Did you instantly believe that the Roma had abducted any of the three children taken from their families in Ireland or Greece this month? Pause a moment. Have a look at yourself. Why did you believe it?
1. Because everyone knows that gypsies abduct kids, you cry.
We now know that the "blonde angel" known as Maria was not abducted from some perfect Scandinavian dreamboats as part of some secret Gypsy child trafficking conspiracy. We now know that the four-year-old girl known as Maria was, in fact, born of Roma parents, passed by her desperately poor birth-mother woman to another family, and informally adopted. We now know that the Greek authorities, as in Ireland, ripped Maria from the only parents she had ever known, two people who was caring for and loved the little girl, solely on the basis of ethnic appearance and old folk stories about Roma abducting children. If that is not racism, then racism does not exist.
We now know that there remain no documented cases of Roma abducting children from settled society. Anywhere. Ever.
Have a look at why you believed that crazy and hateful folk story.
2. I don't need to question my beliefs, you cry. I had a bad experience when they moved into my area. Therefore all of them are bad eggs.
Do you think it is wise to base all your decisions on anecdote and personal experience, or might the world be a bit more complex than that?
Reams of evidence and studies and reports indicate that, despite much uninformed prejudice, Travellers and Roma do not drive around in brand new cars and live in gold-plated caravans, funded by the generous social welfare benefits given for the all their children. Both groups are have always been educationally disadvantaged and, for a whole host of complex structural reasons, cannot access the same quality of education as people on higher incomes.
Traveller women live 11.5 years less than the general population, while Traveller men die, on average, 15 years sooner. Travellers are disadvantaged in terms of access to health services. Suicide amongst Traveller men is six times higher than the general population. Infant death is significantly higher.
Why might this be?
3. Because Travellers choose to live like that, you cry
Like what, exactly? Travellers choose to live in poverty? Why, exactly, would any non-Franciscan monk choose that, and how does this fit with your other story about Travellers being immensely wealthy?
Do you think there is something wrong with Travellers, that they or their culture are somehow deficient? If you think this, does that make you a racist? If it does not make you a racist, what would make you a racist?
If Travellers really do choose to reject education and scavenge off society, do other people living in conditions of poverty, such as adults and children in disadvantaged communities, make the same choice? Do you think working-class communities or children in disadvantaged schools choose this? Is there really no problem for a Traveller to get to college if they want? No problems attending school? No terrible experiences with state authorities, like the Greek and Irish cases of the last few weeks? Do you honestly believe the evidence supports this?
4. But travellers and gypsies are criminals, you cry.
Are people living in conditions of poverty and isolation and exclusion more likely to perpetrate or be the victim of crime, not because they are a "chav" or "scumbag" or a "gypsy" or a Traveller, but because of conditions of poverty and isolation and exclusion? Or do you genuinely believe that all people living in poverty have brought it on themselves? If so, fine - come out and nail your colours to the mast.
Is it possible you write them off as criminals because the police proportionately stop and search Travellers and Roma more than rest of us, and that this is based on racial profiling? Is this not exactly the same situation facing young black men in the United Kingdom and United States? Did Jewish people not also endure millennia of racial profiling? Do young white people in disadvantaged pockets of the Western world not also experience higher levels of police scrutiny?
Could your views on "Traveller criminality" stem from media reports about individual cases of crime? Does the media also report on "settled crime" or "white crime" or "straight crime"?
5. My dislike of Travellers does not make me a racist because Travellers and Roma are not a race, you cry. Besides, it's their culture I don't like.
The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination begs to differ. As does the UK Government, and most Governments (shamefully, not Ireland's). DNA evidence points towards the Travellers as a distinct ethnic group. Claiming they are not a race or ethnic group is a convenient mechanism to allow a continuation of institutional discrimination.
Roma and Traveller culture relates to dress, language, story-telling, customs, festivals, music and dance. Poverty and begging are symptoms of deprivation, not dimensions of culture. This lovely and short animation from the Open Society Foundation explains Roma culture and history.
Maybe you think you are right -on and progressive. In favour of equality for all. You support gay marriage and believe that racism is wrong and that women should be allowed work. But maybe you're not actually in favour of equality for all, because you don't like Roma or Travellers (and perhaps you find poor people a bit icky, even if they make a good punchline). You will give equality only to those who are willing to accept your demands about how they should settle down and live their lives as you so wisely instruct.
How many Travellers have you met, or spoken to, or engaged with? Approximately how many Travellers have you walked past in the last week? Which ones did you notice? Did you feel a visceral and uncomfortable fear? Does fear govern your decisions? Is it possible that you may have walked past many disabled people, or gay people, or Travellers, or Roma, in the past weeks or months or years, but you simply didn't notice because a stereotype didn't punch you in the face?
Most of us want to be fair-minded. We want to believe that we are not prejudiced and that we think everyone should have a decent chance. We want to think that we base our opinions on evidence. And yet, there are mountains of evidence about the reality of Traveller and Roma life. Facts and reports and evidence and more facts and more reports and more evidence, which I have linked to repeatedly in this piece. And the otherwise reasonable people who are prepared to spend time commenting on articles like this, who express varying degrees of dislike towards Traveller and Roma people, from mild distaste to full-on hatred, refuse to read them.
Most of us are fair-minded. So inform yourself. Before you leave that online comment slagging off the Travellers or Roma and adding to the overflowing well of hate, spend five minutes reading some evidence-based sources that might challenge you. Nobody claims that Travellers and Roma are perfect, or that there are no problems to be addressed. But that doesn't mean we must rush to cold judgement.
Stop lashing out. Stop effectively writing off Travellers and Roma and demanding that each one proves to you that they are a paragon of virtue. Stop seeing them, or their culture, or their way of life, as somehow inferior. As your starting point, treat human beings as equals. Question your prejudice.
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