Conversations regarding social mobility predominantly focus on wealth, but rarely about the emotional impact of such a drastic change in social class.
I always knew that one day I would walk into M&S, pick up freshly baked sourdough, and indulge with a spread of pâté. I just never thought it would make me feel so lonely.
See, as of recently, I just entered this glorious little world called the middle class. My house is packed with overpriced IKEA furniture, I go on scenic walks in Brockwell Park, and have Rosé with steak and asparagus. Considering I could
not afford a meal 3 months ago, this is absolute bliss.
And yet I find myself dissatisfied. The discontentment confuses me. After all, what is there to complain about a comfortable life? I ponder this thought whilst my uni chums agonise over how they miss their rowing lessons. I am grateful for the use of Queen’s English, but long to celebrate my new-found status with people who have lived my reality.
Less than a stones throw away from Brockwell park is a comprehensive school with 56.8% of pupils on free school meals. A school where the majority of pupils don’t get grade 5 or above in GCSE’s. A school that has had 5 headteachers in the space of 3 years. Yeah, you get the picture.
Growing up most of my friends were Black boys who were working-class through and through. Moulded head to toe by their surroundings, they sipped on stolen Mirinda’s on the back corners of the estate, belching out Wiley’s tracks
like there’s no school tomorrow, and freestyling bars (rapping impromptu to no beat) in the football cage.
They didn’t care much for the austerity agenda, or the Russell Group obsession. They just wanted to have money.
So when I told them I want to study PPE at Oxford, distance grew. Gaps formed. Not only was I a nerd, but I was also seen to be a traitor to my people. “Bruv, that’s bare white” they said. The banter and good vibes remained, but spuds and pulled in hugs gave way to persistent glances of suspicion.
I don’t blame them. I no longer spoke their language.
In social mobility discourse, rising out of poverty is often characterised as a tug of war between aspiration and apathy. The Cameron government famously declared that all schools would convert to academies, and this would help tackle the ‘poverty of aspirations’ held by underrepresented young people.
The problem with this narrow sighted view of social mobility is that it looks at poverty as a singular problem, rather than an multifaceted issue where the many reasons for one being in poverty are acknowledged. My friends that lived on the council estate certainly were ambitious; they dreamt of owning supercars, luxury penthouses, and designer wardrobes.
Their aspirations may not have reflected all aspects of the Waitrose middle class, but they undeniably wanted better than their surroundings. They just didn’t want to leave them. The thing “holding them back” was not aspiration, but community. After living in the same area for 18 years, where your friends, family, and food are all in one space, venturing off to the student equivalent of avocado on sourdough bread is like ripping your skin from the bone. Painful.
Even the ones that went to University sidestepped reputable institutions for places that represented home. De Montford, Essex, and Hertfordshire Universities all have a high percentage of black and ethnic minority students.
No wonder I was deemed a traitor. Swapping the eerie alleyways of South London for Oxford’s All Souls College did not just reflect a desire to enter an alien world, it also suggested I wanted to leave my black one behind.
Truth is, this couldn’t be further from the case. Although I didn’t go to Oxford, I did end up at another Russell Group University. Social relationships are impossible without assimilation. I wasn’t used to drinking till my eyes turned crimson, and Jack Wills will never be my thing, but I persisted with finding joy in the pivotal moments. I made my first Rugby try, grooved to EDM, and did black tie parties with my new found friends.
But deep down, I hungered for my people. I didn’t just miss the banter, or the Morley’s. I missed feeling safe in my vicinity. I was tired, exhausted from stretching beyond my comfort zone to defy a statistic. I wanted to belong to a group that understood what it felt like to write your essays as gunshots rattle the window and whilst the ceiling drips with damp from above.
Even at university, I did what I could to belong to both worlds. On a Friday night, I would belch out “don’t look back in anger” as we stumbled from pub to pub, before wandering off to Afrobeats house parties. I would don slim fit jeans in the lecture halls and tracksuits at ACS (Afro-Caribbean society) events. Even my accent did the dance, swaying from broadcaster harmonies to inner-city London tenor. It was incredibly taxing.
I would spend so much time and emotional energy trying to cultivate and maintain friendships on both sides of the fence, ignoring the fact that they were two worlds that were completely irreconcilable. Whilst my middle-class friends were oblivious to my attempts to belong, my black working-class friends greeted me with the same suspicion that the boys on the estate did.
They assumed I didn’t know their music, or culture, or language, and attempts to reconcile this just came off as desperation. Yet I kept going at it. Until I went home. Behind the warmth of my mother’s open arms lay a heart-breaking scene. My childhood flat had had its paint peeled away, revealing a muddy mosaic of 1960’s brick and freshly grown mould. I could see my brother’s skeleton as he stripped in the corridor, reflecting a fridge way too reliant on Marcus Rashford. My sister cowered in the shadows, crying whilst her pills coloured the floor. And my dad just drank it all away. Whilst I revelled in the privilege of trying to be accepted, my family had been dealing with the poverty I worked so hard to escape.
In my nostalgia for inclusion, I had forgotten my original purpose; to enable myself and loved ones to breathe. Despite the emotional agony, I let my working class identity pass away along with the relationships it brought.
As I breathe in the fresh air of Brockwell Park, I realise why I feel so lonely. It is not because I regret going to university, nor do I regret having more money. It is because, in the process of moving up the social ladder, I had become alienated from my former self.
Written by Daniel Noruwa