On Being A Working Class Academic: A Personal Reflection

27/01/2017 11:49
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Isn't it strange how class has become something that we rarely talk about in public nowadays?

Given the fact that class is something I self-define by I was pleased to see research about class making the headlines this week. I was however less pleased, albeit unsurprised with what it had to say.

That was because it showed that British professionals from working-class backgrounds are paid on average £6,800 less each year than those from more affluent families. Noting that 21st century Britain was still a 'deeply elitist' society, the Social Mobility Commission's research stated that while this shortfall in pay was partly due to differences in educational background a number of other factors were also key: those from working class backgrounds were less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networks and work opportunities and, in some cases, self-exclude from such things as promotion for fear of not 'fitting in'.

What resonated most with me however was the recognition that those from working-class backgrounds also tend to experience both conscious and unconscious discrimination including quite subtle processes which lead to what is described as 'cultural matching' in the workplace. Consequently, many of the traditional professions continue to be dominated by those from advantaged backgrounds. Such professions - the report added - included academia, a profession that I have been in for the past decade and half. From personal experience, 'the academy' is indeed a space where those from advantaged backgrounds clearly hold the reins of power. So marginalised do I feel at times from those around me, even using the term 'the academy' makes me feel uncomfortable given that it just does not feature in my normal vocabulary or cultural lexicon. I know this wouldn't be the same for some of my peers.

While such things might appear trivial, they are for me at least quite the opposite. For many years, I have felt that my background, upbringing and identification as 'working-class' has been something of a hindrance to my development and progression. This is because I am quite unlike the majority of those I encounter when engaging in typical academic endeavours, for example participating in conferences. Unlike the majority of those I meet, I have a strong regional accent; a strong south London accent to be precise. Likewise, I did not attend an independent school or even a nice state school located in some leafy home county heaven. Instead, my primary school achieved notoriety by being dubbed the worst school in England in the first league tables to be published while my secondary was demolished when the notorious Bonamy Estate in Bermondsey - which surrounded it - was also demolished. Neither did I obtain my undergraduate degree from a Russell Group university. Instead - and not least because I was a mature student - I had to go where I could get in and for me that was Wolverhampton. Add into that my Irish immigrant descent, my mother being an unmarried teenager, never having met my father, plus the fact that I lived with my grandparents as a child - my grandfather being a warehouseman, my grandmother a cleaner - and it really does become difficult at times to really feel at home in 'the academy'.

I know that a lot of this personal reflection will sit uneasily with some in the academy. However, one funny aspect to this is that when some find out about my background, they try and play up their working-class credentials: trying to 'prove' their authenticity by telling me they once got into trouble with the police (something I never have). Most times however, my accent, background and class results in what I would suggest are at best, unconscious discrimination and the unintentional voicing of lazy stereotypes or at worse, conscious discrimination and intentional insults. I'm a positive person so I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But examples of these include being described as more akin to a 'car salesman' than an academic, being told that I might want to consider having elocution lessons, and being told to leave academia entirely because that academic has never really seen me as 'an academic'. It is also funny how certain traits associated with being working class continually crop up where I'm seen to be brash, loud and keen to swear. On this last point, maybe I should adopt the Joe Kinnear justification and tell them that swearing is part of my f**king culture (liking football and being able to make football analogies is another thing that also seems to sit in contention with being in 'the academy').

But it isn't just me. I am aware of others from working class backgrounds having had - and indeed continuing to have - similar experiences. It's not exclusive to those of us with London accents but so too those from 'up North', from Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham and elsewhere. In fact almost anyone whose accent sits outside those of middle England is likely to have experienced some form of unwarranted slur or worse. If the stereotypes are correct, then those of us from working-class backgrounds have a great sense of humour, can definitely take a joke and are likely to be able to give as good as we get: we enjoy good 'bants'. But as this latest research shows, it's not just about whether or not we 'like a laugh': it's about issues of discrimination and institutional bias, about not being afforded equal opportunities and ultimately, not being paid the same as others for doing the exact same job. As the middle classes will no doubt agree, none of this is a laughing matter.

I therefore welcome this week's research and its findings not least because it's given voice to something that I and indeed many others have not only believed for some time but so too experienced. Sadly though I'm not convinced that things will change in the foreseeable future but if we can get people thinking and talking about class once more, then maybe we can begin to shake up this deeply elitist society and really begin to address how it detrimentally impacts so many of our lives. Both inside and outside 'the academy'.