I’m one of those people who has always ridden on the wave of the working class, a true Londoner.
I vote Labour, and I like my music played loudly. Nevermind that my parents climbed a few rungs up to middle class in the early 2000s, moved us to a semi-detached in an affluent part of town, with mostly well-travelled neighbours.
I got through university and accidentally married into a wealthy family, but my psyche is working class. I hang on to my British council estate roots so severely that my loveable cockney accent bleeds it. My favourite time in life was 1980s/90’s London, living in an impoverished Greater London Council tower block. That time runs through and out of me, wherever I go, and it throws most of my ‘well-spoken’ peers because, how dare I drop my T’s and speak the language of a time Britain rather forget.
I was never an aspiring middle class; my school teachers shattered those dreams. Those middle-class Saab driving educators came across as incredibly dull, stuffy and lacking depth. They never understood nor took the time to explore the hunger of the underdog, the labourer or the local business people whose families took turns to run the corner shops or the chippies. To them, every ‘poor’ person was troubled; I guess I was, I only had one bathroom at home. Most of my middle-class friends struggled with slight addictions of one Class A drug or the other and were chain-smoking heroin by the time they were 15. Middle class just looked superficial, lonely and judgemental from where I sat. I never wanted to be a part of that crowd.
I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours. -Hunter S Thompson
Flash forward to 2004, and here I am thrown into a predominantly middle class working world. No safety net of knowing everyone from the local area because none of my co-workers grew up in London, let alone the London I knew. Everyone donned very posh work voices and continuously reminded me that they went to a better university than me and lived in bigger houses. Navigating this system was hard, I understood racism, sexism and homophobia, but here I was in a room of diverse people and still feeling like an outsider. I didn’t feel connected to anyone because they all had inside jokes that never included me.
I had a moment of putting on a posher less Bermondsey and more Buckinghamshire work voice, to fit in, but it just did the opposite; I felt like a fraud. I started listening to classical music because I thought, perhaps that would help me get into the inner circle; but nope, I still wasn’t welcome. I was mostly used by my team to offer up definitions of certain slang words and then ridiculed for actually knowing the meanings. I was new to this type of discrimination; now it wasn’t just the imperious white people saying you can’t sit with us; it was the toffee-nosed black people partaking in it too.
We are less when we don’t include everyone.-Stuart Milk
We never speak about this type of discrimination in the workplace. Its often put down to not being thick-skinned, rather than brandished as intolerance. I even accept that it’s a slight audacity for me to be speaking up about it as on paper, I am middle class. I earn a tidy sum, I run a business and own a house, but I present myself to the world as someone from a more humble disposition because to me, that’s what I am.
My CV frightens employers. They can’t align the person in front of them with the person on the paper. I’m not entirely ‘affirmative action’ worthy because of my qualifications, but they do not want to see me sitting in any of their board meetings either because I don’t sound or look the part. Don’t get me wrong; I have knowingly entered the workplace as a token gesture, I played along to fill a quota, and that sucked too. However, classism in my elite, ‘diverse’ workplaces forced me to think about what working life is like for working-class people with even less educational backing than me; the one thing I believe helped me squeeze through the door into middle management.
HR, Company Culture and Diversity&Inclusion Specialists hammer home equal opportunities, and you’ll see a plethora of examples of causes supported by the function. Still, classism along with colourism is hardly ever on the list. Classism doesn’t divide enough people because there are highly educated black and LGBT people in the room. It’s also not a protected category in employment law and legislation. That means there isn’t much you can do if you feel your wellbeing is detrimentally impacted because of your social class at work. I’ve been up against people with no qualifications or experience. Still, a costly independent school and a posh British accent regardless of race, gender or sexuality ensured they got a position or promotion over me. The last time that happened, the feedback was ‘you’re not sitting close enough to the grown-ups table, Dannique’. Which I shrugged off as I presumed that meant I hadn’t perfected the secret Oxbridge handshake or didn’t use ‘absolutely’ as an interjection or an adverb, enough.
HR doesn’t talk much about this ‘ism’ because they are usually the people caught in the crossfire of knowing what’s happening but at the whim of the people perpetuating it. It takes a lot of courage to tell your boss they need to add another unconscious bias to their already full cup. The negotiation of employee happiness between HR and Leadership is lengthy, and during this period, employees are often left for a long time wondering what’s gone wrong? They can’t call it racism or homophobia, especially as Simon (the white, English male with a Brummy accent) feels this way too. So, instead, we spend our workday, trying to find anyone with the slightest understanding of what we are experiencing.
This experience bought me to Cultured Insights; I started my business to help other companies work through their unconscious biases, to create more inclusive workplace cultures. Imagine, a workplace where we can feel comfortable not having to put on a ‘work voice’ or pretending you don’t like Grime music. I want to support employees from varied social classes, and those who may not now have post-nominals but can undoubtedly achieve them if they could just get a seat at the table. I want everyone in the workplace to feel comfortable with walking in and using their home voice.
Full Medium Article Available Here: https://medium.com/@dannique/my-sad-middle-class-epiphany-47747fb08bad