A long read exploring the differences between material poverty and perceived cultural inequalities, and how the author began to recognise the impact of inequality on her self-esteem whilst at university.
I grew up in Tottenham, North London for the first 18 years of my life as a very conscious and progressive child and teen. I cared deeply about equality from a young age, despite being raised by parents who were ‘apolitical’ and who allowed me my say over their votes by the age of 12. This blog serves as my way of understanding how I came to recognise inequality in my own life and the ways it has impacted on me.
Mine and my sister’s upbringing was in many ways so incredibly different to the struggles of economic deprivation that our parents had been through. Our parents had both grown up in relative poverty and had both left school early with very few academic qualifications between them. Whereas for us – materially – we wanted for nothing. My dad owned our house, we could go on every school trip, we always had enough food to eat, got new clothes when we needed them and usually got a fairly decent haul at Christmas and our birthdays.
I went to an all girls’ secondary school in Hackney, East London. It wasn’t fantastic but it certainly wasn’t a “bad” school by London standards. I worked incredibly hard to be one of the top students, and I regularly felt satisfied that meritocracy had truly prevailed. That said, we all knew somehow that we could never go to Oxbridge (regardless of how many As we got in our A-Levels), but other than that me and my friends felt like we were all doing well and that nothing could really stop us or get in our way.
My sister was the first person in our family to go to university in 2008. I followed suit three years in later in 2011. It was this experience that truly thrusted me into experiencing inequality and in uncovering my sense of self formed through living in the most unequal place in the UK.
Horses, holidays and skiing trips
I was the first person to arrive in my new flat in halls. When my first flatmate walked in, my fear and class self-consciousness emerged immediately. This person, now a very good friend of mine, reminded me recently that the second thing I said to her after “hi, nice to meet you”, “what’s your name?” was “are you posh?”. Within the first week, I had also freaked out when someone had mentioned a horse in a story and another had mentioned skiing.
I was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor.
Looking back, this seems like such an odd way to behave, but I can understand now why I reacted like this. On arriving at university, I left the bubble of those who had experienced a similar upbringing to me and was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor. I felt out of place and I was terrified that I’d be rumbled; I obviously didn’t really deserve my place there.
These experiences continued as I discovered more about the gulf between my own experiences and those of my peers. When people spoke about their extravagant holidays, I was forced to confront the fact that me and my family had been abroad only twice (to stay with family in Italy) and the rest of our very infrequent holidays had been to Pontins or Butlins. Everyone seemed to somehow be proficient in a musical instrument and good at cross-country. They seemed shocked to find out that my music lessons at school had consisted of us writing pop songs with a 90s Yamaha keyboard shared between 10 of us, and that our entire outside area was a concrete playground no bigger than the car parking space outside our uni halls.
Books, newspapers and debates
Within the first few weeks, I was paired up with a classmate for a group presentation. He told me that his dad has just written a book on a related issue to whatever it was we had been asked to present on. My class-conscious self clearly affronted by this, I quipped “I don’t think my dad’s ever read a book.”
He looked at me with a look of disgust that I honestly was not expecting.
We were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia.
As my first year went on I realised that yes I was smart, but I still felt like I didn’t really deserve to be there. The people I was studying alongside had grown up in the sorts of houses that had huge bookcases, with families that had dinner around the table and debated whatever world issue was topical on that day. Their parents had been to university and were in highly-skilled, academic jobs. On the other hand, we were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia. Newspapers, if any, were whatever free London paper my dad had found on the tube and brought home for the cats’ litter tray. I realised that my comment about the books had not really been joke, it was true. No one in my house read and we had never been encouraged to discuss anything critically. I was severely lacking the wide perspective and understanding of the world and its history that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else.
