Said a guy to me a couple of years back. “They steal stuff and they’re a fricking nuisance”. I sat there kind of uncomfortably, slightly shocked, but almost unsure of how to respond. I quickly regained my composure. “It’s not ok to say that”. I said firmly. “You’ve had such limited interaction with them, how can you make such a blanket statement?”. I then thought of a more awkward analogy “If I said, ‘I hate white people, they’re a fricking nuisance, my hatred wouldn’t be justified, but least I could say I’ve spent most of my life interacting with them and was basing my statement on extensive experience. How many gypsies have you interacted with? I’m sure you’d be offended if I said that”. Cue a few seconds of awkward silence and change of subject.
Apparently, gypsies are the last group of people in this country you can be openly overtly racist about. And when I say racist, I don’t mean pointing out problems within the traveller community. Yes, we all know travellers have a not so good reputation, and I don’t think we should just ignore issues of social cohesion that may arise, but using the word gypsy or ‘pikey’ as an insult in itself, as if they’re some lower class of being, is in my opinion, clearly racist. I’ve heard people say things like “You look like a pikey” as a term of derision. Erm. You’ve turned a whole race (or races) of people into an insult. It’s the same as saying “Don’t act like that, what are you, a black?”. Not ok. Everyone else you’re at least forced to use code words like ‘immigrant’ or ‘thug’ or ‘Muslim’. We all know that the word Muslim is loaded, and that for some people it’s pretty much interchangeable with ‘Asian’, but at least if you call someone a’ dirty Paki’, you’ll face some rejection from polite society. ‘Dirty gypsy’ however, is not appropriate for TV, but appropriate enough in circles where other forms of overt racism aren’t.
What always does surprise me is how some people find it ok to make racial slurs about other ethnic groups in my presence, because they think I won’t care – after all they’re not being derogatory to black people. I’ve had white people make racist jokes about Chinese people in front of me and they’ve expected me to join in with the giggles. If you can make a racist joke about a Chinese person when they’re not there, what are you saying about other races when I’m not there? No, your little wong-tong noodle joke isn’t the zenith of hilarity, it’s lame and racist. And the stupid joke you’ll make about “what do you call a black man on the moon?” when I’m not there… isn’t funny either. Ok, actually some of them are funny. But still not ok for you to say. If Tunde wants to make silly jokes about Africans, then you can choose to awkwardly listen, but for the sake of all that is sensible on the planet, don’t regurgitate it…And I don’t care if your confused and bewildered black friend told you it was ok, they don’t speak for everyone, and they were clearly drunk or high when they suggested that it was fine for you to make that joke outside of their specific company.
Sorry, back on topic.
I was watching Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, the other day and in the film, Harriet (random chick) is attacked by a band of gypsies. As she is carried back in the arms of a gentleman to Emma’s house, looking suitably pale and distressed, she describes in raptures how awful the experience was, and the connection between fear and gypsies and attack and gypsies and violence and gypsies was frankly, extremely awkward to watch. Now I understand that this book was written in the 19th century, but it struck me that if a book had said something similar about black men and them being ‘scary’, a modern rendering of the film would have probably edited it out, or changed the wording significantly. (Or am I being too hopeful?). This is not to say that people are more racist towards gypsies than black people in a passive or implicit way, but it’s not socially acceptable to be so overt about your racism any more, and I don’t understand why gypsies aren’t afforded the same limited respect.
In fact, my dear old Dad, who is generally a nice man, made an awful statement about gypsies the other day that I had to call him out on. And that’s my point – anti-gypsy racism has become such a part of the collective consciousness of this country, that, in a similar way to other forms of racism, people who are otherwise ‘nice’ can be found making horrific or just ‘mildly offensive’ statements.
And this is why racism is so insidious. Because ordinary people who consider themselves to be good people can have something so ingrained in their consciousness that it becomes perfectly normalised. It might not be overt, but the subtle ways we think or respond to gypsies, prove that there are significant barriers that will prevent them from manoeuvring through society. Not being welcomed to use certain places as wedding venues, stereotyped as thieves, kids being told to avoid gypsy kids in the playground…sounds really familiar doesn’t it?
What do you guys think? And be honest, have you ever said something racially insensitive about gypsies?