Monday, 15 June 2009

Thinking About Class…

Polly recently started a discussion about how and why people identify with the class of their childhood, rather than their current social position, and points out that social mobility doesn’t always remove the markers of your working-class roots. Now, I am middle class- I have three degrees, I work in academia and I’m married to a teacher. But, I was raised in the west of Scotland. My family have been on the cusp of upper working class/ lower middle class for several generations. In my history I have bakers, furniture makers/fireman during the war, factory workers, miners, clerks, missionaries, female teachers and nurses, midwives, district nurses and more nurses. I came from a social group that were working very hard to make themselves middle-class, but didn’t approve of certain middle-class behaviours, such as university education [waste of time]. This led to an interesting situation where the women in my family, who all worked, were often more ‘qualified’ than the men, although the only appropriate career paths for women were teaching and nursing. I was not the first person in my family to get a degree, but only because my mother started university the year before I did. Since then, an uncle and an aunt and my sister have degrees (and my mother, uncle and sister also have Masters degrees), while my brother and two of my cousins are at university. At the same time, my other brother is a builder, like my dad; one of my cousins is joiner. Several cousins are at college doing vocational courses. In a very real sense, my family’s attitude to university has been transformed over a period of about a decade and it has impacted on several generations at one time.

Growing up in this background in the west of Scotland in the 1980s meant we were poor. I lived in an unemployment blackzone (ex-mining community), where people of my family’s social status were the highest social group. During my childhood, I experienced my father being seriously under-employed and finally losing his business (but a business owner!); I remember having literally no money in the house. I remember a friend who was not much better off than me being embarrassed to go to the local shop with me as I had to count out pennies to buy bread- and I remembered being confused at her reaction. Despite this, my family didn’t believe in welfare. The marker of our middle-class background was that we didn’t sign on and that we owned our own home [well, it was mortgaged but…]. My mother once bitterly remarked that the difference between us and our working-class neighbours was that they knew how to get a free washing-maching off the social. I never received pocket money and got my first job at 11, and have never stopped working. When I went to university, I lent my student loan to my parents to bail them out. I had two jobs between the ages of 16 and 18, and two again when I was 20. Things got better for my family in my late teens as my father’s second business began to do well and my mother got a degree and a ‘middle-class’ job. The experience of my younger siblings in somewhat different to mine, but I left home at 18 and didn’t feel the impact of this in the same way.

I went to the local primary school in a very poor, rural, working-class area and as a result have a west of Scotland, working-class accent. I went to private school for my high-school education because I got a grant, which Labour has since abolished. My accent was notably rougher than my schoolmates, but because I am obstinate, and because my friends continued to be working-class, I never adapted, and in a strange way it gave me a certain kudos. While my family were resolute in their belief in their middle-class standing, I was a different type of middle-class. My parents weren’t professionals; we didn’t have the available income of many schoolmates, and to my mind, we weren’t as uptight as these people. I noticed this even more when I went to university, where I was shocked that people couldn’t understand the working-class accents of the people behind the till- and thought that this was the worker’s problem, not theirs- and they had an entirely different sense of humour, so I sometimes felt that I was holding my breath, until I got back to ‘my people’. Yet, in another sense, I also wasn’t working-class.

When I first encountered my husband’s family (who were working-class proper), I was shocked at their crude, to my mind, jokes; I was amazed that they all smoked, and they had an entirely different attitude to work- I came from a family where you went to work if you were dying; they took days off for hangovers. Almost everybody in his family had experienced long-term unemployment at some point, and they all knew how to work, and exploit, the welfare system. Every male cousin of my husband’s that is older than him has a criminal record, while in a mark of social change happening to this family, amongst his younger cousins the effect is more mixed. Many have done significant gaol time. He was the first person in his family to get a degree and he left school with no qualifications, doing the HNC, HND, degree route. I definitely wasn’t part of this community, but to be honest in many ways I felt at home there.

