The desire to portray one’s success, be it academic or cultural, in the meritocracy that so evidently doesn’t exist is becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate. Let’s face it, we live in an extremely unequal society. The UN special Rapporteur sent to the UK to investigate poverty described the levels as ‘tragic’, with 1/5 of the population living in poverty. Some of us are just lucky. Now, there may be nothing inherently wrong with that—indeed it would be impossible to police or criticise ‘luck’—but it is important that we are aware of it, instead of sweeping it under the carpet to make our successes seem more impressive than they already are.
My last article focussed on the problem of privilege at Magdalen, but I feel it was somewhat limited in scope, since it largely pointed out issues we all know to exist. This article will examine some of the underlying reasons why privilege (or denial thereof) is so problematic, and will hopefully explain that being privileged is not something to be ashamed of, but is something you should recognise and be open about. Alongside this, I’ll refer to terms such as ‘working class’ and ‘disadvantaged’, both of which may be considered to be quite vague. In this article ‘disadvantaged’ is taken to mean someone who is suffering from intersectional inequality and discrimination, while ‘working class’ refers more to the reduced cultural, social and economic capital possessed by someone from this background, compared to a more privileged person. Both terms are closely related.
I’ve always been aware of middle class or richer members of society trying to portray themselves as coming from a place of hardship, such as that of a working-class background. This issue is particularly prominent in the media, where actors and television presenters like to discuss their working class roots, by which they mean their great grandfather who worked in a mine for two weeks. Sam Friedman, writing for the Guardian, picks up on this in a separate article, in which he criticises the frequency of actors describing themselves as working class, since it is often based on distant ancestry which has been overshadowed by their successful, upper class parents. I’d never experienced this issue in person until I arrived at Oxford where, let’s face it, privilege is rife. During Michaelmas I was constantly reminded by students that they only went to an ‘average private school’ or one which ‘wasn’t in the top ten’. This is interesting, since it implies people are aware of the fact that privilege, in this case expressed through their private education, is something to be criticised. It seems that even those coming from great privilege can see the inequality which has benefitted them, and it gives me hope that this awareness will lead to change.
It seems that even those coming from great privilege can see the inequality which has benefitted them, and it gives me hope that this awareness will lead to change.
In any event, why is this problematic? The answer is multi-faceted. Firstly, students play the disadvantage card very selectively. For example, when discussing their ten grade 9’s at GCSE, they’re quick to point out that their private school wasn’t the best, or that they didn’t have an appropriate study space at home (it has even been alleged that richer students have employed this deception to great effect when asking to return to Oxford during the pandemic). However, when it comes to work experience, all of sudden this image dies, and you learn that the student who came from this ‘disadvantaged background’ has landed a placement at JP Morgan, which, as a matter of fact, is the same place their father works. How bizarre!
This example, although fictitious, points to a broader issue which is certainly real: by pretending to be ‘working class’ or disadvantaged, you undermine the achievements of those students who really have come from that background, and whose struggles are genuine. It seems the ultimate insult that the privileged upper class have decided to portray themselves as the very opposite, simply because it is in fashion. The very reason that being from a working class background is ‘in’ right now is because it prima facie demonstrates an element of hardship which, if overcome, connotes success. If the upper class continues with this impoverished impersonation, what does this group have left? It’s not even possible for them to show-off their success, since it seems the whole population have achieved after coming from a place of hardship.
Now, you may have noticed that I’m using the terms ‘we’ and ‘our’ here, perhaps implying that I myself am (or consider myself to be) working class. This is not the case. I hope that my acknowledgment of this will encourage some of you to do the same, and to accept your privilege. As I said earlier, coming from a good family, a stable home, loving parents, attending private school, et cetera, is not a thing to be ashamed of. It only becomes problematic when one denies that reality, because that denial fetishizes the experiences of those who are actually disadvantaged, undermining the fact that, even by being at Oxford, those students have achieved something truly impressive.
The failure of the university to make more overt allowances for such inequality warrants scrutiny.
It has felt necessary to write this article not only because of the way students portray their privilege, but also the somewhat erroneous way staff consider (or, more commonly, fail to consider) it. By this I mean that once we’re at Oxford, we’re all held to the same standards. Whether we’ve attended the best school in the world, or if we came out of a comprehensive school rated ‘requires improvement’, the expectations for our essays are equal. In one sense, this is a good thing, since there’s no special treatment for anyone. However, in treating us all as equals, there is an implicit denial of the fact that we so clearly are not. There is procedural equality which neglects the substantive inequality. This also relates to intersectionality: many people suffer from discrimination in a variety of forms which are not at all considered at Oxford. Taking myself as an example, although I went to state-school (and I’m therefore more educationally disadvantaged than the majority of private school students), I’m a white, heterosexual male living in an urban area. When someone faces disadvantage as a result of race, class, gender, or geography, these problems are even worse and the failure of the university to make more overt allowances for such inequality warrants scrutiny.
I was recently privy to a conversation in which a former Etonian was explaining to a state school student how to write an essay, since the tutor preferred a particular style (one which you are much more likely to be taught at private school). On the face of it, it’s great to see students helping each other out, but it’s also indicative of the institutional inequalities that are vested in students, for which staff should allow. There’s no point in pretending that we live in a meritocracy when such a thing does not exist. Why hold us all to the same standards when it is much harder for some of us to reach them? In my previous article, I advocated expanding the access and outreach programme to include students who are actually in college, since inequality does not stop once you enter the walls of Magdalen, or any other college. Expanding outreach would be beneficial university-wide, since it would establish a more inclusive culture permeated by real hardship from disadvantaged students, who can hopefully effect a change in attitudes, even though this shouldn’t be their responsibility. .
I hope this article makes you consider your own privilege, simply because being self-reflective is the only way in which we can ensure we hold ourselves to the appropriate standards. Sometimes I have to remind myself when I write a rubbish essay, or hold my head in my hands after still not understanding joint enterprise liability, that it’s not been easy even to get to this point. Truly reflecting on our privilege will hopefully reduce the number of people putting out a façade of disadvantage, especially when what lies beneath is a trust fund and an investment portfolio. The fetishization of disadvantage needs to stop now: it promotes a damaging narrative which undermines the successes of those overcoming true hardship.