Class had never been at the forefront of my life. Until I went to university, I considered myself middle class, chiefly because all my friends were, though I noticed some marked differences between their lives and mine.
They would brag about their fancy family holidays. They would have the latest video games and consoles while I archaically played my dad’s old Nintendo 64. Come Sixth Form, they’d be rocking first-hand Ralph Laurens and Levi jeans while I’d be poster boy for Primark and the charity shops’ latest summer collections.
I realise that these sound like trivial things, but the seemingly small lifestyle differences between middle and ‘lower’ classes (the term ‘working’ diminishes the gulf of quality of life between us) thinly disguise truly shocking statistics. The life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, with one of the causes being the fact that more affordable food tends to be less healthy than that found in upmarket supermarkets.
For me, the most prominent difference between me and my friends weren’t to do with holidays (one thing my zero-hour contract would eventually give me the time to enjoy), video games or fashion, but the fact that my friends’ parents weren’t foreign, and they didn’t have funny-sounding, easy-to-tease, names. (A delightful invention, ‘Fag-teo’, managed to be at once xenophobic and homophobic, in true noughties Inbetweeners-esque fashion.)
While half-British, half-Italian white boys are far from the most discriminated demographic of the United Kingdom, I suffered my fair share of racial name-calling and downright bullying because of my heritage and, for the larger part of my youth, assumed that any differences between my self and my peers were due to my ethnic background, rather than because of the abstract and seemingly historical notion of ‘class’. It was not until reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s revelatory Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race that I found literature which vocalized just how interconnected class and heritage are, though it was something I had began to find out for myself at university.
Here, I was confronted by the reality of truly ‘middle class’ people (and the fact that some of these people are considered middle rather than upper class astounds me). These people were, true enough, not that different from the peers I had grown up with, though, having gone to better schools, were better educated; the biggest difference was that living with these people, rather than simply going to school with them, I would see the middle class mindset manifest itself in ways I had never experienced before. My experience of class dissonance, previously manifested in holiday- and big-house- envy shifted into the realities of hearing people complain because Daddy sent them £50 a week instead of £100 (on top of their paid-for rent), promoting nepotism because they admitted to not being skilled enough to secure certain jobs they’d had on their own merit, and ordering £15 Dominoes pizza almost every night when already living in catered accommodation. A triviality, sure, but one which I couldn’t afford with the measly £100 a term I had left after paying rent, and that was with the maximum student finance loan available.
Many of these people would call themselves socialist and claim to know what working people – which I by now realised I was – wanted, even sometimes telling me that I was wrong or my version of socialism wasn’t socialist enough. (Not that poorer British people aren’t used to richer Brits telling them what they should want.) These people irritated me but they were my friends as there were not many people of my class at university to be friends with, though sometimes I would prefer the company of the open and unabashed Tories to these champagne socialists who drowned out the voices of the working class people they claimed to speak for.
CLASSPLAINING (noun): The phenomenon of a Middle-Class or Upper-Class person telling Working-Class people what they do or should want
I also got a lot of hell for my estuary English accent, with some people claiming that I was ‘posh’, only to be genuinely surprised when they visited me at home. I will never forget when one of my friends from the rich area of Bromley, who claimed to be socialist, ripped into how poor my area seemed. Once again, class perception manifested itself as a culture rather than a genuine reflection of one’s socio-economic condition. These people assumed I was one of them because of how I spoke, and I modelled myself on them (consciously or otherwise) through linguistic convergence, to such an extent that returning home from university for my first Christmas holiday my mother told me to “remember where you come from”. My friends were shocked when they saw how my family actually lived, and finally realised I was not part of their class at all.
I argue that these people, however pure their intentions, were not true socialists. I would see some of their values stirp away with their pay cheque, but even before this their inability to practice what they preached, or their simple ignorance of their world around them (“How do you book a train ticket?” “Wait, what do you mean you have to pay for The Big Issue; why would I buy that shit?”), showed me that they existed on a different plain to me.
At the same time, I know some other people from working class backgrounds will have issues with me saying all this, or maybe perceive me as actually being a member of the middle class. I went to a good university; I’m from (the poorer part of) a relatively nice London suburb, albeit one so far West that many of the economic elite I knew at university would try to exclude me from identifying with my own city of birth by insisting that I’m “not really from London”; my father worked what might be considered a ‘middle-class’ job in that he was paid pro-rata, albeit in customer service, before being made redundant.
