When people say "you're not working class anymore", what they mean is that working class people can't be smart: Dee O'Neill on working class academics
What do we mean when we refer to someone as a working class academic? Why it is necessary to point out that I am a working class academic and not just an academic. Is it because in many ways it appears to be a contradictory concept – because there’s a fundamental disjuncture between the two terms, a lack of fit because the world of academia is an upper middle class one?
Encapsulated within the phrase working class academic is a history of struggle, a litany of what Sennett and Cobb called the ‘hidden injuries of class,’ a narrative of displacement not shared or understood by academics from privileged backgrounds. No one feels the need to point out that academics are middle class. It’s not usual to add that description when talking about academics in general. That's because it’s unnecessary, because it’s not unusual – it’s the norm, it’s what expected – but by virtue of being working class you are not the norm in academia – you are the unexpected – the ‘other’ in a elitist, rarified world where people like you are few and far between.
One of the paradoxes of being a working class academic is how keen people are to insist you’re not working class anymore. Becoming an academic means you can deny your socialization, your history and your experiences. In their view all of this can simply be annihilated, as if becoming an academic sets the clock back to year zero. Universities exist to reinforce class privilege – to embed the hierarchal distinction between manual and intellectual labour, the distinction between the working class and the middle classes. When people accuse you of ‘not being working class anymore’ what they are really saying is there’s no place in the university for working class people.
Entering a middle class environment produced for me an increased awareness of how difficult life is for working class people, something I was always aware of – how could I not be – but now there was something to compare it with. I have listened in disbelief to people who complain about exhaustion because they have to do two lectures in one day or have ‘back to back meetings’. I compare them to my dad who worked as a labourer on building sites during the day and then worked in the banana factory on the night shift – the factory was just up the road, and is now a block of luxury flats. The factory was a testament to my dad’s hard work and employed local people, and has been colonized by ruthless developers and who have swamped south London looking for cheap neighbourhoods to gentrify. In the process they have pushed the prices up so much it’s impossible for working class people that have been there for generations, people like my mum – and her mum, and her mum’s mum – to stay.
There is a need to develop a working class narrative, one that acknowledges the lack of fit between the two spheres. Working class academics straddle the bourgeois sphere of academia – a space where (in theory) intellectual discussion takes place amongst equals. A space of well-paid jobs, populated by people from privileged backgrounds who grew up in big houses, who had a bedroom of their own when they were children, somewhere to do there homework –who went to restaurants and on holidays abroad – a sphere which is predicated on and defined by the exclusion of working class people.
And the other sphere of bad housing; of overcrowded living spaces; of poorly paid work; of never quite having enough of anything; of wonderful loving parents made dysfunctional by hard work and disaffection; of socially acceptable coping mechanisms such as drinking, which when taken too far become socially unacceptable and destructive; of dying young because you’re working class; of wanting to escape the world of shit jobs and low pay but at the same time stay in it because its where you belong; of rejecting the values and attitudes of the middle class – who don't particularly like you anyway because your working classness makes them feel uncomfortable and they don't want to reminded of how easy it was for them.
My dad was an Irish immigrant who came to England at sixteen unable to read or write, my mum was from Peckham and left school at fourteen to start work in a local factory – neither of my parents had any kind of formal further education. My dad taught himself to read and write by studying Marx, Engels, Connolly and Shaw – a radical autodidact who constantly told me ‘educate that you may be free ‘.
But what is the cost of that freedom? What do working class people lose when they leave their own sphere of knowledge and belonging to make their way in a sphere from which they feel alienated and where the knowledge they encounter often runs parallel to their own – what does it mean to live with this dissonance, this state of inbetweenness? How does that translate into freedom?
I was taught by teachers who despised us because we were working class children of Irish immigrants. They told us to keep our hair short so we did not get fleas, they told us to make sure we had two pairs of shoe so that we could change them and our feet would not smell. The head mistress caned us for having opinions. When the careers officer came she suggested two options – hairdressing and back clerk. No one ever said “you’re bright, go to university”.
I played truant for my final year and left as soon as I could. I did four ‘O’ levels at the local further education college and then went to work full time as a library assistant in the local library (long since closed down). It was boring, repetitive work. I hated it.
I left very quickly, and then came a series of dead end jobs, and by the time I was 23 I was a single parent living on a council estate and benefits.
I wanted to have a decent job and decent income but it was difficult. I did bar work in pubs and nightclubs, my parents coming to my flat to look after my daughter. I delivered leaflets an even did a day at the butchers stall down the market – I didn’t last any longer because I was a vegetarian and it was like something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When my daughter started school I began cleaning the houses of the middle classes. All these jobs were cash in hand, so alongside the stresses of being poor was the added worrying that someone would grass me up and the ‘suss’ would find out I was working and claiming at the same time.
As my daughter got older and we got poorer I got tired of the shit jobs – it’s no fun cleaning for the middle classes and there’s no future in it. I wanted my daughter to think education was important. I did not want her to end up like me – broke, cleaning, living in a shit flat on an increasingly shit council estate.
When she was seven I started A level evening classes, when she was ten I went to work part-time as a Welfare Rights Officer in the local hospital. I juggled study, being a single parent and working, keeping the cleaning jobs on too. When I was thirty-five I went to university, an old poly. It was difficult. I was cleaning and studying, my dad was really ill, my daughter was struggling at secondary school.
I was amazed at how middle class the other students were. Because it was an old poly I had expected them to be less so, but there were men in their 30s whose parents were paying their rent, or who were living in flats owned by their parents. People who went abroad for the whole of the summer, and people whose fathers owned factories in other countries. People who did not have to work and study – it was a very different world to the one I inhabited.
This personal biography is relevant because it makes a mockery of the idea I am no longer working class. It points to how different my background and my trajectory is to most of the people I have met in academia. It points to the difference between being an academic and being a working class academic. The hegemonic conformist values of the middle class academic are alien to me – I don't want to compete with other people, I don't want to change cities so that I can get a job, or kiss arse to ‘get on’. I want the beliefs and values that have always defined me to continue to define me. I don't want to publish obsessively, to fly from one conference to another, to spend my time frantically networking.
I don't think it was until I entered academia that I realized how working class I am, how much my values differ from many of the people I have met here. I have listened in horror as sessional lecturer and PhD student told me her 12-year-old child knew not to bother her when she was working because he knew her work came first. I have listened with fasciation when I told someone how supportive a fellow part-timer had been and she repaid ‘watch your back’ as though I posed some threat to this person, just because we worked in the same precarious position as part time ‘visiting ‘ lecturers.
The cultural and educational map of working class academics is not straightforward. It full of detours and dead ends. It leads us into unknown space, mediated by a socio and economic inequality. It creates anger and frustration, and any success we achieve is complicated by our relationship to the academy that we have worked to join but where we can never truly be a member.
Dee O'Neill is a working class filmmaker and educator. Find her at insidefilm.org and @deeinsidefilm or check out her new documentary on working class actors at http://theactingclass.info