“Gypsy” is a slur.
Yet CBC Radio 2 is slamming this word through the airwaves nonstop via Alice Merton’s new single, “No Roots.”
The word is a derogatory term for people of Roma descent. A recent Vice article outlines in detail anecdotes of the threats and violence that continue to besiege Roma people living in the United Kingdom. Still, it is often used in North American culture to reference being free-spirited, spontaneous, bohemian, etc. This is infuriating and needs to stop.
The lyrics to “No Roots” are “I like digging holes and, hiding things inside them/When I grow old, I hope I won't forget to find them/Cause, I’ve got memories and travel like gypsies in the night.”
“Gypsies” do not dig holes to hide things inside. Perhaps they do travel in the night, but more importantly, the label “gypsy” has been used while targeting the Roma people for things like forced sterilization and Hitler’s genocide.
In this light, “travel(ing) like gypsies in the night” takes on a serious meaning beyond Merton’s flippant hole-digging. (According to Wikipedia, Merton’s ethnic background is German-Irish, with no mention of a Roma connection.)
This is the kind of thing that white people get away with all the time: claiming ownership to things that aren’t theirs. This appropriation, even when it’s as casual as the lyrics in this song, reinforces white centrality and white supremacy.
The lyrics of “No Roots” aren’t the only case of ignorance towards the Roma. Netflix’s Gypsy - a show about a voyeuristic white therapist (cancelled after one season) - also follows these missteps. There were multiple petitions online to change the show’s name.
“This is willful ignorance at its best because you cannot tell us that there wasn’t anyone in Netflix who knows that ‘gypsy’ is rapidly turning into a slur for the Romani people,” media website Bleeding Cool reports. “The worst part is the series appears to be playing off of the word ‘gyp’ or the idea to commit fraud or swindle someone.”
(The word, in fact, is a longstanding slur, though perhaps it is only recently entering public consciousness as such.)
Romea.cz, a news outlet based out of the Czech Republic that publishes information about events in the Romani world, reported on this petition.
“Our people have suffered for entire centuries because of defamatory, misguided and negative stereotypes connected with the term ‘gypsy’,” one petition-signer is quoted as saying.
“Because of what people believe the term ‘gypsy’ represents we have been enslaved, forcibly sterilized (and) murdered during the Holocaust,” they continue. “There is no excuse for using this term, nota bene when referring to a series about the sexual quirks of a non-Romani woman.”
The racism behind, and persistent cultural ignorance around, this word is well-documented on news outlets ranging from mainstream (the Guardian and Al Jazeera) to activist (Bitch Media and the European Roma Rights Centre). Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing has made it on to required readings lists at the University of Winnipeg.
There is no excuse to continue the casual use of the word “gypsy.” CBC should stop playing this song, just like Netflix stopped producing that show.
Jaz Papadopoulos is an artist, writer and activist. They edit the Arts and Culture section of The Uniter.