What is Romani?

As part of the Romagraphic project a new question will be posted each week of February.

As a warm up we are starting with the first question a little early (naughty, naughty) ‘What is Romani?’

Please take the survey or leave a comment below.


Re-Blog: Travellers should resist collective shame for slavery

Travellers should resist collective shame for slavery.

by Rosaleen McDonagh

OPINION: The cruel actions of a family in England have horrified my community

‘Your crowd were at it again.” This came from a friend, referring to the recent sentencing of members of the Connors family for slavery offences in England.

The family are Travellers who exploited, beat and starved vulnerable men for financial benefit. The men who had been under the control of this family, some for more than 20 years, were paid £5 a day. Their living conditions were appalling. The images and the reports of the malnutrition and the treatment they suffered was evocative of an earlier century when white people carried out similar forms of cruelty on black people.

The collective shame and shock within my community was palpable when the news reports were broadcast. Traveller children were afraid to go to school the following morning. “Slave owners” was the taunt in the playground, in the classroom, in the library and even in the workplace.

The punishment is dished out to a whole community for the acts of individual criminals. My friend, using the phrase “your crowd”, not only articulated a false sense of familiarity – it was an attempt at goading.

Catapulted into guilt

The coverage of the Connors case catapulted my community into guilt. Guilt by association operates more intensely when it is embedded in a context of racism. The impulse was to keep our heads down, bury our shame and hold our silence. This is problematic. Silence can be toxic. Being falsely incriminated by way of one’s ethnicity should not mean that you collude with criminality.

The words of Traveller human rights activist Martin Collins came to my mind when I searched for a response to the taunt “your crowd”. Criminality is not part of Traveller culture nor part of our DNA.

Shame should not be used as a mechanism to hold a community to account. Collective shame should not have to be carried by the whole community for the behaviour of one small group. It should not have to be carried from one generation to another. My generation already carries many elements of shame – these are projected on to us by the mere fact that Travellers are “the other”.

Slavery, feuding, domestic violence and other forms of criminality are all too prevalent, not just within the Traveller community. The stereotypes and the misdefinition of Traveller identity gets reduced to these negative behaviours.

The exploitation of migrant workers, the mistreatment of domestic workers and the trafficking of women are forms of criminality that are societal rather than ethnic issues.

Internalised oppression can never be used as an excuse for criminality. Systemic oppression does, however, lead to behaviours whereby the oppressed, to feel powerful, will exploit other vulnerable people in inhumane ways. This modus operandi for internalised oppression manifests as a particular type of social contract.

Endemic alienation

This concerns itself with bullying and intimidation and serves as a form of fast-tracking of social mobility based on money, machismo, and bravado. Alienation can become so endemic within marginalised individuals and communities that crime can be perceived to have the most immediate rewards.

The rewards for buying into the dominant social contract include a sense of citizenship, belonging and opportunity. Esteem and dignity are on offer. Participation comes with rewards of access and choice.

However, in my community I know very few doctors, barristers, dentists, teachers, engineers or academics. The list of professions we are not a part of seems to get longer with each generation.

The crimes carried out by members of the Connors family are also attacks on the fabric of a vulnerable community. Exploitation and intimidation are not confined to victims beyond the community but also happen within the Traveller community.

This is often difficult to challenge or highlight. An imposed collective shame is difficult to shrug off. Challenging a false social contract based on crime is difficult in a context of racism. Exposing any kind of antisocial behaviour within a small community comes at a price. Individuals within our community do take on these tasks with integrity and courage. They are our agents for social change.

* Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community


Whilst researching information on the rumoured investigation of the RSPCA by the Charity Commission for bringing the Heythrop Hunt to prosecution I came across an article written by an intern for a top natural newspaper. Fairly unremarkable, the article did however manage to surprise me. In the current manner of the RSPCA’s rivals it accuses them of  ’double standard’ and being ‘more interested in social class than animal rights’, picking and choosing amongst equally valid evidence to find cases in line with their political agenda. The surprising thing about the article was not its own political agenda but the hypocrisy of the piece spurning the RSPCA for spending time and resources on one ‘class’ of people whilst a second group  of people from a different ‘class’ are allowed to get away with cruelty yet it would seem as if the article is overly focus on the second group and is in my opinion a racially motivated tirade against a minority group who are counted on being unable to defend themselves, for the purpose of winning cheap support. The example group used is two Traveller families who appeared in the Channel 4 documentary Gypsy Blood. From what I know of Gypsy Blood it is nothing but a sickening, sensationalised monstrosity described by Channel 4 as:

an intimate portrait of two gypsy families, their fight for respect and the price they pay in cycles of revenge that can erupt into sudden and terrifying violence. Gypsy Blood is a haunting study of masculinity, violence and the uneasy relationship gypsy and traveller men have with their bare-knuckle traditions, and an insight into people living amongst a wider society but sometimes with values that are a world apart.

Featuring from all accounts cock fights and deer coursing. Two despicable crimes of immense cruelty that unfortunately the RSPCA were unable to prosecution anyone over due to a number of annoying little nuances in our legal system, the article explains itself that documentary footage itself was not enough without time, location and individuals, and warrants to search for further evidence were on at least one occasion denied. This is a tremendous shame and if something should be investigated it should be why this case could not be taken any further, likewise why the Heythrop Hunt have to be a private prosecution. The article fails to connect the similarities and illegality of both (fox) hunting with dogs and cockfighting, quoting Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance complaining about “clear animal cruelty”, and suggesting that if the RSPCA was interested in animal welfare they wouldn’t have focused their resources on the Heythrop Hunting, ignoring of course the intense cruelty involved in hunting foxes with dogs. I believe that Gypsy Blood and the RSPCA’s prosecution failure, although valid, was chosen not out of genuine concern for animal welfare but as a means to rally easy support. Playing on public misconceptions and hatred of a minority group, the piece was cowardly with few merit. Nobody is bigger than the law and I think people should remember this. I can only hope that the Heythrop prosecution has proven this, I just hope that all this negative press doesn’t damage the important work carried out by the RSPCA on a daily basis.

