Don't Say 'Gypsy' on International Roma Day It's a time both for celebration and for considering issues confronting the world's Romany community, says Professor Ian Hancock, Director of the Romany Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas.
NPR logo

Don't Say 'Gypsy' on International Roma Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89457798/89457774" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Don't Say 'Gypsy' on International Roma Day

Don't Say 'Gypsy' on International Roma Day

Don't Say 'Gypsy' on International Roma Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89457798/89457774" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

It's a time both for celebration and for considering issues confronting the world's Romany community, says Professor Ian Hancock, Director of the Romany Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So you may not know this but today is International Roma Day. April 8th is the anniversary of the first World Romani Congress, which happened in 1971. Now, it's a day when Roma around the world celebrate their heritage and try to draw attention to issues that concern their particular community.

One issue of import, public awareness about who the Roma are and how they're perceived. In other words, don't call them "gypsies." The G Word is a derogatory term. But what else is on the minds of the roughly one million Roma living in the United States and around the world? And what exactly constitutes the Romani community?

Anyway, joining us now is Professor Ian Hancock. He's a member of the Roma community himself and he's the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas. He's also a member of the Romani Parliament. Good morning, professor.

Dr. IAN HANCOCK (Director, Romani Studies Program and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center, University of Texas): Good morning.

MARTIN: Thanks for being with us. So, let's start. We've had you on the show before to talk about Roma, but for people who didn't get a chance to hear that segment, let's take it back and explain, who are the Roma?

Dr. HANCOCK: We are a population that originated in India about a thousand years ago, and left there as a result of conflict with foreign invaders, as a military group with the camp followers. And those people made their way to Anatolia, where Turkey is now, and subsequently across into Europe about seven or 800 years ago and then spread out eventually all over the world, to American, Australia. About 12 million of us in the world, about a million in North America.

MARTIN: So what happens on International Roma Day? On this day, what is the point of this?

Dr. HANCOCK: A lot is going on today. This started - as you said, it commemorates the very first World Romani Congress which took place in London. It was sponsored in part by the government of India. It was made official at our fourth World Congress in 1990. It was recognized at that time, made official at that time, but it got a boost in 2000, when Pope John Paul celebrated it and brought a lot of media attention to it.

So what we're doing is - oh, it depends where we are. In this country, we have something going on in New Jersey, a big event. Some years, people have given out flowers. Another year they planted trees. We're trying to attract media attention to, among other things, try and correct the awful image we have under that word "gypsy."

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of - what are the problems? What are some of the negative stereotypes associated with that word?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, just look it up in any dictionary, practically. The word, first of all, is incorrect. It comes from Egyptian, and our ancestors don't come from Egypt. It's associated, mainly through fiction, works of fiction and Hollywood movies and so on, with crystal balls and stealing babies and what have you. And it's very loosely applied.

There's this popular TV show, "The Riches," about an Irish family, but they are referred to as "gypsies" in the promo. We're trying to get away from that. We're an ethnic minority of Asian origin. We are recognized by the Census Bureau as such. The Census 2000 forms were circulated in a Romani-language version, as a matter of fact. And an increasing number of Roma are coming here from Europe since 1989 to find asylum, and...

MARTIN: Let's talk about the Roma community in Europe. This is Europe's largest minority, generations and generations of discrimination, primarily in Eastern European countries of the Roma. There's been a - a decade-long plan has been implemented in the EU to end this discrimination and integrate Roma into society. But you can talk a little about - a little bit about what kinds of challenges face Roma, in Europe in particular?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, it's a very interesting situation, because our roots are in Asia, but that was a thousand years ago. So for the bulk of our existence, we've lived in the West. Nevertheless, the genetically a lot of Roma look Indian. A lot don't, of course. Our language is like Hindi. Our culture has strong elements of Hinduism in it and yet we live only in the West.

This creates all sorts of conflicts that aren't properly acknowledged. The reasons for the conflicts are not properly acknowledged. For example, there are pollution taboos, much like, for example, Hasidic Jews, that put restrictions on how your prepare food, and who you mix with and even who you touch. This differs, of course, depending on how much retention there is in what particular group. But anybody identifying as Romani will maintain some of this.

MARTIN: So it's a long history of discrimination there. I want to ask you about an issue that we spoke with you a few months ago. We talked to you about something that's top-of-mind for many Romani in the United States, and that's the issue of ethnic tribunals, or internal system of tribunals, that Romani in the United States use to work out issues or legal issues that might instead be taken to the U.S. courts. Roma tend to work these issues out in their own court system. When we last spoke to you, you were getting ready for a big meeting on this issue. What happened out of that?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, it was an encouraging first step. We met in Philadelphia and leaders from all over the country showed up and we talked about how we can get the traditional values in line with the larger society without their being threatened, and...

MARTIN: Because your argument is when people use the U.S. court system, they're not using these tribunals, and that's eroding Romani culture in America?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, we're not the only group to be dealing with this. Amish people, Native-American people have their own internal legal systems which sometimes conflict with national law. And we have to find a way to come to some sort of compromise that doesn't get us into trouble, first of all, and doesn't threaten the culture.

MARTIN: So you - what came out of that meeting?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, there've been three follow-up meetings, Florida, Baltimore, Chicago. And we've created a newsletter to inform people and we're just - keep planning these meetings. What - the way we do it is to invite the leaders of the areas who will then take the philosophy, if you like, or the conclusions we arrive at back to their own communities, and then pass them along.

MARTIN: So a lot of public education. I want to finish up by asking you, professor, what do you do, personally, today to celebrate? Are you having a dinner with friends or family? What are you doing?

Dr. HANCOCK: Yes, a number of families, we're getting together. We've got a big table, some of our traditional food. So, we're - and lots of emails going out, congratulating each other around the place, and I'll do my best to alert my colleagues at the college.

MARTIN: But you still have to go to work?

Dr. HANCOCK: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HANCOCK: Ready to go out the door right now.

MARTIN: Professor Ian Hancock is the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas. Hey, thanks, professor and happy International Roma Day to you.

Dr. HANCOCK: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: OK, take care.

Dr. HANCOCK: Bye-bye.

MARTIN: Bye-bye.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.