Gypsy/Roma travellers get a bad press don’t they? In the wake of the Dale Farm affair I’ve been hearing so many comments on social media sites passed off as facts. This worries me. I live and work in an area with a high number of Gypsy/Roma travellers. I have friends who are Gypsies, their children went to school with mine, a Gypsy friend looked after my son when I couldn’t afford childcare so I could work. She did it for 18 months and refused to take a penny from me. I’d just like to comment on some of the things I’ve heard.
1. Why don’t they work like other people and stop claiming benefits? As any school knows, it’s really difficult to persuade Gypsy/Roma families to claim their benefit entitlement, for example, free school meals. Schools get extra money proportionate to their free school meal numbers so it’s in their interests to make sure eligible families claim. It’s very difficult to persuade Gypsy/Roma families to claim anything they see as a handout.
2. Why call themselves travellers when they don’t travel? “Traveller” is a cultural and historical identity. It’s very difficult to travel in a country where there are an ever-diminishing number of roadside camping spots. Those decorative stone blocks on grass verges are put there to stop travellers stopping over. I have friends who live in a farmhouse. They still identify themselves as Gypsies even though the caravan only comes out to travel to Appleby Horse Fair.
3. Gypsies are dirty. Oh no they’re not. I once caused offence in a gypsy house by perching on the corner of the kitchen table. Luckily, they were friends of mine and explained to the extended family that “I didn’t know it was dirty to sit on tables.” I’ve also heard Gypsy female friends express disgust at other “scruffy Gypsies” who washed and washed-up in the same bowl. Gypsy caravans are usually spotless and full of beautiful china and crystal. Often, the plastic is left on the chairs to make sure the upholstery stays clean.
5. They’re all thieves. Ask any police force and they’ll tell you that the crime rate goes up when Gypsies are passing through. They’ll also tell you that it’s normally the time when the local criminals go on a thieving spree. Our local press has reported on tradesmen who have fly-tipped rubbish near gypsy camps (and were caught on CCTV). It’s easy to scapegoat Gypsies. Of course some Gypsies are thieves and villains. Don’t all cultural groups have those minorities?
There are things about Gypsy/Roma culture that worry me. It worries me that they can’t properly access full health care. Getting dental care when you don’t have a fixed address is very difficult. A lot of older Gypsies are functionally illiterate. How do you get a sight test when you can’t name the letters on the chart? Nobody like to admit they can’t read.
It worries me that it takes years for Gypsy/Roma families to build trust relationships with schools. They’re scared that their children will be abused. I’ve seen a family hand out birthday party invitations to every child in my class except the Gypsy little girl. They “didn’t want Gy**os there.” I reported it as a racist incident because that’s my statutory responsibility but I can’t imagine how it feels to hear those comments.
I’m not saying Gypsy/Roma culture is perfect. It isn’t singing round campfires and jolly horse trading. It’s a hard life and a culturally insular one. I don’t think any of our cultural groups in this country are beyond criticism but I think Gypsy/Roma people come in for a level of racist abuse that people would hesitate to use of other minority ethnic groups. Ideally, I would like people to think before they speak. Is what they’re saying a fair criticism? Would they feel comfortable saying it if they inserted the name of another minority group? If the answer’s yes, then speak out. If you would think twice about saying it about another group don’t say it about Gypsy/Roma travellers.