environment & politics


Reading all the headlines that surround France’s hostility to, and deportation of, Roma gypsies, I remembered this excellent article in the Guardian from a few years ago:

Imagine an English village building an effigy of a car, with caricatures of black people in the windows and the number plate “N1GGER”, and burning it in a public ceremony. Then imagine one of Britain’s most socially conscious MPs appearing to suggest that black people were partly to blame for the way they had been portrayed.

It is, or so we should hope, unimaginable. But something very much like it happened last week. The good burghers of Firle, in Sussex, built a mock caravan, painted a Gypsy family in the windows, added the numberplate “P1KEY” (a derogatory name for Gypsies which derives from the turnpike roads they travelled) and the words “Do As You Likey Driveways Ltd – guaranteed to rip you off”, then metaphorically purged themselves of this community by incinerating it. Their MP, the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, later told BBC South East that “there is an issue about the rights of travellers which has to be respected, but also the duty’s on travellers to ensure that they treat the areas in which they are living with respect … That did not happen in Firle earlier this year which is why the Bonfire Society has taken the act that they have.”

Racism towards Gypsies is acceptable in public life in Britain. Last month the Now Show on Radio 4 satirised “pikeys” running fairgrounds “with no safety documents”. It would surely never crack jokes about “pakis” or “yids”, or suggest that members of another ethnic group typically engage in dodgy business practices. When Jack Straw was home secretary he characterised Gypsies as people who “think that it’s perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other trouble including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on”.

Read the rest if you have a few moments. It’s extremely enlightening, and also sad to see antiziganism hitting the headlines yet again, though not surprising – the rise (and disguise) of far-right politics is perhaps a symptom of the economic crisis.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

25 replies on “Antiziganism”

Yeah, it’s a really interesting issue. I must say, that while I happily wear my liberal hat and advocated for equal rights and treatment, it was very illuminating for me to spend time in Romania last month. While I can’t say that it changed my opinion/stance on the issues, I saw another side of the issue and sympathized much more than I expected to.

Well, first was simply interacting with Romaians – it seems that you if you talk to one long enough the gypsy issue comes up (in quite negative terms). At first I did what you’d expect of some like me – I chalked it up to the inherent bigotry/racism of Romanian society. I even said as much to an American colleague of mine (one who spends lots of time in Europe and is about to marry his second Czech wife). He told me that’s it’s a bit more complicated and I should wait and see.

Then I was staying in a smallish city at a hotel a 15-minute walk through from the center. That walk went through an area with several gypsy houses. I was warned repeatedly by people in town (including a Colonel in the Romanian army) that I absolutely should not walk through that area as it was dangerous to me. I walked through it quite often anyway, but was careful not to make a pattern out of it (I was there for over 2 weeks). I can’t say that I ever felt unsafe, but certainly uncomfortable.

Anyway, I’m not sure that says to much. But mostly, I got a chance to see gypsies in rural Romania (and in Bucharest as well), see how they live, the rather depressing conditions of that living, and contrast that with the thoughts and opinions of the Romanian majority. And that contrasted again with driving through gypsy villages full of ‘gypsy palaces’.

Many of the conversations with Romanians included stuff like ‘the French should keep our gypsies’ ‘the French deserve our gypsies’ ‘the EU doesn’t like us because of our gypsies’ ‘now that we are in the EU we hope our gypsies will leave’ ‘wait until American visa restrictions are lifted, then you will get our gypsies too – Canada already has some’. Etc. Then this would contrast with one of the most popular non-Madonna pop songs bing “I’m a Gypsy’ and other relative compliments about gypsy musical talent.

Ok, I’ve rambled on far too long but mostly it was the being in parts of Romania that foreigners generally don’t go to and interacting with Romanians on a daily basis (all day, every day) that showed me a very different side of the picture than I get from newsbites.

It hasn’t changed my general opinion that equality + acceptence + education = opportunity. However, that is in many ways in contrast to the gyspy culture, which only furthers the problem.

Thanks for that, Neth. I wonder if many of the prejudices are, as the article I linked to suggest, bound up with the way of life as much as any ethnic label? I know there are those who do not live the nomadic way, but is the reaction bound more to land and property issues as much as it is elsewhere?

