Tis the season!
“Gypsies are known for their exotic, mysterious nature, and our gypsy costumes are designed to bring out the gypsy in you. What kind of gypsy you want to be this Halloween is up to you.” http://www.costumesupercenter.com/gypsy+costumes.html
The Gypsy Halloween costume, usually (but not always) trading on the “Sexy Gypsy” stereotype, is larger than life. Even the ‘more positive’ exotic and mysterious stereotype is just as harmful as the “born criminal” stereotype– it further dehumanizes a group that are already seen as not important and unworthy of rights by a ruling majority. Essentially, Romani are too often seen as not ‘real’ people. In class, we’ve discussed how none of us learned in high school that Romanies were victims in the Holocaust, slaves in America and in Europe, and that there are still anti-Romani laws in America, Europe, and elsewhere. Ian Hancock discusses Americas relationship with Romani people historically and currently in “Gypsy Mafia, Romani Saints: The Racial Profiling of Roman Americans.” And we certainly didn’t learn about the current global Romani human rights crisis. So what kind of message is a costume like this sending about a little-understood ethnic group?
The Romani writer of http://gypsyappropriations.blogspot.com/ explains her perspective on the appropriation of the word “Gypsy” and the phenomenon of non-Romanies redefining the word to suit their wishes:
“The Romani people (aka, ‘Gypsies’) seem to be endlessly fascinating to outsiders. It’s unfortunate that this fascination does not extend to philanthropy, awareness, education and actual respect, something we seem to be denied as a people, time and time again. It’s much more fun to perpetuate the stereotypes than to talk about the dreary truth.”
….“I have been told by some who refuse to let go of their perception of gypsies that western culture has formed a ‘new meaning’ to the word and that the Romani people need to recognize that. What these people do not realize is that it is just as offensive, if not more so, when it is used in this manner, because their usage of it like this (to signify a lifestyle) essentially discounts all the suffering attached to the word. That is what I mean when I say that these folks do not have the right to say whether or not that word is offensive – they claim they have only ‘positive feelings’ about the word and towards my people, yet they needn’t be calling me a ‘filthy gypsy’ in order for the word to be offensive. It’s offensive because they use it to refer to a lifestyle, instead of a race of people.Some have said that these sorts of generalizations and ‘positive stereotypes’ are harmless. I can assure you this is not the case. When someone searches for that word on the internet, they should be coming up with sites which show them the truth. Instead, they get blogs like gypsygirlsguide.com, Halloween costumes, people on eBay and etsy using that word to sell “spells” and “charms” and other such nonsense, bellydance troups who aren’t even Romani (but have zero issue with using that word and even our own language in their names), Disney characters, fairytales, and other such rubbish.Unfortunately, these people have ‘decided’ they want to use the word to signify something else, but it is never truly separated from the Romani people. Just because the word has come to mean something else in their minds (and, for the record, that meaning was assigned by people who are outsiders to the culture and have no business taking that word and making it mean whatever they wish as it isn’t their word to take… have THEY suffered for it? NO.) that doesn’t make it right.”
Blog author goldenzephyr explains the historical context of Romani persecution and how that informs the action of non-Romanies dressing like a “Gypsy” for Halloween:
Because, it always comes down to this – I am the bad guy. Being too serious/angry/bitchy/stupid because Gypsy is just a word, right?
No. Wrong. SO WRONG. It’s not just anything. Now, I know we all mention the Holocaust and how “Gypsies” were murdered by the hundreds of thousands (most likely millions – no one knows for sure, because no one kept any records of our deaths; we were shot en-mass in the woods, gassed as soon as we were herded off the trains, or buried alive. All because we were “Gypsies”. So, when you wear a “Gypsy” costume it’s mocking our history. I know it was decades ago now… but, it’s something we can’t forget. Our grandparents and other relatives who LIVED THROUGH the Holocaust, are STILL ALIVE.
Okay, so even if we discount that, you should take a look at how Roma (or Gypsies) are treated in Europe. Marginalized, oppressed, victimized… in the Czech Republic there are neo-Nazi marches (often ending in violence) aimed at our very existence. “Gypsies” are hated. Not just disliked; hated.