Kill me with Affection. Part 2

In which I discuss why sometimes writing about an ethnicity you ‘like’ can do more harm than good. 

Earlier I discussed Tolkien’s use of a simile race in his greatest works but I will admit that perhaps I did not make my motivation clear. In fact I may have simply just muddled the waters for Tolkien is for all intense and purposes irrelevance to my point, The Hobbit was simply the inspiration behind my train of thought.

I call these posts ‘Kill me with Affection’ because I have noticed that this is indeed what a number of authors do, whether it be their intention or not. Lets take the Romani discourse for example, that is after all what I desire to speak about.

People write, on mass it would seem, on the topic of ‘Gypsies’. I reference fiction, fantasy, role-playing. Not entirely limited to books, we also have television, plays, video and card games, we might even take drawing, photography and fashion we will always come down to the same problem. People enjoying ‘Gypsies’, or at the very least this fictional romanticist of what a ‘Gypsy’ is. No body really likes Gypsies, I have spoken to many people who enjoy the tales and dressing up but when it gets down to it don’t much care for our living, breathing forms. But I’m afraid that I’m mixing too many issues at once so lets start simply.

  • People enjoy writing about ‘Gypsies’.
  • People enjoy reading about ‘Gypsies’.
  • People have a very set view of what constitutes a ‘Gypsy’ is and are only interested in their understanding of what one is and what one should be .
  • People have a number of misunderstanding on Romani culture and how we live our lives, relevant to both the ‘Gypsy idealism’ and how other Romani families live both now and ‘then’. The ‘then’ being any arbitrary imagined period, or perhaps more aptly ‘style’ that the author wishes to portray, hopefully correlated with some factual truth.
  • Audience
  • In addition to this we also have Travelling people as literary, or story devises – smuggling, curses, fortune telling.

People want to write and read stories about a particular race because they find them interesting. The author, or society has decided that they are interesting. Why do people find this race interesting, personal perception of what another race is like, and because the Romani have been romanticised for eons.

People are tired of their day-to-day life they want a holiday, they’re stressed by work, their home life etcetera. etcetera look Gypsies they have no responsibility, travel from place to place without worries. Even if we just stick with all of the ‘good’ things that people think about Romanies and Travellers and forget the bad exist we are still left with this issue of dehumanisation.

The people who are being written about are not a people but a desire of what the writer wants – escapism. Now this can lead to two sets of problems, firstly Romanies, or Gypsies as the common bookworm identifies us as, become equated with faeries and mythical creatures. This is an attitude I have particularly noticed of Americans.

A Mythological creature cannot suffer racism, discrimination or crime, they have no human rights and as a result of this I have found that people are more likely to dismiss the suffering of Romani people because they have problems taking them seriously as human beings, this is further amplified by intense misconceptions of what a Romani looks like, “what women is not a gypsy, where is her tambarin and singing goat” etc. etc.

This fairytale lifestyle is also insulting. Yes us Romani are pretty great, we sing and we dance but we travel out of necessity, pulled by economic opportunity and pushed by discrimination and genocide. The Roma and Sinti suffered the Porajmos, the Romani holocaust. We have been slaves, and we are still to this day forced into ghettos and work camps. To wash over our history (and present reality) of hardship is disgusting, it is an insult spat in our face and the faces of everyone we have ever loved.

English: "Gypsy Caravan" by Leon Goodman

“Gypsy Caravan” by Leon Goodman

But most importantly these stories paint a very particular view of what us ‘Gypsies’ are supposed to be like, not every story is the same but most grew from tired stereotypes based around one period of Romani history. I say one, I lie, I actually mean two. The first is the Bohemian, the likes of Esméralda and Carmen, and the second my people (*bows*) with our painted vardos. Beautiful imagery I’ve no doubt, and indeed the painted vardo is still very much to this day beloved by modern Romany however this view, this idea of how a ‘Gypsy’ should be distracts away from how we are. There is this hatred towards ‘Travellers’ in their trailers but a romantic love of ‘Real Gypsies’ in their horse-drawns. We live to shouts of ‘if only they would live properly, I don’t mind proper Gypsies’. This is not right, how can a characterchure of a bygone age that only ever existed partially be the ‘Real’ and us, with our blood, our history, our culture be the fake?

Even if the author wish to avoid old stereotypes, they will come up against the issue that they, and their readership, simply do not understand enough about Romani culture to accurately portray us. Is that not a good enough reason in itself not to write about our culture?

Nevertheless, even after countless research, an author who has decided to write about a culture that interests them merely because they are interested is doomed to fail, because fundamentally they will write about the aspects of that culture that interests them, they will expanded upon, exaggerated it and distorted it. It is not their characters that are important but their ethnicity. A distorted wreak of cultural mishmashing lacking in believability, they will not live as themselves but as an ‘other’ to be juxtaposed against the ‘norm’. For the author will always have their audience in mind, a gargle of romanticists, without even the smallest consideration that a ‘Gypsy’ might be able to read their books.

Why is it I say that people are killing me with affection? Because even when people are being nice to the Romani all they seem to be able to come up with are washed up old stereotypes that at the end of the day continue to do more harm than good.