Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Big Fat Gypsy Joke

Throughout my year in Dachau there has been an emphasis on acknowledging the suffering of the Sinti and Romani communities during the Nazi persecutions. Over 500,000 were murdered, many of them in extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, yet persecution continued right up to the present day. Continues. As such I have attended many remembrance services this year at which Sinti and Romanis have told their stories, each as harrowing as one would expect. There was Zoni Weisz, who addressed the Bundestag on Holocaust Memorial Day this year and spoke of a 'forgotten Holocaust'. There was the opening of an exhibition at the Church of Reconciliation led by a local Sinto artist. There was an abridged version of the Stations of the Cross prayed round the memorial site alongside a Romani musical group, focussing on the suffering of Karl Wacker Horvath, a Sinto from Austria killed in 1942.

All of these services were profoundly moving, particularly when I consider the difference in what the word "Zigeuner" (Gypsy) would mean if I used it in the United Kingdom. In Germany the group is clearly racially defined - those who come to memorial services have dark skins, though no longer live the nomadic lifestyle commonly associated with their past. Often people associate them with the prolific number of Romanian beggars here in Munich, who are often of Sinti and Romani origin. When I was at the Kirchentag last month I spoke to a couple about the plight of Romanis being forcibly deported back to Kosovo. As soon as I mentioned the word 'Romani', they began to talk negatively, pointing out that there had been thefts in a local chemists by Romanis, and that all they do is steal and beg. The lady held out her cupped hand and uttered well known words, "Bitte, kleine Spende":

The fundamentals of prejudice against those labelled as 'Gypsy' in Europe are similar to those in the UK, but with a very large difference. British and Irish 'Gypsies' have two origins. The first is similar to Continental Europe; as Romanis originating ethnically in India but coming to Europe in around the 16th century. The most famous example of a member of this community is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, who is defined as a Gypsy by Charlotte Bronte in order to evoke a supernatural, mystical element of his character. However the second group, known as Irish travellers, are unique to this part of the world. Having their roots in Celtic travelling communities, today the popular perception of the word 'Gypsy' comes from this group. This is partly thanks to the following:

Click here for 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding'

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was first shown on Channel 4 in 2008 to record TV audiences, and inspired a follow up series of five episodes last year. First of all, I should say I watched the show with the same voyeuristic glee as everyone else. The show portrays itself as a serious documentary on gypsy and traveller life, while really it simply confirms commonly held prejudices against the Irish traveller community. For example, I remember watching it with my parents. Everytime one of the men was introduced, we laughed, as the names and descriptions were almost interchangeable - "Paddy is a labourer" - "Mick is a builder" - "Kieran is a labourer". These were the men who come and offer to tarmac your drive, then leave having done the job badly. Possibly the worst example of this caricature is conversely one of the show's most like-able 'characters', "Paddy the labourer who has retired after a successful career in bare-kuckle boxing." Aggressive in manner, staunchly traditionalist though ultimately very friendly, he talks with foul mouthed candour and honesty, at the same time reinforcing every negative stereotype imaginable. His wife does the cleaning, indeed cleans for his sixteen year old son in a neighbouring caravan as well. Yet as we progress through the series, we learn that Paddy has had ten children, four of whom have died during childbirth and one in a car accident.

It's worth remembering that this was prime time viewing in the UK, and remains a popular talking point. The show attempts to portray itself as a serious look at traveller culture, yet no sooner had the show been broadcast hundreds of people who identify as Scottish Romanis or English Gypsies called up Channel 4 to complain. An entire community had been portrayed as loud mouthed, backward, sexist, violent and undesirable. Those involved in the making of the show are actually a small minority from the North West of England, defined racially in the UK as 'Irish Traveller'. A Liverpool dressmaker is referred to often as an 'expert' on traveller culture, yet her experience is based in the contact she has had when producing the notoriously extravagant wedding dresses for those families with the money to pay for them.

Ultimately the show treads on extremely thin ice. It attempts to cast itself as a candid documentary on a persecuted culture, yet ends up offering a one-sided reinforcement of all existing negative stereotypes of travellers in the UK. We are thus led to believe that the producers have given those in the show just enough rope to hang themselves. There is constant talk of a proud heritage, yet we hear nothing of it other than fleeting references to the Appleby Horse Fair and a few establishing shots of traditional Gypsy caravans by a motorway lay-by.

In German the word is Antiziganismus, literally 'anti-Gypsyism. There is no such word in English, and there is possibly a reason why. It is in many ways the last accepted prejudice in the UK. Tinkers, Dids, Pikies, these are just a few words that you will hear used more often than most people would care to admit. They do not pay taxes, they steal anything not tied down, they come tarmac your drive, do a bad job and disappear with the money. All this is accepted parlance. The root of the problem may be in the fact it is difficult to imagine 'Irish Traveller' as a race; putting it bluntly, they're white like most people in the UK. In Europe it is easier to imagine Sinti and Romani as a minority because they look the part.

Last month, I was reminded of this prejudice once more. The Church of Reconciliation was host to two choirs, one German, the other Israeli. While directing cars wishing to park near the church, a white Ford Transit van pulled up in the middle of where cars were moving. A small girl got out with her mother, both wearing tank tops and tight-fitting trousers. A man got out the driver's side, well built and wearing a miraculous medal round his neck. My first thought was 'Irish Traveller', and when he approached us and asked in a booming Irish drawl whether Mass was being said that evening, my suspicions were realised.

About twenty minutes later I wandered back to the Church to see him perched on a ledge on the roof of the building (half the Church is underground, so this is not difficult) shouting questions at the Israeli choristers, who hurried down the steps into the Church avoiding eye contact. I approached him in an attempt to explain the significance of the concert, and ended up having a long discussion with him about the site and it's legacy. He spoke loudly, often very directly and coarsely, but he was friendly enough, simply passing by on holiday with his family.

I have no word for this behaviour other than 'in-your-face', though this has negative implications I wish to avoid. My mind wandered back to Paddy, the friendly bareknuckle boxer from the TV show. Here was a people whose society was based around traditional models of masculinity and femininity which, although not always set in stone, remain influential. He meant no harm, and for all I know was not a traveller. Yet the suspicions and my initial reaction worried me. That event occurred the day before I travelled to Oświęcim and visited the Auschwitz Memorial Site.

Two of the most vital things in breaking down stereotypes is communication and honesty; the ability to ask questions of each other without feeling hindered or silly in the process. In many communities this has already shown results, for example in London and Liverpool relations between different communities have drastically improved in the last thirty years as Police have encouraged consultation in the area. The traveller community can appear both secretive and aggressive, even when in actual fact it is not. This breakdown leads to prejudices that begin with what seem like reasonable points ("I have nothing against them if they just pay their taxes like everyone else") and develop into hatred ("They steal anything in your drive you don't nail down").

Cultural difference is often a difficult problem to overcome, but it is essential we do so to avoid prejudice becoming the norm. When prejudice becomes normal, people lose their individuality and their dignity. They are Tutsi. They are Kulak. They are Jewish. They are pikies. I used to think this was exaggerating. Frankly, I'm not so sure anymore.

1 comment:

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