The grey area of racism against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community

If you haven’t seen the Guy Ritchie film, Snatch, get your headphones out of your bag and take the two minutes to watch the below clip. This blog post is going to touch upon an element of ‘Bad Language’ prevalent in the UK, which has sometimes been referred to as ‘The Last Acceptable Racism’. This is certainly not a recent development, but the below film brought the issue back into popular culture for many people of my generation.

By ‘Bad Language’ I am referring to language which isn’t socially acceptable, which breaks the usual rules of conversation. Trudgill has said that taboo words are a reflection on the beliefs of society. This is an important concept for this blog post as we will be touching upon the grey areas of language and political correctness, where the rules are not clearly defined. The use of language described here demonstrates an inconvenient truth for the United Kingdom, that not all ethnic minorities have been included in the recent drive to eliminate racism from the public and private sphere.

The particular insult that I am going to touch upon here is the usage of the word ‘pikey’ to refer to Irish travellers. In general it is used to refer to the grouping of people, however colloquial usage amongst my peers is also synonymous with someone who steals something or is deceptive for their own monetary gain. The short clip from the film demonstrates these stereotypes pretty well. The characters are worried to leave the car alone, the children asking for money by showing the man around and cleaning the windows of the car. It is no surprise that the caravan purchased was not in a suitable condition for use either.

The term in the public sphere

In the United Kingdom, a rule of thumb for what is acceptable language, is what can be used on television without reproach, language that is freely allowed within the public sphere. This is because the BBC and other channels are seen not only as an example of the British professional culture, but also because they are norm setting. It is therefore interesting (and worrying) that there are examples of the phrase ‘pikey’ being used as this helps to legitimise its usage. There are several examples of TV presenters being forced to apologise for usage of the phrase such as in Top Gear and in Sky’s F1 coverage.

In the Top Gear incident, after marking a race ‘Pikey’s Peak’, they were investigated by the BBC regulatory body who found them not guilty of using racist language given the context of the phrase as a pun on a famous race held in America. It demonstrates the interesting grey area within which the phrase exists, that it refers to an ethnic minority, recognised as such by the British Equality Act, in an ostensibly negative manner but isn’t deemed overtly racist.

Depictions of Gypsy culture are prevalent in cinema, indeed there is almost a public obsession with the genre which vastly over represents the minority in a similarly negative stereotype. Even films that use actors with a Traveller background and take greater effort to stay true to reality rather than fiction, are often films based on negative stereotypes that are prevalent within the community (crime and bare knuckle boxing being two of the biggest).

There is some criticism surrounding this issue but given the situation it is very minor and shows limited signs that it is going to change.

But why?

There are a couple of reasons for this;

  1. The Irish Traveller community has not received as much support for the recognition of equal rights and anti-discrimination measures as other ethnic minorities or LGBTQ communities
  2. It is more socially acceptable to use insults based on social factors, which is an aspect of the community, in the post political correctness era.

The Irish Traveller community is significantly smaller than the other groups mentioned and does not have the popular support that has risen up with recent generations for acceptance of LGBTQ and other ethnic minority communities. A key aspect of this is, which leads into my next point, is that they do not engage with the regular elements of society to the same extent as other groups. It is therefore harder to generate popular support for their cause if they do not conform with existing legal structures.

Now I should mention that this is based very much on my own personal perception of the community, based on some research but also representation of the Irish Traveller culture. However, I can confidently say that these sentiments are shared by many of the British public. It is more acceptable to use insults referring to that group because they are not perceived as a ‘desirable’ ethnic minority. It is also a double edged sword, as institutional racism, pushes the Traveller community towards the extremities of the social sphere.

As discussed in our literature, we can see that the beliefs of the society mirror our usage of language. The term ‘pikey’ not only refers to a group of people, but is also used with negative connotations as an insult in regular society. This is accepted, and although it operates within a grey area on television, it is prominent within cinema. The use of the term and the reinforcement of stereotypes go hand in hand, demonstrating that these beliefs in society still remain strong, and there is little sign of this changing in the near future.

2 Replies to “The grey area of racism against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community”

  1. That’s a nice post and Analysis! As someone not coming from the UK, I didn’t know about the subtle racism towards the Irish.

  2. Hi Harry! Really enjoyed your article, I’m a big fan of old top gear (not the new one though) and I remember clearly the incident. I actually didn’t know before this incident that the word ‘pikey’ was a word with a bad connotation. I found interesting to have a more in-depth explanation coming from your part concerning why the word carries a bad connotation. Thanks!

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