Gadjoness: An Uncounted Shade of Whiteness


Mirga Tas Funambulist 4
Sisters, 2019. / Photo by Marcin Tas. Artwork by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas.


The Roma question is central to this issue. On the one hand, Romani people are often deceivingly perceived as white in the U.S.-centric epistemology, on the other hand, “gadjoness” tends to transform the many shades of whiteness described in this issue into a single one, complicit with the implacable pan-European processes of anti-Roma structural racism. In this text, Margareta Matache provides a brief history of gadjoness, with an attempt to situate it in the broader framework of race, racialization, and slavery.

Across eras, political regimes, and civil and political society, Roma people have endured the challenges of overlapping peripheries: an absolute periphery of a people labeled forever inferior and criminal outcasts in all societies; an auxiliary periphery of a dispersed people that cuts across and gets amplified within hierarchies established between superpowers, semiperipheral, and peripheral states; and a shunned periphery as an uncharted racialized people in global spaces of periphery and solidarity against whiteness. 

However, the enduring power dynamics and processes that have pushed Roma people into zones of inferiority, non-humanness, and criminality have simultaneously upheld white Europeans in zones of normativity, humanness, and civilization. This has resulted in the formation of two relational, hierarchical, and antagonistic identities.

In this text, I discuss the construction of gadjoness, an early shade of whiteness, crafted as a specific hierarchy between European gadje and Roma.

My objective is to contribute to co-centering of the Roma experience in European and global history, specifically in the context of racialization and whiteness. By doing so, I aim to shift the Roma narrative from the periphery towards dialog and solidarity with other racialized communities across the globe. 

The seeds of gadjoness ///

Soon after the arrival of our ancestors in European territories, European gadje began to cast Romani families and groups in and as an absolute periphery. The peaceful arrival of the Romani people was not met with a warm welcome. Notably, the settlement or movement of the Romani people in the territories of Europe did not mirror or mimic Europeans’ horrific means to institute white settler colonies, occupation, and exploitation outside Europe. Yet, early on, European sovereigns employed two predominant models of supremacist projects: ownership over Roma people and exclusive gadjo control and living in their lands. 

The Romanian principalities of Moldova and Wallachia were the pioneering European establishments to implement customs, laws, and practices of (proto)racial slavery. They seized and exploited Roma people within their territories and crafted a division of labor, power, and social hierarchy; all while placing gadje at the top. The enslavers—the Crown, the Orthodox Church, and the nobility—instituted the Roma as the natural slave in the 14th and 15th centuries by setting our ancestors apart as property and nonhumans and weaponizing characteristics such as nomadism, skin color, ethnic distinctiveness, language, and other group traits. 

Mirga Tas Funambulist 2
Out Of Egypt (Wyjście z Egiptu), 2021. / Artwork by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas.

During and after the era of slavery, skin color became one of the apparent markers used to identify and ascribe some groups of enslaved Roma, a major element in the long-lasting bond between gadjoness and whiteness.

For instance, archival documents I found in my county, Ilfov, included detailed descriptions of fugitive enslaved Roma from estates. Enslavers often sought institutional support to recapture enslaved individuals, and in their descriptions would often mention features such as black eyes, black hair and the color of their skin. An example is a statement that reads, “Two nights ago, a g*psy washerwoman escaped from the estate; her true name is Safta. She is 30 years old, short and thin, with black skin, two spots on the cheek and one on the nose, and several items of good clothing. She is accompanied by Negoiță, a g*psy of chef Petrache Perățean(u), same age, medium height, black skin.” 

Despite the diversity within the Roma community, physical appearance, particularly phenotype, also became an issue of interest and a marker of identity in travelogs and the local academia. For instance, Mihail Kogalniceanu, well-known and celebrated abolitionist, described Vătrașii Roma girls as beautiful, with skin like tar, uniting “the features of the Greek and the fire of their ancestors.”  

In fact, this system of inherited bondage, characterized by exploitation, extraction, violence, and racialization, gradually created the foundation of a particular form of ethnic and social stratification, establishing a distinct and lasting consciousness of gadjoness among gadjo Romanians. 

