Averting the middle class gaze: Pushing beyond the discontented acceptance of inequality

Sue Ansarie is a Research Assistant and has mostly worked with community action groups in London to address issues such as housing and displacement of working class communities.

I am about to tell you a true story. This is not about glory or pity. This is to reveal inequalities I faced growing up as a child and as part of my wider neighbourhood community. I do this to offer reflections on my experiences, and how they relate to inequalities in the present, which I see through my work as a researcher.  

To set the scene of my childhood, it was the very end of the 1970’s, into the 1980’s. Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister, and she was always on TV. In my neighbourhood people were syphoning out and stealing petrol from cars at night. Once my dad’s Ford Escort was emptied out of fuel. He was fuming! Poor were stealing from each other, I thought. There were strikes on the news and IRA bombings. Dad hated the Tories and always said the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under their leadership. Looking back, his comment seemed to be about discontented acceptance, that a social position of poverty necessarily meant maltreatment by authorities.

As a young infant I started out life with my young dad, teen mum, and sibling in a caravan. When I was three years old, we were housed on a council estate which was built with prefabricated concrete and without central heating. My family grew and I had six younger siblings. My dad worked for many years driving a lorry. Later he left to pursue a relationship with another woman and then another woman, before settling.

I was often hungry as a child. My stomach rumbled a lot, growling that I needed to eat. We had two slices of the cheapest thin white sliced bread with a scraping of margarine and jam, cut into two sandwiches placed in a sandwich bag and put inside an empty, washed out margarine tub. This was my school packed lunch, repeated for days upon days. One day I took three beef Oxo cubes out of the kitchen cupboard and put them in my lunch box. I remember rolling the cube in my mouth and overhearing the lunch supervisor: “Poor thing is eating an Oxo cube!”. Her response felt humiliating. But that wasn’t the worst. It was my job to feed the cat and I saw the meaty chunks between the jelly, bloody hell I was hungry. At night I often dreamt I was at a party with my school mates, eyeing a table of the best array of party food. Sausage rolls, sandwiches, cakes, jelly. About to tuck in, alas, I woke up. I used my imagination and deflected my mind from unhappy and difficult experiences. It was like a sticky plaster being applied to a wound and the plaster has a smiley face drawn on it. I refused to eat jam for years.

I loved reading at school and would soak up new words like a dry sponge. I worked hard and really delighted in the praise I received from teachers. I was often told I was very bright and picked things up quickly. I wanted to write but I didn’t have any paper to write on. In a lesson I spotted reams of paper and in the busyness of class I took it by the handful and put it in my school bag – which was a supermarket plastic carrier bag. Not long after I opened my lesson book to find a teacher’s note asking why I was taking the paper. I remember liking this teacher as there was something almost fatherly about him – and that he had even noticed, even cared. I was horrified that I’d been caught but felt no guilt, I needed that paper and not just the paper, I felt I needed someone to care about me.

We had a coin metre at home and the electricity would sometimes cut out. Me and my siblings found it fun to have candles lit and the smell was amazing. We had a gas fire in the lounge which lit up in square grids with an ignition. We had a paraffin heater in the upstairs hallway. We wore layers of clothes and slept under two or three blankets. Mum would scramble for her purse to find money for the metre. It only took 50p pieces.

But we weren’t alone on the council estate. My neighbourhood was a mixture of different families, and some had extended families living together. Next door was a Jamaican lady with her English husband. There was an Italian lady who also had an English husband. I would often walk into the Italian neighbour’s home and play with her grandson Toni. We watched football and Maria would give us biscuits and peeled apples to eat. At tea-time I went to Sarah’s house, and she would get a hot meal of something with chips and baked beans. Steak and kidney pie, a sausage, fish fingers, always with chips and beans. I would sit while Sarah ate and occasionally get to finish off what was left on her plate. We used to sing with hairbrushes and practice kissing boys by pretending on some of her pop star wall posters. One-time Sarah’s mum came over with three bags of old clothes which Sarah had grown out of. I excitedly rummaged through the bag pulling out fashionable jeans, skirts, t-shirts, and jumpers. Sarah was a year older than me, and her clothes were amazing. Sometimes we went to the nearest phone box and Sarah had some 10p coins that she’d push in the slot to speak to her dad. She was talking, but there was nobody there. I later realised that he was serving in prison. Calling her dad, I guess, was my friend’s way of coping too.

