Friday, October 9, 2015

I'm coming Working Class

There has been a lot of talk on my twitter timeline recently about class. Specifically the tensions of negotiating Middle Class spaces as a Working Class woman; and whilst I don't intend to add my comments to what's been happening it has given me the impetus to write this post.

So, this is me, coming out as Working Class: I'm a working class woman, trying to negotiate the very foreign world of academia and I have some thoughts I want to share on this experience.

I grew up on council estates, after my family home was repossessed in the recession in the 1980s because my parents could no longer afford the mortgage. I watched from an upstairs window as my dad argued with the bailiffs when they came to repossess the car. We didn't have much money when I was growing up. My parents worked in low income jobs and life was tough. At birthdays and Christmas I grew so used to being told "We can't afford that" that I stopped asking for expensive gifts. I remember one year when I wanted a Ghettoblaster for my birthday, and it nearly broke my parents paying for it.

I'm the first of my family to get a degree. So when I returned to university as a mature student, I had no frame of reference. Despite this I fell in love with it. I felt at home at university, like I'd found my place. For me academia is a world full of learning, challenge, debate and knowledge sharing. But, from day one I glossed over my past. I VERY quickly realised that being working class made me different, made me other. So I just didn't talk about my childhood. I nodded and smiled as others talked of the help they got from parents and the family holiday's they'd had to far off countries.

As I moved from being a student to working in academia this feeling of not belonging deepened. My colleagues are overwhelmingly middle class, and this is difficult, because I don't know the rules of the game. I can't do the academic politics thing, I have no idea how. And this has led to me being scapegoated and shit upon on more than one occasion. I wish I could say that this was by academic men, but unfortunately it's been by middle class women.

When the shit hits the fan, working class people band together, they close ranks. The middle-classes however, are out solely to protect themselves, even if this comes at someone else's expense. And in a middle class world a working class woman is very exposed to this. I expect that people will stick with me, but they don't. And every time it has happened I've been deeply hurt and shocked. This is not how people behave.

When I was a young mum, living in my own council house with an abusive husband it was my working class friends that helped me survive. We shared food, lent money to each other, shared baby formula and nappies. We kept each other going. This is what I expect from other women, this sisterhood. So it's completely alien to me when other women have used me to forward their own agendas and discarded me when things got difficult.

Negotiating the world of academia as a working class woman is hard. Everyone understands my marginalisation for being a woman, but no-one seems able or willing to even talk about how I am marginalised by my class (not even me, up until now). I don't know the rules, the codes, for how to behave. And honestly, from what I've experienced of them, I don't want to play the game by those rules.

My experience has been that in academia there is a very individualised culture. Everyone looks out for themselves, others be damned. But I come from a collectivistic culture, where the survival of everyone is more important than any one individual. It's almost impossible to square this circle.

(I was going to say that it's 'not all middle class academic women', but come to think of it, the women I know in academia who have been helpful and supportive come from working class backgrounds).

I've spent the last 7 years trying to pass as middle class, and I've been fairly successful. I'm smart, articulate and educated, so I can ape it, sometimes. But it's an added workload and I'm tired of wasting my energy pretending to be something I'm not. I'm tired of trying to be smaller, of trying not to be too loud, too sweary, too balshy. Of doing everything I can to disguise my working class roots.

There's a big push in academia at the moment around diversity and inclusion, but still no-one is talking about class. Oh, there's the 'widening participation' agenda aimed at getting more 'poor' students to university, but no-one is talking about what happens to them once they're in. And we should be, we need to be, because academia is a hostile environment for the working class.

So this is me, coming out as working class. Saying I'm proud of my roots and what I've achieved. And also saying, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself academia. A really good look. Recognise the class privilege that drips off almost every one of you and how your thoughtless, self-serving actions can ruin the life of someone like me. If you really want to be inclusive you've got to start thinking about including the working classes in your precious ivory tower.

EDIT: I went on a bit of a twitter rant with some more things I had to say, storify here 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 - An interesting year

What can I say about 2014? It's been an interesting year. I started 2014 in the midst of what was essentially a nervous breakdown. Very few people knew (or to date, know) about my mental health problems this year. Not because I'm ashamed of them, but because I tend not to talk about that type of stuff often. The reasons for my mental health issues were myriad, and I'm still dealing with some of the fall out, but on the whole, I'm better now. 
I spent the first half of the year hiding in bed. Unable to go to work, unable to play with my son, unable to do anything....except read and crochet. So I read, LOTS. Mostly feminist theory, and I learned lots. I also crocheted LOTS and I've gotten pretty good.
2014 is the year I finally acknowledged that my migraines were a disability. That I wasn't a 'normal' person who got ill sometimes, but a chronically ill person who needed to take self-care more seriously. This lesson was hard to learn, but it couldn't have happened at a better time, because in the last few months of 2014 I was diagnosed with ME/CFS. And now I really have to accept that I can't do things the way I used to.
So far this post seems a little gloomy, but these experiences have led to some positives. My health issues led me to @phdisabled and a community of others in academia with chronic illness/disability. I realised that the struggles I had faced were not just my experiences. That academia has a culture that excludes those like me. That this culture is pervasive and subtle and easily internalised. And I got angry. I found myself speaking out on twitter, writing for the PhDisabled blog and joining the group to help change things. In essence I joined a campaign. 
My feminist reading also gave me a better understanding of sexism and women's oppression. And this made me angry. So I used my voice. Online and off. I became that feminist that my friends sometimes roll their eyes at, and I'm proud of this. ;) 
These two passions opened up new possibilities, and combined with my passion for all things STEM I began to see a new path for my energies and talents. In the summer, I won what I thought was the PERFECT PhD position. And we began to plan a move to London.
Then my gran got sick, and I had this feeling that she wasn't going to get better. Things with the London move became more and more complicated and I realised that I was going to have to make a heartbreaking decision. I withdrew from the PhD place. I felt cheated! Why would this opportunity come along if I wasn't able to take it?
Around this time my gran went into hospital again, and in early September she died. Suddenly not moving to London seemed right. I got to see my gran a few days before her death. I got to say goodbye. We should have been in London by then.
My gran's death hit me hard. Though I had prepared for it, I was still devasted. I was close to my gran as a kid, and there's so much I could tell you about what she taught me. But I'm saving that for another post, when I'm ready. 
By my birthday in mid-september, I had had enough of 2014. It was a crap year! I just wanted it to be over. I felt exhausted. Wrung out. I literally couldn't take any more. 
Then I got a great job, working in public engagement, with an amazing team of women. Suddenly going to work was fun and things seemed a little brighter. Maybe the year was going to end on a good note after all. 
One day, a month or so into my new job, my manager called me into her office. I felt like a schoolkid being called in to see the headteacher. But she wasn't telling me off, far from it - she showed me a job that had just been posted on the uni network and said
"You HAVE to apply for this. You are PERFECT for it"
I looked over the job description and can honestly say it was like someone had written the perfect job for me. I applied, with hope, but no real expectation. I interviewed at the end of October and I started the job at the beginning of November. And I bloody LOVE it. The job is AMAZING. I'm working on diversity in STEM in HE. I get to have a direct effect on policy (even if it is only at one university). This job uses all of my skills, stimulates my brain and satisfies that eternal curiosity. If you'd told me in Septmeber that I would finish 2014 on a high, I'd probably have killed you. But I have. I CANNOT wait to get started on 2015. Despite my grief, despite my health issues, I'm facing the new year with excitement and looking back on 2014 with some affection. 
Happy New Year!