Cultural Appropriation or probably more accurately misappropriation occurs when a person adopts aspects and characteristics of a culture that is not their own. This can cause a great deal of insult to members of the chosen culture because it potentially alters outside perceptions of their culture, they find themselves being redefined often in a more romantic way or a way that fits the agenda of those that indulge in this. For instance Gypsy women are often portrayed as barefoot in flowing skirts, or dressed in dancing costumes that are more in keeping with Turkish Belly Dancers, in contrast they might be portrayed as evil crones casting spells.
Fashion retailers market clothing as Gypsy skirts or blouses the young women modeling the clothing are more often than not barefoot, and pouting upon the steps of a painted Vardo [caravan]. Gypsies are portrayed in an old world fairy tale way that has little in common with reality or the modern world. This is seen by many as harmless but its effects are not harmless at all, it creates an image that is marketed, a form of unintentional learning that the general public perceive as what ‘real Gypsies’ are all about, it’s all very twee and whimsical. When Gypsy people do not fit into this widely marketed delusion they are not accepted readily, how often do we see amid scathing comments under news articles about Gypies and Travellers the question
“These are not real Gypsies” or ‘Where have all the real Gypsies gone?”
A great deal has been written about cultural appropriation, but I wish to tackle a more sinister practice that is often referred to as Cultural Appropriation but goes above and beyond the boundaries of cultural [mis] appropriation that being Ethnic Fraud.
Ethnic Fraud is when a person claims an ethnicity that is not their own. The case of Rachel Dolezal who engaged in Ethnic Fraud by claiming to be an African American is well documented, Dolezal ,while masquerading as an African American was a civil rights activist and also taught Africana studies, and was president of the National Association for the advancement of Coloured people. Dolezal was later exposed by her parents who made it known that she was not an African American at all but a white woman, the child of European American parents. Dolezal has also claimed to be the victim of a number of hate crimes but investigations by Police proved this allegations to be false.
Dolezal defended herself by saying that although she was born white she ‘identified’ as black and therein lays a potential minefield*.
If we look across the Pond to America and Canada we will find that there is quite a lot of work being done to challenge both Cultural Appropriation and Ethnic Fraud The indigenous peoples are particularly susceptible to this and a great deal of work is being done to try and counter this.
In Canada The Canadian Romani Alliance also speak out very strongly against Cultural Appropriation & Ethnic Fraud – they have even challenged individuals in UK – but for some reason Gypsies and Travellers in UK are for the most part quite happy to allow this to continue unchallenged – there may be a bit of whispering but on the whole people are not making the challenge, and those that do so risk being attacked for making a stand.
Here in UK I have watched some of our homegrown ethnic frauds do very nicely indeed. I have seen them receive accolades that have been gained based on the belief of others that they are Romany or Traveller. I have seen them speak publicly to audiences about themselves, their families, their lives and the discrimination they have faced, although the facts do tend to change if you take the trouble to collect and compare. I have also seen such fraud benefit individuals in education, effectively robbing other Romany people of opportunity and raising the bar into the bargain. There are many Romany here in UK have achieved a great deal educationally, they tend not to seek praise and publicity for this. And what of those who might have gone into higher education using assumed Romany ethnicity as an access enhancer? Did they for instance get granted a scholarship to aid study? when exposed should any scholarship money be returned? I would argue that every penny should be returned.
Academics here in UK court such individuals, they do not realize that they are dealing with ethnic fraud, and have been taken in by them. These cuckoo’s that have invaded our nest sit well within the comfort zone of these academics, and they will do – because they are their people and not ours. They will have invested time and belief in the individual concerned, possibly their names linked in academic research or similar they might well be very loath to accept the truth because it brings with it a hornets nest that is probably [from their point of view] best left undisturbed.
Many of the Organizations run by non Gypsies and Travellers can be seen to welcome ethnic frauds – I am not suggesting they are aware of the fraud but again the attraction might well lie in a shared empathy because they have that common ground from being from the wider community, this of course will not be expressed as such, but we do pick up on shared outlooks without the need for words – so the promotion of the frauds continues. It is so hard to grapple with because so often I hear so many Gypsy and Traveller people speak with utter distain about one such fraudster – and with very good reason – yet nothing is actually done to challenge this person and the harm that they do on a very regular basis.
