Travelers and the lure of an easy stereotype…

gypsy man

The news here has been full of lurid stories about Gypsies abducting little blond girls. Firstly a child found in Greece, later another in Dublin.

In neither case did we know the full facts but this has not stopped the worlds media from giving these two stories huge attention. In the Greek case they are now stalking a potential biological mother in Bulgaria, who seems to have given away her child as she was not able to support her. It already begins to look as though this story is about poverty, not about Gypsies. Within poor communities, children have always been passed around as a survival strategy so it should not be even slightly surprising.

Next we discovered that the blond kids removed by police from a Roma family in Dublin were returned to their parents after DNA tests. They were removed because they had blond hair.

So why all the hysterical attention, we have to ask?

The idea of an abducted child (even though we do not yet know whether either of these kids have actually been abducted) is an incredibly emotive issue- one that plugs in to our deepest fears as parents. This, I think, is the point. Our deepest fears. 

The swarthy outcasts who are always on the prowl- stealing the lead from our churches, the washing from our lines and our children from their beds. Hiding it all behind a quick wit and a muttered curse.

A few weeks ago there was one of those typical facebook stories handed round, suggesting that Gypsies had been seen in a particular locality watching and waiting for people to go to work so they could break into houses. Everyone was told to on their guard. There was then a line of concerned comments and bits of vitriol. True or not (and lets face it, probably not) we instinctively react to these stories as to a threat that ‘the bogeyman is coming to get you’ when we were children.

no gypsies sign

Here is my conviction; watch for the easy stereotype– particularly when aimed at a marginalised group.

It will almost certainly do damage.

Let us remember that hundreds of thousands of Roma people died in the Nazi death camps.

Let us remember too that traveling folk over the past 30-40 years in the UK have found that their lifestyles have almost been entirely forced right out onto the margins- both in terms of physical location, but also by the way society views them. This became a worry for me- I have met very few Gypsy folk- just a few contacts in my years as a social worker.

We hear stories of violence, bare knuckle fighting, weird weddings with girls dressed up like Disney dolls. We hear no stories of kindness, family, love, people who literally go the extra mile. How can we appreciate the value of the other unless we seek first to understand?

Unless we actually MEET people and share real lives?

This book might be a good place to start;

no place to call home

This is what the author has to say about her book;

My book starts with the story of the site clearance of Dale Farm, but it also goes much further afield, as well as back in history. It goes into the heat of the battle at Dale Farm – but I also examine the bitter conflict at Meriden, in the Midlands, where a small number of Romani Gypsy families also moved onto a field without planning permission, and then became embroiled in a very public dispute with some local residents.

I also travelled to Glasgow Govanhill to talk both to members of the settled community, and relatively newly arrived Roma, about life in the area and how the communities are learning to integrate, as well as travelling to both the Stow and the Appleby horse fairs to visit Gypsies and Travellers in trading and holiday mode. I went to Darlington in the North- East to visit the much respected sherar rom, elder Billy Welch, who organises Appleby Fair and has big dreams about getting out the Gypsy and Traveller vote, and to the North-West to talk to the devastated family of Johnny Delaney, a teenager from an Irish Traveller background who was kicked to death for being ‘a Gypsy’ ten years ago. I travelled down to Bristol to talk to veteran New Traveller Tony Thomson about life on the road in the 1980s, and being caught up the vicious policies of the Conservative government at that time. I also journeyed into East Anglia, where New Travellers, Irish Travellers and English Gypsies have made homes, and north of London, to Luton, to meet some of the destitute Romanian Roma who have created a vibrant community in the heart of England with the help of an inspirational Church of England priest named Martin Burrell. I was also invited to a convention in North Yorkshire by the Gypsy evangelical church, Light and Life, which is growing at an exponential rate and whose influence on nomadic cultures in the UK cannot be underestimated.

I could have travelled more – to Rathkeale, where English–Irish Travellers go for weddings, funerals and to have the graves of their ‘dear dead’ blessed once a year, or to Central and Eastern Europe, where most of the world’s Roma population (and the smaller population of Sinti and other nomadic groups) live. But I chose to concentrate on the experience of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers living in the UK – to go deep, rather than wide. But it was striking that many of those I interviewed would phone me from abroad, or from hundreds of miles away from their actual home, completely comfortable having travelled milto find work – as long as they were with family – or were earning money to keep their family.

