A few weeks ago, I got into an email back-and-forth about racism with a male acquaintance who lives in Romania—I’ll call him Alex. We were in the middle of an otherwise pleasant conversation when he quoted the following saying, “You give a Gypsy a finger, and he takes the whole hand.”
It was one of those moments when you see something and you think, should I say something?
I grew up in Romania where everybody was white, but for many years I didn’t even know I was white, because there wasn’t anything to compare myself to. Most of the literature I consumed was European and Russian. On TV, people of other races were in black-and-white, which made someone’s suntan and someone else’s melanin look the same shade of gray on the screen. When I went to Bucharest for college, I encountered people of other races and I saw them as different not as much because of their skin color but because they had… passports. To visit Romania, they had to have something I couldn’t yet dream of: a passport and enough money to buy an airplane ticket.
It took a few years, but in the end I had my own passport and an airplane ticket, paid for by Microsoft. In the US, I heard and read and listened to conversations about racism, but it all sounded remote to me. My ancestors didn’t enslave African-Americans. They didn’t put Japanese people in internment camps during World War II. They did take part in the Holocaust though, and I struggled with that. But the white guilt many talked about just didn’t burden me. Later, I understood that my position as a white woman in our current American society had to do with the privilege white men had built for themselves, their offspring, and the people who looked like them. I began to understand the concept of implicit bias.
After years of living in Seattle with all the requisite literature and documentaries about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement under my belt, I considered myself not a racist. One Saturday afternoon, I was telling a Romanian friend a story about a recent failure—something I’d tried and almost succeeded at. It could’ve been baking a turkey, taking a karate course, or sketching my self-portrait in a drawing class—I don’t remember.
What I remember is that I uttered the following words in order to illustrate the silliness of my failure, an expression used by Romanians around me all my life.
“I drowned like a Gypsy in shallow waters.”
The moment I heard those words out of my own mouth, I stopped. Cold dread coiled inside my stomach.
I was a racist, just not regarding the many different minorities living in the US. I was a racist when it came to Romanian Gypsies.
Who are the Romanian Gypsies?
The word Gypsy in itself carries negative connotations and this ethnic group’s preferred name is Roma or Romani, which doesn’t have a connection with Romania or Rome, Italy.
“The Romani (also spelled Romany /ˈroʊməni/, /ˈrɒ-/), colloquially known as Gypsies or Roma, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, traditionally itinerant, living mostly in Europe and the Americas and originating from the northern Indian subcontinent, from the Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of modern-day India.” — Wikipedia
Growing up, I was taught to stay away from Gypsies because they stole children and carried knives. I once saw a young woman in colorful clothes getting off a bus—and she had no nose. I was scared for days by the memory of her face with large black holes where her nose should’ve been. The adult I was with that day—I don’t remember who—told me she’d been punished according to the Gypsy Law.
I was told to keep away from them, so I did. It wasn’t that hard to stay away from them anyway, because they kept to themselves and were easy to differentiate from the rest of the population, with their darker skin and hair and their colorful clothes and golden-coin necklaces, and distinct customs and music. But I had never been attacked by a Gypsy while living in Romania—the violence perpetrated against me there came from people who looked like me.
In Bucharest, during my college years, I used to see Romani women in subway stations nursing their babies; Romani bands in all public transportation playing for money between stops; Romani teenagers huffing paint from plastic bags. I’d learned to turn a cold shoulder and ignore them. And the word “ignore” has a much deeper meaning here. I had no idea who those people were and what their history had been.
Better Late than Never
That day in Seattle when I realized I’d been discriminating against Romani people my entire life, I felt ashamed and vowed to never use that expression again. Ever. I would never again be disrespectful of them. There is no Romani community in Seattle that I know of, so keeping my resolution wasn’t hard. But there are hundreds of thousands of Romani in my native country and every Romanian has strong opinions about them.
And so, a few weeks ago, I found myself in a pointed conversation with Alex. His nonchalant remarks about Gypsies irked me, but I was trying to be friendly and polite, and not break the relationship. I assumed the man was ignorant of his racism, just as I had been of mine, so I told him my story of how embarrassed I felt once for using the expression “I drowned like a Gypsy in shallow waters.”
I hoped he’d get the hint.
Oh, he got it. He wrote back and explained the origins of that expression to me.
You see, Alex told me, when a Gypsy slave tried to escape and was captured the first time, he was punished with something called “the little chastisement.” (I use “he” in all these translations because in gender-based Romanian “he” is used for “they” as a generic placeholder—another discussion for another day.) “The little chastisement” involved having a mechanism affixed to his head and neck, something with horns, that didn’t let him sleep at night. He was essentially sentenced to sleep deprivation for an entire year.
