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Why I stopped calling myself working-class

During my undergraduate degree, my “working-class” credentials became a central part of my identity. I then embarked on a PhD exploring working-class transitions with conviction that my research would help others “like me”; shedding light on their stories and making sure their voices were heard. Two years on, and having heard these stories, my commitment to advocacy remains but I am increasingly uncomfortable declaring myself working-class. This is not concern that my “success” in education has granted me “too much” cultural capital to claim to be working class, but rather that such a claim does not reflect the many advantages which facilitated my academic “success” in the first place.

I am a widening participation student without a doubt, my parents didn’t go to university, and neither did my sister or many of my friends. My earliest memories around the theme of “social class” are from my father. He works on the railway, and when my sister and I were young, his union was involved in a series of strikes for better pay and conditions. Later I learned this had placed pressure on him and my mother who struggled with their new family, and I came to greatly admire the solidarity my dad felt towards other workers. In my teens, when chatting with dad he told me we were working-class and that was something to be proud of. I was happy enough with that. It made sense; I knew we didn’t have lots of money like the few posh kids at school, and I associated wealth with a “softness” from which I was keen to disassociate. Having spent my first few years at high school being bullied by kids from families with scary reputations, I was obsessed with attaining a vision of toughness, strongly rooted in working-class masculinity. I began lifting weights, training in boxing and various other martial arts, and generally doing my best to act like the “real men” I aspired to be. Despite my size[1], I fit the role pretty well: this was who I was; an identity quite intrinsically tied to class, but one I associated with being a man, rather than anything to do with money.

Brampton town centre
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Peter Moore –

It wasn’t until I started university that I ever recognised “class” as a big deal. It wasn’t just that I would begin studying sociology, I was also about to find out that in some ways I was “disadvantaged”, and that the extent of other people’s “advantage” was far more than I had previously been able to imagine. I knew nothing about higher education, but after it became clear I would fail my army medical, I applied to Newcastle University. It had links with my school, and I wanted to be able to tell my mum and dad I had some kind of plan. I thought it would be full of Geordies like those at the Newcastle kickboxing club I travelled to on weekends. I wasn’t at all prepared for the “Russell group” experience, or how fundamentally my understanding of social class was about to change; the kids we had teased for being “posh” at school were the tip of the iceberg.

Within a few days of starting university I hated it[2]. I lost two stone in two months, missed home and my girlfriend and struggled to make friends (a problem I hadn’t had previously). I had never been much of a reader, but sociology books on class became something of a refuge in a world I didn’t understand. They explained my situation: class was the reason I felt so out of place.  It seemed like I was surrounded by privately-educated students whose families owned yachts and houses in France. I remember telling a friend back home that “even the ones that didn’t go to private schools go to these posh state schools” (“grammar schools” as I later found out they were called). No one was nasty to me, some even tried hard to include me, but I knew I wasn’t like them[3]. Everything, from the way we spoke to the people and values we held dear, were different. It wasn’t just that I didn’t fit in, I didn’t want to. I found some of the wealth I was met with vulgar when I contrasted it with what was “normal” before university, and I was bemused by the arrogance of those who felt themselves so clearly better than the people I had grown up idolising. Everything came together: university was a moment of crystallisation, one in which I felt and was perceived to be “properly working-class”.

Train on which I commuted to university as it leaves Brampton Station
142065 approaching Brampton (Cumbria) – June 2016
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © The Carlisle Kid –

As my work has progressed though, I have become increasingly aware of how much “perspective” has played a role in my experiences. Though my parents started in low paid jobs, both had “worked their way up” and for all my life had relatively stable incomes and could afford to pay a mortgage for their own home. I never had to worry about if there would be food on the table, and though I did work in my teens, there was never a need to supplement my family income. My parents’ own lives were never so chaotic as for me to consider their problems more important than mine. They had the time and ability to help me learn to read and write. They encouraged me to talk about what I now recognise as politics and philosophy, and instilled in me an extensive vocabulary and “good” manners that see me perceived favourably in most social situations[4]. They even paid for the martial arts my teachers would help me convert to cultural capital on my UCAS form. Hobbies which formed a “respectable” outlet for aggression, as I grew up without exposure to serious crime or gang violence. I grew up safe, well-fed and with opportunities to develop my skills and interests, and, in a sad reflection on life in the UK today, this marks my childhood as privileged beyond that of a great many.

If, in spite of this privilege, I am still working-class, then I am certainly still proud to be. In truth I still cling to my “working-class-ness” despite myself. Though undeniably in part a childish urge to hold on to long lost “working-class toughness”, it is also something that’s enabled me to help others. I want other people from working-class backgrounds to know “people like us”, can do well in higher education. Participants, students and friends tell me my “story” helps them picture university as a place where they can succeed. This gives my agonising over good grades and “becoming a Dr” some value beyond egotistical self-indulgence. The problem is, during my research I have spoken with people who have experienced the consequences of social class far more severely than I have. I worry in claiming to be “working-class”, I have downplayed the privilege that’s got me here. Compared to my upper-middle-class and privately-educated peers I was disadvantaged: I knew nothing about university rankings; or what a 2:1 was; or why I had to do “Harvard” referencing when I was at Newcastle University. I did stick out, and did feel out of place, with very real effects on my wellbeing, but my odds of “success”[5] were still astronomically more favourable than those of a great many.

If my story helps others, I am thrilled, but not if the “successes” of someone “working-class-ish” like me, can be used to present educational inequality as a thing of the past. As flattering as it may be to imagine, I have not got to where I am “despite the odds” or “on hard work alone”. My “success” is primarily due to a few generations of luck and a gradual “trickling down” of wealth and opportunity; a continuation of the stories of upward mobility in the lives of my parents and grandparents. There has been a great deal of social change so that “people like me” can succeed in higher education, but subsuming the most advantaged-disadvantaged into the ranks of the privileged is a poor illusion of social mobility. Participation will not truly be widened until all have equal access to higher education, a noble goal and one unattainable without significant further social reform. If, through my claims to working-class identity, I am facilitating those who argue our society is already one in which “everyone can make it”, then I am reluctantly forced to relegate myself to the ranks of the “lower middle”.

[1] 5ft 8in and about 9 1/2 stone until my 20s.

[2] This was no reflection on the staff, who went out of their way to support me.

[3] When I did finally make friends at university, it was largely with other widening participation students who felt much the same as I had.

[4] With varying levels of competence; we weren’t really from a “dinner party” culture.

[5] Both in getting to university, getting good grades and getting a “good” job

Angus McVittie is a PhD student at Newcastle University. His ESRC-funded PhD considers undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships from the perspectives of young people from working-class backgrounds. Angus can be followed on twitter @AngusMcvittie.

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