Social class in the UK is a hard thing to navigate especially as we don’t like talking about it
From a young age we are very aware of our privileges or lack of in life but when you add race to the mix, it can make things more confusing.
For many black people when they think of the black experience in the UK, they think it’s synonymous with being working class. This is because many of us have had similar experiences: we grew up in urban areas, didn’t go to a grammar or private school and had parents who worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. For this reason, many black middle class people have been left feeling alienated from our own wider community.
A lack of representation in the media
Even when we look at representation of black people in entertainment, the black middle class experience hasn’t yet been shown in much depth the UK. In the United States shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel Air and My Wife and Kids showed us what the African American middle class experience looked like.
A difference of opinion, even in one household
I would classify myself as working-class but my sister would differ. This is due to our differences in our upbringing. My sister is five years older than me and was born in Congo. Before my dad passed away, he worked for the UN and had two degrees, as well as my mother.
For most immigrants coming to the UK meant trying to have a better life. My dad, however, worked for the U.N where he was headhunted by Amnesty International to work in London. Before this my sister went to private school in Kenya (where I was born). After my dad passed away, life got slightly harder as my mother had to raise us by herself but for the most part I’ve lived a very comfortable life. I was able to go on holidays, was always doing extracurricular classes and all the other things any other ‘normal’ child did.
But when I went to university I encountered more of who I believe are the black middle class. People who went to private schools, had parents who paid for their tuition, went on several holidays a year etc. That made me think about that whole community as a whole and why we rarely discuss the experiences of the black middle class.
I spoke to some black people who consider themselves as middle class about their experiences and navigating through a middle class space as a Black person.
Sarah, 25, alumni of Coventry University:
Sarah says noticed she was middle class when she went to university but was surrounded by the white middle class in her school days. ‘The (white) girls I grew up with had very well off families, a mixture of generational wealth and just family businesses/good education. I always felt like the ‘poor’ compared to them. “I didn’t really think about my class until I went to uni and heard about how my uni friends grew up and their circumstances.’’ There is an assumption that we all grew up pretty much the same and whilst that’s the case for some things, especially culturally, stories about our upbringings can highlight major differences too – differences related to finance, security and comfort. There was a big difference between myself and my white friends at school but probably an equal difference to myself and some of the friends I made growing up.
Some black middle class people shy away from labelling themselves as middle class due to imposter syndrome. Journalist Diana Young states ‘But what is rarely discussed is the concept of impostor syndrome ultimately hindering black people’s impact within British society, because they doubt whether their education, income and career achievements are good enough to assimilate as middle class.’
Nadine, 24 alumni University of Nottingham grew up in Milton Keynes:
‘I would describe being middle class as being from a particular social and economic background, family of working professionals, living in a certain area eg suburbs.’
She stated that she often felt left out of the ‘Black experience’ in the UK but explains the nuances of that. ‘I experienced black people make me feel less than because I didn’t have certain experiences (growing up in socially deprived areas) and I experienced white people assume that I did come from socially deprived areas. I do think it’s a difficult one though because really what is the ‘black experience?’ and what does class have to do with it ? I think it’s interesting because I don’t think my parents would identify themselves as middle class because they automatically view it as a ‘white thing’ and don’t want to come across as ‘better than’ for a while I probably felt that way too, but ultimately being black middle class is simply a factual matter that doesn’t negate your blackness.
Molly, 20, student at University of Warwick:
Molly didn’t realise she was middle class until she got older. ‘I only realised I was middle class in the last couple of years which sounds nuts but it’s because my understanding of wealth was really skewered. My dad is super frugal and my parents aren’t ostentatious. When it came to things such as Christmas, my friends were getting TVs, trainers, all these new things. When it was Christmas we would always go abroad but for a long time I thought I was poor.’
‘I think being Black especially in London is usually synonymous with being working class, living on an estate and being from a certain area. That’s what the Black experience usually is. I think with my working class friends I almost felt like an outsider. You kind of always felt like there was a difference, they’d always say things like ‘your dad is really rich’ etc. That affected me as I felt like I wasn’t Black enough.
Not one size fits all
According to the UK Government 47% of Black Africans and 45% Black Africans are renting a social housing property.
Being Black means different things to different people and we shouldn’t have a set idea of what being ‘black’ means. The stories of black working class people in the UK is common but it isn’t the only story we should know or tell. Not every single black person grew up in a council state and whether they did or did not has nothing to do their how ‘Black’ they are.