Born a Romani Gypsy, Isaac Blake discusses what it was like growing up, the racism he received and what we can do as a community to help combat it.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I am a Romani Gypsy. I spent my early childhood growing up in England, sometimes travelling and sometimes staying on permanent sites. I have very fond memories of a site near Stourport-on-Severn. I moved to Cardiff when I was 13 years old and lived on the Shirenewton site until I was 25 years old.
I first dropped out of school when I was 14, which is typical for young Gypsies and Travellers. I had no qualifications at all and, I guess, a pretty narrow range of options for the rest of my life. However, I went back to college to study art when I was 16, and I really think that education has opened up a whole new world that was closed to me before. In 2000 I won a scholarship to attend a 3 year undergraduate Dance Theatre Course at Laban in London. Although I didn’t realise it at the time Laban is the no. 1 venue to learn contemporary dance in Europe and while I was there I worked with some really famous artists and dance companies including Adventures in Motions Pictures (AMP), DV8 and Rambert. Although living in London was hard, studying full-time, working part-time and being away from my family, living in London was still a real adventure.
Since graduating from Laban, I have worked and studied in England, Wales, Canada and the States, as well as working with Ragdoll for the BBC and S4C.
More recently I have begun a new career as a choreographer and teacher, well you can’t dance forever. It’s a bit scary making the move from one side of the profession to another, but so far things are looking good. I have choreographed performances at the Wales Millennium Centre and I’m teaching part-time at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
I am also working with young people in schools investigating ‘identity’ to explore the effects of bullying and to demonstrate how irrational racism really is. Alongside this I have choreographed two dance pieces recently that portray the oppression of Gypsies, Roma and Traveller people over the ages. This has become an increasingly important issue for me as my success has allowed me the opportunity to challenge things that I could not have challenged as a younger man, or as a child.
Did you experience any racism growing up? If so, what was that like for you? How did you cope with it?
Yes I did. It was normal to be called a ‘Gypo’ rather than a Gypsy or a Romani and it was normal for schools to make assumptions about the educational ability of all Gypsies, Roma and Travelling people.
I understand that it is difficult for schools that are designed around children who don’t move to accommodate those children who do, and after all we are fewer in number. But the decisions that schools make can determine the direction that a child’s life will take. By shutting down opportunities schools have a profound effect upon our community.
My response as a child was learnt from my parents and they learnt it from their parents. You put your head down and you carry on. You should challenge it but you don’t and so nothing changes.
Do you feel any racism you received when you were younger shaped what you do now? Did it change you in any way?
Yes, in my early adult life I hid the fact that I was a Romani. I was afraid of people’s reactions, whether they were abusive or simply made assumptions about what I could, or couldn’t do, I would be the loser.
As I grew older I learnt that I have the right not to be abused and I have the right to the same opportunities as any Gorger or Country folk. I am very much more challenging now and I have learnt how to challenge effectively. When I experience racism now I find out how to make a complaint and I follow it through. Of course I do this for me, but I also do it for the next Gypsy, Roma or Traveller who might pass by that way.
Much of my current work is about promoting a sense of pride among Gypsies, Roma and Travellers so that everybody will have the strength to challenge and the confidence to know that they should.
What advice would you give to young people going through something similar?
Tell somebody. A teacher, Traveller Education Service or your parents and insist that they listen. Know that you have the right not to be abused and you have the right to receive the same opportunities as other young people. If you feel that you are not getting them, complain.
Save the Children in Wales will be launching a website for young Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in September that focuses on their rights and there are lots of links from my own website www.romaniarts.co.uk
Tell us a bit about the Romani Cultural and Arts Company and what objectives you are trying to achieve?
We set up the Romani Cultural and Arts Company in September 2009. It is a charity that works through the arts with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and Gorjer and ‘country-folk’ communities across Wales.
We believe that racism is born of ignorance so we set the company up to promote a better understanding of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture both within and beyond these communities.
Do you think that racism towards Gypsy and Roma Travellers is still rife in today’s society?
Oh yeah, totally. I often hear stories of people being followed around shops by security guards for no other reason than because they are Gypsies, Roma or Travellers, of stones being thrown at trailers and it’s not at all unusual to hear supposedly nice people using words like Gypo to put people down.
Why do you think people are so racist towards Gypsy and Roma Travellers?
I think that people don’t have the information. They still have an image of tyre burning, tarmac laying and an image of the ‘dirty’ Gypsy who steals and doesn’t pay taxes.
Many of them will never have been to a Gypsy’s, Roma’s or Traveller’s home. Few people will know how immaculately clean people keep their homes and how proud they will be of their home. They won’t know how much respect young people have for their elders, something I think is sadly lacking from other communities. And yes we do pay taxes just like anybody else.
What do you think society can do to combat racism towards Gypsy and Roma travellers?
We have to educate people. You overcome prejudice by overcoming ignorance and that means more projects that bring people from different communities together. Spending time together to see what we have in common as well as what sets us apart. I also believe that it’s really important that we celebrate everybody’s culture, heritage and identity. Many people rebel against what they see as political correctness because it feels like it’s only about some people’s rights, but actually equality is about everybody’s rights.
Over the last 2 years I have devoted a lot of time to celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month. This is a really good opportunity to re-educate people about the community and I hope that lots more people will join us.