It’s taken me a while to develop the courage to write this piece since I’ve been at odds with myself for a while. But with the semester coming to a close, summer drawing in and raucous debates on class and income no longer boiling on the timeline, I’ve decided to simmer down and write this piece on how I am grappling and trying to reconcile my working class background with my aspirations.
A few facts about myself: I’m a black woman, 20 years of age. My parents came from Ghana to London as immigrants just over 25 years ago. I was born and raised in East London and have lived under the Council my entire life. I am working class and a middle child but for the most part I had a happy childhood. I’ve moved half a dozen times in my life: from small houses in decent neighbourhoods to sky-scraping towers on estates (St Catharine’s tower in Beaumont estate to be exact). I moved primary school too. The secondary school I attended was not in my borough so I had to travel an hour to get there everyday.
All in all, I always felt pretty displaced wherever I went. I envied kids whose parents bought their houses outright and grew up in the same home from birth. We were renting from the Council, constantly being sold false promises that this would be our permanent home but it never happened. Every 4 years (maximum) we’d uproot and move somewhere else and I had to learn a new bus route, make a new bunch of friends and get used to new living. It didn’t help that I changed my name when I went to secondary school. Everything was always brand new, a fresh start I didn’t ask for kept happening over and over again.
I figured out I was working-class (or in my vocabulary – poor) in primary school. The school I went to had a mixture of kids from all backgrounds and incomes and I’d go to their houses for birthdays and playdates and see they looked nothing like mine. Theirs were more spacious, grander and safer… mine not so much. Very few people (if any) visited my home when I lived on Beaumont Estate. Most parents didn’t want their kids anywhere near the area and rightly so – I don’t remember much about it at the time but in hindsight, after asking my parents about it and doing research – it wasn’t the safest place to live. The kids I played with were neighbours who lived on the same floor and most of us were forbidden to leave after 7pm so we played in the corridor. When my parents were told that the tower would be knocked down soon, we moved to a house in Leytonstone, a few streets away from Stratford.
My family couldn’t afford SKY and Virgin wasn’t really a thing then so we had Freeview. My dad didn’t let us watch TV from Monday to Friday (except 30 minutes of EastEnders) so most of my childhood was spent reading and revising. I started with Jacqueline Wilson, migrating to Malorie Blackman and Anne Cassidy as I matured into teenage years. My dad was more of a disciplinarian in my formative years (he’s a sweetheart now) so I learnt to work hard from a young age. I worked tirelessly and always got the highest grades possible – so much so it was suggested I do 11+ and go to a grammar school. We considered it but found out the examinations had to be completed months in advance and were too late. The only other option was to pay to attend Forest School but private education had never been a consideration to me. I think it was at this point I realised the existence of social mobility.
In secondary school I continued to flourish with my studies – I got 11 GCSE’s, did my Maths and French GCSE early, was selected to do Triple Science and even got a cheeky – albeit useless – Latin qualification. It was all good. The secondary school I went to was in Newham (one of the poorest boroughs in London) so my successes seemed magnified considering the environment. Victorious, I thought I had beaten the system: even with my background I had beaten the odds. There was an opportunity for me to attend Cheltenham Ladies College if I just filled out this intensive application form and completed their entry exams. I remember passing the forms to my parents in excitement: finally an opportunity to go to a private boarding school. Again, I was hopeful, stoked. I remember the papers being strewn over the kitchen table, my parents looking at each and every one of them. I wanted to watch them fill it in but they sent me to my room, told me they’d have it ready by tomorrow.
The next morning, my dad returned the papers to me in the same blank state that I had given them to him the night before. None of it was filled in. I didn’t even ask why. I just knew money and other things had again wormed in to barricade me from my dreams. Disheartened, I think I cried but I eventually got over it and began applying to sixth form colleges in my area. In my mind, it was this transition into Higher Education that served as a crux period of socialisation.
The first thing I noticed was the superiority conflict that come from studying at a sixth form with a dress code, registration, form class, timetabled periods and limited freedom in contrast to the relaxed rules of college life. From the little I saw on Snapchat, it looked like my friends were living it up, waltzing in and out whenever they pleased with their own choice of clothing and makeup. Whereas I was stuck in a sixth form having to mill around uniformed year 7’s and 11’s to get to class and still being policed by nagging teachers. It was a far cry from freedom.