My working-class accent came with me into academia and I know it makes a difference. The west of Scotland accent is particularly rough, even for Scotland, and I was told at my private school that it was ugly and we should try to refine it. It is a guttural, aggressive accent, spoken very quickly, and is associated with a violent, unruly social group [check out the West’s history of industrial unrest]. To the untrained ear, middle-class west of Scotland Scots still sound rough; the working-class accent more so- unlike perhaps the more sing-song accent of the borders or the incomprehensible vocabulary of the north-east. People assume that I am working-class, which is exasperated by the fact that I went to a university with a large working-class body (and which I picked for that reason). Some people [actually I think I mean men here, as most of the women I know in academia have similar backgrounds to me] assume that this means I am very clever, having overcome disadvantage to achieve; others are extremely patronising towards me. When I walk into to a classroom of middle-class 18 and 19 year olds and open my mouth, they are scared into submission by my voice.

I have no doubt that I am middle-class; I just need to look at my job title, but the markers of my past follow me, and that label seems inadequate, and in many ways inaccurate.


Anonymous said...

When I went to university, I lent my student loan to my parents to bail them out.

You see to me this is the point. The post was sparked off not just by Kate Winslet, but by a woman arguing that another woman was in exactly the same position as her because they were both university educated. When woman a)is from a solidly middle class background and woman b)is very bright, but was brought up in a council house and was recently being investigated for benefit fraud because of family circumstances.

If you've got a solid cushion of money and middle class background behind you, it makes a huge difference. Yes you can be socially mobile - the generation below me in my family contains oxford educated corporate lawyers and council house dwelling teenage single parents. We're social mobility writ large. But it still largely depends on the generation before you doing something, pulling yourelf up by your own bootstraps is a myth. And private schools make a BIG difference.

Feminist Avatar said...

Yip. I thought what you said was bang on.

DaisyDeadhead said...

In the USA, formal education is the class marker, since it is "paid for." And certain "tastes" are learned in college (indie radio, particular clothes and brand names) and other tastes are most assuredly uncool/working class (country music, other clothes and brand names). This is the kind of thing that will give you away, even if your vocabulary and general knowledge can pass muster. (the "good" colleges and the state colleges differentiate their alumni in similar ways.)

Due to the education factor, I often wonder if its easier for the affluent to don a certain 'working-class-authenticity' than it is for US to pass as one of THEM... For instance, I did a "diva round-up" on my blog today, and did some reading about the various women-singers. One of them, who I had thought was "authentic" (Kathleen Edwards), sings alt-country music but is from Canada and is the child of two diplomats. I am like, huh?! Well, she had me totally fooled!

And I still like her music! So, does it matter? Well yeah, since she is the one with the recording contract and maybe someone else who is truly 'authentic' with no connections, was not able to break through.

I've been arguing with the unpleasant males over at the "Feminist Critics" blog, and I keep hearing how women have the "right" to be financially supported by men, and all I can say is, not the women of my economic class. Why do they regard the experience of bourgeois women as THE universal experience of women? (I am about to get banned over there, of course). The role of affluent women seems to be their primary beef with 'feminism'--and they don't understand that is a class-oriented beef, not about feminism at all--unless we factor in the point that feminism has not adequately addressed class.

Interesting discussion!

Feminist Avatar said...

I think class operates differently in different contexts, so for example Scotland doesn't really have that sort of staunch middle class that form the infamous 'middle England'. The rich in Scotland are a much smaller group and so have to mix more broadly with other social groups (which isn't to say that class differences don't exist or that there isn't people out there who have no concept of poverty). There is also significantly more social mobility in Scotland than England with almost 50% of young people going into higher education [universities] (and more if we count further education [colleges]).

And while I think that the affluent perhaps can pretend to be working class for television or as a public persona, I think if you put somebody very middle class in a very working class neighbourhood and asked them to fit in, they would seriously struggle.

Anonymous said...

Well the MRA's are idiots - most women aren't "financially supported by men" in any case Daisy, because they're usually doing unpaid work in the home even if they're not doing waged work. Domestic work is still work, it's just you have no right to be paid for it.

But most women I know do waged work as well even if they've got kids. Because they can't afford not to.