There are fewer topics capable of dividing a room as quickly as class. I’ve been pondering the question “what class am I?” for years and still have trouble answering. According to this article, which was posted in the wake of the Brexit referendum, most Brits consider themselves to be working class.
I myself grew up in a working class household, but it would be more apt to describe many members of my family, during those years, as the didn’t work class. Probably goes a long way to understanding why I don’t have strong ties to the working class.
A brief family history lesson
My grandma was widowed when she was six months pregnant with her sixth child, and worked all the hours to provide for them. Long story short, my mother resented her for never being around and vowed to not do the same with her own kids. She was desperate to not repeat history, which is admirable. Trouble is, she didn’t have a plan. Only empty words. She gave birth to me at eighteen, and two more babies followed. By the time she was twenty five, she had three children and very little in the way of support. We often felt the ramifications of living below the poverty line – no electricity, phone line or food in the cupboards provided the backdrop to my childhood.
I have a different father to the half siblings I grew up with. Although again that’s another long, complicated story. My step-father was a difficult man to be around. A wannabe gangster and emotional (sometimes physical) bully, he had some hard right views and was racist and sexist (among other things). His on/off presence created the illusion of us having a dad, and my mother having a partner, but the day to day reality led to an exceptionally dysfunctional start for us kids. He worked hard as a builder, but was paid in cash and very vocal about not being “part of the system” or paying taxes. A lot of what he used to say and do was hypocritical and contradictory. My decision to cut ties with my entire family in 2005 probably says more than I could convey in a short blog post.
It’s why I find the question: “what class am I?” so difficult to answer
Lots of working class people are very proud of their roots. Their back stories often lead to parents and/or grandparents who always had their best interests at heart. Who kept them safe from harms way to ensure they didn’t go into adulthood a complete mess. Michelle Obama’s fantastic autobiography Becoming is an incredible example of this. They didn’t have much, but my goodness did they have love in their lives. For those like myself, who have been recovering from their dysfunctional childhoods since the day they became adults, well, we are very rarely attached to our roots.
Truth be told, roots is probably the wrong word to use. By the time I left home at 15 I’d had over a dozen addresses and had been to eight schools. Roots ground you, give you a safe place to return when you’ve been away. I never once had this growing up – rather than roots I had wonky, unstable foundations, insecurity and volatility. Anyone I know who had a similar upbringing did exactly the same as I did and got the hell out of dodge as quickly as they could.
I haven’t “forgotten where I came from”, nor am I ashamed of my story. But I will not underplay how much my past had to be overcome in order for me to survive and thrive. Due to the way I grew up, experiences I’ve had and the stark contrast to my life now, I believe I’m able to look at problems within our society objectively.
To bridge the gaps in society, the mainstream media have to stop pitting us against each other
Poverty porn, trashy magazines and reality TV all essentially humiliate (and demonise/dehumanise) those who are different and more unfortunate than ourselves. The recent cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show is heartening, but I fear it’ll be replaced with something just as vile. We seem to have adopted a culture where kids are made to feel less than, because they aren’t keeping up with the Kardashians (more like car-crashians, but that’s a whole other blog post). Giving people complexes about the way they look, teaching them to hate their bodies from a young age. This isn’t even specifically geared towards the working class, mainstream media does not discriminate when it comes to this bile. There is so much work needing to be undone if we genuinely want to have a better society. It always starts with a different way of thinking, which can feel impossible when we’re stuck in a rut.
Stereotypes are on every street in the country, perpetuating unhelpful ideas about how people live their lives. Everywhere we look we see degradation, poverty, ransacked estates and boarded up windows. Pockets of society pitted against other pockets of society. Racism is rife, misogyny, homophobia, islamaphobia. Navigating the so-called help system when we’re in crisis is a living nightmare. The fact is nothing changes until things start changing. We all need to acknowledge our part and do what we can to foster kindness and empathy at every opportunity. It’s wrong to assume that one person is better than another person based on their class, gender, skin colour, bank balance or social media following. Having lived on many sides of the coin, I’m convinced the only way we’ll ever see a decently functioning society, is by identifying the the causes of it’s main problems and putting deep fixes in place.
How you answer the question “What class am I?” is frankly irrelevant. Being poor doesn’t stop you being kind. Being wealthy doesn’t give you carte blanche to behave like a card carrying see you next Tuesday. There is much comfort to be gained from knowing we have more in common than what divides us.
We just have to stop playing into these divisions and start working together.