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‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to incorrect written ascription of Gypsies and Travellers

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  August 1, 2012 |

Why Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange is adopting this policy

Boys playing at Sweet StreetPeople receiving emails from Leeds GATE staff will have noticed the following statement in our email signatures:

Note: Please ensure that Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy Travellers, Roma or Showmen are written with capital letters and correct spelling, as here, in any references to these communities. Leeds GATE is holding a zero tolerance period towards incorrect or disrespectful grammar being used towards Gypsies and Travellers. In most circumstances incorrect ascription will be challenged by the GATE team.

If you want to know why read on.

Within the commonly used catch all terms of Gypsies and Travellers, and Roma, are people experiencing the most exclusion and the poorest life outcomes in the UK, as acknowledged by Dept of Health, Dept for Communities and Local Government, Dept for Education and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission among many others.

Efforts by community members, civil and public society, to address these problems are hampered by widespread misunderstanding and confusion about exactly who are the people included in those groups.  Worse than that, exclusion is reinforced by oppressive and racist disrespectful attitudes, hence- “why shouldn’t I spell it how I want, gipsy is just a lifestyle choice”, or “travellers? they’re not travellers, they never travel anywhere!”

Sadly many of our local and national public media continue to use incorrect grammar or spelling when describing Gypsy, Traveller or Roma people and continue to mix up and confuse the identities of the groups.  Recently a fashion for mocking the identity of Gypsy and Irish Traveller people in television programmes has caused outrage and hurt, and led to increased incidences of racism.   The print and television media have been challenged repeatedly by community members and representative groups but continue to give out these powerful mixed up messages, dictating national misunderstanding and derision in their wake.  If our national media continue to do this, how are most people supposed to know what is right? If the identities of Gypsy and Traveller people are represented as comical or otherwise not worthy of regard, how can we be expected to feel included or welcome?

The wrong words being used effectively reinforces misunderstanding and compounds community members’ experiences of disregard.  Wasted capacity and resources follow when, for example, monitoring and other activity designed to identify and address the problems faced by different communities misfire and fail.  Failed monitoring and poor data collection leads to increased costs, unmet and unrecognised need, late diagnosis, failure of health promotion messages or education programmes. (See the Marmot Review for further information on the costs of health and other inequities).

Using a capital letter to describe a recognised group is correct English grammar.  See this section from the University of Sussex's guide to punctuation.

(e) [In the same vein,] words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be capitalized:

The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.

The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.

Norway’s most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.

(An aside: some ethnic labels which were formerly widely used are now regarded by many people as offensive and have been replaced by other labels. Thus, careful writers use Black, not Negro; native American, not Indian or red Indian; native Australian, not Aborigine. You are advised to follow suit.)

(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or Indian:

The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.

You may capitalize these words or not, as you prefer, but be consistent.

Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy Travellers and Roma are all recognised in UK law as ethnic groups.  Good manners tell us, as above that these words are names of ethnic groups and that should be recognized by correct spelling and capitalisation.  Our own good manners might, on that basis, persuade us to also extend this courtesy to self defined groups including Showmen, New Travellers and Bargees for example.

If you don’t spell the name of someone’s ethnicity correctly, it is like not spelling their own name incorrectly.  My name is Helen, if you call me Len more than once I would correct you.  You would probably feel a little embarrassed that you got it wrong but glad that I corrected you sooner rather than later.  If I am a Gypsy, why should I put up with being called a ‘gipsy’?  If I am a Traveller why should I be called a ‘traveler’?  If I am Roma, why should I be called a ‘gypsy’ or ‘gypsie’ or even ‘Roma Gypsy’?

We would really appreciate your help in sharing the right messages about Gypsy, Traveller and Roma identities.  As above, capital letters and correct spelling is a small thing, but it can make a big difference.  If you aren’t sure what is correct, it’s better not to assume, just ask.

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