Proudly Working Class

I’ve been having ponderings and Twitter conversations with various people about class over the last week or so.  The big influences in this have been @jo_planet and @siansteans, two awesome, working class women who were sharing their experience of being working class and THIS post by @psycho_claire and something clicked for me.  They were describing various experiences that I have had; being excluded, being patronised, being passed over, yet they were placing those experiences within a context of class based oppression.  It’s been a real lightbulb moment for me, shining a light on something that has niggled at and deeply affected me for my whole adult life.  Suddenly this stuff has a name and a shape.

Until this lightbulb moment, I always saw being working class as something to be proud of.  With no framework to label my negative experiences as class based oppression, I was left assuming that the way I have been disadvantaged were due to my personality, that it was a “me” thing, not a “working class” thing.

I am proud because my working class identity means…

1. Community: Our homes are closer together, we don’t have detached houses.  We don’t get to opt out of each other’s lives, we can hear what’s going on next door, our kids play together and we have to navigate conflict and disagreements, while still having to live close together.

2. Honesty: We don’t have all those “airs and graces”, we say it how it is. You know where you are with each other, if someone’s angry, they tell you.  It doesn’t make for serene lives void of conflict, but your friends are your friends and they’re loyal even if they tell you when you’re being an idiot.

3. Compassion: My brother and I have taken very different paths; he left his working class roots behind as he went to university, becoming a corporate barrister.  He socialises with judges and (I kid you not) celebrates the wonder of Margaret Thatcher.  He is oblivious to the disabling impact of poverty and mocks homeless people suggesting they lack a good work ethic.  His blindness to poverty leads to a compassion deficit.

I’ve always had the vague prejudice against posh people middle class people, assuming they are heartless and unable to get the reality of poverty.  I have had to address that prejudice and have met some awesomely kind and generous posh people.  But there is something about the working class people who’ve come alongside me and known what it was to struggle with poverty and disadvantage.  We’re advantaged in the compassion department because we’ve known what it is to struggle and continue to struggle.

4. Faith: This for me has been the biggest thing.  And it’s not a working class thing per se, but my experience of the intersection between faith and disadvantage.  I became a full-on Jesus follower at the worst time in my life; in a hospital as a single parent with a very sick baby and a traumatised toddler.  I had no home, I had lived on benefits for a number of years, having been raised in a poor working class family with middle class aspirations.  In a place with nothing and nobody I discovered the awesome grace and provision of God, and I haven’t veered from that in the last ten years.  The greatest blessing for me of being working class is I’ve got nothing to rely on but God. Jesus was right, blessed are the poor!

What I’ve discovered in the last week is that these very aspects of my class identity that I’m most proud of, are the things that disadvantage me in middle class contexts (including church).  People see me in this way:

1. Community Too intense: We shouldn’t be THAT involved in each other’s lives.  There should be distance and space.  We need to be independent of each other, there’s boundaries and appropriateness that must be ADHERED to.

2. Honesty Too impolite: I don’t say things gently enough, with enough prefaces or in a way that doesn’t offend.  I say it as it is, and that’s too much for people to manage.  They need it to be POLITE.

3. Compassion Too simplistic: I don’t understand know about complex theories like trickle down economics and so if I’m going to challenge equality, my offering is going to be too simplistic.  When I say that people SHOULDN’T BE POOR, I’m told that it’s much more complicated than that and that my personal experience is always trumped by academic rigour.

4. Faith Too stupid: This year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real.  Yet we find that the children and families who actually have dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is.  Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.

I read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” in the summer and in it she ponders this, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”

The big difference between middle class and working class people is the Middle Class Cushion. When working class people fall, there is no cushion to catch us.  There’s no spare room in our parent’s house sleep in, no Trust Fund, nothing.  And the lack of that Middle Class Cushion affects all aspects of our life.  The risks we can take, the choices we make, the careers we embark on.  I was talking to Hannah Mudge (who has written THIS great piece about Christian culture and class from a Middle Class perspective) about gap years and ideals of faith that are celebrated from the platform; of young people taking on unpaid internships, of missionaries supported by large financial donations.  But for working class people, even if we get a good job or embark on a career that will give us security, we are still plagued by the risks associated with not having a Middle Class Cushion.

The decisions we make and the risks we do or don’t take, the way we spend our money and the priorities we have are judged as stupid or primitive by people with a Middle Class Cushion.

I have much more to say about this, but time is limited with our family circumstances having changed, so part 2 will have to wait for now…

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2 thoughts on “Proudly Working Class

  1. Interesting how politics plays a part here too. I’m not sure I would be able to do my ‘middle class’ art history degree now, as the costs of education have been ramped up out of the reach of the traditional working class. I’m still the only person in my extended family to go to university & the leveller of not having to pay tuition fees etc made it possible. I still worked every (long) holiday but didn’t start facing the prospect of massive debt (though I still had debt at the end of it). I’ve been spoken to as someone who might join in the tutting about ‘jumped up’ former polytechnics. It’s always eye opening. Where someone fits is being determined more and more by class, with the assumption that blue collar work, apprenticeships and vocations fit the working class and only the middle and above will be able to do the necessary internships to do anything creative. The lack of social mobility should be on the church’s agenda – I certainly only had anything to do with people from other backgrounds because I ended up in a church that had a mix of class backgrounds.

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  2. I was brought up in a ‘hybrid’ home, class-wise – my dad came from a family which had been rich but lost money in the Crash and was ‘shabby genteel’, pretending to have more money than they had. He was traumatised as a small child by being sent to the door to debt collectors to say his mother wasn’t at home, when she was hiding in the kitchen. My mum was a miner’s daughter, and was only able to train as a midwife because they lowered entrance requirements during the war. She had to make a big decision about whether she would tell her fellow students that she was from a mining village and potentially be socially ostracised.

    It was only when I read Hannah’s piece on class that I recognised what you’ve recognised here – that I don’t know the middle class ‘codes’ of communication, and so I am constantly on the edge of things in the church. I’ve recently realised that I expect everyone to like me, or at least not to dislike me on sight, and behave accordingly. I find most Christian events excruciatingly uncomfortable, and this may explain why. I’ve always been aware of feeling like a misfit within the church, thanks to you and Hannah I may have finally worked out why.

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