It’s time to end ‘the last acceptable racism’ – against Gypsies and Travellers

20 January 2016

Gypsies and Travellers are in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. After last year’s revelations about a secret Facebook group where serving and retired Metropolitan police officers swapped insults about “fucking pikeys”, allegations have surfaced of holiday camp operators having “Traveller blacklists”. So now seems like a good time to take stock of what is often called “the last acceptable racism”.

The facts and figures are stark. Nine out of 10 Gypsy and Traveller children have suffered racial abuse, and two-thirds of children from Traveller groups have also been bullied or physically attacked.

2004 report from Stonewall listed some common prejudices: “It was argued that these groups did not conform to the system by paying taxes, they had a reputation for unreliable business practices and they did not respect private property. They were also criticised… for not belonging to a community and allegedly having a negative impact on the environment: for example, they are unsightly, dirty or unhygienic.”

The racism can have horrific consequences. Johnny Delaney, a 15-year-old Traveller, was kicked to death by a gang of racists shouting “Fucking gyppos!” Sentencing his attackers, the judge refused to recognise the killing as racially aggravated, despite the recommendations of the police.

But behind such tragedies lie many banal and absurd acts of racism, the stuff that grinds you down on a daily basis. The incidents that prompted a grown Traveller man to tell me: “I have had enough. I have suffered from it all my life, I don’t want my children and grandchildren to suffer from it as well.” This man had just fallen foul of the local postman’s decision to stop delivering to those he deemed to be Irish Travellers on a mixed mobile home site.

I’ve heard too many stories like that as editor of the Travellers’ Times. Like the Oxbridge-educated Romany Gypsy man who was invited on to a radio show about unauthorised camps, only for the presenter to ask him: “But you don’t pay your taxes, you don’t educate your children, you won’t integrate, so how can you expect your rights?”

If you must know, the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers live on legal sites – mostly private, not public – or in houses, and pay taxes and rent just like everybody else. As the rest are effectively homeless, you could hardly expect them to pay for local services. They aren’t offered any – not even the most basic waste disposal.

At the Travellers’ Times office we have become used to people who have lost their dog phoning to ask if we can “put something out in case any of the community have… er… found it”.

Then there’s the Irish Traveller mother who is followed by a store detective whenever she goes shopping with her daughters at the local supermarket. “It’s like he’s decided that I am playing with him,” she told me. “They look at me when they can’t find anything stolen in my bags – like, ‘You got away with it this time.’ It’s humiliating. I have never stolen anything in my life.”

One of the few defences against this drip-drip-drip of discrimination is humour. Another Gypsy woman, asked, “What do Gypsies do at Christmas?”, told her workmate: “We stuff and eat all the babies we stole in the summer. Those of us that are not doubling up as elves, that is.”

Remarkably, this treatment hasn’t left the Traveller and Gypsy community bitter or apathetic. The stories you won’t read in the mainstream press include the 90-strong Gypsy Traveller Catholic men’s group that collects thousands of pounds to help the homeless. The sponsored pilgrimages for charity. The Gypsy man who took on the Daily Mail in a libel claim and won an apology and settlement. The successful discrimination cases against pub chains. The young female Gypsy boxer who’s a contender for the next Olympics. The Gypsy copper who started an association for Traveller police officers. There’s good and bad in everyone. Isn’t it about time the rest of society recognised it?

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