“Sorry – are you a Traveller?” By Jon Lee

25 August 2017
“Sorry – are you a Traveller?” By Jon Lee

Welsh Romani Gypsy Jon Lee, who works in Budapest for the European Roma Rights Centre, writes about being the target of a racist incident at a pub quiz in Oxford and forensically examines the nature of anti-Gypsysim in the UK today.

“The Gypsy and Traveller community complain that they don’t get enough media attention, but crime watch is on TV every week.” … writes Jon Lee.

This was the name of a team at a pub quiz I attended in Oxford recently. When it was read aloud, half the pub laughed and jeered. The other half remained silent, either through complicity or complete indifference. No one challenged the offending team, no one called out, no one made a disapproving noise. When the woman behind the bar saw my apparent discomfort, she asked: “Sorry, are you a Traveller?” Unsure whether she was apologising for the hate speech coming through the pub’s speaker system, or for the actual ethnicity itself, I answered: “Yes I am.” I’m not. My father’s family are Romani, but it seemed unlikely she would make, or care about the distinction, and also – sod it. A barman standing next to her cut in at this point and said: “Look, we’ve had some Travellers in here before, I don’t judge, I’ve got no problem with anyone as long as they don’t cause any trouble, so you’re welcome to stay but…”  He trailed off – implying ‘behave yourself’, without actually having to say it.

This is by no means the worst thing that happens to Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers on a regular basis in the UK. This attitude is for many, part of their daily existence, and most would not think to pay particular heed to what has become normalised for them as a trivial incident. But this is outright racism in a public place, condoned and even encouraged by those present. It is indicative of a wider climate of normalised antigypsyism, and would not be tolerated against any other minority in the UK today. If you doubt that – try replacing the words ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’ in the above interchange with any other minority group you can think of.

I’m not saying that racists do not say things like this about other minorities, it’s just they could never be as brazen about it. There is a general consensus that public displays of such outright hate speech against minority groups such as Jews, LGBTQ+ people, or Black people for instance, would not be accepted by ‘polite society’.

The increase in hate crimes and incidents of hate speech against minorities since the Brexit vote could provide some explanation for why this went unchallenged. So could the general rise in racist and xenophobic incidents across Europe over the last decade. After all, Europe has never really recovered fully from the economic crisis in 2008, and ethnic scapegoating has only risen, with increased attacks on Muslims and Roma in virtually every EU member state. And yet, the prevalence of hate speech against British Romani and Traveller people in public, in politics and in the media is nothing new. Brexit cannot be solely blamed, nor ethnic tensions brought on by economic woes. Antigypsyism in the United Kingdom is a direct result of centuries of marginalisation, discrimination, and persecution. Since modern times however, it has been uniquely amplified by mass media.

This kind of hate speech does not exist only in parochial public houses in the South East of England. It is printed, published and broadcast to the nation daily by mainstream press outlets, and often they are only duly reporting what has been said by elected and public figures. Fifteen minutes of Google research brings up the following: A Tory councillor claimed in 2009, that gypsies would “stick a knife in you as soon as look at you”. Philippa Roe, the leader of Westminster City Council, warned in 2013 of Roma ‘defecating on people’s doorsteps’, and Labour MP David Blunkett said that Roma would cause riots in Sheffield, drawing the praise of UKIP’s Nigel Farage for his “courage“. Also in 2013, then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg described Roma as sometimes “intimidating” and “offensive“, but not before prefacing this with “I am a liberal”. Last year a Tory MP compared Travellers to Genghis Khan’s invading mongol horde, and said they should not be protected under law as an ethnic minority. More recently, following the conclusion of the Eurovision Song Contest 2017, a Tory Councillor tweeted: ‘Thanks Ireland – you can keep your f’king gypsies!‘

But it’s not just individuals within government; it’s also the institutions themselves. In 2016, Hampshire Police published posters warning the public of the arrival of Travellers in the area, and encouraging them to boycott their businesses.

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Also last year, a series of posts on an unofficial British Army website used by serving soldiers and veterans referred to Gypsies as “filthy, thieving, raping, parasitic scum” who “should all be rounded up into one big field, with all their caravans, then they should be cleansed with fire.”

