In June 2016, I made a formal change to my business name (backdated to May for business reasons). Formerly “Gypsy Mama, LLC,” this company is now formally “Wrapsody, LLC.”
White nationalism and hate crimes are rising in the United States and in parts of Europe. I’ve been wondering how I can respond to this international crisis as a business owner. One thing I have done is to work with my Brand Ambassador Team to craft a “Social Justice and Inclusivity Statement.” The article you’re reading now, sharing the reasons why I changed my business name — is another. The change was heavily influenced by the Brexit decision and the increased racism against Romani (and other) people in the UK and other parts of Europe. Based on an email exchange I had last year, I believe I owe you both an explanation and an apology.
It began with an email
I received an email in February of 2016 engaging me in discussion about the name of my company. I don’t believe it is coincidence that this email came around the same time the Brexit referendum was announced. A Romani woman emailed me to share her concern with the use of the word “Gypsy” by non-Romani people. We discussed why I had chosen the name (she did not know that I am the granddaughter of a Hungarian Gypsy, and therefore, Hungarian Gypsy myself), and we discussed why the name “Gypsy” feels more appropriate to me, personally, than “Roma.” At the close of our conversation, she suggested that I keep the name but use my platform to share information about the diverse cultures to which the words refer and to better explain my own story so as not to propagate stereotypes or to reinforce the use of the word by non-Roma and non-Gypsy people.
As I began the reading she suggested, I learned more about the racism Roma in Europe face today. I became aware, as the conversation about the Brexit decision ramped up in 2016, that the persecution of and discrimination against the Roma in the UK and Europe is greater than I had understood and was increasing with the racial tension the British Nationalist movement was bringing with it — much in the same way we are witnessing the rise of White Nationalism in the United States. When the Brexit decision was made, I read some of the stories of hatred, violence, and discrimination Romani people faced in the UK. I decided that a name change was the most respectful and ethical course of action — in part after reading this blog post by a Romani-American woman.
My Gypsy identity: Where the business name originated
When I started this business in 2004, I spent time choosing a name with a matching URL that felt tied to who I was. I planned to start a tiny kitchen table business, sewing a few carriers a month, and I wanted a business name that reflected me, personally. I considered several names, including “Gypsy Mama,” which was a name my ex-husband would sometimes call me after our children were born because of how strongly I identified with my Nana and my heritage as a Hungarian Gypsy. I loved the way carrying my children in sling carriers tied me to my cultural history.
My understanding is my family were Sinti Gypsies. Because of that, I particularly loved this etching by Т.Шюлер, which portrays Sinti women, at least one of whom is wearing a baby. I wish I’d understood enough about Gypsy and Romani culture to ask my Nana more questions while she was still alive. My grandfather never talked about that part of our heritage; he felt ashamed of it and certainly never embraced it. Most of our family story died with Nana, it seems. As the culture of Roma and Gypsies in the United States is as varied as the people that make it up, I may not be able to verify for sure whether my family were Sinti Gypsies or from another Romani group. Assimilation and marginalization are effective ways to erase family histories, as too many people are painfully aware. But at this point in my life, it is the story that I know.
Aside from the fact that I was incredibly close with my grandparents, including my great grandmother (I was 12 when she passed away, and I still have her cardigan sweater and wear it regularly to feel close to her — 25 years later), I carry her features in my upper face. I was nearly an adult before I realized that. With that revelation, I began to feel like I belonged in my body. In some ways, it felt like I had brought my Nana back to walk with me each day — but more than that, in my small town, I’d always been “othered” by my peers for my facial structure in a way that my brothers never were. When I realized where those features came from, I finally understood how to answer the rude and uncomfortable questions my classmates and strangers asked me about my heritage and a sense of Self that I’d never held before.
My Nana was shamed for her Gypsy heritage, beliefs, and customs, and knowing that, in addition to carrying her physical features on my body, I claimed it as part of loving her and grieving for her after she died. I was proud to be connected to her, and angry that her life, culture, and history had not been celebrated by her children, and was available to me only in snippets of stories about the fortune-telling styles she and her sisters practiced. I was proud of my face, of having roots I could feel to hold me strong. When people look at me and ask me “where I’m from,” it’s the Hungarian Gypsy ancestry they’re asking about. I have not experienced anything other than a keen interest about my Hungarian Gypsy heritage when people ask about it, but many Roma and other American Gypsies experience discrimination.
