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Working-class Kids Shouldn’t Have to be More Middle Class to ‘Fit In’

Asking them to be something other than what they are assumes working-class culture doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s not one thing.

Wanna get on in life? Then welcome to Class Makeover, where we take an able but sadly working-class person and teach them how to feel comfortable in middle-class environments. You need to “fit in” because, ultimately, success is about appearing middle class. Or you will frighten the ponies.

While many constructed reality TV shows are strangely perfomative psycho-dramas based on class stereotypes (The Only Way Is Essex, Ladette to Lady, Made in Chelsea), we have regarded them as entertainment, not policy. But as social mobility comes to resemble an odd historical blip with no resemblance to contemporary reality, we should, it seems, encourage a degree of faking it. This is the suggestion from Peter Brant, head of policy at the social mobility and child poverty commission.

Children from poor homes need to change how they eat and dress and conduct themselves so that they can feel comfortable in middle-class settings such as restaurants and theatres. Really? Have we not moved on from those great Alan Bennet anecdotes where he thought his was the only family in Britain to have dinner at lunchtime.

Apparently not. In order to apply to selective universities, kids need to learn to “fit in”. Well, at least someone has the confidence to spell it out: middle-class culture is just better than working-class culture, which is implicitly inferior. So, kids, denounce your history and Eliza Doolittle-style remake yourself! If you didn’t grow up in a family that went skiing, or didn’t spend £100 a pop on crappy theatre productions or never played retro board games, just pretend you did. No one will notice!

Life as a class imposter is tricky. Change your accent, tone down your clothes and lie; exude self-belief even as you are no longer who you were. As someone who grew up working class but is now middle class by dint of income and profession, I would say this is a pretty horrific, Stepford Wife-type existence. And doomed to failure. Sure, I know enough Hyacinth Bucket types who pretend they have an unnatural love of the countryside and cutlery, but that’s their problem.

Indeed, we have been encouraged to define class by leisure rather than work as employment fragments. For all the chat, middle-class people do not value “vocational skills”. They are for other people. But they make sure their kids with the raft of extracurricular activities will have the soft skills of interchangeable CV fodder. These children will also be taught that everything they achieve is because of their own innate fabulousness.

Working-class parents cannot afford this, but opening up cultural access is the issue here, not asking children to be what they are not or to assume that working-class culture simply does not exist. It does and it is not one thing. The part that values “common sense” over intellectual pursuit is not something I romanticise. But then I am amazed at how precarious middle-class people feel their own culture to be. The flight from many state schools is based on a fear that any class or ethnic difference could be a form of contamination.

Once again, though, this government is locating lack of opportunity within individuals not as a structural problem. Hence this model of assimilation.

The notion of the innate superiority of the elite is not up for challenge. But surely if you want working-class kids to have more middle-class experiences, why not pay their parents enough money to have them? Or is that brash? To say this is about inequality of income rather than a genetic predisposition to balsamic vinegar means that class is about more than etiquette.

If working-class kids lack confidence but not ability, a supposedly meritocratic system has to adapt itself. You see, confidence might mean having no desire to fit in. Having tried it, acquiescing to the idea that middle-class culture is superior when much of it is bland, self-congratulory and half-dead is not for the likes of me. And if that makes anyone feel uncomfortable, well I never did learn that middle-class trick of faux self-loathing.


Source: The Guardian

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