Chris McDonagh is an Irish Traveller and founder of the online campaign Travellers Against Racism. In April 2020, he began the Travellers Against Racism Twitter account following the release of the inflammatory Channel 4 program The Truth About Traveller Crime. The show prompted Chris to begin a movement that would challenge the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes through media.
Stop Funding Hate volunteer Hattie Banfield caught up with Chris to ask him more about the campaign and his personal experiences with racism against the Traveller community, as well as where he hopes to see the movement progress from here:
One of my first memories of racism was when I was around 4. We were on a camp just outside Manchester. I remember I was with some of my extended family and some men were passing by, hurling abuse at us. They called us every name they could think of and one spat on me. I remember this because, to this day, I have vivid memories of the texture, the fear, and disgust I felt.
As I grew older there was plenty more racially motivated abuse. I started primary school and was immediately alone. None of the other children wanted to play with a “Traveller” so I was always alone at playtime. I tried to get involved but I was never picked for the teams and always felt like the odd one out. I never really got used to it, but I ended up accepting it. What else could I do?
Growing up was difficult, because I was constantly attacked or outcast by the settled children, often having to fight to defend myself, often from groups. As I got older the abuse calmed down a little, but the hatred remained. I was rejected from jobs with excuses varying from “you’re not right for this role” to “we don’t employ Travellers”.
I have often visited pubs for the very first time and been rejected entry as I have “caused trouble previously”, despite having never visited the establishment before. I’ve been told I had to leave for being “too drunk” after drinking 1 pint and told that I will “cause trouble” despite them never having met me before.
It is this type of behaviour that is all too common and based on the stereotypes that people throw around. Landlords and security get away with it, because it is accepted too readily. I could give so many examples of the racism I have experienced, but I’d be here all day writing down examples.
The media have an anti GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) agenda, and love to sensationalise the crimes that members of the GRT community commit. I’ve also seen cases in the media in which we have been publicly accused of crimes, and then the culprits are caught, and are members of the settled community. There is no apology, there is no clearing up the lie, and we are then vilified for something we haven’t done.
Often on social media, on news pages etc. the comments about GRT go unchecked. We are called horrible things and people have threatened to burn down sites and camps with women and children included, and the pages won’t remove it until we flag it up. People have often gone to Traveller/Gypsy camps in large groups and thrown items at the trailers and vehicles, terrifying the occupants. It’s hard to listen to the women and children’s screams.
Social media spreads stereotypes and lies and people accept it as truth, and it is hard to challenge and explain to everyone the truth when they have already accepted the lie.
TV programmes such as Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding are also widely seen to have fuelled prejudice towards Traveller groups in Britain.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was a disgrace of a programme. They took the worst and most sensational parts of certain weddings and conveyed it as common behaviour in our community. We don’t all have big fancy weddings with giant dresses, and I’ve never “grabbed” anyone in my life – that isn’t a common thing and it is frowned upon. We aren’t all millionaires or well off, we are people, and the media will never show that as they know sensationalism sells.
After the latest attack on GRT, The Truth About Traveller Crime aired, I was so disgusted I set up @TravellersAgainstRacism on Twitter. I saw the lies that were being broadcast as fact and had a sudden realisation: we need to challenge these people, the kind who spread stereotypes and hate, for the sake of our children.
I needed to try and make some kind of change so that my children could have all the chances in life that I never had. I had to help educate people about the real us and show them we are more than the stereotype. My children are what drives me to carry on fighting.
GRT racism is far too easily accepted. It is in the news, programmes, social media and in everyday life. Despite people talking about how much they hate racism, these same people often ignore what is happening to us. Sometimes they instigate it. This behaviour is so acceptable in society that some people don’t even realise that what they are saying, or what they believe, is racist, or a stereotype. It’s an unconscious bias which needs to be addressed.
The media definitely play a huge part in spreading the hate. We are portrayed as a whole criminal organisation who know each other, when the truth is the exact opposite.
Yes, there are members of our community who commit crime, but that is the case wherever you look. There are members of our community who do a lot of good. We fill food banks for the poor; we give to charities; we help the elderly and ill; feed and clothe the homeless; give needy children presents at Christmas; and have made donations of food and drinks to help the NHS workers during the pandemic.
People rarely see the good things we do because the media and social media are anti GRT and don’t want people to see us for what we are: human beings.
I have been lucky to have such a great following on Twitter and I have made some great friends and allies. In my tweets, I try to talk about things that are affecting or concern our community, and most are accepted with an open mind and caring heart.
The messages I try to convey are often met with surprise, as people don’t see the issues we face in the media. They don’t see the struggles we face every day, and this is what I often share. For instance, not many people knew that if we live on a council site, we pay the same taxes and have the same bills as someone in a house.
There are still so many stereotypes we need to break down, but I feel like it will be easier in the next 12 months thanks to our great allies and all the great pro GRT pages and organisations, and all the great work they’ve been doing. It’s been a rocky journey since I started Travellers Against Racism but on the whole, I’d say it has been pretty successful.
I think now that Travellers are on social media, there will be more people willing to speak out about the issues and treatment that concern them. The more there are that are willing to speak out, then the louder our message and voice will be.
If we (GRT) use social media in a positive way, and educate people on who we really are, we can dispel the stereotypes and hopefully inspire people to champion our cause. The more people from our community who speak out with the truth, then the easier it will be to drown out the lies perpetuated by the media.
Traveller hate is too commonly accepted by a civilised society. We are people too and deserve to live our lives as we always have.
Our communities are not so different from each other. We all want the basic things in life, we all want to be happy and live our lives the way we always have.
I often hear people say “if you want to join society”, which is a silly statement. We ARE part of society and have been for hundreds of years. We have existed side by side with little to no hassle, just as the settled community have with their neighbours.
I feel like the media purposely causes this feeling of “difference” between our communities with its anti GRT rhetoric in order to sell their newspapers and get clicks on their sensationalised headlines. If people could see us for who we truly are, and not who the media portrays us to be, then that would go a long way for everyone.
I have seen a vast improvement in the relations between all communities since I started. I don’t want to take sole credit as there are quite a few active GRT activists and campaigners who are also on twitter, but the general feeling I have is one of slow change, for the better.
There have been quite a few examples of people who believed in the stereotypes up until they came across Travellers Against Racism, and with an open mind were willing to listen to what I had to say. They are now allies and help me in spreading the messages we try to get across. I class these people as friends, and I hope they feel the same!
The amount of support we have received has been surprising. The majority of people see us as equals, but there will always be a minority who need to be un-brainwashed of the media-enforced stereotypes. Hopefully, we can go on and make more friends and allies along this journey.
If people could follow our page and share our tweets, so we can reach a wider audience, that would be really helpful. Support our campaigns and speak up against anti GRT hate and racism when they see or hear it. Follow the many GRT accounts on twitter and keep an open mind, free of stereotypes. Get to know us as people and not as a stereotype. Become an ally and support us and just be our friend, friendship is more important than hate.
Chris has also been supporting the joint crowdfunder with Stop Funding Hate and the Traveller Movement which aims to fight back against the anti-Traveller hate pushed through the UK media and challenge its prevalence in public life. Details can be found below: