The little Gypsy of dress-up

My friend Zuzka, the one who adopted a Vietnamese child named Star, finally came to visit again after a long absence. This time she brought her six-year-old biological daughter Gabriella with her as well. Shaye was very slow to warm up, although she had cried for Star and Gabriella almost daily over the past weeks. It took more than an hour for her to open up to them at all this time, but finally the children were all playing happily together, even Marik. I got out a big box of dress up clothes and they had great fun wearing wild dresses and scarves. Star and Shaye are now three and old enough to dress themselves, so everyone seemed to be having fun.


Zuzka and I were at the stove chatting and getting lunch ready. She turned, smiling at the children and said, “Oh, look! Gabriella looks like a little Gypsy.” Gabriella was simply wearing a colorful dress with gold trim and a scarf but perhaps Zuzka felt more comfortable saying it about her blonde daughter. It was Shaye who really looked like a Gypsy, of course, having the face for it and wearing the same sort of clothes. Gabriella had helped her tie a head scarf on that really did look almost like Romani fashion.

Zuzka giggled nervously when she said the word “Gypsy.” She knows my house rules or should. The Czech word for “Gypsy” is as bad here as the N-word is in the US, so it is banned at our house. I didn’t want to make a scene in front of the children that would only make the situation worse though, so I merely shrugged and quietly reminded Zuzka of the rule when the children had drifted out of earshot.

“Don’t worry,” Zuzka replied. “She’s too young to have any negative connotations about it. She’s probably never heard that word before.”

I could have just put my foot down and declared that I don’t care if the six-year-old doesn’t know the connotations yet. But the truth is that now that we have a Romani babysitter and language teacher, we hear the Czech word for Gypsy on a regular basis because she uses it and I can’t really argue with her about it. Zdena seemed perplexed by my use of the older, traditional term “Roma”. “We say Gypsy ourselves,” she told me and seemed uncomfortable when I said “Roma” or “Romani”. I have mostly taken to trying to avoid the name altogether as a stalling tactic until I either figure out what to do or become close enough with Zdena to discuss this sensitive issue with her more fully.

In any event, I was too confused to take Zuzka to task too harshly. I simply stated that I was sure Gabriella would have heard the expression, “You look like a little Gypsy” at the very least. It is used on a regular basis to children who are either dirty from playing outside or extraordinarily tanned in the summer. Zuzka argued that she could not have heard any such thing and that there are no Romani kids in her preschool, so she could not have heard it used insultingly against Roma.

Finally, we both realized that Gabriella had returned to the kitchen, although she didn’t appear to be paying any attention to us. With a sudden shock I realized that she was back in her regular pants and shirt without a skirt or scarf in evidence. “Oh dear,” I said. “She changed her clothes right after you said that.”

“Oh, she did not,” Zuzka argued. “That was a long time ago.” We both paused and then Gabriella looked up at us. “Alright, we’ll ask her,” Zuzka added but she made no move to do so.

Carefully, I thought through the phrasing and asked, “Gabriella, did you ever hear the word Gypsy before?”

“Yes,” Gabriella said with a shrug. Zuzka appeared to roll her eyes at me.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked. Gabriella shook her head, but she clearly looked uneasy. I scrambled for another question but Zuzka actually got there first. “What do you think about them?”

There was a long silence and, then, just as we were turning away, Gabriella said in a tiny, timid voice, “They steal.” I felt my stomach plunge through the floor and Zuzka chortled with nervous laughter.

Soon enough Zuzka’s laughter turned to outrage, whether feigned or not, and she demanded, “Who told you that?”

“Grandma,” Gabriella replied in little more than a whisper.

I had to break in at that point. “Gabriella, you didn’t do anything wrong,” I assured her. She hadn’t even been the one to use the banned term. “It isn’t true but you didn’t know. Lots of people steal and there is no group that always steals, but it isn’t your fault that someone told you that. You were only telling your mom the truth about what you heard.” That more or less ended the conversation and Zuzka obviously wanted to avoid any further discussion.

I couldn’t leave it entirely at that though. These two girls are the closest my children have to friends and they may well be that for some time, despite any issues with the adults. I had to try at least to put something in place of what I had tried to take away. So, when Zuzka got on the phone with a friend, I went into the playroom to sit with the children for awhile and took the opportunity to balance Gabriella on my knee and talk. Here is what I said in a nutshell. I don’t know if it was the best thing, but it was what I could come up with on short notice:

“The word Gypsy that we said isn’t really a good word. It is like slang. The real word is Roma. That is a name for some people. Like you are Czech, some people are Roma. We are partly Romani in our house. We don’t like the word Gypsy, because it is slang, so we say Roma. That’s the correct word. Some people use the word Gypsy because they don’t know the right word. Some Romani girls like to dress in really wild dresses. That’s why your mom said you looked like that. You look beautiful in dresses and scarves, so your mom was just saying you look beautiful like Romani girls who wear those kind of clothes. Some people think Roma people steal but that isn’t true. Roma don’t steal more than other people. I don’t steal and you don’t steal because it’s not okay. Some Czechs steal and some Americans steal and some Roma steal. But we don’t. It also isn’t okay to say that everybody of some other nationality steals. Your grandma probably said that because she is a little afraid of people who are different from her. Some people are afraid like that because they don’t have experience with other people. Some people are afraid of Roma, but you don’t have to be afraid. Our family is part Roma and we are your friends.”

I ran down about then. I couldn’t think any more clearly than that. The advantage with a six-year-old is that she actually listened. She got up and went back to play with no comment after that. Who knows how much she understood or remembered. But she appeared to listen openly.



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