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The dinner party test – Explicit racism towards Gypsies and Travellers still happens. Why?

Ben Chastney's picture
By Ben Chastney |  August 5, 2016 |

Society has, for the most part, made great progress with discriminatory attitudes.  Each generation generally see more open minded and tolerant viewpoints.  Whilst I am more sceptical than most about progress made to address wider inequalities and discrimination there does appear to be a positive picture with respect to language.   Many words which were historically deemed okay in general society are considered acceptable no longer.  Those making racist jokes or comments are increasingly challenged.  There remains a striking exception though; Gypsies and Travellers.


It continues to shock and sadden me that explicit racism towards Gypsies and Travellers seem to continue to pass the dinner party test.  That is, ‘jokes’, comments or stereotypical statements about the community are still deemed okay in open polite conversation.  If we play the good old word replacement game, it seems that both speakers and audience would deem a comment unacceptable if Gypsy was replaced with black, Jew, gay, disabled or other distinguishing characteristic.  So whilst unquestionably positive that we do not accept discriminatory language elsewhere, we need to recognise and pursue the fact that Gypsies and Travellers have not enjoyed the same regard.


One point to consider has been the journey taken by key parts of the establishment.  With respect to the Government, there are perhaps not the openly racist regulations of the Victorian era, or even later, which explicitly limited access to goods and services.  Indeed laws such as the Equality Act formally demand both the Government and others avoid discrimination, whether realised in practice or not.  That said, only last year DCLG introduced changes to Gypsy and Traveller planning law, severely tightening the rules to redress a perception of imbalance.  Whilst of course this change did not encourage or endorse racist attitudes, it did sadly reinforce a message of difference and, contrary to all evidence, of unjustly favourable treatment; one which creates resentment. 


The journey of the media has been similarly telling and perhaps remains more problematic.  It is fair to say that particularly for some tabloid newspapers, the media has continually been behind the curve on changing racial attitudes, or at the very least back of it.  Gypsies and Travellers suffer alongside asylum seekers and migrants in particular for continuing to attract stories which would no longer be written about anyone else.  Whilst these stories may not, I would hope, pass the dinner party test for many, it is not unsurprising that many in society feel that certain language remains acceptable if national papers use it or if this is repeated elsewhere, such as local radio. 


The Government and media are two significant parts of the picture.  Whilst these institutions are not always hostile, it would be naïve to think that racism towards Gypsies and Travellers is today only on the fringes.  Moreover we have to recognise that as long as such public bodies fail to challenge intemperate language, validate this, or worse actually use it, then racist attitudes themselves will not merely remain on the fringes of wider society.  We can, do and will challenge racism towards our members and a big part of that, sadly, is to raise awareness that it is still happening very publicly.


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