September blog - Gypsy Traveller Training: Are we blaming ourselves for our own position of disadvantage? by Jim Davies

Gypsy Traveller Training: Are we blaming ourselves for our own position of disadvantage?

By Jim Davies

My eye has been caught recently by a number of advertisements offering Gypsy Traveller Training. It has got me thinking about the subject as a whole. It’s a subject I have past experience in, having worked on and delivered many GRT awareness training sessions for the GRT Police Association and like everyone else involved in this area, my motivation came from a desire to make a difference. Bring about a change that would help end the inequality faced by Gypsies and Travellers. But since that time, I have changed my mind and have come to regard GRT Training as a hindrance to real change, a flawed approach and here’s why.

A quick search of google shows a plethora of GRT training courses. Training days, events and even online courses offered by Gypsy Traveller NGO’s and Gypsy Traveller run organisations. All different in their own way but all essentially offering the same thing. An opportunity to learn about Gypsy Traveller culture and history and to be able to identify and overcome obstacles to working with Gypsies and Travellers. To enhance good practice in the delegates own particular field and therefore improve service provision to Gypsies and Travellers.

This all sounds admirable and reasonable doesn’t it?

Few would dispute that as a minority ethnic group, Gypsies and Travellers are pretty much at the bottom of the league tables. Across all indicators used to measure social disadvantage, whether it’s Health, Education, Employment, Prison population, you name it, we finish pretty much bottom in all categories. We suffer enormous inequality across the board. This is well documented. There is no shortage of evidence. So, if this is the case then, what’s wrong with trying to improve the service provision of the Police, the Health Service, Education Authorities and the like?

Clearly, it’s essential that we work to try and address these issues, but the problem is, Gypsy Traveller Training days might be doing exactly the opposite. It’s my belief it helps prolong the inequality we face rather than reduce it.

What do I mean?  Well, let’s look at why we suffer such inequality. Is it our own fault? Is there something intrinsically wrong with us or our culture which means we are just not as good as other ethnicities. Of course not! Then the problem must lie with the system itself. With the institutions and with the service providers. And we all know this. We’ve all been on the receiving end of it in one form or another. It’s not even about individual bigotry and prejudice, although this is how it sometimes manifests.  The inequality and discrimination we face daily is the result of entrenched institutional and systemic discrimination.

There are many definitions of systemic discrimination but essentially it is policies, organisational practices and patterns of behaviour that have become part of the structure of that organisation and which create a situation of disadvantage for the ethnic group in question. It needn’t be intentional and very often it isn’t, but that’s irrelevant if you are suffering because of it.

To change service provision for the better then, requires institutions to take a long hard look at themselves and to be brutally honest about their own shortcomings in terms of inequality. This is a very hard thing to do. Much systemic racism, by its very nature has been in place for years. Unnoticed, unquestioned, accepted practice. To start to pick  an  organisation apart and to admit that perhaps for years you’ve been acting in a discriminatory and or  racist manner, that you’ve caused suffering and hurt, is a hard thing to do.

As Albert Memmi is quoted as saying in Eduardo Bonilla Silvas book “Racism without Racists “ ……No one or almost no one wishes to see themselves as racist, yet racism persists, real and tenacious”.  William Ryan put it more succinctly in his seminal work of the 1970’s “Blaming the Victim” when he said “No one wants to think of himself as a son of a bitch”

Rather than go through the pain of realising you’ve presided over, or been part of an organisation that is and has been responsible for inequality and suffering, much easier if the cause of such suffering was to be found elsewhere, and what better place to look than with the victims themselves. If there were something about these people that made providing a good and equitable service difficult, if they were culturally different to mainstream society in some way that explained their inequality, then something could be done about it without the need to look inwards. Without the hardship, effort - and let’s not forget the expense-  it would take to bring about real institutional change.

In his book, Ryan identifies this very issue as a 3-step process to avoiding institutional change.

1 Identify or accept the problem

2 Look closely at those who have the problem and then define these as a special group different from the population in general

3 Allocate the cause of the problem to this difference

“Et Voila”. You can then be seen to be doing something constructive about the issue without having to look too closely in your own backyard. Your social conscience can be soothed without having to change too much about the way you do things.

And hence the problem with Gypsy Traveller Training. It is focused on us, the Gypsy and Traveller. We are saying, “Come and look at us, learn all about us. Identify the obstacles to quality service provision”. The message being sent is a clear one and it is this. “The root cause of the problem lies with the Gypsy and Traveller, not with the service provider.” Essentially, we ourselves are completing Step 2 of Ryan’s “institutional change avoidance strategy”, on behalf of the very institutions we want to change.

Firstly, we’re not that different. Like any group, we like to think of ourselves as unique and certainly we have a unique history and heritage, but so does every other minority ethnic group. That’s what qualifies them to be an ethnic group. We have suffered enormous oppression and discrimination, and continue to do so, but we are far from alone in that respect. And most importantly in terms of this discussion, we are all, just like everyone else on the planet, individual human beings. We each have our own, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, political views, religious view etc. What is important and right for me isn’t necessarily the same for any other Romani.  And this is the way it should be. It is   only right and proper.

So, if you accept this is true, what general facts are there, that apply to all Gypsies and Travellers, that we can teach service providers and that will allow them to go away and start treating us fairly. Personally, I can’t think of any. We are not suffering enormous disadvantage because people don’t know enough about our culture or heritage.

The second reason I think GRT training is a flawed approach is this. Institutions and systems protect themselves. This is part of the systemic discrimination. They will automatically try to maintain the status quo and find ways of avoiding change.  Even if someone does come away from a GRT course or event enlightened at the structural inequality within their own institution, the chances of them going back to the workplace and bringing about systemic change are close to zero. The very nature of structural systemic discrimination ensures it is deeply entrenched and forms part of the very fabric of the organisation itself. Any individual attempt to change this will be met by fierce resistance. I know this from personal experience.  Anyone looking to dismantle systemic racism within their own organisation can expect at best to be ignored or not taken seriously, and at worst to be met with hostility and isolation, which are in effect efforts to remove them from the very system they are trying to change. Can we expect delegates to GRT training courses to put themselves through this? It might happen, but it’s a big ask. My money is on it not happening.

GRT training then, may look like an attractive proposition but is it really? I suggest not. To the service provider, GRT Training allows them to feel like they are doing something constructive.  They can demonstrate that they are taking some action to address inequality. Most if not all institutions will have performance indicators of some description in terms of their equality duty. What better way to show you are working towards addressing equality issues and meeting your duty, than showing you’ve made the effort to been trained in “Gypsy Traveller Culture”. And to us, the Gypsy or Traveller, it might at a surface level allows us to think we are doing something positive. To feel we ae making progress. After all, we have a need to feel we are proactive and have some influence over our own destiny. But what is GRT training really achieving?

In my experience, Institutions don’t change voluntarily out of ethical or social conscience. They only change when changing becomes less difficult than not changing. When the current status quo becomes untenable and the only option left is for change. The issue has to be forced.  To reach this tipping point requires massive cohesive action on the part of the disadvantaged group. History shows us this. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s brought about change through enormous organised community protest, and action. Not by holding Black Cultural Awareness Sessions.

If change is going to happen for Gypsies Roma and Travellers it is vital we all work together.  However, all the time institutions have a reason not to change, they won’t. My fear is, Gypsy Traveller Training gives them that reason because essentially it’s saying the problem lies with us, not them. Maybe it’s time to stop giving them that excuse.

Jim Davies is currently TM Equality and Social Justice Manager, is a Romany Gypsy and is a founding member of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association, as well as a retired police officer