National Geographic has been an international and socially welcoming institution for so
many years, presenting the often wrongly maligned Roma, a sprawling people who’s identity
has and still remains shrouded in mystery, in nothing if not a positive light. It is a delicate and
difficult task to educate the public on a society so hard to penetrate as the Roma, who, much
like a lost civilization, supply little evidence of their true inner-workings as a society. However
the program American Gypsies,
risk of being a conflict of interest not only for the Roma but also for National Geographic
because this family, as detailed further in this letter, is far from representative of the Roma
community. It is without a doubt that any viewer of this show will see this family as a model
for all so called “American gypsies”, and this would indeed be a tragedy, damaging both the
out on the wrong foot with a stereotype of gypsy-as-fortune-teller with the line “how to make
a fortune in the fortune-telling business”.
Perhaps it is not the Roma who are looking to make a fortune here, but the minds behind
this program at the “Golden-rectangle”. It is probable that National Geographic is aware
that “Gypsy culture” has been a popular subject in the media recently, and it seems possible
the Channel may want to feed off of this trend at the expense of the people involved despite
its not-for-profit status. The only possible outcomes of airing the program are that it would
provide a poor understanding of who and what the Roma are, and the knowledge that the
Furthermore, if one were to consider the making of a series presenting a family of American
Jewish crooks as Jews
generally, or a black street gang were presented as representing Africa Americans
generally, there would be a massive outcry, and such projects would die aborning.
for fear of legal backlash.
It is claimed that this is not a documentary about Romani Americans, but just about one
family. Does this mean that the words “Gypsy” and “Roma” or “Romani” don’t occur anywhere
in the series? They will be, of course. But will there be a disclaimer? Will there be
a statement to the effect that this family is criminal, this family is not representative of the
hundreds of thousands of Romani who live in our country, and in fact has been ostracized
by that population? Will our history be presented factually? Reference to the 550 years of
slavery in Eastern Europe, from whom the Johns family descends? Will there be reference
to Himmler’s genocidal Final Solution of the Gypsy Question in the Holocaust? Or will all
of the real history be put aside in favor of fishing trips to Florida and visits to the
to the mall?
Hundreds of thousands of Roma live in our country. Most stay in the background for fear of
recently as 1989, some of which are listed in my book
Danger! Educated Gypsy. Although we are protected from this as a class under the terms of Title VII
of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, few Roma are aware of it or use it as a means of legal redress. One
organization, however, called Romani Zor, with a Romani American attorney, Joseph Nicola, has
recently been incorporated to monitor the present situation, and anticipates a class action suit
following this series. I am a Romani. I am a senior faculty member at a leading university. I am a
former White House appointee. I am a state commissioner. And I am deeply insulted by
Use of the word “Gypsy” is problematic. It is a word we dislike, and which was officially
dropped from all of its internal documentation at the Second World Romani Congress in
in 1984. The use by journalists of its equivalent in other languages (e.g. Zigeuner in German,
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding
” are not in fact Romani at all, but a white population of Irish descent. The
definition of “Gypsy” (or “gypsy”) is already vague in people’s minds, most of whom think it
is a behavior rather than an ethnicity, and National Geographic’s imprimatur will only serve
presented under National Geographic’s trusted name, then disrespectful and inaccurate
perceptions of our people will have been confirmed.
The Johns family has a very bad reputation, and is shunned by the community. It is the
focus of the series only because of the entertainment value their ignorance and bad behavior
provides. If we as a people are not taken seriously, then the problems we face cannot possibly
be taken seriously.
It astounds me that National Geographic’s standards have fallen so low, have succumbed to
the overall downward drift of our country’s academic standards. Our real story is a fascinating
one; indeed, NG produced an entire beautifully illustrated book about it edited by Bart
McDowell in 1970 entitled Gypsies, Wanderers of the World. What has happened since?
Both the United Nations and the Council of Europe list the situation of Roma as the most
serious transnationally in terms of human rights abuse. I have included a number of references
to this below.
Roma remain to date the most persecuted people of Europe. Almost everywhere, their fundamental
human rights are threatened. Racist violence targeting Roma is widespread in the
last years. Discrimination against Roma in employment, education, healthcare, administrative
and other services is observed in most societies, and hate speech deepens the anti-Romani
stereotypes typical of European public opinion. (European Roma Rights Centre, 2001: 5).
Romanies in Europe were ‘at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the
most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the
most imprisoned and the most segregated.
(The Economist, 2005).
Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of central and
likely to remain poor. In some cases poverty rates for Roma are more than ten times that of
non-Roma. A recent survey found that nearly 80 per cent of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria
were living on less than $4.30 per day … even in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession
countries, 40 per cent of Roma live below the poverty line. (World Bank Report, 2006).
In September 2001, the council of Europe ‘issued a blistering condemnation of Europe’s
and violence … the United Nations says they pose Europe’s most serious human rights
problem. (BBC, 2001)
On 1 February 2008, the Associated Press issued a statement released by the European union
beginning, ‘the Roma, also known as Gypsies, remain frequent targets of racist attacks, abuse
and police harassment.’
the Roma, especially in recent years, this show, already in violation of civil rights laws, would
only foster further problems for the Romani people. Furthermore, it can not be ignored that
National Geographic Magazine
content on the Roma and that the intent of
American Gypsies is counter to the positive spirit of curiosity already firmly established by the
magazine, thus causing this program to be in conflict with the interests of both the National
Geographic Society and the Romani people. Allowing the world to see this footage can be nothing if
not detrimental for both parties involved, and we hope with the utmost respect that the board might
be able to see this and seriously consider the multiple negative outcomes airing of this program
BY Ian Hancock and Kore Yoors
Photo: Professor Ian Hancock