Despite the struggle, we would still find time and space to laugh. Mum was friendly with several of the other mums and she would invite them around for coffee. They usually chatted about men and their children and laugh about who was sexy or not. I saw a magazine of bare-chested male models, very handsome too. Mum and her friend would ask who I thought was the best and giggle loudly. One day one of the ‘travellers’ came to knock on our back door (One of our neighbours’ houses was home to a big family of ‘settled’ travellers, well known in the traveller world). Dad was cuddling on top of mum on the sofa. Jimmy opened the back door and entered holding his pair of trousers to be taken up. Now that was quite a story to laugh about for some weeks after, mum was repulsed but saw the funny side. People would sometimes make mistakes, and this would have the gossipers busy until the next social blunder. Times of joy, times of tragedy, would be taken in their moment until everyday ordinary life as we knew it returned.

Looking back, I realise that these were crucial support networks that had grown out of care and respect for each other in my local neighbourhood. We looked out for each other and shared what we had to make our quality of living better by ourselves. There was loyal friendship, neighbourly connections, honour, and kindness. These networks evolved as a way of coping and a response to hardships and poverty.

When neighbours were short of food, they knocked on each other’s front doors to ask for eggs, tea, a cup of sugar, bread. Mum would invite people round for coffee and take up hems on trousers for people who lived on our road. This was her contribution based on what she was good at. It was a way of living or culture that our neighbourhood shared; a  mutual sharing of goods, skills, and services, repaid with small amounts of cash, or exchange of another service of  personal belonging.  If someone couldn’t afford a return straight away,  the exchange  would often be done on the basis of doing a favour for someone and owing them a favour back. These ways and means give people their own ownership and control of choosing who and what to share and the means of return for sharing and giving of services or goods.  We were resisting the pressures of poverty and sometimes not having enough. We were resisting the social pressures to achieve status and the idea that if you didn’t reach this you have failed. We were resisting the gaze of the other that judges and assumes problems and negativity which causes more pressure, especially when those problems and negativity are often not even true.

But in my work now, I worry that this form of resistance is being attacked and dismantled. I have seen poorer communities being decimated by the demolition of council estates. Communities have been displaced, formed into mixed communities where families are housed in-between more affluent family homes to boost social capital and disperse neighbourhoods, such as the one I grew up in. This policy of dispersing poverty also disperses the community support networks.  And the assumption that those in poverty would learn from the higher calibre affluent society has merely led to increased stigma, social isolation, and break up of traditional working-class communities.

When I think back to the blurry memories of people siphoning off petrol, I think of it as being a situation of desperation, when mutual networks break down and everyone has to get what they can despite the consequences. Having what you need is generally reliant on ways and means, the situation, sizing up the opportunity and the risk.

At school me and my siblings were called pikeys; seen as someone very poor, dirty and wretched. When I had caught school staff talking about me or my family it was sometimes one of mocking and they seemed to label me or my family as a problem, expecting misbehaviour and bad attitude which was unwarranted. This made me angry, very angry. This just rubbed salt into my wounds and added to an erosion of self-confidence. I was split into two. First, I was striving to achieve, to prove worthiness to those that cared and those that mocked. The second side of me wanted to hate and erupt, give up and switch off. School is such a defining moment in life that needs to be navigated carefully for kids from poorer backgrounds.

As I reached into my teens my dreaded period started. I often felt weak and dizzy, and the pain was quite agonising. Mum took me to the doctor, and I was prescribed a tablet to ease the pains. I was also given the pill to make things regular, which had an oval circle of little pills in a packet. Sometimes I had to roll up clumps of tissue from the girls’ school toilet to make do. It was only later that I realised the pill was a contraceptive and perhaps mum was trying to protect me from having a baby very young, as she had experienced this. The difficulties of menstruation and ‘period poverty’ that I find in my work as a researcher are nothing new to me.

If there wasn’t enough of what I needed I had learnt to make do somehow or find ways to take what I needed. But the look or gaze of others that knew when I’d done something was often of pity or sometimes mocking, indifference, confusion. I had not hardened myself or built a thick skin, as some of the generalisations on experiences of poverty suggest, but instead had been growing a sense of inferiority, poverty, lesser, carrying some internal hurt and damage. My self-confidence was very low, possibly even moving into negative territory.