I was 24 when I founded Gypsy Mama, LLC, and still learning about the history of my family of the Hungarian Gypsies. My grandmother’s parents had both immigrated from Poland, and my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings felt much more connected with her Polish heritage than their father’s (and my Nana’s), for a number of reasons. Among them, of course, was the fact that my grandfather grew angry when talk of his Gypsy heritage came up, as he subscribed to many of the stereotypes applied to Gypsy people and rejected that part of his history.
I did know that the coopting of the word “Gypsy” to mean “earthy” or “free-spirited” was inappropriate. I was aware of the problematic origins of the word “g*pped” (and quite passionate about the power of language to shape our realities). What I did not know was that the name her family used to describe themselves had become, for many, a slur. I considered changing the way I referred to myself as “Roma” when I slowly became aware of the conversations about the word “Gypsy,” most Sinti Gypsies, if my understanding is correct, do not refer to themselves as “Roma” or “Romani.” I’d never known my family to refer to themselves as Roma, only as “Hungarian Gypsies.” I’m still not sure the word “Roma” belongs to me in the way my Nana’s word for herself, Gypsy, does.
But I digress.
Rebranding before and after the Brexit vote
As the Brexit vote approached, I read many accounts of the discrimination and hate crimes against people in the UK, particularly against Roma, Polish, and Muslim people. I realized that my connection to my Nana and a name her family used in the early to mid 1900s was nothing in the face of that kind of bigotry, and that my own personal narrative and identity needed to leave the public face of my business.
In 2008, I had rebranded our products to Wrapsody for a number of reasons, among them, a growing understanding of the preference for the word “Roma” rather than the word “Gypsy.” I also realized that while I may continue to identify as a “Gypsy Mama,” I am certainly not THE Gypsy Mama, and furthermore, my name had the potential to contribute to stereotypes and to hurt people. If I had to clarify who I was in order to explain my brand name, I needed to change it.
Though I changed the brand name, I held onto the name of the LLC until this summer. It seemed daunting, changing my business name, and to be honest, I still feel emotionally attached to it. I’ve tangled my Nana’s memory with my business name, and I had to do a lot of unpacking before I was ready to untangle it. It was my way of remembering myself and of remembering the consequences of remaining silent in the face of bigotry (which is ironic, I realize). (I am still working on updating documents and other items to reflect that as I come across them, and if you notice somewhere I should make the update, please do point it out.)
It wasn’t until I was able to finally step back and understand the enormity of the racism that Romani and Sinti people face today, particularly in Europe, that I was able to let go. I’m grateful for the email that caused me to revisit this decision.
I’m sorry that by using the name in connection with my business, I’ve helped perpetuate deeply held stereotypes of Gypsies as free-spirited hippies wrapped in bright, beautiful fabrics. I’m sorry because I should never have chosen a word that describes a race of people in naming my business. I’m sorry because I have contributed to a culture of oppression and erasure by continuing to use the name for my business. In truth, I should have realized how inappropriate that was even though I did not realize it was a slur. I’m sorry that I’ve made my cultural heritage a moniker, and that it took me so many years to understand that it was harmful.
Below, I have compiled a list of the links I’ve referenced in this article. In the list, you’ll find some articles that offer you an overview of the complex and diverse cultures of Romani and Sinti people; information about the discrimination they face in the US and Europe; links to images showcasing historic images of Romani and Sinti Gypsies carrying their babies. My articles have suggestions and references for further reading. I hope that if you are a member of the Romani community who has been offended by my choice of names and words, that you will forgive me. I’m sorry.
Resources for further reading
What is Brexit?
- BBC: Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU
- Roma Support Group: Brexit Statements from the Roma Support Group
History and discussion of Romani and Sinti people
- Countries and their Cultures: Gypsy Americans
- Smithsonian Institution: “Gypsies” in the United States
- Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team: Sinti and Roma — “The Gypsies”
- Travellers’ Times Online: The Travellers’ Times website brings you the latest news, pictures, films, features & information from and for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities
Modern Discrimination against Romani and Sinti people
- The Daily Beast: American Gypsies Are a Persecuted Minority That Is Starting to Fight Back
- NPR: Why Being “G*pped” hurts the Roma More Than it Hurts You
- Equal Times: UK Gypsies and Travellers: A Community Under Pressure
- Montreal Gazette: Roma family fears deportation to Hungary because of discrimination there
- Deutsche Welle: OSCE: Zero tolerance for discrimination of Sinti, Roma
- Gypsy Appropriations: The Problem With the Word “Gypsy”
Historic Imagery of Babywearing by Romani and Sinti people