There are countless ways to demarcate social class — economic capital, cultural capital, educational capital, ancestry, how many holidays you take a year. It’s complicated, and it’s changing all the time.
Once upon a time not going to work was the signifier of they gentry, of those who simply didn’t need to work because of their financial and familial status. Now, those who don’t go to work are demonised as the lowest of the low — the benefits scroungers, the kind of people morning TV shows likes to host on their sofas and then brutally shame for spending their money on plastic surgery, a pony, or Christmas presents for their kids.
And while discussing class remains one of the most middle class things you can do, it’s been important for me to learn how to discuss my class, and the experience of it, in 2017. I’m working class. Not the most working class, not the least working class, just comfortably working class. A contradiction in terms, perhaps, but my family and I were nestled somewhere in the middle of ‘benefits scroungers’ and ‘my mum’s broke, but she’s an artist’.
This year has been the first year I’ve become proud of my being working class. I’ve spent years openly and actively talking about, writing and campaigning about my homosexuality and my gender non-conformism, but something which has drawn more lines across me than my sexuality or gender identity is my class. It’s silenced, it’s shamed, it’s discussed for me by middle class friends, it’s met with a patronising look or an apology when people accidentally use the word ‘YOB’ or ‘hoodie’ or ‘prole’ as a joke, or do a sort of slurry lumbering accent while describing someone stupid or uncultured.
It’s treated as an affliction, or as a statistic. It’s treated as a useless part of me — a part of me that has nothing to contribute, no culture to discuss. And it’s treated this way by most people, including the most politically engaged, privilege-aware friends, acquaintances and colleagues.
But until 2017, I used to treat this part of myself that way too. I would tell lies upon lies to cover up the fact I’d never read Harry Potter — the first and last time I ever told someone I hadn’t they told me they weren’t sure how to talk to me. I lied about things I’d eaten, places I’d seen, books and articles I’d read, theories and political stances I didn’t and don’t understand.
And perhaps it’s because I’ve decided to engage more this year, or perhaps it’s because 2017 has brought with it countless appalling examples of how this country treats and thinks of the working classes that I’m starting to push-back by recognising, respecting and being grateful for my working classness and the culture that comes with it. Because, as is the case for so many marginalised people, 2017 has been a galling example of lost lives and appropriated culture.
This year reports went public that since the arrival of the Tory party, 120,000 deaths have been caused by their extreme austerity measures. These “economic murders” are class warfare, a government that’s so out of touch launching missiles on the poorest and the most economically unstable.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower was the most stark reminder in recent history that if you’re working class, a person of colour, or both, your life won’t be taken seriously until it’s lost, and even then the Government will be inactive — with over 200 surviving residents still residing in B&Bs, hotels and temporary accommodation displaced from their communities and their homes. A changing Universal Credit scheme leaves whole families without a penny, seeing food bank usage soaring by 30%, in comparison to last year, in areas of full Universal Credit rollout. I don’t even want to think about what the wealthiest will be doing this Christmas.
And across culture our aesthetics and language are appropriated with no credit. From fashion brands like Vetements who practically steal designs from market stalls and workmen uniforms and charge extortionate amounts for them, to Burberry who — until this year — had distanced themselves from the Burberry check because it was gaining the ‘wrong associations’, that of ‘football hooligans and hooded gangs’.
The thing that binds everyone is society, and what casts your place in that system is your class. The way someone interprets their own place, or others interpret it for them, affects their self-esteem, ambition and achievement, in turn statistically affecting the universities working class people might go to, whether we’ll go at all, the jobs we’ll seek, the places we’ll visit, the lives and opportunities we’ll have.
At home we don’t talk about the tough stuff. We push on, we smile and busy ourselves with chores, work, and activities, finding joy in the daily. But for 2018 I want to talk about the tough stuff. While people — who are most certainly posh — claim that class isn’t what it used to be, that it doesn’t really exist, I suggest you just Google it. It exists, you just don’t see it.
It’s time to stand in it, to start thinking your perspective is smart enough to speak up. It’s time to let go of shame and contribute our culture and perspective to a conversation that is being had for us, by people who will never understand.
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