But wouldn’t this just buy into the divide and conquer narrative? Journalists who write for ‘working class’ publications love to pit immigrants against white British working class people, as if immigrants, rather than the privately educated economic elite, are to blame for their position in the world. Twisted in a flurry of fake news and false narratives, this provided a key thrust in the Brexit movement, which promised that closing Britain’s borders will improve the quality of life for the working classes. Of course, the converse is true; only the economic elite will benefit from Brexit (particularly by avoiding the EU’s tax regulations), while it is poorer people who will struggle to afford food and medicine in the face of a no-deal Brexit.
Though different working class people have different experiences (I will not experience anywhere near as much discrimination as BME people from similar, or perhaps even wealthier, economic backgrounds), we should recognise that we are not each other’s enemies, and that there ae power structures above us which engineer to keep us in our position.
I can recognise and check my own privilege while also attesting the discrimination I have faced because of my ethnic heritage, which is obvious through my name and complexion (though I am often mistaken for being Middle Eastern). I’ve had job interviews at well-known chains where the first questions have been where I’m from (“London.” “No, originally”) and why I’m here. I’ve been questioned multiple times while returning to the British border, more so since the results of the Brexit referendum.
I’ve had numerous people tell me that I’m “not really British”. I’ve got a First Class degree and plenty of work experience in fields raging from journalism and marketing to teaching, but amongst a slab of job application rejections I considered changing my name to ‘Matthew’ on my CV, just in case any of the rejections had taken my foreign name into account.
Class has become a sort of football team, with people aligning to one despite any realities they might face
I’m now working a zero hour contract job, and paying some of the money I’ve earnt into the agency which helped me find the job, and a payment company for … paying me? To add insult to injury, Lord Sugar, supposedly a socialist, thinks I elected to choose to work with minimal job security. The truth is, I’m working my job because in terms of the immediate income I need, it was the best opportunity available. Previously I’ve worked long hour, highly-demanding positions on minimum wage alongside other second generation immigrants, presumably because we’re perceived to work for cheaper than our pure-blood British counterparts. Eddo-Lodge noted that “The Great British Class Survey report concluded that emergent service workers – arts and humanities graduates doing bar work, or working in call centres – are the children of the traditional working class. My guess is that they’re also the children of immigrants’ (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, p. 192). Even with higher levels of education, immigrants and the working class are less likely to find stable or well-paid employment.
Class has become a sort of football team, with people aligning to one despite any realities they might face. To the underdog culture of the British, ‘working class’ has connotations of pride and hardiness. I know people with fathers whose companies are earning enough money to fund their children’s’ tuitions, who consider themselves working class because their dads worked in a mine for a few years when they were younger. These people, who have money and therefore a platform, are the type of people who claim to speak for the working classes, and often abide my the ‘should-have-worked-harder’ narrative which states that people choose to remain in their economically disadvantageous position because of laziness.
I once considered myself different from my peers because of my ethnic background, and then because of my class, but I’m beginning to understand that I’m different from them because of both. My mother, being an immigrant, has worked a chain of traditionally ‘low skilled’ and therefore low paid jobs, without ever really pursuing a career. I know that had I had a white British mother, even if she had worked a similar job as my father, I’d already be another rug up the complex class ladder. At the same time, I’m aware that I’m higher than I would have been had both my parents been immigrants, or if one or both of them were from BME, rather than white, backgrounds.
Class deniers, the ‘should-have-worked-harder’ narrative and champagne socialists who claim to know what poorer people want all mask the innate classicism built into British society, which is, in an age of opening borders, increasingly aligning itself with racism. Immigrants tend to live closer together in more deprived areas because this is where the (more) affordable housing is. Communities naturally build which the white elite media claim to be purposefully exclusionary, setting up an ‘us-vs-them’ narrative. Lacking representation in jobs and governments, these areas are overlooked, undeveloped, and become poorer still. Intersectionality is a reality, a weapon sewn deep into the fabric of British politics, which doubly or triply discriminates against women who are lower class, or BME, or both. Classicism includes an inherent xenophobia which often goes under the radar, as immigrants are often excluded from the traditional British class triptych. A false distinction is created to pull the wool over the eyes of working class people, preventing them from seeing that British structural power dynamics and landed white men are the things keeping them in their class. As Eddi-Lodge says, ‘when we think about inequality, we are encouraged to think of both race and class as distinct and separate. They’re not’ (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, p. 194).
Featured Image: From ‘The Genius of the Crowd’, by Charles Bukoswki
Note: this article originally appeared on https://thenomad97.wordpress.com.