Travelling through Shades of Whiteness: Irish Travellers as Inferior Whites

In: Shades of Whiteness

Ireland has changed extensively during the last several years: from being an almost homogenous white country to a much more diverse one. But this picture of the Republic is more complicated that it seems. There are white, strongly racialized people who have been living in Ireland for centuries: Travellers. Their culture and way of living is similar to the Roma people, they are also called ‘Gypsies’ sometimes, but there is a very significant distinction: their skin is white. There are around 30 thousand Travellers in Ireland: they are 98.8% Irish nationals, they are of Irish descent, they speak English, they are Catholics but they are one of the most marginalized minorities in the Republic at the same time. Their life expectancy is much shorter than that of the rest of the Irish population, they have very low education (only 1% of Irish Travellers completed third level), are more often unemployed, and they commit suicide almost four times more often than non- Travellers. In this chapter I propose the framework to examine the processes which might have led to such a situation of marginalization. I argue that the most effective way to explain the Travellers’ low social position in Irish society could be from the whiteness studies perspective. I incorporate Bourdieu’s sociology into this perspective, particularly his notions of symbolic capital, symbolic power and symbolic violence, arguing that whiteness is a form of symbolic capital which gives its owners symbolic power. I say that such whiteness has different shades and in this context: that white Irish are ‘whiter’ than Travelling people who are perceived as mad, primitive others.