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 ways I have been disadvantaged were due to my personality; that it was a “me” thing, not a “working class” thing.
I’m proud of being working class, because my experience taught me that this meant:
- Community: Our homes are closer together; we often 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.
- 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.
- 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. I’ve always had a vague prejudice against middle class people, assuming they are heartless and unable to “get” the reality of poverty. I have had to address that prejudice in myself, as I have met some awesomely kind and generous posh people. But there is something about the working class people who’ve come alongside me, who have 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.
- 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. 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:
- Community minded 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.
- Honest 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.
- Compassionate 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.
- Faithful Too stupid: A couple of years ago 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 that for many, there is a 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 to 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. 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, I’ve often felt, judged as stupid or primitive by people with a Middle Class Cushion. Well, I don’t want to be judged anymore.