Friday, 29 June 2018

Why we must stop using the F-word in relation to Gypsies & Travellers

Posted by Natalie Forster, Senior Research Assistant at Northumbria University and Fuse, and Helen Jones, CEO, Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange

Fascination. Not the word you expected? Then read on to find out why we find it so problematic when people say they are ‘fascinated by’ Gypsy and Traveller Communities.

We frequently hear ‘fascination’ cited as a motivation for
 working with Traveller Communities by practitioners
There is certainly a captivation with Traveller Community ‘lifestyles’ in society. The numerous Gypsy and Traveller autobiographies and television programmes devoted to Traveller Communities (perhaps best exemplified by the Channel 4 ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ phenomenon) have led Gypsy and Traveller life to be described as a ‘bestseller’, with little sign that this interest is fading. Television programmes are often badged as an exposé on Traveller Community lives, starting with the premise that Traveller Communities are hidden, closed-off and exotic. The Channel 4 Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series for example, promises a ‘Revealing documentary series that offers a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain today’ (emphasis added). This language is not value free, and seems to foster a sense of intrigue or fascination in order to appeal to viewers.

Traveller Community members have a lack of opportunities to shape their own image in popular culture. A complete absence of Gypsies or Travellers among the proposed cast for an upcoming BBC Film adaption of Mikey Walsh’s memoir ‘Gypsy Boy’ recently drew attention to the exclusion of Traveller Community voices in the film industry. The understandable reluctance of many Gypsy and Traveller Community members to disclose their ethnicity for fear of racism and discrimination also means there are a lack of images or stories to counter the negative stereotypes peddled within mainstream media. That said, younger Traveller Community activists in particular are increasingly making use of forums through which they can challenge these portrayals.

What though are the implications of this issue for health practitioners, researchers and the public? Of course, we recognise that many of our colleagues share our aversion to programmes such as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and the hugely problematic representations of communities that these advance. Yet, the underpinning premise of these shows remain unchallenged by many, and we frequently hear ‘fascination’ cited as a motivation for working with Traveller Communities by practitioners.

Why do we feel uncomfortable when someone says they are ‘fascinated by’ Traveller Communities? The use of ‘fascination’ echoes the voyeuristic sentiment of many television programmes and reinforces notions of Traveller Community members as exotic and worthy of special attention or interest. When mentioning working with Traveller Communities, the very reference to these groups often appears to prompt greater interest, but why should this be the case?

It is problematic, we think, in its divisiveness; in the impression it gives of Traveller Communities as mysterious and ‘other’, and a community that ‘outsiders’ can only look into. This downplays the possibilities for seeing commonalities between Traveller Communities and other sections of society – Gypsies and Travellers are seen less as people ‘like us’, facing similar experiences or challenges in life, and more as groups we should find out ‘about’ or gather information ‘on’.

A sense of fascination also seems to shift the motivation away from the interests of Gypsy and Traveller Communities themselves, and towards fulfilling the agenda of those working with these groups. A desire to satisfy one’s own curiosity about Traveller Communities can result in questions that are insensitive, such as those about the cost of someone’s caravan, or aspects of culture that are unconnected with the purpose of a visit.

It is for these reasons that we call for the reconsideration of the use of ‘fascination’ in relation to Traveller Communities and other groups who are seldom heard, as well as for greater questioning of the assumptions that lie behind this term, and the interests it truly serves.

Image: "Seeing My World Through a Keyhole" (4592429363_292aec80c9_z) by Kate Ter Haar via, copyright © 2010:

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