The other way that we can encounter the other is through their art- their stories, songs, poems, paintings. I loved this little clip, from a Roma Cultural Festival in Portugal. Here we see real people full of life and pride in who they are, where they have traveled from…

Vilifying the ‘other’- benefits and dehumanisation…


A few days ago I was having a conversation with some friends about my experience of claiming unemployment benefit last year. In the room where a couple of doctors, two ministers of religion and a buyer for a large company- all of us with loads of education, years of contribution to our society, each with families and houses. Most had been in receipt of benefits at some time.

I found myself doing two things, both of which now feel like some kind of betrayal.

Firstly I felt the need to justify claiming benefits- out of a sense of shame. I talked about it (unwittingly) as some kind of sociological experiment. I added in a little bombast about all the years I had paid national insurance contributions and that claiming in my time of need was an act of civil justice that I felt myself entitled to. I don’t know if I convinced my friends, but the words certainly felt hollow in my ears.

The second thing that I heard myself doing was to describe my relationship with the staff at the job centre- how many of them knew me as a social work manager, and responded differently too me- in a confused way perhaps- unable to look me in the eye. I also told the story of how I saw a claimant ( a man I knew from my previous work) treated really badly.

What I was doing of course was distancing myself from the role of ‘claimant’. I was casting myself as an agent of class consciousness, humbling myself like Jesus, but really being ‘different’.

I listened to the stories of the other people in the room as they described their time claiming unemployment benefit- after redundancy for example – and it occurred to me that I was not alone in my ability to find ways of seeing myself as different- not like the others.

In my case this goes deep. I grew up as the child of a single mother, entirely reliant on benefits. We had clothing grants, free school meals, even vitamin enriched orange juice to try to ensure health. As I grew older, I enjoyed a free education, right up to degree level. I am a child of the Welfare State. In some senses I have spent my whole career trying to pay it all back- believing that the only job worth doing was one in service of the poor, the weak the broken. But when I look back at my childhood, the primary emotion I remember was shame, embarrassment, the feeling of being less-than, outside-of. Factually I know that these feelings are not fully rational- how could I help the position I was born into? However, they remain strong even now, and I did not realise how much until recently.

These emotions are pervasive and damaging to those of us who spend any time on benefits. It is hard not to lose our selves, hard to keep rising and creating new things, new ideas, new projections of ourselves. Friends of mine who are on disability benefits are both reminders of this (because I know how hard it is for them) but also transcend this daily. They are able to live fully and deeply in ways that I still find hard. I celebrate them as heroes.

But currently things are being made much harder for people who are on benefits. This from here;

Decades of findings in sociology and psychology tell us that as soon as a group can be defined as separate, as an “outgroup”, people will start to view them differently. We’re all familiar with the negative characteristics people seem to identify with benefit claimants. They’re lazy, dishonest, stupid, “scroungers”, and so on. But there are also deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that likely have even more profound and insidious effects. These have to do with whether benefit claimants are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.

This idea comes from a relatively new body of work in psychology on something called “infrahumanisation“. The infra just stands for “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this milder form of everyday dehumanisation from more extreme kind associated with genocide.

This is a fascinating (and quite scary) process whereby certain groups are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as everybody else. Specifically, while people are fine imagining them feeling basic emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness, they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness or admiration. The subtle sentiments that make us uniquely human.

Not all low status groups are in this invidious position. Some – for example disabled people and the elderly – tend to be disrespected, but are also felt to be warm and unthreatening. There are only a few groups that have the dubious honour of being considered to be both threatening and incompetent. These include poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and (you’ve guessed it) welfare claimants. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us.

You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical “chav” you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.

The reason this is scary is that it takes the “infrahumanised” group out of the warm circle of our moral community. If we don’t think of them as experiencing the same rich inner life that we do; don’t imagine them feeling things in the same way that we do, then we lose some measure of our empathy for them, and consequently our sense of ethical obligation. This would explain why people are so tolerant of the cuts – on an unconscious level, the people being hurt aren’t real, full people. If this is true then fighting the cuts is going to be much, much harder than just fighting myths and misapprehensions.

The most shocking thing about this kind of dehumanisation is that it is found most present where the respectable folk gather- in our churches, in out prosperous neighbourhoods, around the coffee machines in posh coffee bars. It is how good people justify privilege and inequality- be that material/financial or the blessing of emotional/psychological resources that allow us to gain a position of security that others fail to reach.

But let us remember that shit happens. Each one of us is only an unpredictable event away from needing to claim benefits. If this happens, we will start out with a conviction that we are different, but perhaps we are not.

