On Being a Working Class Professional

“Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?”

“Why is everyone from yours a Tory minister?”

Zadie Smith NW

This piece could be seen as a follow-on from my blog on imposter syndrome, where I suggested that the reason some people feel inauthentic in professional roles may be more structural than personal. Today I want to think about what it means to be working class within an elite institution⏤in this case I am going to consider academia, because that is my world and my experience, but what I have got to say applies to working class professionals in other contexts; what i have got to say is ubiquitous to any institution or profession which might be described as elite. So, if you are a working class medic or lawyer or part of any profession which confers status, this is for you.

Like Zadie Smith, I’m from Willesden Green. Not many kids from my school went to university. There were a few exceptions: the architect David Adjaye was in the year below me, but he’s a superstar alum and not the norm. Mainly we do ordinary things.

So, what does it mean to be a working class professional in an elite space? Do such professionals shed their working class identity when they put on a suit? I would say, no. Working class identities persist⏤and they matter.

In her book Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage: Ghosts of Childhood Habitus (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019) sociologist Carole Binns explores the topic by gathering narratives of the lived experiences of working class academics. Using Bordieu’s work as a lens, Binns finds a significant group who, ‘found the process of social mobility to be painful’ and ‘considered themselves to be working-class despite their educational and professional achievements’; such academics experienced significant problems with their identities, reporting either a split or ‘cleft habitus’ (using Bordieu’s terminology, a sense of having two distinct sets of the behaviours and abilities that make up our cultural capital), or as being haunted by ‘ghosts of habitus’⏤remnants of working class experience and identities which prevent a cohesive sense of an academic professional identity forming. So, being working class is a disruptive psychological experience for the professional moving into elite institutions and roles: basically, we’re uncomfortable⏤not fully one thing or another. Because⏤and this is an important point⏤working class academics are often if not usually not fully comfortable growing up in their home communities, either, this sense of dislocation begins early.

“When being bullied Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind Keisha Black possessed– cleverness, will-to-power– became ‘their own reward,’ and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socio-economic and historical universe, and– had they ever met you– would very likely have enslaved you, or at best, bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else”.”
― Zadie Smith, NW

Giving a US perspective, tenured professor Allison L. Hurst blogs,

"[Growing up poor marks a person] Although as the so-called smart kid in my neighborhood, I always felt a little different, my sense of alienation from school did not really begin until I went to college.  I was caught between two worlds, a stranger in paradise, and all those other clichés that are nevertheless quite accurate.  It was not until I found a group of people with similar experiences, the working-class academics, that I finally felt at home."
⏤ (Working Class Perspectives, 22 July 2019)

So, while the university may be the longed-for paradise where ‘being clever’ is allowed⏤ is validated⏤it is simultaneously alienating for someone who is working class, and too often this is an experience of not-belonging: not looking and speaking the right way, and having the wrong preferences. Hurst suggest the answer might lie in finding community with other working class people in the same space.

The alternative is to experience a type of cultural deracination resulting in the individual severing all ties with the cultural milieu in which they grew up, in order to fit in: fitting in is a global experience for working class individuals in elite spaces and intersects with all aspects of cultural being⏤from one’s choice of food, words, home decor to how we interact socially. This is something which is deeply alienating.

Anyway, I figure that there is strength in numbers so we should make ourselves visible. I made myself a badge. I’ve given out a few this week. If you want one, message me.

Why is it important to consider how working class people be in relation to the dominant culture of the elite institution? Because it has a tangible effect on how working class people perform: the thing I hear most from academics is the effect being working class has on their confidence to research, to speak and to publish their work⏤that they don’t sound clever.

Elite institutions have problem with discussing class: in universities euphemisms for the working class are used⏤’non-traditional student’, ‘first-generation student’, ‘widening participation agenda’⏤as if skirting around something embarrassing. This is not helpful and it is not necessary. In my experience, working class students and academics are comfortable to be identified as such; this kind of not-naming carries implications of shame. This is not helpful.

What is the upshot of all this? Well, I think it is time that class was made an explicit part of the diversity/inclusivity agenda. Elite institutions need to be comfortable enough to open a conversation about class. Some limited progress has been made around having discussions about structural exclusion conducted along racial lines, and now it is time to put class into the mix: in the UK class and race are deeply intersectional anyway⏤certainly, that is my experience of being urban working class. We need to become class-conscious again. It is time to have that conversation.

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