Then came the issue of ethnic diversity. I’d gone from attending a girls’ school where black and Asians were in the majority to now being one of less than ten black girls in this entire year. To make matters worse, the area where my sixth form was located was near Essex and so was considered more upscale than my local neighbourhood so it was quite a transition getting to grips with the class divide. I wouldn’t give it that much credit and say it was posh but the change in scenery was enough for me to start adapting my appearance. I found myself caring what I wore the next day, keeping my hair out and in its relaxed state instead of extensions for the most part. I never wore make up (I’m basic) but I did invest in a few expensive blazer jackets to help me look the part. When I spoke, I eliminated the slang in my vocabulary and tried not to look how I felt deep inside – foreign. From then on, I realised how integral a part socialisation played in my upbringing – grades weren’t everything. I couldn’t get away from who I was.
Afterwards came talks about careers and UCAS. I didn’t know what I wanted to be but as an child of African parents, I knew the options were limited. As exemplified in the range of subjects I chose to study (English Literature, Biology, Psychology, History and Critical Thinking as an extra), I was conflicted as ever. A disinterest in Chemistry meant Medicine was out of the question and no Maths meant no Engineering. By black African standards, the only other option was Law. And since I liked to read and watch crime shows it seemed a sure bet. With a few connections I managed to get work experience in a high street law firm and a corporate law firm – again, network. My grades didn’t get me in either these doors: I knew someone who knew someone and so forth. Nonetheless, both were ace experiences that taught me regardless of the sector of law you go into – this shit was real. At 17, I was face-to-face with clientele, unpaid and dealing with queries and questions and it was… daunting to say the least. Still I thought I was ready.
When it came to the university search however I was as ill-equipped as ever. I didn’t know about hierarchies and the Russell Group or the politics of a Law degree. My parents didn’t know anything and my sixth form weren’t helpful at all so I didn’t appreciate the importance of the ranking of your university. All I knew was Oxbridge and then everything that befell it. Fortunately I had some great friends who gave me some insight and helped me pick my main choices and my sister gave me some good back-ups.
My only two rules for myself were:
- Don’t go somewhere too far out (due to travel expense)
- Don’t go somewhere where you will not be happy (i.e. try and stay sane)
It sounds crazy that comfort would take precedent and become my biggest priority in university selection but it was. I figured if I was going to go and get a degree outside of London and away from my family, I needed to be happy and comfortable and not feel like an outsider. So I checked diversity records, student satisfaction and all the niggling little things people ignore when it comes to qualifying what makes a great university before finally narrowing down my options.
You can imagine how pleased I was when I got an unconditional offer from UEA and a promise of £1500 if I got 3 A’s. Finally my dreams were coming true, the pressure was off: no matter what grade I got I would get into my university firm. I was ecstatic. But in hindsight, I realise how integral my ‘working-class attitude’ was in my decision-making process: a guaranteed placement into Higher Education? Free money? It felt like meritocracy, like someone was finally rewarding me for my hard work. I didn’t realise £1500 was small change for universities, that the politics of ranking could colour my future. All I saw was a quick fix and a step up the ladder and so I took it. The social element of what it meant to enter the corporate legal industry was missing – I didn’t know how elitist it could be.
Slam dunk into university and everything pretty much changed: my working-class London-based blackness didn’t translate well. My silence in social settings was mistaken for rudeness often times and it made me go even deeper into myself. For me, I never lived away from home until then so it was all awe-inducing and new to me. I struggled with my blackness. Often I was the only black girl in my seminars and made to feel like a voice-piece for my race and gender, other times I was in a room full of black people and couldn’t take part in the banter. I wasn’t socialised this way. I was used to my friends and I being one in the same: broke and black. Now there were different types of black and some of them had money and it confused me, truly. I felt like an adulterated, watered-down version of what black is supposed to be. No matter how many times I was mistaken for an international student, as soon as I opened my mouth and said I was from London, I was pigeonholed into a caricature of society’s negative view of black girls from London. I didn’t know who I should become, how to adapt. Amongst company I wouldn’t speak and other times I would hastily confront and shout at people for misunderstanding me. I was constantly on edge.
One thing was for sure though: I was working class. There was no bank of mum and dad for me to rely upon if my cash was low: what student finance gave me was what I got and I squandered it one too many times. So in the words of Nego True: “I wasn’t raised around money so I didn’t know how to treat it.” I side-eyed any event that required payment when my rent and bills were due, and Ray Charles’ed my bank balance one too many times. I got odd jobs to earn the money back but soon realised how much of a weight my low-income household was having on me even away from home. If I wanted to get in as much networking as other people I couldn’t get a cab, I had to take bus, I had to make sure my shift hours didn’t clash with lectures and seminars. It didn’t feel fair that I had so much more on my plate than others.
