If you’ve ever traveled to a major European city, odds are somebody has warned you to watch out for gypsy pickpockets, thieves, or con-artists. There are, for example, the aggressive gypsies in Rome who will throw a baby at you and pickpocket you while you’re attempting to catch it. Or the sticky-fingered gypsies in Prague who can pull your wallet clean out of your bag and slip away before you even notice what happened. And, of course, the folkloric, flamenco-dancing gypsies in the hills of Granada who will get too drunk and crack a bottle over your head in the middle of a bar fight.
I have lived in Europe for about nine months now, and yes, I have personally received all of these warnings.
In fact, there are people all over the world ready to offer up their opinions about those tricky gypsies. Thousands of travelers have taken to internet forums to offer up their own tips on how to foil gypsy plots in cities from Barcelona to Milan to Krakow. A quick Google search will yield tons of articles on “8 Ways To Spot A Gypsy” or “5 Hacks For Outsmarting Gypsy Scams in (Insert European City Here).” In an article on Europe’s “gypsy problem,” travel guide guru Rick Steves wrote that “while many Roma are upstanding citizens, others do turn to thievery for survival. The tour-guide refrain, ‘Watch out for gypsy thieves!’ might seem racist—but it’s not necessarily bad advice.”
These “Gypsy” warnings are disguised as neutral, practical information, frequently presented in an “I’m not racist, I’m just trying to do my job and keep you safe” sort of way. But the reality is that such warnings are of little practical value to tourists, and at the same time work to perpetuate stereotypes that have plagued Roma populations for centuries.
Here’s an example: A few months ago, I got pickpocketed in Madrid’s Atocha train station. A man pushed up against me as I was boarding a crowded train, wedging himself between my arm and my purse. Just before boarding the train, he did a 180-degree turn and walked away. At that point, I looked down and noticed that my wallet was missing. I pretty much immediately burst into tears, and a sympathetic security guard came over to comfort me. He advised me to be more careful next time, that Atocha is full of bands of gitanos who live by pickpocketing unsuspecting tourists.
I appreciate the security guard’s sympathy. But off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen strategies for avoiding pickpockets that are more effective than racially profiling the people around you. If I had just kept a hand on my purse zipper, worn my purse under my coat, or entered the train through a less-crowded door, I almost certainly would have avoided getting ripped off. But the only defensive advice I received was to be wary of dark-skinned folks—pretty useless advice, since my assailant (whose face I clearly saw as he pressed himself against my body and stole my stuff), did not look ethnically different from your average white Spanish resident of Madrid.
Clearly, anyone can swindle you on the street. Telling travelers to “watch out for gypsies” has basically no practical value, when we could instead just tell them to “watch out for pickpockets.”
And while “gypsy” warnings don’t actively help travelers, they do actively harm the Roma, a people who have dealt with mistrust and prejudice virtually since they set foot into Europe several centuries ago.
If your only knowledge of Roma history comes from outdated Borat references and TLC’s My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, let me offer you a brief summary. The Roma kept no records of their early history, but many scholars believe that they have roots in India and migrated to Europe in the fourteenth century. Once there, they frequently aroused suspicion due to their nomadic and non-Christian lifestyles. This suspicion often led to prejudice, segregation, expulsion, and even mass killing.
In parts of Romania, the Roma people were enslaved until the mid-nineteenth century. Ironically, although centuries-old European folk legends brand Roma as kidnappers (“Don’t stray too far or the gypsies will take you!” is apparently a common refrain in parts of Europe), there is actually evidence that various countries’ governments created schemes to forcibly remove Roma children from their own families well into the twentieth century. Historians estimate that Nazi Germany and its allies killed 220,000 Roma, or one-quarter of Europe’s Roma population, during World War II.
Romani people and communities still face prejudice today. They are stereotyped across Europe as lazy, shameless, untrustworthy, and unwilling to associate with non-Roma. More than a few people I’ve met during my travels have informed me that there are both “good gypsies” and “bad gypsies,” but that you’d never know the good ones because they’ve integrated into wider society.
Romani children often face informal segregation in schools and are still at risk of being forcibly removed from their parents’ homes by local child services and police forces. In 2013, for example, the Dublin police force removed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed seven-year-old from her Irish Roma family on the grounds that she didn’t ‘look Roma enough’ to be their biological child. (Spoiler alert: she was.) Additionally, many Romani communities face brutal economic hardship. In 2014, 80% of Roma in the European Union were at risk of poverty, compared with 25% of the general EU population. Only 42% had completed primary school, compared with 98% of the EU.
When tourists, travel writers, and tour guides treat Roma like a homogenous group of itinerant thieves and beggars, they do nothing but perpetuate stereotypes that plague Romani communities all over Europe. Racism veiled as practical information is racism nonetheless. Imagine traveling to New York City, where American black people are disproportionately poor and disproportionately implicated in crimes. Does that mean New York City tour guides should warn foreigners to be wary of black people on the streets? No!! Obviously, emphatically not! In light of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and Dajerria Becton, it should be clear that characterizing black and brown folks as a “threat” does real, serious damage to marginalized minority communities.
Here are three facts that should be obvious but perhaps are not. First and foremost, being Roma and presenting as such does not make you a thief. Second, not all Romani people look the same. Third, anyone of any race can steal your stuff. In light of all that, I’d like to share some friendly tips to stay safe during your European travels:
If anyone comes up to you in front of the Brandenburger Tor asking for money for the deaf mutes of Berlin, it’s a scam.
If anyone squirts mustard on your shirt in Rome and offers to help you clean it up, it’s a scam.
Finally, if anyone—blonde, brown, black, purple, I don’t care—comes up to you on the street and starts tying a string around your wrist, make a loud noise and walk away very quickly because you are about to get scammed. (Fell for that one in front of the Sacre Coeur when I was eighteen. I don’t have a great track record.)
Yes, it’s important for tourists to be informed of these common tricks so they can be prepared to protect themselves. But there is no reason to insert an ethnic comment alongside our useful information, and there are many good reasons to refrain from doing so.
I’ll leave you with this video released by Spain’s Consejo Estatal del Pueblo Gitano in March 2015. In the video, Spanish Romani children react to the Royal Spanish Academy’s official dictionary definition of gitano. One of the accepted definitions is simply the word trapacero—“swindler.” If you’re not convinced that “objective definitions” and “practical information” have the power to damage self-confidence and perpetuate ethnic discrimination, maybe this video will help convince you.