With such language appearing on forums hosted by official institutions, and (though not as extreme) in the transcripts of politicians’ speeches, the language used by the published media seems somehow reticent in comparison. But bias in the media against Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers is not always so cut and dry as you’d think. For instance, a Daily Mail sub header on an article about the persecution of Roma read “They are still ‘discriminated’ against across Europe.” You can mime the exaggerated inverted commas yourself. But prejudice is often expressed in a way that is even more in keeping with much of the aloof, imperious rhetoric espoused by the media of a dwindling, imperial, island nation. Some British media outlets, like the rich men who own them, express biases that are far more subtle and insidious than the foam-at-the-mouth, synthetic rage of the Sun, the Mail or the Daily Express. The use of hyperbolic language has given way to a cold and more mercenary linguistic palette in more highbrow publications. You can almost see the writer’s nose wrinkling in distaste at the mere mention of Gypsies and Travellers. These publications have found a way to express that pure colonial disdain in a way that says far more using far fewer choice words.

The canon of antigypsy media means that a certain style and code have been built up. A writer can convey very specific, contextualised meaning using the most benign language, at least on the surface. This normalisation of racist views allows it to be propagated even further without expressly referencing it. What could possibly be more British? Take this example from the Telegraph for example.

Official statistics show that the total number of traveller caravans in England has dramatically increased by 28 per cent since 2006…[a paragraph about magistrates and evicting unauthorised sites]…The Home Office is also considering plans to toughen up the guidance issued to police attempting to deal with gipsies.

Firstly, we have ‘gipsies’ and ‘travellers’ used interchangeably, combined with statistics without context nor comparison to wider demographic trends over the course of a decade (population increase, migration, closure of registered sites etc.) Next up, we have the ‘dramatic’ increase in the number of registered caravans owned by Travellers implied (but not specified) to be, all-in-all, a bad thing. The article then moves onto Conservative plans to tighten the law enforecement and judicial systems against  unauthorised encampments, before eventually jumping to police toughening up on ‘gipsies’.

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The article’s base formula is as inciteful and racist as its tabloid counterparts: more Gypsies = more criminality. From here it gets more insidious though and the Telegraph article goes on to say:

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The message here: we are afraid Traveller encampments put social and environmental pressure on green belt areas, so we won’t house them. This is not just a failure of logic, it is using just the right words to draw out the nativist fears of the settled population. It vaguely incorporates some sort of defense of the English pastoral idyll as an excuse for local councils to ignore advice to build more housing and accommodate Gypsies and Travellers.

Often journalists, even well-meaning ones, will draw on tropes of ‘the Gypsy’ stereotype as an expression of journalistic authenticity. For example: “‘The government treats us like dogs’ said Lea’s mother, wearing gold hoop earrings, her arms inked with tattoos.” In an article with a human rights angle on forced evictions, the description of a gold-hoop-wearing, tattooed Gypsy woman, serves no purpose other than as exposition of a stereotype. It confirms the picture the reader had already half formed in their mind’s eye and allows ‘the Gypsy’ to be othered into a literary trope.

Subtle bias expressed like this is what penetrates discourse. It’s what colours business interactions, pub conversations, dealing with receptionists, buying a car, or opening a bank account. It is more pervasive that overt racism and it goes deeper, often being difficult to spot or label. Take for instance the spelling of the word Gypsy, that is – the vowel-less Gypsy with a capital ‘G’. The debate over whether non-Roma should be allowed to use this word must be left for another, probably more South-East European debate. In the UK, the spelling is important, as ‘Gypsies’ is how the government defines the ethnic group protected under the Equality Act 2010. A newspaper wouldn’t decide on an editorial policy to spell Asian any particular way other than as it is put here, yet the spelling of Gypsy varies across media outlets and amongst journalists.

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Capitalised, uncapitalised, with a ‘y’ or without – the variation of how the word is spelled, sometimes even within the same newspaper, sends a message: that it doesn’t matter how you spell it. And if it doesn’t matter how you spell it, it doesn’t matter if the ethnic group itself is also treated with the same casual disregard.

This leads onto a common argument which is often made in defense of hate speech against Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers: the denial of race. There is a popular perception that these peoples do not constitute separate ethnicities but rather, a distinct mode of living, one that is criminal and at odds with the majority population in ‘normal’ society. The fact that most of the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers live either in a house, or on a static site is irrelevant to those who conceive being a Gypsy or Traveller is merely a matter of occupation. Unfortunately, these views have actually been codified into law by the government.