Modern states -and by this I mean say anything post 500 C.E., their attendant governments and settled populations, do not deal well with nomadic groups who coexist in their territories.

Outside of those empires founded by nomads themselves, and even here, such populations often were forced to “civilize” themselves and their conquered territories for all of the reasons below, few have a history of tolerance or smooth integration.

The reasons are varied, but chief among them are that a moving population is difficult to tax, nearly impossible to accurately take census of, traditionally resist sending their children to local schools, and rarely see themselves as part of a distinct national group – ignoring the shifting political boundaries of statehood and literally crossing the physical borders to reach traditional pasture, gatherings, markets and seasonal camps.

Racism is hard to separable from the settled populations’ ancient distrust of travelers, even of the same nominal ethnic type. Traveling populations exist among various ethnic groups, yet nearly all routinely suffer racist reactions from their host countries. Racism alone, is rarely to blame. Which unfortunately means that only limited success comes from efforts aimed at increasing ethnic sensitivity and cultural education.

The French (and Romania itself) are hardly unique. Be they Irish travelers or Mongolian herdsmen, this way of life is under threat, and has been for a long time. Changes in climate, transportation, global commerce, and the increased risks involved in crossing disputed borders, has only further marginalized traveling groups. A lack of education and few opportunities within or without these communities functions as a moving ghetto, ringed by populations who are almost always suspicious and inherently hostile.

Without protection and active support from the state, which has for the reasons above great difficulty dealing with nomads at all, the future is grim for most traveling populations. There is simply little room and little economic space, for such groups to exist. It is hard for activists who wish to preserve these often unique communities and their links to their rich history and heritage, with the voracious demands of modern sanitation, education, and economic opportunity.

Integration comes at a high cost as well, generally. Those populations which have either forcibly or by choice been “settled,” tend towards high rates of alcoholism, violence, crime, and low economic success; often carrying the stigma of their previous lifestyles and ethnicities despite their outward integration with the larger society around them.

I don’t see much hope in the future for such groups. As the world dwindles, most will either be forced to choose between a fully settled, integrated lifestyle (and likely a poor one at that) or one of continued persecution and grossly limited possibilities. This is not an excuse for inaction but I don’t think there are any simple fixes to what is a very old problem between nomadic populations and the settled, civitas.


This guy is actually serious in his article? When did this turned into a question of travelling and nomad life? I thought that the French send the gypsies home beacause they built illegal camps.

Anyway, the entire press and EU politicians are missing a point, an important one. Why everyone wants to get rid of the problem? Why do not held it in the civilized way they claim to promote? And Ken is right, we do say that EU deserves this, because for a long time they said that the Romanians are not making efforts to integrate the gypsy minority within our society. Let’s see if they are right.

I am not racist, I do not have anything against anyone and I don’t care about one’s race, gender or sexual preference, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my and my family’s right for a peaceful living. The gypsy are an important presence and part of the Romanian community and I believe they will long be. I don’t have nothing against it. I met some very interesting people of this community and shared a few interesting conversations. They were intelligent people. I do play football with a few friends and not a single time a gypsy was forbidden from the field of play or treated in a different way. But this are exceptions from the rule.

For instance, almost the entire Romanian educational process is free. Not a single public school has a fee for accepting children in the educational process. But the gypsies are few and mainly because the state provides an allowance for the families that have children at school. You don’t see them reach the high-school level too often and the university level almost rarely. Although the colleges and universities have seats within their schools specially created only for the gypsy community.

Unfortunately, the criminality rate is quite high in Romania and it doesn’t take into account the race. The Romanians are as bad as the other criminals. But for a minority the gypsy community has a high number of criminals. They steal, rape and murder and are a danger for society. My family has a small shop and over the years there were 4 shoplifting attempts, the ones we saw at least. From that 4 shoplifters, 3 were gypsy. During my university years in Bucharest, on the public transport one of the things that I had to be careful of was the pickpocketing. I was fortunate to escape with my pockets untouched, but I saw attempts and the wide majority had a gypsy child as the attempter. And if you tried to say anything there were his older brothers at the ready to silence you. I’ve seen kids pushed and almost beaten for a pair of sunglasses by the gypsy children. Don’t get me wrong, it is not Wild West here, but these are things that happen if you are not careful.