Other European establishments took a divergent approach, one of rejection, employing various tactics, such as expulsions, prohibitions on Romani families and groups from entering their territories, or G*psy hunts and killings. These methods became paradigmatic expressions of the sovereign power to kill and, later, the state’s “murderous function”—understood also as indirect murder, which Michel Foucault defines as “exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection…” (Society Must Be Defended, 1976). Mass expulsions, entry bans, and killings aimed to achieve absolute separation and spatial purity, leading to the racial cleansing of some neighborhoods, public spaces, cities, or provinces, effectively purging them of Romani people, thus establishing gadjikano zones. Although the language of laws, the historical and political contexts, and the levels of intentionality varied, the end goal of creating gadjikano zones persisted. 

Similarly to the system of slavery, some oppressors, witnesses, observers, or travelers also framed, narrated, and justified the ‘must die’ policies and practices targeting the Romani people, and in those processes, also normalized and solidified gadjoness. In the 1500s, a French lawyer claimed that “[i]t was very necessary to remove these terrible persons from the simple common people on whom they had played a thousand tricks and subtle swindles.” In Germany, representatives of some provinces labeled Romani people as “bands of harmful vermin.” The essentialized depictions involved dehumanization, criminalization, and association of Romani people, primarily nomadic families, with an inferior “way of life.” Notably, many of these accounts did not explicitly mention gadjo Europeans. The oppositional narratives of the ‘G*psies” were constructed against an unnamed and invisible white gadjo portrayed as “superior and civilized,” gradually establishing a widely accepted standard and norm. 

Epistemic violence accompanied violent policies and practices in solidifying this shade of whiteness in stone, as well as other forms of whiteness. White supremacy became arguably the most overt, explicitly stated, and openly defended of the 19th-century theories of race across Europe.

Although the major race theories did not target Romani people, our ancestors did not escape their epistemic violence.

For instance, Arthur de Gobineau, a highly influential author of racial ideology, categorized Romani people as pariahs and essentialized Romani physical and cultural characteristics to oppose theories regarding the influence of climate on the physical changes of races. In 1853, Gobineau claimed that “[t]he Bohemians, or Z*ngaris […] show the same early development as the Hindus, who are akin to them; and under the most inclement skies, in Russia and in Moldavia, they still keep the expression and shape of the face and the physical proportions, as well as the ideas and customs, of the pariahs.” 

Mirga Tas Funambulist 1
Out Of Egypt (Wyjście z Egiptu), 2021. / Artwork by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas.

Prior to the 19th century, other scientists, travelers, and philosophers were also intentional in linking characteristics related to our ancestry, phenotype, and identity to an idea of race (or protorace), introducing narratives of what I call paired racialization—a process that ties together two racialized groups to transfer the prejudice tied to one against the other—to boost whiteness further. In 1775, Immanuel Kant claimed that “[t]he olive-yellow color of the skin of the Indian, the true g*psy color which lies at the base of the more or less dark brown of other eastern peoples, is also just as characteristic and persistent in regeneration as the black color of the N*gro, and together with the remaining formation and the distinct natural disposition appears to be just as much the effect of a dry heat, as the latter appears to be that of a humid heat.” 

Thus, Gobineau and Kant, along with other scholars, employed phenotype, along with other traits and tropes, as a joint element of reciprocal race-making of different communities to further strengthen whiteness. However, the racialization processes of various Romani groups were not exclusively based on phenotype. In some geographical locations and contexts, other common characteristics or identity markers such as language, crafts, family history in the community, clothes, or itinerancy were also weaponized to identify or target Romani families or groups. But the underlying purpose of establishing whiteness not only as  “looking white” but more so as a performance of culture and an enactment of power (cf. Steve Garner, The Politics of Whiteness, 2007) remained in place.

Generally, the systems of knowledge and power intersected and fortified each other in normalizing gadjoness and all other shades of whiteness. Thus, when we discuss the history of whiteness and racism, I suggest we also explore the history of Romani people as a point of reference. 

