Search
  • Michelle Johnson

Why I wish 'Who Do You Think You Are' had done more to acknowledge David Walliams' Romany roots



The recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are starring Britain's Got Talent judge and children's author David Walliams. It was an incredibly moving episode, exploring one ancestors' experience of shell shock during the First World War, and another ancestor's Fairground roots.


Now, let me just start by saying I love Who Do You Think You Are. As an adopted child, it inspired me to look into my own family trees – both my dad's, mum's and discover what I could of my biological side – and has made me feel closer than ever to my families. Watching David's episode, I was so excited to find out about his Fairground roots because I am the daughter of a Romany Traveller.


Seeing the images of his ancestors outside their traditional vardo, I thought – finally! They would obviously mention Gypsy Romany Traveller (GRT) culture in the UK, accurately and without slurs or stereotypes, just as the show does with so many other cultures.


So you can imagine how disappointed I was when this didn't occur.


Although the show demonstrated the discrimination that David's family faced – including reading out an article brimming with deeply rooted antigypsyism – the show chose not to identify this as the very real ethnic prejudice still faced by GRT communities in the UK today. Instead, the show's expert described these as "negative comments".


Was antigypsy prejudice implied? Sure. We all know what "people in caravans" means. But at a time when representation is so important, is it really enough to reference discrimination of a minority ethnic group and yet refuse to identify that abuse by name?


Maybe the show had a reason for not highlighting the connection between ethnic Travellers and non-ethnic showmen. Perhaps they had proof that David's family were not Romany. Perhaps they wanted to respect his grandmother, who had evidently distanced herself from her family's roots. Perhaps they ran out of time, or simply were not made aware of the decades-old links between travelling showmen and British-Romanies.


Whatever the reason, David's family were shown to live a Traveller lifestyle right down to the vardo, and explicitly experienced the same antigypsy persecution as their Romany peers.


In 2020, when representation is more important than ever, this is such a wasted opportunity to highlight one of the reasons GRT communities are 'othered' to this day. Because, as we are seeing across the board, when our history erases the "good" minorities – those who achieve in their fields, inspire others or are respected – from their cultures and instead whitewashes their experience or rewrites them into a mainstream narrative, that perpetuates the racist myth that Minority = Bad.


So, these entrepreneurial, hardworking, devoted showmen couldn't have been THAT kind of Traveller, because Gypsies = Bad.


I am the daughter of a Romany Traveller. Our family tree is full of women who read the fortunes of kings. Who worked hard and honestly. Who led their families. I am also the daughter of gadjes – non-Romanies. As a child, particularly at school, my family taught me to hide our Traveller side, so that I wouldn't experience the same fear and discrimination that they had.


I first wrote a version of this blog post on Instagram Stories and just typing it out triggered an old anxiety that I would be seen, known and put at risk. The fear that I would perhaps lose some of my friends, maybe even my job or home, because of the stereotypes about "Gypsies" that are so damaging. But the markers of my minority aren't visible. I have the option of just deleting those stories, and then becoming another white woman. It's a massive element of the privilege that I have, having been raised gadje.


So I have to ask: if this acknowledge and representation would mean so much to me, imagine what it could mean to those who can't just 'delete' the things that they are regularly discriminated for?

#OpreRoma

Photos: LFCC 2018 & 2019 © Colin Hart; Spaghetti premiere © Tasha Best Photography/tashabest.com. Portfolio images © articles of respective publications or Michelle Johnson; all other images © Michelle Johnson unless otherwise credited

  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black LinkedIn Icon

© 2020 Michelle Johnson