Here in my city some of the gypsies lived in an apartament block. A few years ago the city hall had to move them in a suburbia especially built for them, with all the facilities, because the respective block was a source of infestation. Rats, defecations and mountains of garbage dominated the area. It was very close to the city center so I passed more than a several times, so I know what I am talking about. You know what happened with that suburbia? Excatly the same thing as with the apartament block. And you know this story ( Well, tell me about it. These are old stories here. Every time such a thing happens they shout that they don’t have where to raise their children. Really? And then why should I have to pay for my home in order to live in it?

Speaking of which. Why should I have to wake up every morning and go to work in order to pay taxes. Neth had the experience of the “gypsy palaces” (here is an example: The prefered building material is marble, the interiors include plated gold and the proprietors drive a luxury car. But they do not pay taxes for those. Even more, there were newspaper articles in which it was proved that they also benefited from financial social assistance. Tell me then, are we racists for demanding our rights?

There was big case here on the media with the deported gypsies from France. But all those people returning home said on the airports that this is a small vacation and once the money received for leaving France are over they’ll return there. But why France and EU doesn’t try to integrate them in their societies? Is it because they feel the same way now as we do here for a long time?


Citing an article from the Daily Mail of all places, hardly makes you appear “fair or balanced.” It’s like turning to FOX News for a level headed assessment of politics in America.

No one I think would argue that traveler communities do not have high rates of crime and often live in deplorable conditions: both of which are of course symptomatic of ghettoized, impoverished communities the world over. Your argument sails rather close to saying that the Roma are inherently criminals and subhumans, who even if they have wealth, chose crime over honest work, or who if given modern apartments, turn them into stables and communal toilets. Germany in World War II had some very similar social theories – about not just gypsies but a group of people called the Jews, as well. I think we can agree that’s a road which leads to a very dark place.

I have no sympathy for your “why should I pay taxes to support lazy (insert whatever dehumanized group you wish to cast generalized aspersions about here) good-for-nothings” defense. The reason why the state, and that is whose money it is, not yours, needs to provide support and assistance is often because the same governments have made life difficult for these groups by the very nature of the modern nation-state. Taxation goes towards a lot of things, and you don’t always get a choice about how monies are spent on an individual basis. I think helping to offset long standing economic and societal wrongs should be the least of any citizen’s worries when placed against high level corruption, cooperate kick-backs through vastly substituted tax breaks, similar schemes for the very wealthiest citizens, and pointless spending on antiquated defense systems (not to mention the pursuit of illegal wars in foreign places).

You pose the question of whether or not you are being racist about the Roma. I would say you certainly appear to be, based on your response. At the very least it sounds in keeping with well established prejudices about traveling communities. You you did ask. And even if you have reasons based on personal negative encounters with individuals, this sort of blanket condemnation of an entire people as thieves and spongers is exactly what racism, to a large part, is all about.

Settlement of traveling cultures is never easy, on either side of the equation. It is a hard process for all involved and is not a step easily undertaken. I can’t say what the answer is, for ensuring long term success. But supporting racism, intolerance, and turning settled communities/states into armed camps against travelers, is likely not the best way forward.


As for criminals living in palaces, you should try my country, the U.S. of A.

The nation’s defense contractors have enjoyed boom times even in the middle of a ruined economy. They have not only made millions from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but enjoyed some of the lowest taxes and largest corporate kick-backs that you can find anywhere.

They’ve plowed much of this wealth into massive and massively gauche McMansions in rural poverty stricken West Virginia and in the depressed beltway outside of Washington D.C. They have gold plated taps, swimming pool sized tubs, actual swimming pools, and faux carriage houses for their fleets of luxury 4×4 vehicles. Imported slate roofs from france, and copper gutters and custom wine cellars help to flash out their super-sized cribs.

