"You Close Off a Part of Yourself": Anonymous Account of a Working Class Academic

I don’t know where to begin to write about my experience of being working class in an academic context. It’s difficult. When you talk about class to colleagues, so often you feel like you are making a point which makes them uncomfortable (maybe something loosely analogous to talking to middle class white people about racism), or you feel that you are being a bit like the Monty Python character who was so poor he lived in a box on the motorway - that your experience is hyperbolic.

It is difficult to write about the experience of being working class without some kind of baggage, in a way which normalises it. So, you don’t talk about it. You close it off. You close off that part of yourself. I think that being a working class academic is a kind of de-racination. I haven’t experienced any explicit discrimination. Rather what happened to me was a slow and insidious process in which I was subtly pressured by the environment to change my accent and all of my preferences - a process which I was fully complicit in.

I loved going to university, which is why I wanted to stay there. I loved the peacefulness and niceness of the environment (still do) and the fact that it was OK to be academic. It fits with that part of my personality.

But the other bit (the working class bit) is still in there, and sometimes it gets annoyed that it isn’t allowed. It is probably worth saying that I didn’t know that I was working class until I went to university. I grew up in London in a multi-ethnic working class neighbourhood where we had no sense of Englishness because everyone’s parents were from somewhere else - mainly Ireland, Jamaica or South Asia. When you were fourteen you got a part-time job and were allowed to smoke because you were earning your own money. You staggered on with school until they let you leave. Then, if you were a girl you worked in a shop and if you were a boy you worked at your dad’s building/road job or you loaded things in a van. From the ages of fifteen to eighteen a typical Friday and Saturday night for me would be going to the pub, then onto a club or a party - and by the end of the night someone might be arrested. At home you ate stew and potatoes or goat curry and plantain. Your mum was religious. There were two families in every house. We didn’t have bathrooms until the mid-eighties. Everyone’s house was rented, if you were lucky from the local housing authority. Lots of girls had babies in their late teens. Some of the boys went to prison. This was normal, and these are the facts. Sometimes my mum would have to wait to cook tea on a Friday until my dad got home with some money for the gas meter. We weren’t poor - there was no sense of deprivation. This was normal.

If I tell my academic colleagues about this it sounds poor, it sounds different. It wasn’t. I read Zadie Smith’s book NW and it had a massive emotional impact on me because it articulated my experience perfectly. When her character Keisha gets angry I could feel it. Nowadays I am living a life a million miles away from that, in a middle class area, working at a well known university with a white, middle-class/upper middle-class demographic. When colleagues talk about Sun readers it makes me rage. Working class people (like my mum and dad) don’t read tabloids because they are bigots. What the fuck is builders’ tea? These small ‘tells’ are how I experience the sense of being displaced in academia. Sometimes at work I listen to Grime on headphones before meetings - which is kind of ridiculous for a fifty year old academic woman - and I do it because I can hear my own accent for a change and there is something kind of comforting about that.

Chris Fairley