Gypsy* Roma and Traveller people are some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized in the UK. Facing severe barriers across institutions – from housing to health, to education and policing – Romany and Traveller people face life expectancies between ten and 25 years shorter than the general population and GRT pupils have the lowest attainment of all ethnic groups, throughout school years. They are also too routinely left off DEI agendas in organizations and heavily underrepresented in employment in organizations and companies. “But why?” We hear you ask. Below we highlight and unpack three central myths to help answer these questions.
*Before we begin please note: The term ‘Gypsy’ is a highly contested one. While it is used by some nomadic communities in the UK specifically, to refer to themselves, it is important to also note that other nomadic communities also in the UK and other parts of the world consider this term a slur. We are using it within a UK context specifically to recognize and honor the communities who refer to themselves as such, with pride.
Myth 1: Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people don’t want to work
One of the myths that underlie the exclusion of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people from inclusion efforts – or from accessing opportunities with organizations at all – is the belief that they don’t ‘belong’ in companies and workplaces because members from across the Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities in the UK simply don’t wish to work. Within this false narrative are two threads to unravel. Firstly – the notion that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people actually as a cultural group are opposed to or have an aversion to work is simply inaccurate. There is no evidence base for the idea that either community does not “want to work”; rather this myth is rooted in false assumptions that have long been leveled at Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people – that they are lazy and ‘backward’ as well as unintelligent. Some research has suggested Gypsy and Traveller young people display a preference to establish their own business or work for their family business, over developing a career; this is the reverse for Roma young people – but the too-often default assumption that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people simply ‘don’t want to work at all’ is much more to do with the system of oppression that they are targeted by, and less to do with the distribution of GRT young people who opt for self-employment/entrepreneurship/family employment/organizational employment. The second thread – which is tied of course to the first one we have just explored – is that the low levels of employment for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities are taken as ‘evidence’ for the false idea that they don’t want work. Which invisibilizes the manifold barriers to accessing employment that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people face. A recent study undertaken by the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity, in collaboration with community groups and charities, found Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people are among the least likely ethnic groups to be in employment. After adjusting for age, 85% of Gypsy or Traveller men and 65% of Roma men were in precarious employment, compared with 19% of White British Men. Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities experience low rates of educational attainment (connected to) high rates of childhood deprivation (and) high rates of poor health – all of which individually and especially when experienced together, create oppressive conditions that make entering employment through traditional routes extremely difficult for many Gypsy, Roma, Traveller people. It is important to flag that even when controlling for all of these factors – education attainment, childhood deprivation, and poor health outcomes – Romany Gypsy, Roma, and Irish or Scottish Traveller people were still three times at risk of being economically inactive.
What should we do instead, to serve Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people?
- Target your recruitment outreach
Within your recruitment cycles, do targeted outreach Reach out to UK Universities, colleges, and education institutions that have pledged to undertake certain equity steps to support GRT students into and within higher education
- Go further than education outreach
Also, reach out to Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller organizations in the UK like The Traveller Movement and Roma Support Group to widen participation opportunities to GRT folks who are not within education institutions.
- Target opportunities internally
Where early career training opportunities exist in your organization, target and make these explicitly accessible to Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller folks joining.
Myth 2: Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people are not the right “cultural fit”
The language of ‘cultural fit’ should always raise our ‘antenna’ when we are committed to equity and inclusion especially where it is used about qualifying/disqualifying inclusion/opportunity for folks who are marginalized. “Cultural fit” is very often coded language that articulates a desired/accepted “in the group” who are already privileged and undesirable/unacceptable “out-group” who are already marginalized (all along lines of Race, Gender, Class, and so on). When we hear the idea that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people do not culturally “qualify” for an organization, what is being articulated (albeit through coded and somewhat sterilized language) are the same false ideas about these communities that have long been used to justified systemic oppression and exclusion on a wider societal level. Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities have long been represented and viewed by wider society as “deviant, lazy, criminal, uncivilized and inferior”. These myths permeate media representations and form the basis of government policies (or indeed lack of policies), too. Take for example The Egyptians Act passed in England in 1530 as a response to the arrival of Romani Gypsies, known as ‘Egyptians’ at the time – this law empowered the state to imprison, execute, and banish anyone that was perceived as Gypsy. Or the Caravan Act (1968), which effectively allowed authorities to close down any sites traditionally used by Travellers – an act that sought to eradicate their way of life. In today’s Britain, as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill becomes law, the criminalisation of trespass will force GRT people for whom nomadic lifestyle is central to their cultural and ethnic identity and way of life, into a confrontation with the law. The belief that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people are culturally – and ethnically – inferior has long, strong roots that continue into our present day and have the potential to creep into our organizational practices – if we aren’t intentional about disrupting them.
What should we do instead, to serve Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people?
- Codify expectations and needs for roles in your organization.
Extreme clarity is equity’s best friend; clear criteria that outline precisely what skills and qualifications are required to deliver a role minimizes the scope for oppressive ideas about who is or is not the right “fit” to shape outcomes and opportunities unfairly.
Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people are so often invisibilized as a marginalized community that one of the most foundational steps for creating conditions for their inclusion in our workplaces, is to inform ourselves, accurately, about the cultures, traditions, and experiences of the communities within the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller umbrella – to disinvest from the myths that permeate our society.
Myth 3: “It’s not racism”, is it?
Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities are Racialised through a form of racism associated with Ethnicity – ethno-racism. Contrary to what many of us were taught growing up, Race is a false, socially constructed category. Society determines what ‘Race’ is and who belongs to what category – there is no scientific basis for ‘Race’. Across history, skin color, physical features, cultural and ethnic practices, and origins – and various combinations of these – have been used to decide who is understood as what Race. This is what sociologists call the process of ‘Racialisation’. Racialization is the process by which a community is either constructed as White (and thus have access to racial privilege) or constructed as non-White (and therefore subject to racial oppression). In the case of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities it is largely the cultural and ethnic practices of these communities which is the foundation of how they are racialized – so whether Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller folks have light skin or not, the systemic oppression they experience is accurately understood as racism, because Racism is not (and never had been) solely about skin color.
Why is this important? Well, the failure of the UK institutions and the UK government to recognize the oppression faced by Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities as racism has resulted in omitting them from consideration in policy interventions, targeting resources, and so on, therefore compounding the oppression they face. For example ‘widening participation in higher education’ in the UK for racially and ethnically minoritized people has been on the policy agenda for many years, yet this policy and sector focus has not engaged in any meaningful way with increasing university access and participation in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, with these groups often remaining invisible in policy discussions as well as in university Access and Participation Plans. This invisibility and lack of concern, about outcomes and life chances, was highlighted in the 2019 report by the Women and Equalities Committee where they concluded that Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities have been ‘comprehensively failed’ by UK policymakers.
And the same happens in our organizations. Failure to recognize the oppression faced by Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities as racism results in omitting them from anti-Racist or Racial equity initiatives, policies, and processes – and sometimes invisibilizes them from our EDI efforts entirely.
What should we do instead, to serve Gypsy Roma, and Traveller people?
- Recognize this community is racialized as non-White, and is therefore subject to Racism.
What this looks like in your context will be subjective but any existing initiative focused on anti-racism and Racial equity already might be a good starting point for inclusion! Are your existing ERGs empowered to take a broad, intersectional, and inclusive approach to anti-racism and Racial equity? If you have anti-racism efforts in focus areas, in the land of policy and process, you might seek consultation from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people on how to ensure they are included and indexed within these initiatives.