Originally published: 09.10.15
There has been a lot of talk on my twitter timeline recently about class. Specifically the tensions of negotiating Middle Class spaces as a Working Class woman; and whilst I don’t intend to add my comments to what’s been happening it has given me the impetus to write this post.
So, this is me, coming out as Working Class: I’m a working class woman, trying to negotiate the very foreign world of academia and I have some thoughts I want to share on this experience.
I grew up on council estates, after my family home was repossessed in the recession in the 1980s because my parents could no longer afford the mortgage. I watched from an upstairs window as my dad argued with the bailiffs when they came to repossess the car. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. My parents worked in low income jobs and life was tough. At birthdays and Christmas I grew so used to being told “We can’t afford that” that I stopped asking for expensive gifts. I remember one year when I wanted a Ghettoblaster for my birthday, and it nearly broke my parents paying for it.
I’m the first of my family to get a degree. So when I returned to university as a mature student, I had no frame of reference. Despite this I fell in love with it. I felt at home at university, like I’d found my place. For me academia is a world full of learning, challenge, debate and knowledge sharing. But, from day one I glossed over my past. I VERY quickly realised that being working class made me different, made me other. So I just didn’t talk about my childhood. I nodded and smiled as others talked of the help they got from parents and the family holiday’s they’d had to far off countries.
As I moved from being a student to working in academia this feeling of not belonging deepened. My colleagues are overwhelmingly middle class, and this is difficult, because I don’t know the rules of the game. I can’t do the academic politics thing, I have no idea how. And this has led to me being scapegoated and shit upon on more than one occasion. I wish I could say that this was by academic men, but unfortunately it’s been by middle class women.
When the shit hits the fan, working class people band together, they close ranks. The middle-classes however, are out solely to protect themselves, even if this comes at someone else’s expense. And in a middle class world a working class woman is very exposed to this. I expect that people will stick with me, but they don’t. And every time it has happened I’ve been deeply hurt and shocked. This is not how people behave.
When I was a young mum, living in my own council house with an abusive husband it was my working class friends that helped me survive. We shared food, lent money to each other, shared baby formula and nappies. We kept each other going. This is what I expect from other women, this sisterhood. So it’s completely alien to me when other women have used me to forward their own agendas and discarded me when things got difficult.
Negotiating the world of academia as a working class woman is hard. Everyone understands my marginalisation for being a woman, but no-one seems able or willing to even talk about how I am marginalised by my class (not even me, up until now). I don’t know the rules, the codes, for how to behave. And honestly, from what I’ve experienced of them, I don’t want to play the game by those rules.
My experience has been that in academia there is a very individualised culture. Everyone looks out for themselves, others be damned. But I come from a collectivistic culture, where the survival of everyone is more important than any one individual. It’s almost impossible to square this circle.
(I was going to say that it’s ‘not all middle class academic women’, but come to think of it, the women I know in academia who have been helpful and supportive come from working class backgrounds).
I’ve spent the last 7 years trying to pass as middle class, and I’ve been fairly successful. I’m smart, articulate and educated, so I can ape it, sometimes. But it’s an added workload and I’m tired of wasting my energy pretending to be something I’m not. I’m tired of trying to be smaller, of trying not to be too loud, too sweary, too balshy. Of doing everything I can to disguise my working class roots.
There’s a big push in academia at the moment around diversity and inclusion, but still no-one is talking about class. Oh, there’s the ‘widening participation’ agenda aimed at getting more ‘poor’ students to university, but no-one is talking about what happens to them once they’re in. And we should be, we need to be, because academia is a hostile environment for the working class.
So this is me, coming out as working class. Saying I’m proud of my roots and what I’ve achieved. And also saying, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself academia. A really good look. Recognise the class privilege that drips off almost every one of you and how your thoughtless, self-serving actions can ruin the life of someone like me. If you really want to be inclusive you’ve got to start thinking about including the working classes in your precious ivory tower.
EDIT: I went on a bit of a twitter rant with some more things I had to say, storify here