The curse of coming from poverty to academia


Not my estate, but *meh* you get the idea.

I’ll make no secret that I’m black, working class and from Yorkshire.  To be more in detail I’m from a council estate and a single parent background.

I can remember the years when we would struggle to even put dried pasta on our plates and moments when we thought we’d be in the dark overnight because ‘mummy’ wasn’t able to afford to put anymore “money on the electric” that week.  Things have gotten better, but relative to other people back home there’s still a struggle unfortunately.  I’m from an area of high unemployment, low educational attainment and high teenage pregnancies.

Fast forward to graduating with a first on completion of my undergraduate studies; I was lucky enough after  (I studied postgraduate before that, but that’s a different story) to gain funding to pay my fees to study for a PhD, something if I was to go through the usual route I would have never have been able to study on.

Why the hell go for a year masters?  That’s a waste of money.  If there’s free money to spend on education why not jump straight into a PhD? Nobody from my area has probably never even done one before!  I did two years on a foundation degree before, had nothing but praise from lecturers so I was confident that I would be able to handle a PhD.

I guess a lot of times I feel as though I’m one of the lucky ones.

Studying a PhD as some will know is relatively lonelier work when compared to undergraduate studies, often stuck in an office (or bedroom) on your own writing (or with a few people who are usually far to busy to socialise)  or outside collecting data.  It’s only after attending academic conferences and meeting other academics where I finally got a reality check.

Everyone was so… well… middle class and white.  There’s nobody who looks like me, is dressed like me, has an accent like me… So yes, I guess you could say that’s when It really hit home that I’m a minority within a minority in academia. Think being working class sucks in academia?  Try being working class and black in academia.

People talking of attending conferences in Australia or Canada or some other foreign country that costs ‘a bit’ with the aim of networking?  I struggled to afford £30 train fare to get to this damn conference on my part-time job and there sure as hell isn’t no money to lend from the bank of mum.  This ain’t no place for some of that working class pride!  I’m “exotic”, somebody who isn’t “from these parts” and the accent and the appearance is a dead giveaway to a load of middle class white academics from some leafy suburban middle class neighbourhood.  Yes you get grad students at times bragging about how broke they are,  but what you will never get people owning up to is if they have a safety net or not (the bank of mum and dad). How are we paying for all of these excursions?  More than often students from a working class or poor background don’t have that.

I find the lack of working class and BME representation funny as I come from the social science field.  Often enough these white middle class academics would talk about the working class and ‘what they get up to’, but yet there are near to no working class people in the conference hall; people who actually come from these areas!

I hear assumptions (from people who clearly have not been in said communities enough), but where are the working class and BME people to challenge these and give their experiences and maybe present their research?  Our experiences, ethical standpoints and cultural backgrounds are not the same.  For example, you cannot assume that black men and women are consuming alcohol in the same places and in the same way as people from white middle class backgrounds.  There aren’t even any workers on the ground from support agencies who work in deprived communities (like where i’m from) invited to the conference to gain (what might be) valuable knowledge that might make a difference.

Working class and black representation in academia, especially in the current political climate in incredibly important.  Assumptions can be challenged by people with direct experience, the quantity and quality of research in these communities could be improved and of course more people from these backgrounds going into higher education and making a difference could inspire the younger generation; letting them know that they can achieve anything they wish.