The very first thing I ever got published was a letter to my local newspaper when I was 16. I was challenging the racist anti-Irish-traveller rhetoric that Margaret Moran, our Labour MP, was spouting. She really knew how to milk the cameras. The local news ate up her drama and so did her adoring public. I was very pleased to see her downfall during the expenses scandal. She, and our local Liberal Democrats councillors, used to put publications through our letterbox telling us all the ways they were going to get travellers out of “our community”. They thought they could make up all sorts of rubbish about travellers, because a community with low literacy cannot defend itself against printed lies. So I pushed back. We had only been in Luton for a few months and already I was seeing a duplicity, that on one hand, there were services such as Jennifer, the Traveller Education officer who fought hard to get me into a school and managed it in February of GCSE year after I’d been out of school for 3 months, preceded by 3 months in school in a different area, and before that, four more months out of school. But on the other hand there were people going door-to-door telling us what they wanted to do to get “those travellers” out of Luton.
My letter got attacked viciously by people who thought I was “a naive bleeding heart” (they assumed I was a) an adult and b) one of them, who needed teaching about the terrible otherness of travellers).
At the moment the spotlight is rightly on Black Lives Matter but a lot of people are questioning their everyday racism and racist structures in society, so I have written this list of ways you can create a positive, anti-racist environment for Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies (Irish Traveller is one of my ethnicities; maybe I’ll talk about things that apply to the other in a different article):
- Pikey and gyppo are derogatory terms. Stop using them. Now.
- Stop assuming we are going to shoplift. There are good and bad travellers, like there’s good and bad everybody else.
- Challenge local councils when they put out racist information blaming their systemic failures on travellers.
- Befriend some travellers. It’s not a “them and us” situation. Travellers are generally friendly, like most other people in the world, if you don’t approach them from a place of racism.
- Tolerate them when they stop somewhere. If rubbish is an issue, contact your local council, not to get the rubbish removed, but to challenge their bylaws which state you must register your vehicle, apply for a permit, or show a council tax bill to dispose of rubbish at the recycling centre/tip. These byelaws make it virtually impossible for travellers to dispose of everyday rubbish. Imagine if the local council refused to collect your bin, how much rubbish would be in your garden? In Ireland, bin removal is a privatised service that you choose a company for, so culturally, Irish travellers in Ireland are able to dispose of their rubbish where they’re unable to do this in the UK.
- Don’t fall for stereotypes. We actually do pay council tax, where we own land (and houses…) in the UK. Not all travellers are UK residents, and they pay the correct tax in their locality e.g. Ireland, Germany. The easiest way of explaining this (although this is a bit of a reductionist statement) is, do you pay tax to the countries you go on holiday to?
- Try to separate the description of the ethnic group from the actions. Some of us live in houses and saying, “that doesn’t make you a traveller, then, does it?” is like telling an Afro-Caribbean person that they’re not Afro-Caribbean because they’re not currently living in Africa or the Caribbean.
- Challenge ways society tries to funnel people into living in houses against their will. Why do you need a home address to buy car insurance or road tax, instead of just a registration plate (I’m aware of the just-so story explanation of “risk” postcodes but I refute it)? Why do you need a home address to claim benefits instead of just a National Insurance number? A lot of these sort of laws impact Travellers’ quality of life, and these laws were designed for this purpose. The fact these laws also marginalize homeless people are collateral damage in a white-supremacist power structure.
- Challenge cultural appropriation. “Gypsy style” clothing is based on an outdated stereotype which is as offensive as dressing as a Native American. Or putting on blackface. The reason you all get away with it is because Irish Traveller is one of the smallest ethnic minorities in Europe, and Gypsy is another, and we’re generally pretty easy going and preoccupied with more interesting things in life than arguing with idiot country folk (people who are not travellers, i.e. people who have a country). We don’t walk around covered in more gold than Mr. T with money sewn into the hemlines of our skirts, our belts etc. Having said that, anyone who knows me knows I do like gold jewellery, there’s a certain permanence about it.