When I see how society has responded in more recent years to food and period poverty through food banks, I am unsettled on top of the anger and horror that hunger is still being felt by kids today. The setting up of food banks after 2010 was often a middle class charitable, organised response to support hungry families, which has now been supported and legitimised by governments. But these foodbanks are only needed because so many people have been adversely affected by welfare benefit sanctions, meaning household money for food is gone. The rising cost of living, an affordable housing crisis, and removal of secure long-term housing tenancies and employment contracts serve to increase precarity and poverty. The poorest are already pressed hardest in recession, especially mothers and children. The setting up of food banks by the middle classes would simply not be needed if it was ensured that people have enough money to buy their own food. Crucially, the sense of stigma can often be as painful as the physical hunger, this middle class gaze amplifying the financial penalty, which can both have long term damaging effects. Rather than allow these vicious, passive aggressive social policies to legitimately use sanctions, and by default hunger, as punishment, I suggest poorer communities can resist food poverty themselves by sharing and running their own foodbanks instead of being at the mercy of sanctions that keep people in poverty and needs middle class charitable work to solve. For example, I have seen one or two communities through my work that have recently set up their own community fridges.

As I got older, the middle-class gaze became harder to escape. I was considered bright enough to get through to Grammar school and my main concern was getting a ‘posh accent’ and getting teased. A boy in another council estate nearby had been granted a scholarship at a private school and returned with a ‘posh accent’. He was teased badly and was quite the uproar amongst local youth – another child split into two. The poor lad stayed in and grew up very isolated from the other children and their adventures and bravado. I was told I should go, and I faced yet more mockery due to my ‘cheap clothing’; I couldn’t reach the style and affluent life experiences of my peers. I started to have anxiety and depression and as me and my siblings were now, or becoming, teenagers home life was fraught and money strains turned the home into turmoil and even violence. A music teacher asked me to perform on a keyboard and after a few notes my hand started shaking. I had developed a flinch if a hand or movement darted near me and I started to look down. A friend’s dad asked why I look down all the time and I hadn’t even realised.

Coping at this time had become double edged. I went deep into my schoolwork, and was doing well, but then things dipped. I went out for long periods with friends drinking, smoked some cannabis and weed, tried some speed and LSD. I somehow achieved well in GCSEs and A levels. I did different jobs to make some money, went to bars, clubs and saw bands. I sometimes self-harmed and hid this under my clothing, anxiety had grown trying to navigate my sense of self, who I am and in future where and who I want to be. Every generation finds their own ways to cope and these are often ways that don’t build you up, harden you, cause you to develop a thick skin, or mentally escape those harsh experiences of poverty.

I learnt how to behave and speak in the Grammar school environment by speaking more eloquently and becoming more ‘stiff and subdued’ to try to match the way I saw my peers’ manner of behaviour and style. I learnt how to be a chameleon and change my colours to my surroundings. Friends in 6th form had parents pay for driving lessons and cars which I couldn’t afford. I saved money and achieved that years later. Friends with more money and luxurious homes with very high mortgages had power in their friendship groups, had status to network and get relationships with good looking boys from other affluent families. Getting a lift home by the parent of a friend was altogether a socially shameful experience as they would see our living was of lower status. However, in the late eighties when interest rates sky-rocketed one or two friend’s families lost their homes as they were repossessed and hit the ground with an almighty thump. I realised that relationships and people are of greatest value when you have lost almost everything. My inability to pay for situations and experience meant that my achievements were more difficult to achieve, requiring greater strength, support where I could get it, perseverance, and time.

Now, I return to the present for the final time. It’s 2021 and I work in research which has a focus on working with deprived communities. I still live on a council estate and have my own family and great friends and neighbours. I’ve overcome many demons by sheer persistence, increased in confidence and proudly worked hard to get the work role I wanted. I have skills in research that come very naturally after the life I have led to date, especially in terms of encouraging participation and gaining trust from people in deprived communities to open up.

There’s a pandemic which appears to be waning and the economy is severely hammered. Many are cut to the very core of themselves, as are their dependants, closest friends, family, and neighbours after the lockdowns. My own estate is surrounded by new developments. Our homes (and community) are highly likely to be demolished as there is opportunity to build new apartments that we won’t be able to afford.  The most heart wrenching issue still just as prevalent today is child poverty, which I hope that the government can do their best to prevent with dignity. But there’s a lot to learn from communities themselves, and poorer communities have a lot of skills that keep them together and in solidarity. Perhaps the ways of coping that I used and saw could still apply to many people in these times. The stigma and social policy that emanates from middle classes looking into the goldfish bowl and judging what they do not know is often unwarranted and derogatory. Give children voices and a chance to say what hurts them and why and listen to mothers who often carry burdens of trying to support their family without enough. Invest in so-called deprived community infrastructure in a way that is community led – as that can lead to some amazing outcomes. I think back to my dad’s discontented acceptance and realise that pre-determined failure without power and control does not have to be the only way. Let’s take some power back!

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