"You don't look like one" - debunking stereotypes of what a Gypsy looks like
TT Vision journalist, Gemma Lees, discusses the ridiculous questions, statements and accusations that have been levelled at her as an alternative looking Romany Gypsy woman.
“You Don’t Look Like One” has been used as an observation, a compliment and an accusation towards me, each time depending upon the speaker’s biases. I am an alternative-looking woman. I have short, green (at the moment) hair, tattoos, piercings and I wear rock and 50s inspired clothing. This is because I’m an individual who has the right to look any way I wish but it does not have any bearing on my upbringing, ethnicity or culture as a proud Romany Gypsy woman and a part of a large Romany Gypsy family. I embrace and reflect my culture through my work, i.e. by writing bilingual theatre pieces, making installations which challenge laws which threaten GRT folks and writing for Travellers' Times, (although my appearance has elicited a comment about it being renamed the ‘New Travellers' Times’ before now)!
“You Don’t Look Like One” as an observation: This generally comes from very observant people who notice that I neither look like the quintessential Victorian Gypsy from the old romance books, long black hair with head scarf, flowy skirt with coins on it, possibly carrying a tambourine or magic ball or nor do I look like the contemporary popular media portrayal of the voluminous wedding dress with matching princess crown. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these looks, by the way, but expecting every single person from an ethnic group to look the same is ridiculous and frankly racist - so don’t do this.
“You Don’t Look Like One” as a compliment: This has been used on various occasions by ill-informed people who assume that all Gypsy and Traveller women are poor wretches that have no bodily autonomy and that I have somehow broken out of this restrictive upbringing to become my own person. This is racism dressed up as feminism, there are a million ways to be a Gypsy or Traveller woman, none are more or less valid - so don’t do this.
“You Don’t Look Like One” as an accusation: This is where people really show their anger that who they assume to be a white British woman who is trying to be all ‘exotic’ by claiming to be a Gypsy. I’ve been shouted at in person by a mental health nurse who first angrily asked ‘is that a joke?’ which was followed up by the famous line, as to him, I obviously couldn’t be who I claimed to be. I’ve also had a lot of hate online from people who assume that I have some distant possibly Gypsy relative that I’m now basing my entire persona around. Again, this is based not on me as much as it’s based on their own biases at what a Gypsy woman could possibly look like and I don’t fit their narrow perception of that, which is again, racist - so don’t do this.
So what should people do instead? Well, don’t judge a book by its cover is my simple advice. Don’t make any assumptions about a person’s ethnicity or background based on how they look, what they do or what the media says a person ‘like that’ should look like. Don’t assume that them looking alternative or markedly different from the stereotypes means that they’re not proud of who they are and their community and never, ever tell someone “you don’t look like one”.
By Gemma Lees