We surely must raise questions about and challenge Gypsy and Traveller Organizations that might be headed by individuals who are committing ethnic fraud. They put themselves in a position whereby in effect they speak for us, often without any consultation or approval, I experienced a very disturbing example of this in 2010 that caused a great deal of harm and still troubles me deeply to this day.
Over the years there has been a great deal of money available to aid Gypsy and Traveller Organisations and to Academics conducting research etc – it has been a very lucrative ‘business’ to be in, and although many are run by non Gypsy or Traveller people [another issue] there are those run by people who claim to be from a Gypsy back ground when that simply is not true, the latter being the more objectionable issue.
I cannot cite who has personally made monies on this pretext, because I simply do not know but over the years a great deal of money has been passed over to many orgs and some of it has been passed to Orgs run by those claiming to be Gypsy when they are not. Many a book has been written and sold on the same basis.
I have heard it said that those so unhappy with their own lives that they invent another should be the focus of pity, but I am sorry I cannot be generous enough to agree. When these people speak at conferences what they have said is taken away that day by those who attend. It is taken to police forces, to schools, to health professionals, to social workers etc etc – a distorted fabricated and often totally false representation of Gypsy and Traveller people – the same can be said when books are produced by them – while some of the content might be accurate other parts are given a hefty shovel load of artistic license, these books are not sold as works of fiction, so they re-write and distort our history over the years this will become what is widely believed to be how our lives were, how we lived, how we spoke – in effect we actually will become those whimsical characters in story books – because that is exactly what some of these books are….story books!
Romany Gypsies have endured much by way of discrimination over the centuries, at one point in history it was a criminal offence to even speak to us. We have been enslaved, we have been murdered in our hundreds of thousands in the Nazi Death Camps. we have had our children removed for no other reason than that of them coming from an undesirable ethnicity, and you might be surprised to learn that far from being a practice we can look back on from a time when life was more brutal – it is a fact that even now in 2017 children from Gypsy and Traveller families are often removed and subjected to forced adoption. I have been involved for some years now in helping to support such families and scouring through files you are often left with no tangible reason other than disapproval of ethnicity that is deemed to place a child ‘at risk of future emotional harm’ – something that is accepted with very little question by the Family Courts in UK . Those same Courts fail to consider the enormous emotional harm done by tearing children from loving families placing siblings with different foster carers or adopters, and taking away not only the sense of self and self worth but cleansing out the ethnicity – robbing the children of cultural identity, sterilising and cleansing the very soul out of them.
I myself was one of those children over sixty years ago I was removed from my family because my grandmother had Tuberculosis. I was passed to my ‘new family’ for adoption within days, neither my mother nor any member of my family knew I was to be adopted or gave their consent to that. It took me more than two decades to find my way home – a long and costly journey looking for ‘Jones the Gypsy” in Wales without the benefit of the Internet or social media. Oh it would have been in many ways so much easier to find my family had I had the Internet and social media, but I am thankful that I was spared that ease of passage because it would have come together with so much misinformation etc due to cultural appropriation and ethnic fraud.
Had I began my search today I would be faced with Gypsy Queens to cobble dogs with, I would have also read books that are available online that are written by ethnic frauds who tell feel good , rose tinted tales of their fantastic lives as Gypsy children. My own family would have seemed very tame and boring in comparison. I might have read books about how to liaise with Gypsies and Travellers and how Health Professionals and others should take instruction before they work with them, I think in all fairness I would have been very put off, very worried and completely alienated by what I read, I would not only have been aware [as I was] about the loss of my cultural identity, but because I was an adult with children of my own, reading how health professionals might need a book to teach them how to liaise with people like my family, I would have felt bereft that my DNA, my cultural identity would be in conflict with the young woman that I had become. I might well have decided that it was best to stay away.
Had I encountered the ethnic frauds I would never have learned that the first words my mother said when she knew I was looking for her and read my letter to her would be “ my dignity has been restored’ because the theft of her child made her feel an unworthy mother, even though she went on to have other children. I would never have seen adult family members with noses just like mine or that had my daughters unruly mop of hair, I would never have learned about the struggles and hardships but in contrast the rich culture the importance of family – the ethnic frauds would in effect have stolen my family from me all over again.
