I'm Roma, and your Halloween Gypsy Costume is More Trick Than Treat | Opinion

For many, Halloween is a cheerful celebration, a time to stir imaginations with creative costumes and play with new identities; for me, leading an initiative at Columbia University about the Roma—a people erroneously known as Gypsies—the holiday triggers mixed emotions.

Last Halloween, for instance, as I was walking on New York' Fifth Avenue, I suddenly stopped, startled.

Right outside an apartment building, a human-sized mannequin of a Gypsy woman, holding a crystal ball, was seated before the closed door. I went into full investigative mode, treating the Halloween decoration like a crime scene, snapping photos and inspecting the Gypsy woman more closely.

She was supposed to represent a Roma like me! But her costume was colorful and ragged; my clothes were dark and casual. She was holding a crystal ball ready to read the future; I was holding my phone ready to read my emails. With spooky electric eyes, a hooked nose and a sly smile, she might tell your fortune to entertain you, but you could not trust her. She was a caricature of the quintessential outsider, fascinating yet frightening.

If this display were an ironic school project, "Best Practices for Perpetuating Stereotypes," I would have to assign it an "A" for recreating every Gypsy cliché in exquisite detail. I'd give extra credit for its location on iconic Fifth Avenue, only steps away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying a vast poster featuring "Armenia!" Roma people, like Armenian people, have long histories of displacement and both groups were victims of genocide. However, having a Gypsy caricature on the street in the vicinity of an exhibit about Armenian people inside the museum demonstrated the dramatic differences in their portrayal, depending upon their level of representation in society.

"The Gypsy on Fifth Avenue" is only one example of how Gypsy imageries are displayed on Halloween. This year provides a variety of new ones, such as the woman dressed like a Gypsy who was spotted at a Halloween party in New York by a fashion journalist covering ethical fashion. Such practices are facilitated by a multitude of stores that sell "Gypsy costumes" promising their buyers to look mysterious and sexy for only $20, $30, or less if they are on sale. It's a "cool" image that sells, why would it matter that the so called "free-spirited Gypsies" have a history of five hundred years of slavery, were targeted during the Holocaust and are frequently victims of violence and scapegoating?

Cultural appropriation for ridicule and entertainment is not new, as African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans know all too well. Such images can result in harmful effects on stigmatized, marginalized populations, yet, for groups with greater access and representation, such caricatures often elicit censorious repercussions. For instance, the New York party where the woman dressed like a Gypsy was spotted had a clear prohibition against Native American headdresses, but not Gypsy costumes.

Even after ten years in the field of Roma representation and rights, I sometimes wonder: How is it possible to get away with stereotyping the Roma people in such a disparaging way? On further consideration, I know the answer: because it takes a real Roma on Fifth Avenue to spot a fictional Gypsy. It takes a journalist to care about cultural appropriation and to be vocal about what's inappropriate at a Halloween party. It takes access to a respected place within mainstream society for Roma and our allies to see that we Roma are still represented by grotesque or exotic Gypsy imagery.

Although more professional and academic Roma are emerging, many remain stuck in a cycle of poverty at the margins of society; some are refugees, fleeing discrimination and persecution; others cope with stigma and belonging. The United States is home to over one million Roma, many of whom live in New York City, a hub for both Roma immigrants and Roma who have lived here for over a century. The stigma we face has caused some of us to deny our identities in order to be included and gain access to upward mobility.

Meanwhile the Gypsy representations cast a distorted shadow on all Roma. A hideous Gypsy mannequin can make Roma girls doubt themselves and question their looks. Afraid her dark skin would brand her as a Gypsy and attract bullies, my cousin avoided spending time in the sun. When I was growing up, my mother deliberately dressed me in colorless clothes so others would not ridicule me for looking like a gaudily dressed Gypsy. As a Roma woman and as a soon-to-be mom, I don't want this to be the case for my child or any Roma child throughout the world. I want them to enjoy Halloween as any other kids, not to have their culture misrepresented for others' amusement.

As Roma, overcoming barriers is important but not sufficient; accurate representation also matters in treating Roma with dignity and recognize our full humanity. Gypsy stereotypes must give way to Roma realities and possibilities. We must share true stories about the survival and resilience of a people more diverse than fiddlers and fortune-tellers, and of a culture more complex than entertainment and crystal balls.

Cristiana Grigore, a writer living in New York, runs the Roma Peoples Project at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​