Ten days and one three hour exam left and then I’ll be finished with my university education. There’s been lots of waves of nostalgia over the last few weeks as I’ve wandered campus and the city, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the ways in which my experience has surprised me. And I think one of the most surprising elements of the last three years has been how I’ve thought about class and identity and how the conversations and ideas surrounding it have differed to what I anticipated when I left sixth form.
The first time I attempted to go to University, down in London, I didn’t really think much about class and identity past being shocked at how much money was in the world. But after three years of living in Manchester I’ve had experiences and encountered discussions and ideas surrounding class that I didn’t anticipate. Pretty much anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes wandering around Fallowfield can vouch for the way in which elements of working class culture are adapted by middle class students and made into ‘edgy’ instagram posts and art pieces. Friends from a similar background to me share my frustrations with the way in which these students seem to pick and choose the elements of working class culture which most helpfully fit whatever aesthetic they’re going for and then proceed to completely disengage from the complexity of working class issues. But it’s the way in which ‘the working classes’ are talked about by these students that really began to piss me off, as if we’re not people they’re likely coming across in lectures, seminars and smoking areas but some vague abstract concept. I’ve sat and listened to people from private schools ranting and explaining to me ‘working class issues’ at parties. But whenever I’d engage and actually acknowledge my own background, people often become uncomfortable and very rarely actually asked for my opinion or perspective, to see if it aligned with their expectations. Seeing middle class people talk about your lived experiences as some intangible ‘other’, but also as ‘one’ experience as opposed to massively varied and differing ones, gets real grating after a while. There’s an assumption at university as to what working class people look/sound/dress like and what they think/care about. And I think this has been one of the most stifling things for me. I began to feel like I couldn’t offer up my perspective as a working class person because it made people feel awkward/guilty, but trying to just ‘act middle class’ or switch off from how different my experiences have often been to those of people around me felt uncomfortable too. This all began to feel more complicated because as University has gone on I’ve felt myself identifying less and less with my hometown and elements of my childhood. Because my financial situation has slowly improved (from worrying about whether we’d lose our home and declined cards at asda to being able to afford trips to festivals and different cities, actual copies of the books I want to read, clothes I like to wear) I’ve also felt like I’ve lost authority on the subjects I’ve always thought I had a valuable perspective on – poverty, social mobility etc. And this is despite frequently nearly dropping out because of money issues and having my mental health problems constantly amplified by a lack of financial stability. I always saw the idea of not having to worry as much about money as something to hope and aim for, but in a university bubble where perspectives are limited and ‘poverty porn’ often seems to be a key part of ‘discussions’ surrounding class, I’ve found myself questioning my own voice/narrative. As my degree is coming to an end I’ve begun to realise that this isn’t a problem with me, or even (to an extent) with some of the students who make the problem worse – it’s an issue with the way in which the working classes and their varied experiences aren’t represented well enough, whether that’s politically or within literature and the arts. It’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about independent publishing and encouraging diversity and accessibility when it comes to books, poetry, theatre and all of the wonderful creative projects that often exclude a significant part of society. And it’s something I hadn’t been forced to consider in detail back home, where ‘working class’ didn’t just mean gritty film shots of a council estate or a pair of battered trainers.
Class problems at University are often portrayed as a simple conflict between ‘toffs’ and ‘poor people’. But the problem is much more complex than that. Narrowing it down just limits the dialogue and leaves working class students feeling even more alienated than they did before University.