Middle class privilege is more than material

Oct 24, 2016 by

Sonia Nair –

Earlier this year, an excerpt from American writer Fran Lebowitz’ famous 1997 interview on race with Vanity Fair was resurrected when various people shared it on my Facebook feed.

Her words encapsulated a disquiet I’d felt at the proliferation of what has been deemed ‘lifestyle porn’. Through this medium, the experiences of upper middle-class, mostly white people whose ability to dress in the right clothes, decorate their houses in ways that are reflective of the overarching taste of the time, travel the world with unrestricted mobility and nail the job of their dreams are trotted out as universal experiences that say to the average reader: anyone can have this.

But not everyone can. To quote Lebowitz: ‘What it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with.

‘White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.’

The privilege of being white can be extrapolated to being middle-class, male, cisgendered heterosexual, able-bodied. When the experiences of people who have won the genetic lottery are paraded without an interrogation of the deep-rooted structural forces that propelled them to the fortunate position that they find themselves in, the picture that manifests is an illusion of magnified proportions.

Which is not to say that they’re devoid of talent or don’t work hard (although this is true in some cases), but that the many advantages of class and social privilege underscore the myth of meritocracy.

Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu posited the disturbing finding that academic underperformances in lower-class students could be traced back to their lack of cultural capital, which is defined as ‘familiarity with the dominant culture in a society, and especially the ability to understand and use ‘educated’ language”. The dominant culture in Australia is commonly understood to be that of the white middle-class.

According to Bourdieu, the mainstream education system assumes a certain level of cultural capital and as a result, educators speak in a manner that is only understood by a privileged few. As a result, lower-class students are seriously disadvantaged in their pursuit of educational credentials, with their failures then attributed to reasons of meritocracy.

“As low-income earners and working class Australians accrue wealth, their upward mobility will increase. But the accumulation of cultural capital will prove to be altogether harder to amass.”

Although academics have since argued that cultural capital does not explain all of the social class effect, it was shown to have some impact on educational attainment, and thus prospects of success later in life.

In this way, being born into an affluent family confers more than just material benefits (although the innumerable positive effects of a financial security blanket should not be underestimated). From a young age, a child is exposed to the seamless ways in which people with wealth carry themselves and the ways they fraternise with the similarly well-heeled company that they keep; a network that will continue to bear the child dividends throughout their life.

The child becomes adept at using the language, inflections and tone that reflect their social standing; familiar with hobbies that only the upper middle-class can afford to do — going to museums, art openings, the opera and the theatre — and well-steeped in the ways in which they can navigate this world of unbridled artistic expression and liberation. After all, more often than not, the upper middle-class constitute the tiny percentage of people who are able to carry out work that is thought of as ‘creative, intellectual and socially prestigious’.

It is important not to discount the effect that a financial leg-up can have on one’s freedom to pursue a personally fulfilling life — especially with the advent of unpaid internships, although even then cultural capital can prove to be as valuable as financial capital.

‘We often hear that success is “all about the people you know”,’ writes Darren Walker in the New York Times, ‘as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people.’

As low-income earners and working class Australians accrue wealth, their upward mobility will increase as they gain access to privileges typically reserved for the wealthy — private schools, housing security, safe neighbourhoods. But the accumulation of cultural capital, the very concept of which is intangible, will prove to be altogether harder to amass.

The next time you read about an artist who has successfully relocated to New York and found themselves immediately surrounded by a healthy circle of friends and with a job in hand, don’t despair, remember, theirs is a success generations in the making.

Source: Middle class privilege is more than material – Eureka Street

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