Because of stereotypes. We have been stereotyped for generations. Even AFTER the war and the holocaust it was STILL ILLEGAL to be a “Gypsy”. There are hundreds of laws written to BAN our way of life… it is dangerous to be a Gypsy in Europe. You can DIE for being a Gypsy (either as a direct result of anti-Gypsy violence (such as arson) or as a result of a lack of adequate housing, food, sanitation, health care etc).
So, when you dress up as such a horrible sexualized stereotyped costume of our lives, it’s upsetting. It’s equivalent to dressing up in black face, or going as a “Pocahottie” … Going as a “Gypsy” is just as offensive and racist.
Halloween is not fun or exciting for me. I don’t want to be faced with a gazillion reminders of how people view my race -“
Of course, Gypsies aren’t the only ethnic group who find themselves mocked in costume. I’m delighted to see that Bitch Magazine’s article “Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation in Costumes” by Kjerstin Jonson discusses a college campus’ effort to spread racial awareness about the appropriation of ethnic and cultural appropriation, such as the appropriation of dia de los muertos on Halloween.
Native appropriation is another facet of this issue, especially on college campuses, and perhaps more especially on campuses like FSU’s because the FSU mascot is Chief Osceola of the Seminole tribe. Native appropriation is literally our school spirit. The issue is complicated because some Seminoles have given permission to use/appropriate Chief Osceola, and then others haven’t. Check out “Interest Convergence, FSU, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida” on the blog Native Appropriations for more about this.
On that same blog, writer Adrienne K. very eloquently and passionately explains why native appropriation isn’t helpful and preemptively addresses a lot of the responses she gets from people who defend their decision to dress up like a Pocahottie or an Indian Brave in her Open Letter, excerpted below:
“But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it’s like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.
You are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are. Simply because of the color of your skin, you have been afforded opportunities and privilege, because our country was built on a foundation of white supremacy. That’s probably a concept that’s too much for you to handle right now, when all you wanted to do was dress up as a PocaHottie for Halloween, but it’s true.
I am not in a position of power. Native people are not in positions of power. By dressing up as a fake Indian, you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.
But don’t tell me that you’re oppressed too, or don’t you dare come back and tell me your “great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess” and that somehow makes it ok. Do you live in a system that is actively taking your children away without just cause? Do you have to look at the TV on weekends and see sports teams with mascots named after racial slurs of your people? I doubt it. “
It would be great if there were a Romani poster in this campaign too– let me know if you find one!
So what do we do? (other than the assignment that is forthcoming) It’s obviously wonderful that you, dear and culturally sensitive reader, are not wearing a problematic costume right now. But you may feel like there’s something else you should be doing. This is where writing and communication comes in. Amanda Hess of the Washington City Paper has written this helpful article, “How to Inform Your Friend Their Halloween Costume is Racist” that’s full of tips to help you respectfully and clearly navigate that discussion. You can also review products on sites like Amazon and explain why the costume in question is problematic. It’s likely that at least some of the people who are reading trough the reviews and considering whether or not to buy that Gypsy Wench costume will not have considered that it’s offensive… or if they might have heard that it is offensive but still not understand why. You could persuade them. You can write to the companies that make these products and tell them why you wish they wouldn’t. The customer is always right: your feedback matters. You can also comment to express your strong support of writers like goldenzephyr, Adrienne K., and others– positive support is just as important as criticism when it comes to these matters. Be patient and use research to back yourself up– it’s there when you need it!
So, the assignment: Select an image of a Halloween costume that you think is racially insensitive/cultural appropriation and analyse it in 300 + words. Consider these questions to help your analysis: What does the costume look like? What kinds of stereotypes is it fulfilling? Who is it for? (men? women? children?) How is it marketed/described? What is it called? Are there reviews of it online? How is it received? Has anyone else written about it? Then make an argument about why this specific costume and the way it’s marketed is problematic. So for example, a fortune telling Gypsy costume has one connotation and historical context while a “mystic seductress” Gypsy costume has another. I encourage you to bring in sources if they help you make your point. You don’t have to pick a “Gypsy” costume, but you can. Be sure to include the image and the source in your post so we get the idea.
Extra credit: If you write and post a review of an offensive costume and/or email a company explaining the problem, send me the link to your review (or cc me if it’s an email) for extra-credit. You can use some or all of your original blog post– I don’t mind. If you want to respond to someone who has written an article defending cultural appropriation that you don’t agree with, that’s ok too. Just be respectful and clear about your point.