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Why has the diversity debate left white working-class boys behind?

April 23, 2018   6 mins

On holiday recently, I played a game of “check your privilege” around the dinner table with my husband and our friends: you got a point for any aspect that might allow a socially-aware company to feel good about itself by employing you.

On the first round – before we started to argue the refinements of our positions – my friend and I won a point each for being women, my husband won a point for being of Indian origin, and then we all looked at my friend’s husband, a member of the white working-class whose parents were employed in the same factory for most of their working lives. “I’m working-class,” he said, “Do I get a point for that?”

None of us was sure. Typically, both the media and business now talk a lot about inclusivity on the basis of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but not so much about class – and yet, in so many discussions about equality of opportunity, it’s the elephant in the room.

We won’t get to a fairer place by skating over the full, glaring realities of cash and class

We have been hearing for some years now that the single worst-performing group educationally in the UK is white British working-class boys.1 One theory as to why disadvantaged 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 many immigrant parents have strong educational aspirations on behalf of their children – a sense of possibility which has, for complicated reasons, too often atrophied in disadvantaged white British families.

Part of the problem, however, lies not just in how poorer white families understand their place in society, but how middle-class society routinely depicts them. Before and since the sneery use of the word “chav” started up in the late 90s, to describe a caricature of a feckless white working-class person obsessed by gossip and bling, government policies have conspired to make life harder for the white working-classes. For them, the old post-war securities – a job with regular hours, paid holiday and sick pay – frequently melted away into a new landscape of non-unionised labour and zero-hours contracts, spun as “flexibility”.

The sense of possibility, of social motion has, among the disadvantaged white British population, been replaced by a wider sense of stagnation and loss

House prices, as discussed in Liam Halligan’s home truths series, have soared beyond the reach of those on low incomes; rents are high, and decent council housing – once plentiful, now scarce – can often be attained only by a grotesque form of competitive victimhood which awards housing to those judged by councils to be in direst need. These factors affect and damage all low-income people, of course, but more recent arrivals to Britain often retain the tighter sense of community and co-operation that was once a feature of the English working-class: they are partly fuelled by the sense of possibility, of social motion, while among the disadvantaged white British population that has been replaced by a wider sense of stagnation and loss.

Ferdinand Mount, in his 2004 book Mind The Gap, remarked how the English working-classes have been “uniquely disinherited”. They have, he argued, been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. Such people seemed to him to be:

“…impoverished not simply in relation to the better-off in Britain today but in relation to their own parents and grandparents. And the upper class are uncomfortably aware of it, which is why they show so little respect and affection for the lower classes.”

Writers such as Owen Jones in his 2011 book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes and, more recently, the Scottish author Darren McGarvey in his excellent book Poverty Safari, have analysed how middle-class “cultural contempt” for the working-class operates, and the isolating effect it has had upon an entire section of society.  It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this contempt has long seeped into governmental policy-making, particularly when one looks at long-term policy trends on housing and employment, the two staples of any citizen’s life: for those who were already disadvantaged, both sectors have been steadily injected with an ever higher dose of insecurity.

As fields such as politics, the media and the arts have made increasing use of unpaid interns – a way to get a valuable foot in the door of a given profession, provided one has an additional source of financial support – the informal exiling of the working-class from public influence has intensified.

Last week. a UK study 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, Dave O’Brien, said that the sector was “quite socially closed” and “dominated by middle-class white people”. It highlighted as a difficulty, too“the homogenous values, attitudes and tastes of people working in cultural occupations”.

Ostensibly liberal, middle-class white people in the arts now often interpret diversity mainly in terms of welcoming more female and ethnic minority voices

It is also true that ostensibly liberal, middle-class white people in the arts now often interpret diversity mainly in terms of welcoming more female and ethnic minority voices – a welcome shift – but are rendered nervous by white, male working-class ones, which they find variously too blunt, too Brexity, too angry, too thickly accented, too unaware of the subtle cultural semaphoring by which the middle-class intelligentsia operates.

In the 1950s and 60s a wave of plays and films depicted working-class life: A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Cathy Come Home – but in 2013, the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington found himself noting the number of plays that dealt with “the moral dilemmas of the middle classes” and worried that “our supposedly inclusive theatre is currently excluding a large section of society”.

One wonders how easily the comic energy of a Joe Orton or an Andrea Dunbar would find its way to the national stage today. George Orwell, in his famous essay England Your England, made many observations on the role of class in English life which are strikingly relevant. But, writing as the bombs fell during World War Two, he was wrong on one count, in his prediction that: “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue.” This may have been true in the post-war decades but class distinction has reasserted itself as a powerful force in its modern form: Cameron’s cabinet stuffed with Old Etonians was a perfect illustration.

Sometimes, the language of diversity makes provision for questions of class. Often it does not, but it should. Questions of gender, race and class are, of course, all knotted up together. The relative educational success of women and many ethnic minorities doesn’t mean that they don’t have serious social problems to address. These problems are inevitably worsened, however, by economic disadvantage.

Money endows power: a financial cushion provides an immediate degree of protection against the worst effects of sexism and racism. The #MeToo movement has sparked discussions about gender pay equality and sexual harassment, but both issues are much harder for women in low-paid, insecure jobs to challenge. The scandalous treatment of those who were invited to Britain as children of the Windrush generation has been a shocking demonstration of how swiftly even long-term black British residents can be rendered stateless, but the state’s bullying was made easier by the fact that many were on modest incomes and both additional documentation and legal advice were unaffordable.

I have every interest in seeing a Britain in which women and ethnic minorities are better represented in politics, business and the arts, not least as the mother of a mixed-race daughter. But we won’t get to a fairer place by skating over the full, glaring realities of cash and class. Much of the language now used in debates on diversity, on Twitter, student protest and elsewhere, makes no acknowledgement of the existence of a white male working-class who are currently failed by everything from education to housing to the employment market. The phrase “pale, male and stale,” for example – 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 overcome significant obstacles of poverty and class to get to where they are.

The two words “white men” are now routinely used on Twitter, accompanied with a virtual eye-roll, to describe all that is outdated, prejudiced and wrong with the world, but such words can apply equally to a lavishly-paid CEO in London or a zero-hours care 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 woman opining about social injustice on Twitter.

Cultural confidence derives largely from the gradual osmosis of how wider society sees you and your possibilities. If white working-class boys are indeed suffering from a lack of educational aspiration, maybe it’s time the rest of us started to mind our language.

  1.  In 2016, a Sutton Trust study, “Class Differences: ethnicity and disadvantage” found that white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades at GCSE of any main ethnic group, with only a fifth of boys and a third of girls achieving five good GCSEs. Disadvantaged pupils from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese backgrounds had improved by more than 20 percentage points over the decade since 2016.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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