And they’ve managed all this while still paying some of the lowest rates of taxation you’ll find among first world nations. At the same time, thousands of hard working, tax paying fellow citizens have their homes repossessed, their chances of real health care voted down, their low paying jobs vaporized, and their savings wiped out by state-bailed-out banks and corporations.

Compared to this, helping the Roma and fellow travelers, costs peanuts.


In an attempt to move the conversation on a bit, I wanted to ask Mark if he might favour us with a new post on the subject.

Or more accurately, host a post on the topic of Fantasy Travelers.

I think that it is interesting, especially in light of the still prevalent negative image that real-world travelers have, that I can only think of their positive portrayal in fantasy literature.

Certainly they are frequent visitors to its pages: the tinkers in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the strange dwarfs (some of them made in the eerie ‘gloottokoma’ boxes rather than born), fortune telling Mams, and brightly painted caravans of the Mingulay Peninsula from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, Philip Pullman’s Gyptians from His Dark Materials, the Edema Ruh of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even, a bit tangentially, the wandering rangers of Tolkien, to name a handful that spring to mind.

No doubt there are more, and I’d love to see if other readers of the blog can list appearances in fantasy series and stand-alone-books.

With the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula however, in almost all of the examples that I can recall, travelers are portrayed sympathetically. They are typically allies or at least benign presences who help, shelter, give advice or direction to the “heroes.” I can’t think of many who are shown to be sinister or in the employ of the titular dark lord.

I think that’s interesting, considering how darkly by comparison they are seen and treated in the real world, as we’ve been discussing.

Even if they are shown to have a reputation as thieves and dishonest traders in knives and horses, in the stories themselves, they almost always have hearts of gold hidden beneath their dark looks and bright scarves. Frequently, they also seem to serve as a gypsy equivalent of the “magical negro,” providing esoteric advice and help but rarely being the actual focus of the story (with some exceptions).

So, how about it Mark? You had a nice success with your post about Rural Fantasy, how about one about Fantasy Travelers?



Mihai and Eric – firstly, thanks for your lengthy comments. Mihai it’s excellent to get some observations from your own country; we’re often blinded by our own media outlets, that it is useful to understand localised concerns.

And Eric – a hugely eloquent reply, which I can’t really improve on in any way. I’m in agreement all the way through, from your summaries of nation states, distribution of wealth, and the misallocation of anger. We should, as citizens, be holding our governments to account on such things. Perhaps those with national pride should be focussing their anger on the true causes of inequalities – but it is so often the case that easy targets are blamed.

What I find utterly bizarre is that we claim such nomadic people have no rights to be on our land, yet when it comes to Conglomerate X, or Tesco thieving large spaces – or holding land so other competitors cannot move in – we mostly capitulate without considering: “Actually, is this right, or is it – as in most cases – likely to cripple our community/agriculture/suppliers?” What’s more damaging?

With regards to their positive portrayal in fantasy literature: it’s a very good point. I’ll have a think on this. Beneath it all, I suspect that it can be reduced to simple capitalist concepts such as ownership – in the real world, it seems to mean something that nomads occupy a space and turn it into a temporary autonomous zone. The act is seen as bad, because it affects us personally. In a fantasy world, we feel no such affinity to the land. We do not own property there, and beyond the page we do not possess rights. A classic case of nimbyism if ever there was one.

I think the first issue is whether you’re actively being racist because these people are ethnically different, or whether you’re opposed to their lifestyle choice. I can’t see any benefits of living a nomadic existence (but then I wouldn’t, I’m a nation/state drone through and through).
My problems with Travellers (Not Romanians, or Gypsies) is that they don’t appear to give back to the communities they co-exist with (no matter how deprived they are). It’s the willful avoidance of taxation that gets me the most, although given that poorer echelons of society pay the most tax (proportionately) anyway – maybe there is something in this lifestyle choice after all.

