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Once Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) history month commences Gypsy and Traveller histories are largely ignored. This is on par with the the erasure of GRT history and contemporary culture within mainstream Britain. Given this, I was surprised that the very popular Peaky Blinders starred Birmingham based main characters and their families who appear to be Brummies, of Romany, Gypsy and Irish Traveller heritage.
In many ways representation within Peaky Blinders is problematic, it is typical that once GRT people appear as main characters their lifestyles are associated with gangs, sex and violence. But there are a lot of positives, the episodes are filled with fabulous costumes, interesting characters, plots, settings and music. There is certainly a lot of pride that comes with the representation of Birmingham based lives of mixed heritage Gypsy and Traveller families on screen.
Peaky Blinders is set in a time era which is just after WWI and appears to end in the 1930s. Whilst the series is fictional, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the lives of the fictional main character Tommy Shelby and his family and the real-life lived histories of Gypsy and Traveller people.
Peaky Blinders does well to de-mythisise the assumption that Gypsy and Traveller people do not mix with gorgers and do not participate within mainstream society. To illustrate, Tommy and his brother’s fought in WWI and experienced the damaging aftereffects of war participation. In reality, despite previously being subjected to British colonial practices and being treated with distain by the State many British Gypsy and Traveller people would have had no choice but to fight in this war due to conscription. Many would have lost their lives because of this.
Note that Tommy’s family mostly lived within housing and were working within mainstream industrial society. In reality, in industrial cities like Birmimgham many nomadic Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles would have been under threat due to land purchases made by gorgers for the purpose of building factories and housing (Green, 2009). Upon purchase of this land nomadic groups would be evicted from it, this would have left many homeless, with the increased the pressure to assimilate. This would result in work life changes, hence, Gypsy and Traveller people worked alongside gorgers in factories, where the pay and conditions would have been poor (Green, 2009).
Just like prejudice in reality, even when living within housing Tommy and his family experience prejudice from within and outside of their own community. Tommy is referred to as a ‘dirty didicoi’ seemingly due to the perception of his mixed heritage and not being of ‘full-blooded’ Gypsy stock. In response to an anti-gypsy slur Tommy mocks stereotypes by stating that as well as his day job he ‘also sells pegs and tells fortunes’.
Towards the end of Peaky Blinders the promotion of fascism by elite figures is central to the storyline. Just as in reality, there was the development of the British Union of Fascists political party. Prejudice and fascist ideas contributed to categorising Gypsys as an inferior race. Whilst Peaky Blinders ends before WWII it is harrowing to know that these ideas influenced the extermination of Roma and Gypsies during the Nazi regime. Many British Gypsy and Traveller soldiers lives would have also been lost in fighting the Nazi’s in WWII due to this.
It is unfortunate that the women have less screen time in Peaky Blinders, but their personalities did shine. Ada’s character and response to prejudice is ace, whether this is responding to street hecklers, an elite eugenicist women’s ethnic cleansing ideas, or her son’s prejudice towards his sister. When her son refers to his sister as a ‘thing’ and states that she would ‘get them killed’ as she was a Black-mixed race child she responds by stating, ‘where will they send you Karl?’ whilst making him aware that he could also be subjected to persecution due to having a Jewish father and a Gypsy mother.
This year marks the end of Peaky Blinder’s episodes, the last episode is great. Tommy returns to his roots – choosing to end his days with his horse, wagon and photographs of his family. But he then wins against all the odds! Unfortunately, whilst Peaky Blinders has been celebrated there is less celebration of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicities, these were completely ignored within the documentary The Real Peaky Blinders.
Through whitewashing Gypsy and Traveller peoples histories are frequently denied. To adapt David Olusoga’s words, ‘[Gypsy and Traveller] history is British history’. An awareness of Roma Gypsy and Traveller history should not only reside with Gypsies and Travellers alone, or exist at the margins, as these are connected to all of us. As Taylor and Hinks (2021) indicate, if there is increased awareness that past and present themes of percecution this might enable increased support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights – this is vital.
Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten History, BBC [online].
Taylor, B. and Hinks, J., (2021). What field? Where? Bringing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History into View. Cultural and social history, 18(5), pp.629–650.
Jimmy Carr’s Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by Twitter. The context in which the joke is told is as follows:
A wealthy white gorger man mocks Roma and Sinti people because of who they are. His mostly white gorger audience than laughs and finds this hilarious. This man’s stand-up is so successful that it is endorsed by Netflix, of which the CEO appears to be a rich white gorger man. Both Jimmy Carr and Netflix profit from dehumanising a marginalised group of people.
If the joke had been delivered to audiences which were predominantly Gypsy Roma and Traveller people this would not have been viewed as funny. To adapt Emma Dabiri’s (2021, p. 98) work, ‘a ‘joke’ in which the gag is that the person is [a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller] isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humour’ (2021, p. 98).
Carr’s joke should not be surprising as he prides himself on his use of homophobic, racist and misogynistic ‘career ending’ jokes and these jokes are enjoyed by many.
The anti-racist Twitter reactions to this joke could provide some hope that many people are becoming more willing to challenge racism. Some Tweets were aimed at increasing the awareness and calling-out racism. Many Tweets were kind, and others were asking for Jimmy to provide a genuine apology. Although, Carr’s words (plus the support of the audience and Netflix) are a symptom of a racist society, so does the focus on Carr’s interpersonal actions mean that people are being distracted from the broader structural issues of racism and white supremacy?
After scrolling though Twitter there was a clear divide between those claiming to be ‘anti-racist’ and those claiming that ‘the freedom of speech’ is more important than combating racism. This left me thinking,
How do we get to a point where people are willing to recognise that oppressive systems impact us all, but differently, in some way shape or form?
How could people be encouraged to fight against unequal and damaging systems in a way that encourages social change and forgiveness rather than hate and division?
It seems that online activism might be useful for raising awareness and giving voices to those pushed out of mainstream media. However, if focused on just ‘calling out’ individual acts of racism whilst online there is a danger of being caught up in an online culture war and not actually doing much to change structural issues in the offline world.
Whilst the Jimmy Carr Twitter debates continue, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which could further damage Gypsy Roma and Traveller lives is in the final stages of Bill passage. As well as this, inequality and misery is set to become further entrenched with the impending surge in energy bills. All of this is thanks to a government which is a mess, corrupt and devoid of any sense of morality. Even so, maybe Jimmy Carr should stick to making jokes about his own experiences of upper class tax avoidance next time.
Note: Thank you to Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) for helping me to articulte my frustrations with online Twitter debates.