The Gypsy Thief

gypsy-thief-stereotypeAs I’m sure you know, there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding the Roma culture. And like most stereotypes, the associations are not always flattering. Of the many popular perceptions of the Roma, maybe one of the most damaging is that of the Gypsy “Thief.”  I agree with a post I read on “The Gypsy Chronicles” (http://thegypsychronicles.net) that for majority populations, the concept of “Romani criminality” is too often a justification for our continuing indifference or hostility toward the plight of this marginalized group. Without a doubt, the Gypsy as Thief stereotype is sensationalized by news media all over the world. Perhaps a disproportionate number of stories do vilify the Roma – often portraying them as con artists and thieves. While I cannot deny that sometimes this stereotype is actually a reality, I feel like I must support the other side from experience rather than subjective reporting.

Last year I spent several weeks in Spain living with a group of Spanish Gypsies in Seville. And while I will not deny that criminality is often a reality in the Gitano culture (read Jason Webster’s memoir Duende if you are interested in a true account of Spanish Gypsy criminal activity), in my experience, the overwhelming majority of the Spanish Gypsies I interacted with were honest, law-abiding citizens. One encounter I will never forget was at the Saturday market in Seville where a number of Gitanos make their living as itinerant vendors. I bought a pair of stockings (much needed as I had foolishly traveled from the Caribbean to southern Spain without the necessary winter clothing). The total for my purchase was five euros. I handed the man a ten euro bill and started to walk away, forgetting to collect my change. The man chased after me, handed me a five euro bill, and said, “Your change, madam. I am not a thief.”

The burden of the criminal stereotype is one we need to be careful with if we want to support the Roma in their struggle for acceptance and integration. That’s why I am passionately against shows like National Geographic’s American Gypsies, and some of the recent memoirs like Gypsy Boy, written by the Romani author, Mikey Walsh. While I applaud the ability of authors like Mikey Walsh to be able to speak with honesty about the realities of their culture, I wonder if books like these—and programs like American Gypsies—perpetuate the negative stereotypes we should be mitigating rather than heightening.

There are good and bad people in all cultures. Thieves and criminals in every ethnic group. Let’s focus a little more on the positive and less on the negative associations. Maybe this way, we can see beyond the stereotype. Let’s help to dispel myths and to establish an objective body of information. Labeling an entire ethnic group as criminal is discrimination.

Have you had any experiences, either positive or negative, with a person of Romani heritage?

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