Each year I realise that I’m less and less tolerant of a certain scene of people who talk a great deal about solidarity and struggle, but who – while simultaneously burning themselves out for the great flag or the revolution or some other abstract concept – consistently fail to show up for the oppressed folks standing right next to them in their shadow. It’s not very interesting apparently to do actual work for actual people. What’s the point when there’s less credit to be earned, less fame to be gained and less guilt to be assuaged? Particularly if your identity is based on that performance and credit and guilt. And even more so if you’ve also been benefiting from our exploitation.
It’s happened a few times recently that I’ve been in a room full of privileged, cisgender people lost in some vibrant debate or other about the oppressions faced by trans women and how awful transmisogyny is and how we should do something and isn’t Laverne Cox beautiful and… meanwhile, I, so often the only trans woman in these spaces, sit quietly in the corner with my mouth tightly shut, the words building up inside me, but blocked by sadness and anger and too many loud rich people speaking on my behalf. The term ‘ally theatre’ never felt so appropriate: I sit impatiently for hours in the audience watching the tragic comedy unfold before me.
The same happens with middle class anarchists pontificating in my presence about struggle and working and class and all those things that by default and for survival in this life, I know way too much about – even without a PhD in Marxism. I’ve sat in on conversations of middle class queer activists worrying about how to get more working class people to attend their events. Meanwhile me and the other working class people, having already managed to overcome their access obstacles, sat there, erased and patronised and romanticised and spoken for. Which is precisely why there aren’t very many of us in the first place.
And the assumptions are rampant. Once, some fancy (by which I mean punky) German manarchists came to our collective house in Bristol and, taking time out from lounging around on our sofa and eating our food and wifi, they poked around in the garden a bit. Now this wasn’t a very grand garden, more a tiny piece of toxic concrete covered soil, but we’d made it beautiful. It also wasn’t a grand house, more a squashed up, mouldy block in a long line of other terraced blocks. The Germans were enchanted. “Wow.” they said, or something like that. “This must have been a real working class area at some point” they said pointing at the terraces. “Factory workers and poor people and…” their eyes glazed over with romanticism. “Poor people still do, honey.” I said. “Check your fucking assumptions.” That was pretty much the end of our interaction.
Poor is a strong word of course. I’ve been told by middle class activists that ‘the UK doesn’t have real poverty.” That what the working classes have is “a poverty of imagination’. Tell that to my disabled mother barely scraping by on benefits for her survival for 20 years. Or the 16 year old me working every night after school in a supermarket to support her for £2 an hour and – literally – been locked inside the building until we finished our exhausting labour. I have all the fucking imagination in the world, but time, money, a world of opportunities or a rich family to fund my 3 art degrees? Not so much.
Which brings me to art.
I recently wrote a novel. It is right now sitting on the hard drive of an editor and next week I’ll need to find $3000 from my 5 jobs to fund it and then it’ll be printed and then it’ll be out in the world. An actual book on bookshelves, my magnum opus, my great work of Art.
Except that I can’t call it that. I can’t even push the A word past my lips without feeling allergic. I should probably explain why.
It’s probably called reverse snobbism or something in Middle Class, but I’ve always had this allergy. I didn’t step inside an art gallery until I was in my 20s and my Spanish ex with his rich family and their fancy 4 houses decided it was time. I hated it. I freaked out and wanted to run away. I realised it was something deep inside me that was magnetically repelled by anything that smells like pretension. Could it be genetic?
Years later, I sat with a group of friends gathered around a computer screen looking at something on facebook. Everyone was laughing and giggling and commenting on how funny it was, but me, nothing. I didn’t understand a thing. It was some sort of meme making fun of art galleries. Something about waterfalls. I asked for a class translation and one of the friends was shocked that I didn’t get it. I said something like “Sweety, I’ve never been in an art gallery before, why would I get it?” (I don’t think the 20 minutes in Madrid really count). She was shocked. And outright didn’t believe me. Art galleries are an institution after all, what self-respecting middle class activist hasn’t been in at least 30? Well, I’ve been in Mcdonalds – which was our monthly treat when I was young – and I’ve been to the pool and I’ve been to the cinema to watch hollywood blockbusters. I know those things aren’t cool or radical, and they’re certainly not Art, but they are the things that great swathes of working class England do every week for entertainment. I still have no idea what the waterfalls were about by the way.
Let’s talk about food (because I know some of you are still stuck on the McDonald’s comment…). Few things carry as much shaming and pretension and snobbery with them as what we eat.
A few years back I was walking through Easton with middle class friends and we passed a takeaway which is one of my favourite places in the whole city. Literally, I love it. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s always busy (because it’s cheap and tasty) and hasn’t got a single bit of pretension to it. In Middle Class it would be called ‘Real’ or ‘Authentic’ or ‘Local’ or something. Anyway, there I was walking past my favourite restaurant in town, admiring the smell and the shawarma sizzling on it’s little stick thingy and middle class friend wrinkles his nose and says “Dirty, dirty food.” I say “I love it! Mmm kebab!” or something equally profound. He shakes his head sadly and says “Dirty.” I grew up with this food. I grew up in a world where eating out at the kebab shop was a treat because even cheap is expensive when you’re stuck for money. If kebab is dirty in this person’s eyes, then I am too. My body is built out of the stuff.
Of course it’s a double standard. Food, apparently must be ‘clean’. But by no means is the same standard of hygiene always applied to middle class-run kitchens and bathrooms and squats and social centres and action camps.
Personally, I’m super clean and tidy. Possibly to something of an extreme. I dream of clean houses and tidy shelves and mouldlessness and modern fittings and a nice garden and sure, why not, a pool and room for a pony. And yes, it’s a class thing. I’m not going to speak for my class – I’ll leave that to the middle class activists who love nothing more than speaking on our behalf – but at least in my experience, I grew up clean and tidy.
And it’s a thing. As an adult I’ve spent time in what would be considered ‘proper poverty’: a shanty town in Argentina and in occupation-resisting villages in Palestine and a migrant worker school in Tel Aviv and a sex worker social centre bar in Thailand and what stands out, above everything else, was how clean and tidy things are.
Obviously these tendencies aren’t always the case: some people are too busy, too overworked or disabled in ways that makes high hygiene standards impossible. I grew up taking care of my mum for example who because of disability and chronic pain couldn’t maintain the house by herself. Yet she moved hell and high water though to keep things as clean and tidy as she could.
Someone once told me that ‘if the world tells us we’re dirty, we can’t afford to actually be dirty’. These are the same dignified, house-proud rules that I grew up with.
The contrast with the squats and the European punk houses couldn’t be more obvious. Wearing crappy clothes and having poor hygiene for middle-class able-bodied folks looks to me sometimes like a privilege. The privilege to play poor.
I saw a sign in a squat in Amsterdam reminding people – because apparently they needed reminding – to clean their crap up because a dirty kitchen is an ableist access issue for everyone who is immuno-compromised. That’s pretty damn important.
But I get called a princess when I have to clean everything first before I can eat off of it. I’m a princess when I want to use an actual shower or eat food that didn’t come out of the garbage. Apparently only princesses want to sleep in beds, not broken sofas, safely out of the reach and public gaze of random cis strangers.
I’m simultaneously shamed for being too clean and too dirty, but actually when it comes down to it, it’s because I’m too poor. And not nearly sophisticated enough to have holes in all my sweaters.
Princess? I wish.