You sound like you’re from Tottenham
Through taking on this self-deprecating persona, I inadvertently started to embolden others to speak to me with the same level of disdain as I spoke about myself. The guy whose dad had written a book once asked me in front of our entire group if “my parents had bought their house off Thatcher” (in an effort to humiliate me in front of our wealthy classmates), and my home of Tottenham and my accent were regularly mocked. Another classmate told me that I didn’t deserve the grades I got because I clearly didn’t know anything. One housemate regularly ‘joked’ in menial conversations that I couldn’t have a say over household decisions because I was from Tottenham.
I worked in supermarkets and restaurants throughout my degree and in every summer holiday, while many of my friends went on long holidays with their families or undertook amazing volunteering opportunities and unpaid internships that I’d have never even had the family connections to get, let alone the months of unpaid work my parents could never have afforded to subsidise. I slowly found out that a few of my friends didn’t even have student loans, their parents had paid their fees upfront and had given them enough money to live on for the full three years.
As I got older, more and more people told me they thought I had “imposter syndrome”. That’s the fairly common feeling that you are a fraud who has only got to where you are by chance or luck, accompanied by the constant feeling that you’re going to get ‘found out’. A real life example: I was awarded a prize for the best dissertation in my cohort at my graduation. What I took from this was that I’d somehow tricked the person who had graded it, or that they must have not known anything about the topic. Anyone who has ever felt this way will have a host of stories like this they can think of.
While mental health is of course incredibly complex, I do believe that the extreme social and economic inequality that is rife in our society (and intensely amplified at elite institutions) is somewhat responsible for my mental health problems.
I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries.
Inequality has been so damaging to my self-esteem, my self-confidence and my ability to feel happy about my life. Until I was placed face-to-face with those who had much more than me, I was content with what I had and what I thought I could do. But after beginning uni, instead of appreciating the very comfortable and safe life I had and the opportunities I had access to, I was angry that my friends had more time to write their essays while I had to work, and they were already set up to get good jobs from their parents’ connections after we graduated. I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries. I was annoyed that I couldn’t lose the ever-present hints of my mum’s cockney accent. I struggled to be happy while I constantly compared myself to people who had completely different upbringings, opportunities, incomes and lifestyles to me.
My advice for working class folks at university
Knowing that many people reading this might have had similar experiences or be going through this exact problem right now, I thought it might be worthwhile giving some tips on how I personally came to understanding and dealing with these experiences.*
- Acknowledge how deeply unequal our society is and the impact that this can have on our mental health. It is easier to understand why it is so natural to feel like this once you understand more about inequality.
- Realise that you can’t change your family and you shouldn’t want to. Our parents have done their very best to give us the things their parents couldn’t give them, and we should be grateful for everything they’ve done. Most of all, we certainly shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of our culture, accents, experiences or upbringings. Be proud of working class culture!
- Don’t self-deprecate or put yourself forward for ridicule as a way to cope with those feelings of fraudulence – it only makes other people think they have the right to speak to you in that way too.
- Remember that you deserve your place and your success as much, if not more, than many of your peers.
- If anyone decides to make a comment (like some of the anecdotes I’ve relayed above), simply remind them that you’re both at the same institution despite you not having benefited from the privilege of a private education or any other benefits of a middle or upper class upbringing.
- At the same time, try not to compare yourself to others. I recognise that our current obsession with social media platforms like Instagram (not really a thing during my days at uni fortunately), can make it really difficult not to. But do your best to focus on what actually makes you happy and the things you are grateful for.
- Realise that you’re not alone. I shared the title of this article on my social media and got so many responses from people saying “I have a story just like this” – there will certainly be other people at your institution just like you who will understand.
- Take action to campaign against inequality. While it’s not “our” responsibility to resolve these problems, I have found that being a part of fighting against inequality does help to give your own experiences more clarity and purpose. Most importantly, a world with less inequality will be a world in which we’re all much happier, so it makes sense to get started.
Rianna – Tottenham, North London.
* A note that none of these suggestions preclude also seeking professional support for your mental health, by going to see your GP and being referred to whatever psychological services or medication you may require. For many people, including myself, this has also been a necessary part of un-learning the behaviours that can make you feel like this.