Can’t stop for long but just want to say that the Communities and local government policy on gypsys and travellers has changed in the U.K since the change of government. With spacial strategies in regional planning effectively abolished and no expectation of identifying suitable sites for traveller communities, illegal sites will be more prevalent and community tensions likely more difficult to manage. You can tell I work in local government:) Anyway, from a personal perspective, I’m hoping that this change in policy will be challenged from an equalities law perspective as it is has a negative impact on the travelling community.
Eric, thanks for your eloquently put comments!

@ Eric – Don’t get me started with the politicians of my country. It will seem that Romania is crumbling on itself. It probably is.
I don’t complain about being taxed, a state cannot survive without tax money. I don’t intend to be filthy rich either (not that wouldn’t come in handy ;)) I just say that if there are equal rights than let’s have equal rights. Tax the owners of those palaces and luxury cars don’t give them financial social support. And not only for that gypsy minority, for the Romanians that behave the same, because we have those as well.
As for sounding racist it might be. But I cannot make an opinion on other people’s thoughts, therefore I have my personal experiences to back my opinion. And my every day experience (because of the nature of my job I travel a lot and see them constantly) doesn’t give them much credit.

Den Patrick – Culture is part of what defines identity,race and nationality. Difference in cultures and a reluctant to engage and respect with each others cultures is what creates community tension. The problem for the traveller community is that settled communities expect integration into their cultural norms, when gypsy and travellers want to continue with their own centuries old traditions.
Mihai, your definition of equality is probably different to mine:) In my view, what states should be doing is attempt to provide some equality of opportunity for groups and individuals in marginalised communities. What they are doing is listening to the intolerance of the majority and prevalent culture… French policy on race isn’t exactly a leading light anyway, so it’s no surprise that they’re the ones who have been told off!

Also, there’s a lot defined by personal experience here, but I’m wondering what someone from the community so despised would have to say about the way that they are treated by the authorities, what their aspirations are and what their perception of others might be..

Interesting point you raise, Mark, about the possible difference between Fantasy Travelers and real-life ones centring on property rights.

Nomads are notorious for not following established conventions on such. On a larger scale, the same can be said for nation states. One can hardly blame travelers then, as it is both an artificial distinction which we have created in order to carve up the world into discrete pieces and which rarely results in an equal share of good land being offered to nomadic communities.

Yet, nomads aren’t typically the ones clear cutting forests for timber and palm oil cultivation, nor do they practice slash-and-burn agriculture that only is good for a season or two. They have for centuries instead relied on well established routes, and don’t tend to stay in one area long enough to completely use up all its natural resources. Complaints of trash, environmental degradation, and the illegal use of unoccupied land really are not much when you compare it to what is happening illegally in the world’s tropical and temperate forests, or the sort of large scale pollution we see with the disaster in the Gulf with BP or the day to day industrial output/accidents around the globe.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction then, as Mark points out, and fueled in no small part due to the fact that travelers are politically useful targets – who after all, don’t vote and are frequently vilified by the local communities who do. Politically useful nimbyism, then, not just the garden sort.

In fantasy, the situation seems to be reversed. Travelers are romanticized for all the same qualities they’re vilified over in real life: freedom from urban lifestyles, ignorance of private land use, picturesque pre-industrial occupations, colorful dress, exotic customs, tight-knit family/tribal communities, roguish disregard for local authorities, and the ability to up stakes and move on when things go against them or greener pastures beckon. They also don’t go to the law of the land to seek redress, nor do they have much faith in its protection. As Mark has pointed out, it’s not our land, so we don’t have the same emotional attachment.

Add in a whiff of mysticism and stir in some pseudo-eastern girls (and boys) fluttering their dark lashes, and I can see why they’re popular in fantasy settings.

It’s a shame we can’t see our way to valuing the same attributes when they’re camped on a bit of unused common or fallow pasture in our neighborhood (and by the way, we do have such sites here in semi-rural Hertfordshire, which are used by travelers much to the consternation of our local Tory councils and homeowners).

Squatters get a much kinder treatment even in the press. But then they’re most often urban types with a certain bohemian temperament. Taking over a disused building, changing the locks, and setting up home in the hopes of staying semi-permanently, seems an even more extreme violation of private property rights. Rarely though, do squatters get tarred with the same vitriolic brush that traveling communities do, which reinforces the notion that racism is inextricably bound up with fears about unsightly (or unsafe) temporary use of land.


