Myths and Truths
Gypsy and Traveller culture and history
Myth: Gypsies are foreign.
Much media coverage talks of Gypsies and Travellers “invading” places. Invasion is a military term used about armies. How can it be used about a community that has been a part of British society for centuries.
Truth: Gypsies and Travellers have been part of British society for over 500 years.
Myth: Gypsies are dirty.
Truth: Gypsy culture is built upon strict codes of cleanliness learnt over centuries of life on the road. Concepts such as mokadi and mahrime place strict guidelines, for example, on what objects can be washed in what bowls. Gypsies view gorgias (non-Gypsies) as unclean because of the way they live.
For example, Gypsies and Travellers rarely let animals inside their homes, because they believe them to be carriers of disease.
Myth: Gypsies are criminal.
Many Gypsies and Travellers say that legislation passed to curtail their traditional way of life is inherently racist.
Truth: Members of the Gypsy Roma Travellers communities are statistically under represented in the main stream prision population. Just as in any other ethnic minority, some Gypsies are involved in crime. But Gypsies and Travellers say they have been criminalized by laws created to curtail their traditional lifestyle.
Myth: All Gypsies live in caravans
Truth: Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised ethnic minorities with their own culture, language and beliefs. Yet planning law defines Gypsies simply as people with a nomadic way of life. While this is historically true. 90% of Gypsies across the world now live in houses. Being nomadic is more common in Western Europe. But even here only 50% of Gypsies live in caravans. Gypsies also live in houses but they take their culture indoors with them.
Myth: Gypsies and Travellers are work shy
Truth: Labour formed the bed rock of the agricultural economy until mechanisation. Gypsy and Traveller often start work younger, tradional skills are passed down to the next generation. There is a strong work ethic, based on the need to survice. Many Gypsies also sacrificed their lives for this country in the 1st and 2nd world wars.
Myth: Gypsies and Travellers have become rich through avoiding paying tax.
There is no evidence for this at all.
Truth: Tradionally many Gypsies Roma and Travellers are self-employed and pay tax like anybody else. Both Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller culture values portable wealth and unlike non-Gypsy culture this wealth is often highly visible. A Gypsy man with a new car and caravan may look flash, but his wealth is just more visible. The amount of capital their home is worth is far less than the equity many non-Gypsies have in their houses but is constantly depreciating in value.
Myth: Gypsies are endowed with special supernatural powers, including the ability to curse and see the future.
Truth: Some Gypsies may well have psychic powers, but no more than anyone else. But some myths can be turned to a community’s advantage. A nation without an army is forced to defend itself with curses and superstition. Some Gypsies have turned the myths about them on their head and earned a living telling fortunes. Gypsy and Traveller fortune tellers have cultivated the mystery that has always surrounded Gypsy culture.
Myth: Gypsies have a genetic wanderlust
Persecution has always been a factor in nomadic life.
Truth: As an ethnic group GRT people do have a nomadic heritage. Nomadic life has been created by two factors, the pull of economic opportunity and the push of persecution. Gypsy and Traveller culture has adapted to suit this by continually working within trades that are highly mobile. Historically, that may have meant working as agricultural labourers, nowadays, it means providing services in the building trade or products that can be easily transported.
Myth: Gypsies and Travellers have never contributed anything to the economy or mainstream culture
Here’s an unbelievable entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1954.
“The mental age of the average adult Gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of ten. Gypsies have never accomplished anything of great significance in writing, painting, musical composition, science or social organisation. Quarrelsome, quick to anger or laughter, they are unthinkingly but not deliberately cruel. Loving bright colours, they are ostentatious and boastful, but lack bravery.”
These amazingly ignorant “facts” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica were printed just ten years after thousands of Gypsy men died fighting for this country in the Second World War. And to claim that Gypsies have not accomplished anything of great significance in the arts and sciences is astonishing. Gypsy and Traveller journalists, artists and musicians, academics and historians are all involved in Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month 2008. It is hoped that attitudes and knowledge has advanced since 1954, and GRTHM hopes to continue the process.
Truth: Romanies are Europe’s largest and fastest growing ethnic minority.
Execution, deportation and toleration have not dealt with the “Gypsy problem.” Gypsies and Travellers are here to stay and are becoming increasingly good at demanding that their culture and way of life is accommodated.
The current conflict over Gypsy and Traveller site provision is in nobody’s interests, it is in everyone’s interest to resolve it through educating the wider public about Gypsy and Traveller culture and needs.