Day 18 of White History Month: Brownface and Romani Persecution (by moonandthewitch)
In contemporary media, the image of the Gypsy is a staple archetype. From Disney movies to popular fantasy novels the romanticized version of a real ethnic group, the Romani people, can be found. The archetype of the free spirited Gypsy is so popular that it is often replicated through costume, from casual Halloween interpretations to Renaissance faire actors. The act of “playing Gypsy” has an incredibly dark history, and can be dated back to Renaissance court theatre.
During the 16th century, Western European courts became increasingly obsessed with the exotic. Around the same time, the Romani people, an ethnic group originally from India, started migrating west from Eastern Europe to escape enslavement. Due to the supposed “exotic” looks of the Roma people, many courtiers and actors donned brown face paint and blackened hair, mimicking the ethnic group. The English in particular were intrigued by the foreign language and looks of the Romani, and called them “Gypsies” believing they came from Egypt. Faux Gypsydom became incredibly popular during masquerades and theatrical performances, and many early modern English plays focused on the subject of the Gypsy, often portraying the ethnic groups as deceptive and mysterious, easily praying on the gullible white Englishman or Spaniard. The fetishization of Romani people, perpetuated by Renaissance brown-face mimicking the illusive Gypsy, caused a rise in oversexualization of Romani women. Many Romani were coerced to entertain in court for white nobility, who further sexualized and fetishized the ethnic group.
Because of English xenophobia and the stereotypes of the Gypsy thief, England’s love affair with the fetishization of Romani people took a dark turn, and England instated their Gypsy laws in 1554, which made it illegal to be a Roma in England, and was punishable by death. Many other European Countries instated similar laws, causing Romani to adopt a nomadic lifestyle in search for safe havens. This law also made it illegal to be a “counterfeit gypsy,” or one who donned brown-face, as it made it difficult to tell who was white and who was Roma. Fears of swindling Gypsies and with the need for white supremacy in a budding colonial empire, England often transported Roma people to the American colonies as slaves and indentured servants. Many other countries, such as Portugal and Spain, did the same, using Roma people as forced labor in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.
Though England and many other European countries made the existence of Romani people illegal, fetishization of Romani people continued to be popular in theatrical performances, such as Ben Jonson’s The Gypsies Metomorphosis and Bizet’s Carmen, down to allusions of Cleopatra’s Gypsy nature in Shakespeare’s play. Many of these performances employed the use of brown face to mimic the exotic and perceived “ugly” physical attributes of Roma people.
White people’s fascination with the figure of the Gypsy continues to this day, with Renaissance faires employing Gypsy troops and media productions and works of fiction carrying the torch of the exotic stereotype, whether it be the Gypsy trickster, The Gitana prostitute, or the Cigany sorcerer, baring little to no difference of Renaissance fetishization of Roma people.