Someone told me the other day that trying to define what the terms ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ mean is the most categorically middle class, privileged thing you can do. I think it’s croquet, but that’s a close second.
Issues of class are tricky territory, and talking about them brings countless problems: of misunderstanding, erasure, tone policing, patronisation, privilege competition and all those really bleak things that make people shy away from subjects and silence their own experience. As working class people, we are constantly talked about but never given the privilege of being platformed in our own right.
As a working class queer person, I have spent a lot of time amplifying conversations about my sexuality and gender identity, and equal amounts of time hushing up my working class background, silencing it and avoiding talking about it, terrified that if people really knew they would start to write narratives for me. Narratives such as the patronising ‘Boy done good’, the offensive ‘Aren’t you glad you escaped?’ or just simple changes in the way people treat you, where they think it’s their duty to educate you and tell you how to behave, and that you, as a working class person, have nothing of note to share.
For many people like me who come from working class backgrounds, the first time you experience the mind-blowing class divide is at university. The differences between you and your more culturally and financially wealthy peers never feels quite so expansive as in the tiny bubble of lectures, societies, libraries and canteens of university, where you’re introduced to people you would never have clapped eyes on had you not left your regional hometown.
While these meetings are incredibly formative, the experience of changing your behaviour and silencing your background for working class kids at university seems fairly ubiquitous. With rising fees and crippling debt, as well as a range of subjects which, for many, appear to have no links to getting a job, going to university is still a far more middle and upper class – rather than working class – reality.
When I reached out for stories about what the experience of being working class feels like at university, people candidly shared experiences which brought up interesting, heartbreaking matches throughout. While many institutions offer some aid for working class folk, it’s clear that these institutions simply don’t know how to deal with our needs: both financial and emotional. Everyone I spoke with told me how they silenced themselves when they got to university, and what we all agreed on was that we wished we could have been more in your face and proud of where we came from during those years. So if you’re going to uni this term, try to speak about your background proudly and ask for help where needed. There’s nothing shameful about being working class; it’s just a shame that we so often try to hide it.