In August 2015, the new Conservative majority government changed the definition of Gypsies and Travellers in the planning process to “persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin”. Crucially, the new definition stipulates that in order to access council run sites, applicants must prove that they travel as part of their regular life. This results in the exclusion of the sick, and of the elderly who are unable to travel, as well as those who simply choose not to travel. It means, at least for matters relating to the planning process, that Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers have their ethnic identity defined by how they live. They are simultaneously being denied their identity, whilst still being persecuted for it under the very same system.

The amendment to planning rules also delivers on promises to stop Gypsy and Traveller sites being built in the Green Belt. By decreasing the number of new sites being built, and narrowing the ethnic definition, there are suddenly fewer Gypsies and Travellers with the stroke of a pen. When these people who have been written out of the system pop up in illegal camps, the government uses inflated police and judicial powers to remove them and perpetuate the cycle of marginalisation. All the while, the media continues to report on these cases as individual instances of asocial nomads invading the privacy of traditional rural British society, forgetting they once belonged to it.

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Hate speech, especially when it is mass produced, breeds hate crime, and in its most extreme form this has fatal consequences. In 2003, Johnny Delaney, a 15-year-old Irish Traveller, was kicked to death in the middle of a playing field in Ellesmere Port by a gang of racists shouting “Fucking gyppos!” One of the defendants stamped on Johnny’s head with both feet and said he deserved it because “he was only a fucking gypsy“. His attackers were charged with manslaughter, but the judge refused to consider the killing as racially aggravated when sentencing them.

Aside from extreme hate crimes, the situation for Gypsies and Travellers is pretty grim across the board in the UK. If you are a Romani Gypsy or Irish Traveller, you are five times more likely to be stopped by police than the general population in Scotland. In England, you are three times more likely to have your child placed in state care. In general, you will have an average life expectancy ten years lower than that of the general population; and if you are a mother, you are twenty times more likely to have experienced the death of a child. Less than a quarter of Gypsy and Traveller children obtain five GCSE’s graded A* – C, compared to just over half of the general population. Gypsies and Travellers are nearly three times more likely to suffer from Anxiety, and just over twice as likely to suffer from Depression, with women twice as likely as men to experience mental health problems in general.

Additionally, Irish Travellers are three times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. In terms of employment, only 47% of Gypsies and Travellers were economically active in the last census, with 20% of these being unemployed. This is not related to an aging demographic like in the UK’s general population, for whom only 7% of the economically active are unemployed. 39% of Gypsies and Travellers are under the age of 20.

Considering these numbers, it is unsurprising that most Gypsies and Travellers routinely hide their ethnicity where possible, in order to access employment and services.  In 2004 Trevor Phillips, who was then the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, described the level of prejudice experienced by Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers living in the United Kingdom as comparable to that of African-Americans living in the American Deep South in the 1950s. Or as human rights barrister Marc Willers put it:‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs disappeared long ago, but ‘No Travellers’ signs, used intentionally to exclude Romani Gypsies and Travellers, are still widespread.

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Little-Englanders seem to be more preoccupied with some caravans in the park-and-ride on the edge of town, than they are with the systemic discrimination of an ethnic group, which is quite literally costing the lives of Romani and Traveller people in this country. This discrimination is allowed to continue, and is even propagated, in no small part through the rhetoric of mainstream media. But this does not absolve people of responsibility.

If you see or hear racist behaviour towards Romani or Traveller people around you (and it’s hard to miss), don’t be complicit through inaction. Speak up, report it, draw attention on social media, boycott the business, file a complaint. Make a positive action that demonstrates to those responsible, or those around you, that this is racism and it will not be tolerated. Because as long as general society continues to allow this racism to be normalised, racists will continue to exploit this opportunity, at the expense of Romani and Traveller people.

By Jonathan Lee

(Main Picture caption: A Gypsy, Roma, Traveller protester at the ‘Dosta Grinta!’ (Enough!) rally in Westminster © Natasha Quarmby.)

First published by the Norwich Radical https://thenorwichradical.com/2017/08/21/sorry-are-you-a-traveller/