The British Class System to an Outsider from Across the Pond

In Commentary, HOME, LIFE by Sam Prance

Let me start this article by checking my privilege. Even though I am an African-American woman, which in many countries is two strikes against me, I come from a middle class family. I come from a capitalist country that has very little patience for welfare and support. Already some of you reading this article may have lost interest or passed judgment on me based on my background. Already my perspective may have become irrelevant to you because I am American or because I am middle class. Let me start by saying that this part of the problem in this country – the class system and how it reinforces peoples perceptions of each other.

As a foreigner I will never fully understand the historical context of the British class system or the lasting impact it has had on social mobility, poverty, politics and this society. However, as an outsider I have the unique and privileged position to share some of my reflections on what this has done to the British psyche.

GP360_Expulsion-From-Number-8-Eden-Close_2012-FULLExpulsion from Number 8 Eden Close: a Grayson Perry tapestry commenting on the British class system.

There are certain things people do not talk about in the UK. As soon as you raise them you are typecast as extremely political or ignorant to the situation as an outsider. Though class is widely discussed by many political parties, student activists, in lecture halls, at bus stops and at family dinner tables – the amount of judgment and resentment that comes from a large amount of Britons from different socio-economic backgrounds makes it difficult to have an open discussion about this ongoing issue.

I admit. The United States isn’t perfect. We talk about race and the success of civil rights movement. We talk about gender and the third wave of the feminist movement – both of which still require a lot of work and attention. We have our fair share of issues around immigration, marriage equality and other matters that continue to repress people in our society. But most prominently, in relation to the United Kingdom, many criticize us for not having a real conversation about class. The class system exists wrapped up in an interconnected web of so many other factors like race, sexual orientation, gender, ability and any of the other nine protected characteristics or liberation groups. Social inequality is still rife in the United States and equality of opportunity is too often a pipe dream for many. The American dream of making it to the top has for the most part become a mantra of those privileged exceptions at the top: the 1-2%.

That said it feels like the class system this side of the pond is ingrained into every facet of everyone’s being and personality. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of bitter resentment and hatred when people so easily pass judgment on one another. The more you believe something exists and has been around for too long to change – the faster it becomes a reality. The United Kingdom is an old nation-state. In the days of feudal rule, land and titles carried weight. Now a family with a name and title may be bankrupt, but still maintain their station in society based on a historical memory of grandeur and status.

At university, questions like ‘what school did you go to?’ and ‘how much is you rent?’ are loaded whether conscious or not with the subtext of ‘what is your class?’ The answer to each is built into an internal category system ingrained into the mind of the questioner. In this sort of unfamiliar environment for a non-Brit, the experience is surreal and results in people tip-toeing around or avoiding certain conversations.

Scenes in films such as, The Riot Club, are closer to the truth than many of us dare admit.

I once sat eating a handful of £2 cherries from Sainsbury’s for breakfast. The fact that I was eating cherries and that they were purchased from Sainsbury’s resulted in an acquaintance’s following comment ‘what a posh breakfast you’re eating!’ Though I understood the comment and why it was made, stepping back from the conversation I remember thinking ‘JESUS! They are cherries’. Only in the U.K. could someone make a comment about some fruit in their class context so subconsciously. I was eating a ‘posh’ breakfast. I know some people cannot afford or would not choose to spend £2 on cherries for breakfast. However, a comment that personifies a type of food rather than a person is a passive aggressive way of stating ‘I have a problem with the fact you can afford to eat that for breakfast’ or ‘it’s ridiculous that you choose to eat these overpriced cherries for breakfast when other people live off of £2 a day, you privileged ass!’ – say it directly. By making passing comments people only avoid the topic of class in a very British way.

In the States, certain foods are consumed by particular groups of people. But you’d rarely find a person calling someone out for eating something that is ‘for rich people’ though they might think it. What’s more likely is that there are certain foods people would not try or have never been exposed to, but rarely would someone say that a food itself is ‘posh’ or ‘chavy’ for rich or for poor people – the idea is as ridiculous as it is polarizing. Potentially, the strongest comment anyone would make is that a food is ‘fancy.’

cherry-hd-wallpapersCherries – posh food or just food?

I believe that anywhere, where an individual’s income (and by extension their position in society – though I appreciate it is not that simple) can be identified by the way they dress, speak and how they spend their money is wrong. It reinforces stereotypes, prejudices, judgments and creates an ‘us and them’ attitude. It happens in the U.S. and certain people are more easily categorized into groups than others. But it does not happen in the same embedded, ingrained, subconscious and systematic way as it does in Great Britain.

Whether it’s the demonization of the working class, middle class guilt or superiority in and hatred of the upper class – the problem is hard to address. If you are privileged you have no right to discuss these things because you are the problem and your privilege discredits any opinion you have on the topic. If you are not privileged, you may feel the gap between your experiences and others is so wide that either you don’t care or there is resentment. I understand that these two very polar views minimize perspectives on the issue and that there are many other perspectives, but the two I highlight do exist and often come up in conversation.

There is a hierarchy in the U.K. Some people at the top genuinely believe they are better than others. This belief is disgusting and it serves the purpose of preventing social mobility and maintaining inequality to benefit the few. In its social, every day context people begin to subconsciously avoid the conversation or stick to what is familiar because it is easier than addressing the issue collectively. Because in order to do that Britons would have to actively rewire their subconscious to stop passing judgment on one another – to establish a level of respect and rapport long enough to have the conversation.

Embedded in our society all over the world, there are many cultural, historical, political, social, environmental, psychological and economic factors at play that makes these issues difficult to pinpoint and even harder to address. I hazard to make a massive generalization. You could argue that this entire article is a generalization; however, I believe that in the United States we are not raised to think we are superior to anyone else. On the world stage our military and political actions can suggest otherwise…our treatment of immigrants certainly can. However, this does not mean that we, in principle, do not aim to promote a fair society. Even Gossip Girl, which very clearly reinforces a class system in the U.S. to audiences abroad is a critique of the often ignored American class system. Its’ narrator making the ultimate social commentary.

Gossip-girl-press-imagesXOXO – Gossip Girl.

The difference is we are a younger nation. We have less baggage though we have plenty. There is no historical record that acts as a guide to suggest how a family’s title or income informs their status in society. Everyone in the United States is nouveau riche. It is all new money and the cycle of poverty has only been reinforced in a family’s history for only so many generations. In many ways, we brush class under the rug too much in the U.S., but in the U.K. it is such a visible part of the way Britons relate to one another. The inability to discuss it openly makes it the biggest elephant in the room – that grows with every interaction. The elephant that is so inflammatory that people tend to react one of two ways – try to ignore it completely or rage against it so loud the rhetoric becomes screw the rich and protect the poor – even though the elephant has grown so big that it’s body is lining the wall, so big there is no room for anyone else but the elephant.

This becomes an evil seed that is planted. A seed that only grows roots and poisons everything it touches. Roots that people ignore, unseen, until sprouts start to grow, popping up in random places that cannot be ignored.  It becomes a sprout that grows into a network of weeds. So many weeds that no matter how many people are set to the task of removing them, they cannot be pulled out of the ground quickly enough.

Briana Pegado

Briana is President of EUSA (Edinburgh University Students’ Association). She likes doodling in the margins of life by reveling in awkward moments, catching people off guard and searching the internet for zingers that put perspective on any situation. She enjoys walks in the forest of life and is the master of chairs.

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(Images sourced from: herehere and here)