- Challenge hypocrisy: One minute, “gypsy style” clothing is the latest fashion, and in the same breath people can denigrate “gyppos” or “pikeys”. But you’ll wear clothes attributed to us.
- Know the differences: Gypsies and Travellers are two separate ethnic minorities under the same banner of nomads, just lumped together for UK statistics because the power structure doesn’t actually care which one we are.
- Challenge hipsters calling themselves nomads. They are able to easily be “nomads” because of the fact they are not, in fact, nomadic. They avail of cultural privilege such as their parents having a home address, meaning they can get their documents sent there. They avail of cultural privilege of being able to store all their stuff in their parents’ garage or attic, meaning they can wander around the world with just a carry-on. Real nomads don’t benefit from locality-privilege (IDK if that’s a real word, but it should be).
- Challenge “identity verification” services that require a landline phone bill or a council tax bill, or which demand to call you on your landline number to confirm your identity. These are structures put in place to disempower gypsies and travellers.
- Challenge power-holding systems that favour “employees” rather than “self-employed”. Most travellers (myself included) are self-employed in work we can do anywhere around the world. This means it’s hard to get a mortgage, a rental contract for a house to live in, and the taxation system makes it difficult to do casual jobs alongside “famine months” where self-employment income is low. The system isn’t set up to allow us to pay tax properly.
- Educate your family and friends about their attitudes and opinions. People often hit out at gypsies and travellers because it’s perceived as “acceptable racism” because they aren’t black. These same people hit out at Chinese and other non-black minorities too. Teach them that it’s not okay.
- Challenge power-holding systems in the UK (and this is unique to the UK) that say you can only stop in a motorway services (and other “free” car parks) for 2 hours without paying the equivalent of a hotel bill, while simultaneously making it illegal to drive tired. All over the continent, you can stop overnight in services and laybys. Lorry drivers are allowed to stop overnight in some areas of the UK. Why aren’t travellers? They have nowhere else to sleep. These car parks are completely empty overnight, the only reason people can’t overnight in them is systemic capitalist racism designed to marginalize travellers and gypsies.
- Stop using “white” like it corresponds to people’s skin colour. Travellers and gypsies do not generally have white privilege unless they participate in non-traveller structures (like I do. I have white privilege most of the time which I fully acknowledge, but that’s because I made a choice to live amongst you and to follow your rules). They do not have a range of privilege afforded to other non-nomadic groups. Stop excluding them from the conversation and narrative, because building an anti-racist society means creating a world where gypsies and travellers are not erased and excluded anymore.
- Challenge TV programmes and other media depicting an outdated vision of gypsies, conflating gypsies and travellers (two different groups), and other reductionist, racist practices (and outright erasure).
- Challenge laws that are purposely designed to trip up travellers, catch them out, and put them in prison. 5% of the UK prison population and 10% of the Irish prison population are Irish travellers. Amongst 12-18-year-olds, travellers make up 22% of the UK prison population. Amongst women in Ireland, travellers make up 22% of the prison population, too. Only 0.1% of the UK’s population are “gypsy or traveller” and 0.6% of Ireland’s population.
- Help travellers you know by providing them with references when they need them, standing up for them as character witnesses, and generally using your privilege to support them.
- Challenge enviromnental law-makers who assume people have houses when they are lobbying for policy changes. Travellers who live full-time in caravans do not have the storage space to avail of many of the “reduce your waste” initiatives, such as bulk buying loose produce (where would they put all the billions of empty reusable containers they would need?) and often, these come to you printed on leaflets (and at least 40% of travellers are illiterate), so the chances are they cannot access information about recycling, packaging etc. Bear in mind that two hipsters in a van can easily do things that a family of six in the same space cannot. Environmental laws need to enable travellers to reduce and recycle their waste at every level.
I hope to write a separate article on how educators and schools can enable travellers to succeed, but I’ll need to pull my thoughts together first.