I was about eight years old when the stark realities of social class imposed themselves on me. Sagely following the advice of the only Black teacher at my local state primary school, my Barbadian parents moved me to an independent girls’ school where it was felt I would be pushed and better supported academically. Aside from having to wear a school uniform and travel a little further each day, the change initially meant little to me. I was excited at the newness of it all.

The feeling did not last.

One morning, during indoor play, I let out a piercing shriek in response to being tickled by a friend and, at that precise moment, our teacher appeared in the doorway. She demanded that the culprit make herself known. Hanging my head with embarrassment, I confessed and was met with the stinging words that would haunt me for the remainder of my school days: “Well, I don’t know where you come from, but we do not do that sort of thing here!”

The words sent me into a spiral of internalised confusion, hurt and hyper-surveillance. I had thought “we” were all the same, bonded as one by our khaki green uniform. Who was this “we” of which I was not part? Over the weeks and months that followed, I studied my teacher and classmates closely, keen to get to the bottom of the dilemma. I observed how and when they spoke, how they carried themselves and how they interacted with each other. I realised most of my peers were white, and many lived, I learnt, in big, detached homes in leafy parts of London. They owned Pops Club pencil cases – bought from a shop in Wandsworth Common, somewhere I had never been – and accomCaran d’Ache pencils and scented rubbers. My stationery came from Woolworths. At the end of the school day, they were collected by Land Rover-driving mummies in Burberry jackets and body warmers, who were accompanied by golden Labradors and fresh-faced boys wearing the blazers of prep schools I’d never heard of. And when the end of term approached, the same girls spoke nonchalantly of “popping over” to second homes in the South of France while I went, with a joy fuelled by a love of books, to the local library.

Unspoken rules, tastes, ways of being, shape who is seen as belonging and who is seen as an outsider

And so, at that very tender age, I started to understand the “we” of which I was not part. I started to understand that social class and race intersect and that there were related class signifiers – unspoken rules, tastes, ways of being – that shape who is seen as belonging, as “one of us” and who is seen as an outsider.

Years later, when I became an academic, I examined this relationship between class and race during a two-year study called “The educational strategies of the Black middle classes”. My colleagues and I were interested in how race and class shaped the experiences of middle-class Black Caribbean families as they manoeuvred their children through the education system. There was already a considerable body of literature documenting how white middle-class families did this; they used their class resources (e.g. finances, knowledge of the system) and social networks (contacts, friends and family members) to push for and secure the best educational experiences and outcomes for their children. They could afford to move home to be near the best schools and could pay for tutors and out of school activities. They knew the “right” people in the Oxbridge colleges and elite universities who could give them additional tips about the application process. Importantly, their resources and interventions were recognised, accepted and enabled by teachers, tutors and other education practitioners. Did middle-class Black Caribbean families possess similar class resources and, if so, were they also able to use them to their advantage? And, ultimately, were their experiences mainly shaped by race or by social class?

We used the Office for National Statistics’ National Standard Occupational manuals – two huge purple volumes that list job positions – to help us work out class status. We also collected information about income and levels of educational qualification. We focused on Black Caribbean families because historically their experiences of the educational system have been fraught with challenges and because this demographic is often treated as homogenously working class.

Around 40 per cent of our Black middle-class respondents were hesitant about being labelled “middle class”, which is not unusual in research asking people about class position. I have Black middle-class friends who earn healthy six-figure salaries, own several properties, send their children to private schools and always turn left when they board a plane yet insist they are working class. What people feel (their affective position) does not always correspond with the reality (the objective assessment).

Parents frequently made use of their class capital to navigate the mainly white schools

Some parents explained that the reason for their ambivalence was because the Black middle classes hold little financial and economic power relative to their middle class white and African American counterparts. Juliet, a comms manager in central government told me: “As I grew up, I felt myself to be culturally Caribbean middle class not English middle class. Caribbean middle class but poor in Britain […] economic mobility […] doesn’t necessarily equate with class mobility”. For others, identifying as middle-class was perceived as an act of betrayal or as implying division or hierarchy relative to working-class family members and friends.

Despite the relative discomfort about the label, parents frequently made use of their class capital to navigate the mainly white schools and later universities that their children attended. However, having (financial) resources, being committed, educated and knowledgeable about the education system and employing what one parent described as “the language of whiteness” did not guarantee they or their concerns about their children would be taken seriously.

One parent, Michael, a business owner, was unimpressed when his son was assigned a non-speaking role in the school play and voiced his concerns to the head teacher. He was told other children had to be given a chance as well. Noting his son’s drama scholarship and confidence speaking publicly in front of large audiences, cultivated through various out-of-school activities, Michael concluded his son was being short-changed because of his race: “If he had blond hair and blue eyes and could act as well, [my son] would have been up there for the world to see,” a position he felt was corroborated when he saw mostly white pupils in the leading roles. Determined that race should not be a barrier to his son’s achievements, he ended up sending him to a different school.

Another parent, Felicia, spoke of the challenges she faced in everyday interactions with education professionals, where her class resources and behaviours were either not recognised or met with suspicion. She cited a fraught meeting with her son’s tutor that was supposed to be about his university options, during which the tutor questioned what she did for a living, and “although I said I was a solicitor, you could see it didn’t register. He must have thought ‘yeah, she’s a cleaner’ […] because that was the way this man was trying to talk to me.” The tutor was later shocked when she pulled a copy of The Times Good University Guide from her handbag. Felicia left the meeting feeling as though she had “gone a round with Tyson”.

These experiences, and the many other examples shared during our research, led us to a conclusion seldom acknowledged in debates about race or social class: that they operate in sync with and often in tension with each other. Black middle-class parents were able to make use of their classed capitals or resources to send their children to private schools, pay for extracurricular activities, gain access to important information about the education system. Yet, racism and racial stereotypes, coupled with a fixed perception about who is perceived to be middle class, restricted and made their educational experiences more difficult. Ultimately, being middle class brings certain advantages for this group, but it does not guarantee protection from racism.

Nicola Rollock is an academic, author and consultant based in London. She co-authored “The Colour of Class: the educational strategies of the Black middle classes” (Routledge). Her latest book is “The Racial Code: tales of resistance and survival” (Penguin)

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June / July 2024, Main Features

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