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The 10 Biggest Misconceptions About Gypsies

Most people think that there’s not much else to Gypsies other than fortunetelling and wearing a lot of bracelets. You’ll quickly find, though, that most of what you know about the Romani people is wrong—and you can see up-close and personal with American Gypsies, premiering July 17 at 9pm only on National Geographic Channel. posted on

1. Gypsies lead a “carefree” lifestyle

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The romanticized portrait of the Gypsy lifestyle is one where they operate outside societal norms, traveling about the countryside in wagons, and doing whatever they want. This is entirely untrue—and, in fact, in Europe, often Gypsies are forced to take up residence outside of cities or beside dumps, as many do not have citizenship and cannot attain the rights everyone is entitled to. If they were treated equally, they’d do just fine.

2. Gypsies are uneducated

In places with large Romani populations, like the Czech Republic, there’s also rampant discrimination against them in education. Recent studies have shown that 65-75% of Romanies are placed in “special schools” before they reach puberty, despite that there’s no genetic evidence to support such discrimination.

3. All Gypsies are fortunetellers

Although it’s certainly true that many Gypsy women still make the majority of their income by telling fortunes, it’s not at all the “only” profession Gypsies can have—and particularly not so in 2012. Many of them run successful businesses entirely removed from fortunetelling, not to mention other fields, like journalism.

4. Gypsies dress “trashy”

Made fun of in countless Halloween costumes and comical depictions over the years, people generally believe that all Gypsies wear gold bangles, gold teeth, and baggy, mismatched clothing. Certainly made more flamboyant in order to make Gypsy attire more assailable, much of their garb has also inspired the abundance of bracelets and bright, bold colors in fashion today. Moreover, modern-day, American Gypsies don’t dress anything like the stereotype.

5. Gypsies marry extremely young

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Because family is so important to the Romani people, a widespread misconception is that they get married very young, even before their teen years and without their consent. While many Romani marriages are arranged by the pairs’ families, the marriage doesn’t usually occur until their late-teen years—both of which are atypical in North America, but much more common among Indians and cultures from the subcontinent. Moreover, the “promiscuous” stereotype is incorrect as well—sex outside of marriage is universally frowned upon, and most Romani men and women don’t even show their legs in public.

6. Gypsies are from Egypt

The common belief is that Gypsies hailed from Egypt, but they actually come from northern India. Back in the eleventh century, they referred to themselves as “rom” (meaning “man” in their language), which is where “Romani” derives from. It’s believed that they had chosen Persia as their destination, but instead ended up in Europe.

7. Most Gypsies are unemployed

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Gypsies actually hold a long legacy of hard-working people, from musicians and artists to horse traders and blacksmiths, but because of their nomadic heritage, people seem to think that they can’t or don’t want to hold down jobs. Not only is this incorrect historically, but in contemporary times it’s proven even less accurate, with many Romani families holding prominent positions in a variety of careers.

8. Being a Gypsy is a “lifestyle”

Many people have argued that being a Gypsy is a lifestyle, rather than an ethnicity. This has resulted in legislation like the 1968 Caravans Act in Britain, which classified all nomadic peoples as “Gypsies,” regardless of race or origin. However, the nomadic aspect of Gypsies is not a requirement, and never was. The genetic origins of Gypsies can be (and have been) traced back to India, where the Romani (rom) first defined themselves as a people.

9. Gypsies are swindlers

There have been discriminatory laws in place in many of the countries Gypsies have called home for hundreds of years, punishing a whole people for the poor decisions of some few. Even as recently as the 1980s, New Jersey law required Gypsy fortunetellers to pay additional fees for licensing and operating their businesses; some states even fined entire households when just one person had committed a crime. While these laws have since been repealed, the stereotype pervades.

10. There aren’t any Gypsies in America

Accounting for the previous items in this list, you’d think the Romani people would have many reasons to get out of Europe, where they’ve traditionally been the most persecuted. Still, the belief persists that there aren’t Gypsies in America, which is simply untrue. In fact, you can get an up-close and personal look at a prominent New York family with Gypsy heritage in American Gypsies.

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