Black and middle class?
Growing up in the seventies there was no such thing as being black and middle-class. The type of person I am now simply didn’t exist. I was very aware of being poor, and like many children of colour back then, I felt less than someone who was white.
I tried hard to think differently but was trapped in this mindset by mixed messages. I was told by some teachers and my family that education would allow me to escape poverty, change social status and blend into society. But opposite messages from the mass media, friends at school and even from some teachers left me with an underlying belief that I was less intelligent than my white classmates. This feeling is hard to describe because with some teachers for example, it’s not what they said but what they did, making it harder to identify as racism. My English teacher humiliated me in front of the class on a weekly basis by making me read out loud (or more like stumble through) the Mayor of Casterbridge, Lark Rise and Romeo and Juliet – even though he knew I was dyslexic, or worse still, that I couldn’t read properly. Messages in the mass media were equally in direct, and powerful in their impact.
Education made me a social misfit
Despite the mixed messages and difficulties at school, I put everything into studying and eventually ended up with the equivalent of five GCSE’s, which on the face of it wasn’t that bad. But they were all grade ‘C’ and given how hard I’d worked I felt ashamed. These average grades confirmed what I already suspected, that as a black child I inherently lacked the intelligence to do better.
In the process of studying I’d become separated from the friends I’d grown up with, who one by one had lost interest in school. So by the time I was 18 most of my friends were white and middle class. Every summer I was invited to Scotland where one of their family had a country cottage. I always said ‘no’. At that point there just wasn’t the same social fit. On Saturday nights the friends I grew up with would go to a west end club and dance. My middle-class friends would tend to gather in one of their bedrooms and smoke a joint whilst listening to Miles Davis, Talking Heads or Bob Dylan.
I had somehow turned myself into the beginnings of a middle-class person, but one who wasn’t totally comfortable with the black and working-class friends I’d grown up with, or my new middleclass white ones. I got along fine in both groups but was conscious of not truly fully belonging to either. Rather than integrating me in society, my striving for educational success had left me feeling like a misfit.
Why have I shared my story?
Thirty years on, I’m now at a point where I want to claim my identity, and to understand what I am – a black person from a poor background who, despite the various contrivances to get there, is now middle class. I’m not alone. Unlike in the seventies today there is a growing black middle-class. I earn a decent income, so can’t be considered poor by any means. The shame about my exam grades and my general sense of inferiority, especially around my intelligence, has gone (I now have a Masters degree and I’m thinking about a PHD). And coincidentally, this year our family holiday will be in Scotland.
You could say it’s a happy ending for me and that society has moved on; both are true. So why have I shared my story?
Because, despite being highly conscious of how racism plays out in society, I am unable to completely protect my children from its deeper psychological effects. My children, and those of my friends, are confident and thrive academically, but still suffer, in some respects, from a sense of inferiority. This relatively small group of children have strong family support and will likely flourish. But my hunch is this undermining of the identity of some young people by society is widespread, and in my view, is an underlying cause of drug and knife crime. The ripple effects of these will increasingly impact us all, no matter who we are, and so needs urgent attention.
Thinking about solutions & my process
I’m now wondering if my uncomfortable experience of growing up between different social groups might be helpful in bridging the increasing divisions we see in our society. If there might be a need for people like me who can move between cultures to connect people with different experiences. And if through such connection we might collectively be better placed to deal with the various social and political issues we face
This desire to connect different groups is the reason why – where possible – I use personal stories to give a human connection to the complex topics I’ll talk about. Some stories may seem sad, but they are not meant to illicit sympathy. They’re intended as points of connection, which hopefully create empathy and some understanding.
My blog and podcasts are all just the beginnings of an idea, an experiment to explore what it is to be middle-class and black and to look at news and current affairs through this lens; and by doing this deepen my understanding of how identity and power play out in society. Ultimately, over the next 2 years, I want to come up with a project that even in a small way makes a difference to the current social crises we face, including drug crime and the violence associated with it.
This won’t be an orderly process, so the themes within each post and across the blog may at times seem a bit random. And my goals may change as I add content, have conversations and deepen my thinking.
I will start the blog anonymously as ‘Middle Class Black Man’ for a combination of reasons:
- I’m not yet confident in my writing
- I’m sharing personal stories which leave me feeling vulnerable
- Having not fully understood it or acknowledged it, I want to explore ‘middle class black man’ to understand fully who this is and what it might bring to me and to our society
- So MCBM is about protecting myself and exploring my status/position in the society and how I might use this to shape my future work
Get in touch
I aim to keep my blogs and podcasts relatively short. The complex nature of the topics will inevitably mean that I will likely raise more questions than I answer. If so, or if you are just interested in what I’m trying to do, then I’d be delighted to hear from you.