And if a slave was captured a second time, he was punished with “the big chastisement.” That involved tying the slave with two long ropes and throwing him in the middle of the village pond. As he swam to one shore, the people on the opposite side of the pond would pull him back toward the center, where the water was deeper. The poor slave would swim and be pulled back to deeper water until he was too exhausted and he drowned. He usually drowned in the shallow waters by the shore.
I felt like crap when I read his story. I’d used that phrase for most of my young life without knowing the horrendous history behind it. It was bad enough as it was—I’d used it to disparage losers, implying that Gypsies were losers due to their racial background. But this was even worse. Making fun of slaves who’d tried to win their freedom was awful.
And that was another shock. Alex had used the word “slave” in his story.
And I realized I had a vague idea that the Romani might’ve been slaves in Romania, but I wasn’t sure. I remember we talked about indentured servants in school. But slaves? That information wasn’t part of my school curriculum growing up, unless I had slept through that one history lesson that covered it. And then I managed to never hear about it again, while living for a couple of decades in my native country.
So I asked around in my family. I asked a few Romanian friends. “Do you know Romanians kept Gypsy slaves until the 1840s?” My brother told me, “Yes, I learned that a couple of months ago from Wikipedia, when I was researching something unrelated.” A couple of friends had no clue what I was talking about. Another remembered that one of the characters in a story we studied in school was a “freed Gypsy.” He must’ve been freed from something.
Okay, so I hadn’t slept during my history classes, after all. Instead, there was a blackout when it came to slavery in my school curriculum. (I don’t know where things are now.) At least in the US, the slave-keeping past is acknowledged and there are efforts in parts of the society to make things better for minorities. There’s even a whole month—February—dedicated to Black history.
At least children growing up in the US have heard of slavery.
Alex had heard of Romani slavery though, but thought we have a right to use all those derogatory expressions about Gypsies because they’re part of our national heritage. Kind of like the Confederate statues in the US. And to make his point, he shared with me the origins of the other expression I had seen him use, “You give a Gypsy a finger, and he takes the whole hand.” In my hometown, the expression was, “You give someone a finger, and he takes the whole hand.” No Gypsy reference there.
The story of this expression—the equivalent of “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”—has to do with the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, which brought many Western ideas to the backwaters of Romania. For instance, landowners learned that having their hand kissed by their subjects was now considered parochial. Enlightened Europeans shook hands instead. But shake hands with just anybody? Romanians wondered. No, you shake hands only with your peers. To lower status people you give one finger or two or three, depending how high they are on the social ladder.
And here came the Romani, who, either because they didn’t know, or—I like to believe—as an act of civil disobedience, would grab the whole hand and shake it.
But there is nothing wrong with us using these expressions, Alex said.
Oh, yes, there is.
Because, after the Romani had been freed, they were not really allowed to live among us, just like the US went through the Jim Crow era for more than a century after the Civil War and still has systemic racism.
I tried to explain to Alex that it was offensive to use such expressions, so he accused me of being an “anxious convert.” I hadn’t heard that one before, so he explained it to me: When someone adopts a new set of beliefs, he either tries to convert everyone else to his new point of view—a zealot convert—or lives in a state of constant worry that he might offend people if he’s not perfect in that new way—the anxious convert.
Apparently my rising out of my racial ignorance—an ignorance inflicted upon my generation by design, it seemed—was a pitiful spectacle to this one cultured Romanian man.
And so our relationship died, which was a loss, because obviously I was learning from it.
Since then, I began to put together more clues, old and new. For instance, my grandfather told us stories from his time in WWII, when the Romanian Nazi-allied forces killed thousands of Jews. Not only Jews, it turns out, but Romani, too (and communists, and homosexuals, and the mentally disabled). So, after keeping the Romani in slavery for hundreds of years and refusing to let them be part of our society, we even tried to exterminate them once. No wonder they keep to themselves. And we’re not even talking about it—not in schools or in our public sphere—so that someone like me can live year after year and not know about my country’s shady past. The subject is obviously complex and full of contradictions, but can the Romani situation improve in Romania if people like me are oblivious to this history?
My brother told me he recently watched a shocking news segment done by ABC Nightline in 2014 about the sewer dwellers of Bucharest, some of them Romani, but many of them former orphans from communist times when family planning was illegal and babies were abandoned. They now have kids of their own who live in sewers. They also have a leader who manages the sewers and hopes to build them a shelter someday. One exit from this parallel society’s catacombs is right by the Government’s building in downtown Bucharest. I had no idea.
So much to learn. So much to grapple with. Racism is a larger form of tribalism—the “us” versus “them”—and tribalism is encoded in our genes, so we have to work hard to overcome it, especially in an age of globalization that won’t be undone, no matter the dreams of racists. Shouldn’t we all at least spend some time looking inside? What lines have we drawn there a long time ago? What lines are we willing to reconsider? And can we at least start talking about them?