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.
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