The continuum of gadjoness ///

The birth of nation-states, the rule of law, human rights, and democracy did not bury gadjoness and racism in the past. Instead, they have continuously been instated in the framework of state affairs, cultural norms, and all spheres of society, keeping Roma people in the absolute periphery of the corpus of protected legal subjects and social structures—reinforcing gadje’s “legal legitimation of expectations of power and control” that Cheryl Harris refers to in Steve Garner’s Politics of Whiteness (2007).  

On both the micro and macro levels, gadjo powers have maintained and remodeled the old legacies and traditions of rejecting or offensive against Roma people’s proximity, blending, and bonding within geographic, national, religious, or cultural boundaries. They have also preserved, updated, and reshaped the fictionalized sovereign race-made G*psy as an identity, religion, security, contagion, or biological threat—not an adversary against Us (gadje) but as the face of the absolute unwanted, savage, and antithetical racial Other rejected by Us (gadje). 

Mirga Tas Funambulist 3
My Mom, 2019. / Photo by Marcin Tas. Artwork by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas.

Phenotype has remained a marker used in identifying and targeting some Roma groups, families, and individuals including in practices of police racial profiling, everyday racism, hate crimes, hate speech, and more.

However it is important to note that, phenotype has not represented a fundamental element of identification or racialization of all Romani groups and individuals; on the contrary, in the U.K. or the U.S., some institutions categorize Romani people as white, as do members of some Romani groups in Nordic or Western European countries and beyond.

Nevertheless, appearing white or passing as white has not granted power to Romani groups or individuals, although in certain circumstances, it may have yielded limited white privileges. But indeed, manifold elements of the racialization of the Romani people, whether based on phenotype, itinerancy, or other characteristics, often intersectional, have given rise to this distinct form of whiteness. Yet, gadjoness quietly or violently has persisted in norms, laws, policies, institutions, values, beliefs, actions, attitudes, research, and in all aspects of our lives designed by and for hegemony.

Today, states aim to have  “a positive influence” on their citizens’ lives, but full citizenship is often granted only to particular categories of white individuals. In some cases, states employ similar tactics and methods to target both Roma and other racialized groups using. Although in the age of human rights, the methods and justifications of racism have become more sophisticated, states have refined the methods of “killing” and their legal and moral rationales. Yet, while the era of slavery may be in the past, present-day anti-Roma expulsions and entry bans echo similar historical tactics, technologies, and narratives of sovereign power.

In general, contemporary state’s offensive toward Roma people has not been fictionalized as a defense of the state or the society against a conquering or life-threatening G*psy enemy, as in the case of other racialized communities. ​​However, among the tools legitimizing “the acceptability of putting to death,” the State has at times placed Roma people in a state of exception, security, or emergency. For instance, in Italy, the government’s Council of Ministers issued a decree in 2008 titled “Declaration of the State of Emergency with Regard to Nomad Community Settlements in the Territories of Campania, Lazio, and Lombardia regions.” In effect, the decree, and the accompanying decrees designed for other regions, paralleled the presence of Roma people in Italian cities with a natural disaster or catastrophe, giving contentious powers to prefects and other local authorities to solve the “emergency.” Thus, Italian leaders, as well as leaders of other EU States, did not shy away from using the claim of security and emergence to break the EU laws, democracy, and human rights principles in order to shield their borders from EU-mobile Roma people, as well as other migrants, refugees, and other people who were not considered worthy of the white European category.

Other States and stakeholders persist in implementing both overt and veiled manifestations of anti-Roma racism. While some have abandoned explicit language of white superiority, the deeply ingrained and long-held myth of gadje’s superiority over Roma continues to manifest in actions, practices, laws, policies, racially-coded vocabulary, and more. Gadjoness remains implicit and normalized as the prototypical standards—the blueprint—the norm within societies, cultures, policies, laws, and scholarships, furthering marginalizing and relegating Roma people to the absolute periphery. ■