I heard a story recently about a game that had become popular amongst the ‘chattering classes’ called “check your privilege”: you got a point for any aspect that might allow a socially progressive company to be keen to employ you.
You get a point for being female, a point for having ethnic minority heritage, 2 points for being a first generation immigrant, 2 points for some disability or one point for an educational ‘special need’ (ADHD, autism or similar). Gay or Bisexual gets on point, trans or non-binary gets 3!
All just harmless fun, perhaps, but it illustrates a much deeper societal malaise.
As a member of the white working-class, whose parents were employed in the manufacturing sector for most of their working lives, I wonder if I would get any points?
Both the media and business now talk a lot about inclusivity on the basis of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, class is barely mentioned now.
For some years now it’s been known that the single worst-performing group educationally in the UK is white British working-class males.
One theory as to why less well off white boys are doing so badly in particular is that the most concentrated drive for improvements in state schools has been in London, which has a higher concentration of ethnic minority pupils, rather than in rural and coastal areas which are predominantly white.
Another is that some immigrant parents have strong educational aspirations on behalf of their children
But it’s not just how poorer white families understand their place in society, but how the so called middle-class society depicts them.
Up to the late 90s, government policies have conspired to make life harder for the white working-classes. For them, the post-war securities – a job with regular hours, paid holiday and sick pay – frequently became non-unionised labour and zero-hours contracts, called “flexibility”. The coal face has now become a call centre, an Amazon warehouse or a care home.
House prices have soared beyond the reach of those on low incomes; rents are high, and decent council housing – once plentiful, can often be attained only by a form of competitive victimhood which awards housing to those judged by councils to be in direst need.
This adds to the evaporation of a sense of community, of belonging, among the disadvantaged white British population which has been replaced by a wider sense of stagnation and loss.
Ferdinand Mount, in his book Mind The Gap, noted how the English working-classes have been “uniquely disinherited”. They have, he says, been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”.
The author Darren McGarvey in his book Poverty Safari, analysed the chattering class’s “cultural contempt” for the working-class, and the isolating effect it has had on an entire section of society. Visit Goldthorpe near Barnsley for an example of this in action. Once a thriving mining village, now a desolate ghost town riven by petty crime and drug use, with up to four generations that have never known permanent employment.
It is impossible to not conclude that this contempt has long seeped into governmental policy-making of all stripes, particularly when one looks at policy trends on housing and employment, the two staples of any citizen’s life: for those who were already disadvantaged, both sectors have been injected with a higher dose of impermanence.
Additionally, politics, the media and the arts have made increasing use of unpaid interns instead of the traditional apprenticeship– a way to get a valuable foot in the door of a given profession, (provided one has an additional source of financial support) – the exiling of the working-class from public influence has intensified.
In 2018 a UK study here found that working-class people are hugely under-represented in the arts: in film, TV and radio their representation was 12.4%, compared to a third in the population as a whole. One of the paper’s authors said that the sector was “quite socially closed” Some media jobs openly exclude white people here
Liberal, middle-class white people in the arts now often interpret diversity mainly in terms of welcoming more female and ethnic minority voices but are not so keen on white, male working-class ones, which they find variously too Brexity, too angry, too thickly accented, too unaware of the cultural signalling by which the middle-class intelligentsia operates.
I recall in the 1950’s and 60’s a wave of plays and films depicted working-class life: A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Cathy Come Home Did the white working class suddenly become fixed? Because now our entertainment seems to be fixated on identity issues
Much of the language now used in debates on diversity, on Twitter, in student protests, makes no acknowledgement of the existence of a white male working-class currently being failed by everything from education to housing to the job market. The phrase “pale, male and stale,” for example (As used by Meghan Markle not so long ago, to describe university lecturers) – which is often slung at those in perceived positions of power – overlooks the fact that in their time a significant proportion of those men may have had overcome significant obstacles of poverty.
The two words “white men” are now routinely used on Twitter, to describe all that is outdated, prejudiced and wrong with the world, but such words can apply to a CEO in London or a zero-hours worker in Sunderland. In the “check your privilege” debate, the latter might understandably feel as if he has very little to check, certainly compared to a middle-class mixed race woman bemoaning social injustice on Twitter.
Cultural confidence comes from how society sees you and your possibilities.
If white working-class boys are suffering from a lack of aspiration, and they are, maybe it’s time the media and the professions started to mind their language.