@Leiali: I think you’re misunderstood Den’s remark. He wasn’t commenting on cultural assimilation, he was speaking about paying taxes. Avoiding taxes is only an accepted cultural tradition with the upper classes (in any country, around the world, full stop).

@Eric & Mark: There are a lot of Gypsy, Traveler-Types singled out as noble liberated folk (the Edema Ruh are spot on when it comes to flamboyantly unrealistic depictions of life on the road. Tra la la, we sing, everyone loves us and we’re filled with ageless wisdom, tra la la.).

BUT… in the generic, I’m betting that (lower-case) gypsy-types are baddies.

If you need your high fantasy hero threatened in the early chapters, there are always lawless / landless / roving thugs to do it.

When it comes down to it, generic fantasy is rooted in a lot of very traditional ideas. One of which is that national identity is Vastly Important and Unchanging. People are Countryians from Country, and that’s their key defining trait.

I’m sure it harkens back to the quasi-medieval origins of the genre, but, whatever, I’m betting it is there.

Anyway, worth investigating…

I’ve decided that I might as well squat this thread, pitch my tent, stake my claim. Hear that Mark? Now you just try and move me orf your land!


You may be right. And good points about the overt romanticizing of such in most fantasy worlds. However, I can’t think of any fantasy novels I’ve read where the “gypsies” are the baddies. Oddly enough, that’s not the case for fantasy “mongols” who show up predictably enough to ravage whole continents in dramatic fashion. A fear of non-European faces? I suppose more likely you can simply lay that infamousness at the feet of Attila, Genghis, and Kublai (and yes, I know Attila wasn’t technically a mongol but a hun).

The thing about national identity and generic fantasy, is that it’s not very accurate historically speaking. National boundaries are a fairly recent development in Western Europe. Not until well into the 16th century do you get anything like what we think of it being today.

Thanks for the help on the topic. I’ve enjoyed all the lively discussion.


@jared, No I did get what he meant, my point being that different cultures have different expectations regarding things like taxes – as you point out, we only tolerate tax dodging from the rich who can afford to pay it, but paying benefits to people who jump through hoops to prove they are entitled to it…Disability living allowance in particular, well, that’s another thing entirely:).

I’m not really experienced in the traveller’s ways, but I think that they can be bad for settled communities, especially with the amount of paranoia they bring into that community.

I live on an estate in Yorkshire (Woo, lucky me!) and over the past year or so, we’ve had at least three instances of travelling folk setting up camp. Two of those instances were at the other end of the estate to myself, but a lot of rubbish was left where they were (Which the council then cleaned up), and the third instance happened literally across the road.

That third instance? Let’s see… They broke into private ground (Literally broke the chain holding the gate closed), when they were arriving they disrupted traffic and a bus route, and they left rubbish on the site. A couple of people (At least, including myself!) had called the police whilst they were breaking into private land. After the police arriving and going, the travellers remained for another week or so. You could sense the paranoia, though. We had our door locked during the day (I’m usually in so there’s no need to normally) and people seemed to keep away from that area. Usually kids are playing on that land (There’s a “football pitch” of sorts left from where a school was), but whilst the travellers were there, they didn’t.

I don’t know the particulars of travellers and their nomadic lives, but my own limited experience has them pinned as takers and destroyers. Do I think they’re all like that? No, that would be ignorant. But everything I’ve seen (Personally!) points to them being disruptive to local communities. I don’t think it’s a racist point of view. I think it’d be racist if I said *all* travelling folk were like that.

bah Mark, you really need an easy way to subscribe by email to comments at the bottom of each post. I stopped paying attention here just when it started getting real interesting.

Mihai, I was happy to see your perspective offered here. I would caution all against making a blankent assumption of racism without at least seeing things from their perspective (which of course means seeing things in Romania, and not just for a day or two). I’m not saying that the prevelent attitudes of people in Romania are right or good, just that they have their reasons for being that way and changing those attitudes is far from easy or strait-forward.

Ok, off to read the other post.

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