There are many reasons for followers of Jesus to stand against prejudice and dehumanisation. The hope of a better society, the call to include the outsiders, the call to bring justice to the oppressed. Perhaps too we can just remember that if we allow the current nasty victimisation heard in the press and the politicians mouths to go unchallenged, we all lose.

Dale Farm..

I watched Panorama tonight- telling the story of the mass eviction of a community of Travelling families from the site at Dale Farm.

If you are unaware of the background to this story, it involved the establishment of a settlement on privately owned land- leading to around 800 travelling people setting up permanent living arrangements- caravans, mobile homes. However, the site was established without planning permission, in the shadow of a sleepy affluent English village. Ten years of negotiations, court battles and exchanges of vitriol and hate followed.

On the one side, the outraged locals, who pointed to high crime rates, threats of violence and unruly behaviour. These folk have the rule of law on their side- and the local County Council. On the other side are travelling folk, whose leadership (if the Panorama film is to believed) is provided by a number of matriarchs. The Travellers are supported by an assortment of activists, from all ages and works of life.

It ended predictably- riot shields, rocks hurled at police, diggers smashing barricades. The Travellers lost their homes and were forced back out onto the road.

Stories like this polarise us too. Power wielded against the marginalised in the name of the rule of law will always feel (to me) WRONG.  But neither can we blame those whose job it was to enforce the will of the court- who had to face their own trial of violence.

The issues for me are much longer standing. We have well over a thousand years history of regarding Tinkers/Gypsies/Romanies/Travellers as dangerous thieving, untrustworthy and less than human. There is absolutely no doubt that this has resulted in prejudice and even direct persecution.

That is not to say that there is no criminality within the Travelling community- but they follow a way of life that has been criminalised.

One of the most striking aspects of the Dale Farm situation is that Travellers have so few alternatives to illegal sites. There used to be law on the statute which obligated each and every local authority to provide designated travelling sites. These sites (where they remain) are not without their problems- but do at least offer safe  places for families to settle for a while, and receive health and education. However, this law was repealed in 2004- by the then Conservative government, responding to another middle England tabloid backlash against New Age Travellers.

Many councils closed their sites.

The end result is that at any time, there are estimated to be around 3500 caravans with no legal place to stop. The options they face are to abandon their way of life and move into social housing (which many have done) or continue with a life that constantly skirts the edge of legality.

As a matter of interest to those of you from a particular Christian background that there has been a charismatic revival sweeping through the Travelling community over the last few years. There is more about this in this book.

As revealed in the Panorama programme, these communities are not without their problems- but nevertheless are communities characterised by very strong social norms, and sense of identity.

Something to celebrate perhaps, rather than to try to squash?

Football as litmus paper for prejudice?

So did any of you see this story earlier?

It seems that comments by Tennis player Andy Murray have been taken to a T Shirt. In 2006, whilst being interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist (and I know that many of you might agree with me that those words may contain an inherent contradiction) Murray got himself in trouble as follows-

So, for the hard of thinking, let me state here that: I did the interview with Andy Murray and Tim Henman a couple of years back where Murray talked about ‘supporting whoever England were playing against’.

It was a clearly a sarcastic remark. He was responding to teasing from your columnist about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup and derisive laughter from the mischievous Henman.

It was reported in that context in this newspaper at the time and the exchange was run as a transcript.

A couple of days later a red-top got excited about the comments, lifted a couple of them into a ‘story’ that took on a life of its own and from there the truth was lost.

But the story has carried on.

The latest incarnation of this can be seen in the sale of these T-shirts-

These shirts are being sold as Football World Cup shirts. ABE stands of course, for ‘Anyone But England.’

The perhaps overly zealous policeman who reacted to the shirts appeared to have some concern that the shirts might foster and encourage racism- which is of course an offence.

At very least it appears to tap into wider popular prejudice and division between our neighbouring countries. Football has this way of being a conduit for all sorts of prejudice and base emotions- it is like a kind of religion without a moral code sometimes.

I know my own reaction to this- which is that I find this narrow sectarian stuff very depressing. I do not often feel the heat of prejudice personally, despite living in Scotland and having an English accent (although someone did call me a ‘white settle’r today- albeit with a smile.) I just think that most of us should just know better. The fostering and celebration of narrow judgemental views is never really victimless- there are always vulnerable people who suffer, if only kids in the playground. There is also the fear in me that these fires, once lit, might become conflagrations- if not in our generation, then perhaps in the next…

So- what do you think?