My Eventual Acceptance of Being Working Class


I grew up on a council estate with unemployed parents. I also grew up with a lot of internalised hatred for the so-called under class; this began with being embarrassed of my sister when she wore tracksuits because she looked like a ‘chav’ (a word used frequently and damningly throughout the early 2000’s), and kept on spiralling until I found myself lying to people about how many bedrooms my house had. 

My dad tried to teach me that I was ‘not better or worse than anybody else’, that I should be proud and walk around with my head held high - this teaching fell flat, remaining ignored until several years later. I was embarrassed to be working class. I wasn’t always aware of the class divide and up until around ten years old I thought adulthood went like this, for everyone; decide you’re ready to move out, ask the council for a house and money, get given a house and money, go and live. Unfortunately, this idyllic notion was shattered when, in the playground, I heard a boy call another boy “a scratter who lives in a council house”. At that very moment I realised that there must be other houses not provided and paid for by the council. The next realisation I had was that the people who live in these ‘other houses’ must be better than people like me, and so, anyone who does live in a council house is a scratter. I was mortified. I went home that evening and told my mum what I’d heard. Being older and wiser, I know that it must have been hard to explain to your young daughter that yes, the majority of the country’s population is richer than us and we are, the general consensus is that people like us are scratters.  

My Mum would buy tabloid newspapers like The S*n. I’d find myself looking at the pages when it had been left on the kitchen table, and I so clearly remember the constant barrage of pointed headlines such as ‘BENEFITS SWINDLER’ or ‘BENEFITS CHEAT’. I thought that newspapers had to tell the truth - I was yet to learn that tabloid newspapers such as those can demonise and exaggerate so relentlessly. The S*n has been doing this for years; in 2015 they had a double page spread titled ‘THE WELFIES’ in which they gave out awards that ‘celebrated’ Britain’s top ‘scroungers and dossers.’ The awards included a ‘job dodger’s award’ and a ‘carry on claiming award.’ This was supposed to be funny.

By the time I started secondary school, I was very well aware of how my family and I were perceived by a large part of society. It was the late 00’s, the financial crash had just happened, we had Gordon Brown in the role of fill-in prime minister, and the tabloids were incessantly churning out more hateful tripe perpetuating the (largely untrue) stereotype of the unemployed as lazy scroungers, and printing fear-mongering about low income areas. When people in my class asked me where I was from, I told them, “the nice part of Sowerby with all the old people.” I was intent on telling that lie. In truth, my next door neighbour was an alcoholic and my next door neighbour on the other side was an abusive alcoholic, and I’d dread summertime as there was rarely an evening where the police weren’t swarming our street. It was from this point on, Autumn 2008, that I would spend the next six years trying to ‘act middle class’ and for the most part, I think it worked. I was convincing. I’d even made up jobs that my parents had so I didn't have to tell other kids at school that they were unemployed. 

I distanced myself from my reality, totally embarrassed by it. In its place, I adopted ‘middle class hobbies’ like knitting, embroidery, visiting art galleries and museums, and I even bought the entire works of Shakespeare from eBay and tried to read them all by myself. I was so desperate to prove to myself that I was educated and cultured, that I wasn’t a typical girl from a council estate. I considered my efforts to be a success when, at age 14 in the queue for McDonald’s, a boy asked me which school I went to. I answered and told him the local comprehensive - he proceeded to argue with me and told me that I must be lying, and he bet that I attended the private school in the next town over, protesting “but you look and sound posh.” I was thrilled. Passing as middle class has carried on throughout my adult life. I was having a conversation with my friend at University and he said “yeah, if I’d have visited you and you lived in a four-bedroom house in Harrogate I wouldn’t have been surprised.” When he did visit me at my parents’ house, he saw that I actually lived in a two up, two down terrace in Halifax. 

A few years ago, as TV shows like ‘Benefits Street’ and Benefits Britain’ gained popularity, a conversation around ‘poverty porn’ opened up. Why are people so obsessed with gawping at the poor? These programmes are dehumanising and just feed into the stereotypes of the unemployed being unintelligent layabouts. To describe it as ‘gritty and real’ is patronising, I have lived through this – the vast majority of people are just living their lives despite hardships and struggles, but instead of it being shown as inspiring or feel-good, the people are cherry picked and the footage is edited so that everything televised is in line with this right-wing agenda of, ‘I work hard for my money, these people do not, therefore they are worthless’. There is not a single thought with regards to why these people are in this position in the first place. There’s always a myriad of reasons for unemployment; unfit to work due to illness - physical or mental, recent redundancy, job skills in an industry that is now obsolete. Or, like my parents, a personal importance placed on parenting. I wonder, how many people writing scathing articles on the working-class have a nanny? Being a parent is a full-time job and to do it well without help is difficult. It has taken time to understand this, and as a child I resented not being able to afford the latest technology, and simply didn’t understand why my parents couldn’t ‘just get a job’. Without any qualifications, they were only considered for minimum wage jobs which would have made us no better off, perhaps this is a flaw in the benefits system, but one that meant my parents were able to be there for us constantly.

My parents sacrificed jobs to be totally dedicated parents and as I write this, I have such a healthy and close-knit relationship with the both of them, something I believe I would have lacked had they worked full-time jobs. It’s obvious that they sacrificed a lot for my sister and I, and made a conscious effort to teach morals to the both of us that place happiness before money. I am no longer ashamed of my background or my parents, and if anyone presumed I was privately educated today, I’d promptly correct them.