do you think he picked that up from?

Subject: It was like a joke basically. Definitely from his family members. Like just whatever they talk about or whatever.

Interviewer: Okay and like… How does that.. How does hearing this make you feel? How do you react to hearing this?

Subject: I mean… I took this one time and… actually the original twenty pages of my Senior Thesis that I wrote was a short story about this, that I didn’t end up leaving in the thesis. But that story influenced what I wrote and like… and it was like… as a character…

Interviewer: So you used it in a short story?

Subject: Like this folklore was kind of incorporated into it. I took the story and gave it to another character. So I guess you could say it was intriguing. I obviously understood the implications but I was like, “Okay… Who comes up with this? Why do you tell this?” It’s a joke I get it but… I don’t know. Clever I suppose but I don’t know.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six feet apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this offensive joke his grandfather used to say.

Interpretation: I am pretty familiar with the use of the derogatory term of “gypsy” against Romani people, as well as the stereotype that they are thieves and swindlers. It was not long ago that I learned the origin of that the expression of getting “gypped”, meaning getting cheated or swindled, is derived from the word gypsy. I was actually hesitant about treating this derogatory joke as folklore, but I think it is significant to acknowledge these stereotypes are still around and still being passed down and taught to younger generations. I think of how antiziganism (Romani discrimination) compares to how antisemitism is viewed. For one, both people groups suffered devastating population death percentages during the Holocaust. But antizagnism is far more widely accepted in society. Just in 2017, a TV show called “Gypsy” was released by Netflix about a white woman’s path of becoming a cheater, manipulator, seductress, etc. She took on all of the horrid stereotypes and assumptions of the word. The term gypsy has only just started to be challenged as a derogatory slur. I think the prejudice, oppression, and discrimination against Romani people has generally been pushed to the side in American public education. People still dress up as “gypsies” for Halloween, the term “gypped” is still extremely common. There does not seem to be much reckoning with the discrimination against this particular group.

Furthermore, I found it interesting how detached the subject seemed to be from his grandfather’s telling of the joke. The way he imitated him was a sort of rambling that pretty clearly revealed his personal attitude towards the joke, this being that he was not a fan. He seemed generally both accustomed and fed up by this rhetoric from his grandfather.

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