Having given an insight into my personal reasons for making a stance against ethnic fraud I would like to look at it from a wider perspective.
There are so many talented and gifted people within the Gypsy and Traveller community in UK, there also some formidable activists who do a wonderful job of trying to ensure a better future, or even a future at all, There are other activists who claim to be Gypsy people, who go to great lengths and invest considerable amounts of money to appear to be Romany Gypsy or Traveller in an effort ensure the world is fully aware of them being Gypsy people, when in fact they are not Gypsy people at all. We need to be asking what motivates these people.
While cultural appropriation is annoying, unpleasant, misleading and insulting it pales into a degree on insignificance when you measure it against ethnic fraud – some might think the term ethnic fraud to be a little too strong, but when you explore what results from this it should be deemed to be a legally accountable form of discrimination.
I have encountered some of these ethnic fraudsters on a first hand basis, I have heard their stories, indeed it was during a phone call with one such person that they took their story telling a little too far and alarm bells began to ring.They ventured onto a subject that I knew a great deal about and because of this I was in no doubt at all that I was being lied to.
Those who build their lives around ethnic fraud tend to do so obsessively, they have to keep up the pretense every waking moment for fear that truth might slip in and be seen. Some years ago I discussed this with a cousin who told me that the wannabees – as they are commonly referred to are “more Romany than the Romanies themselves, they are professional Gypsies, and they do very well out of it”, when I considered this I released he was absolutely correct. My own family members though very proud of their ethnicity do not feel the need to parade it to everyone they meet, sadly some rarely mention it outside of family and close friends because of the fear of discrimination.
I have struggled with the pros and cons of writing this piece, the cons are quite compelling. I know that the likelihood is that I will be attacked from all corners, because nobody likes to feel they have been taken in by an elaborate and lengthy fraud and I am prepared for the inevitable backlash – the truth is not always welcome hence the old saying “ Don’t shoot the messenger”,
I have struggled here to put across why I feel so strongly about ethnic fraud – I made prior reference to the indigenous peoples of America & Canada being victims of ethnic fraud; I would like to use the words of Hayden King who pleads the case far better than I.
Hayden King is Anishinaabe and he challenged the Canadian writer Joseph Boyden by asking ‘where are you from?”, and it transpired that although successful and writing under the guise of being of Nipmuc or Ojiwe heritage research found no evidence of this, Haden goes on to list why this ethnic fraud must be challenged, describing it as pernicious stating that “there is lots wrong with this form of ‘ethnic fraud’ he said;
- It misrepresents indigenous peoples
- It takes resources away from them, (such as grants and awards for their work),
- Ethnic Fraud alienates those struggling to find their identities, Many of the individuals trying to make their way back are all the more confused by the inconsistent and shifting parameters set by prominent ethnic frauds.
- Playing Indian should not be ignored or excused”
- Ethnic fraud sabotages the necessary work of rebuilding indigenous nations
- Losing sight of who is a member can be the source of real problems. This is especially true for communities that have suffered terrible historical injustices and now are seeking (and gaining) recognition and restitution ….
- And as for ‘posers’, well, in such circumstances, an ethical disposition to include all those who self-identify* as members may have the benefit of extending the reach, scope and influence of the community, as people from all walks of life and all over the world become imagined kin. But it also blurs the lines between insiders and outsiders. It makes it more difficult to identify who has suffered and this can be experienced as a real loss for the community that struggles to survive. The peril of drawing the line using an ethic of self-identification* is that we lose sight of who is a survivor. [*The mine field I mentioned earlier Re Rachel Dolezal ‘self identifying’]
When you read Hayden Kings words as set out above, you can draw uncanny comparison to UK’s Gypsies and Travellers and the difficulties they face – are you still comfortable with ethnic fraud ? Are you still happy to do nothing about it? Do you think ‘playing the Gypsy” is ok?
Here in UK apart from some whispering behind hands there seems to be a passive acceptance of those who are re-writing out history, speaking on our behalf, misrepresenting us at conferences and I cannot understand why that should or even could be acceptable.
If we do not stand up and claim back ownership of our cultural identities they will be lost forever. I would be interested to hear from those who share my concerns, the comment box can be used or you can email Shay.Clipson@nagtrw.co.uk
© copyright shay clipson/NAGTRW 2017