The turning point came when I began applying for vacation schemes in the thick of the year: semesters passed and I did my due diligence in researching firms and sending in applications only to be rejected over and over. I stopped trying soon after. It wasn’t about a lack of motivation but rather a frank realisation: the methods I was using were not working. My grades and accolades simply were not enough. I had to do more, I had to reconfigure. I went to the networking events my Law Schools staged but few were of interest to me – their contacts weren’t aspirational enough for me. I wanted more. Fortunately, that’s when my breakthrough came: and for once, my background did bring me some good fortune. My household income and academic attainment meant I was eligible to become a candidate on two amazing social mobility schemes in London – Rare and SEO London. Through attending numerous workshops, training and open days with their different sponsor firms I gained an unparalleled insight into the corporate world: a world that always seemed so far removed from my own. And it was free.
I’d listen to success stories and talk to fellow students and ask myself: Could this be me? Everyone seemed so emboldened by their experience and I was just… well, there. I lapped it up, inspired but not motivated. I was cracking under the pressure of my degree, wondering if this corporate path really was my destiny. And it wasn’t about race at this point: on this scheme we were all BME and/or low-income. I just didn’t feel inclined to corporate culture. And thinking back even during my numerous corporate work experience stints, I was not inclined to it, so much so that it made me quite sick. Working in the city at high-flying law firms didn’t seem like it was for me. But then I thought about impostor syndrome: why wasn’t I cut out for this? I had the grades and accolades necessary so what is really stopping me? I say ‘is’ because it is an ongoing battle I deal with.
I came to the conclusion that my upbringing was a factor. For many working-class people, politics and the law are these faraway concept that only the elites grapple with – far-removed from everyday realities: corporate, commercial, real estate, energy, competition, tax, mergers and acquisitions and finance. For others it is American crime shows and big blonde wigs. I thought like this too until I started the degree and saw the trickle down effect these decisions can make in our day-to-day lives. My life had a new lens – I learnt that contrary to popular belief the law was not just about justice. In fact it was hardly ever about justice. There were numerous sectors within it: sectors that I find to be of intrigue like technology, public international, media, employment, corporate crime, personal injury, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. It was more than Westminster – it was philosophy and economics and greater good.
I didn’t stumble upon this bank of information on my own though. This liberty of knowledge came from the schemes I am a part of enlightening us with presentations and practice scenarios to equip us with the tools to prepare us for the assessment processes that upcoming lawyers must take. I know that the network of people I have come in contact with have given me the tricks and tips I need to prosper in this occupation. My journey is much less difficult because of their progressivism in socially mobilising a working-class person like myself into the corporate world. And that is a fact I am testament to. All I knew was the theory of my degree but I didn’t appreciate firm culture and corporate life until they showed it to me. The only decision I have to make now is whether I will diverge from this path they have offered me. I also have to ensure that any decision I make is not coloured by my own fear of inadequacy but rather because it is the right decision for me to take.
I have one more year (God-willing) until my degree is completed and I graduate and I still am very much conflicted as to what profession I will pursue. Although the journey is not yet finished I have learnt a lot already – not just about myself but the world and the people whom live in it, how easily we are shaped.I neither agree nor disagree that we, as people, are products of our environment. If it wasn’t for where I was from, I wouldn’t be working as hard as I am today. I have seen just as many middle class people slip into mediocrity as they have propelled into excellency. I know I don’t have that liberty of choice.
Nonetheless, I plan to keep pushing my limits a far as I can as I’m not working hard to get out of a stereotype. Rather I’m being the best I can be, working class background and all. I’ve decided that I don’t care whether my future earnings reflect what statistics intend for someone of my academic background. My mannerisms and network, old and new, will stay with me regardless and I won’t apologise for that. Abandoning that part of myself would be to negate my history and that is something I refuse to do even in this capitalist, elitist-centric city of London in which we live.
As for every inability and rejection and half-step I’ve ever made? Well they have each led me to this current position for which I am grateful. So as much as I may regret, question or interrogate why I made the decisions I did, I am confident that my own abilities will continue to lead me far, even if my network leads me farther. And this is not to say I will enter a corporate career for definite. If anything this piece as a soliloquy more to myself than anything else. My only hope is that I am happy and fulfilled within the profession I decide to take.