So. This week was Arts Council England’s ‘Power Through Diversity‘ conference, and someone said the C word.
Put together by ACE and Manchester’s own Contact Theatre, the event was described as ‘a one-day event for arts leaders, Chairs and decision makers aiming to provoke debate, inspire change and celebrate good practice around diversity of governance, leadership and thinking.’
As you expect with this sort of thing, there was the normal amount of white, middle class people in a room thinking that shouting the words ‘diversity’ and ‘accessibility’ loud enough to each other is the same as creating change.
However, there were also some incredibly astute, sensitive, eloquent speakers from a great cross-section of our society. Speakers who challenged narratives, asked difficult questions, and were happy to criticise the Arts Council’s previous work on the subject, and where we are today.
(The video of the livestream is still available here and is definitely worth a flick through if you’re into that sort of thing.)
Special mentions go to Kate O’Donnell, Sally Penni, and the indomitable Yusra Warsama for some critical and genuinely thought-provoking words. However, the talk I wanted to discuss enough to write some ponsy blog about it came from Jackie Hagan. Her bit in the video is at 3:52:40, click this and go look at it, it’s good, I promise, it’s got pictures of depressed teddies in, you’ll laugh, honest.
So, Jackie spoke a lot about engaging with ‘working class and underclass audiences’.
The conference coincided with the launch of this year’s annual diversity report from ACE. The report shows some of the advances (and the great lengths still to go) in the Arts Council’s engagement with artists and audiences broken down over various lines including age, race, sexuality, disability and gender identity amongst others – with lots of nice juicy statistics to back it up.
The introduction to this report reads: ‘We need to be sure that our investment reaches artists, workers in the arts and cultural sector and audiences that reflect the diversity of contemporary England. This is in line with our commitment to promote opportunities for people from all groups as defined by the protected characteristics.’
A footnote clarifies that ‘Protected characteristics, as defined by the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality Duty 2011, are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex, and sexual orientation.’
It then adds: ‘As well as this list, we also recognise class and socio-economic status.’
So that’s nice, they recognise class too!
Although looking through the rest of the 36-page document, there are no more mentions of class beyond that footnote, and no more of those lovely numbers and percentages telling us just how much of class and socio-economic status it is that’s being recognised.
We have the percentage of BME-led, disability-led, LGBT-led and female-led organisations are being funded; we have audiences broken into ‘social grades’ based on postcodes; and we have employment breakdowns over ethnicity, gender, disability and age; (all of which is brilliant, by the way) but there isn’t one more mention of class background beyond that one addendum to a footnote reassuring us that class and socio-economic status are ‘recognised’ (although not protected).
Now, this may be just me, but I really like all those nice numbers breaking down representation into lovely empirical fact. So this all got me thinking:
Should Arts Council England include class identity in their engagement stats?
(the impact of this sentence is somewhat reduced by it already being the title at the top, but hey ho.)
I have filled in my fair share of monitoring forms to help bring those numbers into being. Could we have another box to tick or line to write on to represent this essential part of our backgrounds?
So, the main follow up to this question of course has to be: ‘What are the different categories?’
What do the tickable boxes say?
Do we split it into the old school delineation of ‘Working Class’, ‘Middle Class’, ‘Ruling Class’?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think we’ve had many landed gentry coming to our shows, so this would pretty much split us into two tribes, the border between which is very, very undefined. Growing up, I always thought you were unthinkably posh if you could afford to drive a car, while others might say you were common if you watched too much ITV.
Some would argue that a teacher on £22k is middle class, while a plumber on £30k is working class, so long as he doesn’t go to the ballet or eat olives.
Could we use the seven-class system rolled out a few years ago by the BBC with their Great British Class Survey? This system comes with its own calculator, run by computers which ask you if you like opera or hip-hop, and if you’re mates with builders or with high court judges. This system gives definite answers (I’m an Emergent Service Worker, if you’re asking) and places you based on your ‘Economic, social and cultural capital’.
Should we self-define our class, as we can with our ethnicity, disability and (in the more forward-thinking places) our gender identity? Tick the box marked ‘other’ and put ‘upper lower middle class’ or ‘ squeezed middle just about managing’ or ‘I am just skint, mate’.
Do we just take a basic measure of yearly income and base things off that? Sticking to more cold, hard numbers certainly makes findings more impartial; although it seems somewhat reductive of quite a complex issue, and asking audiences/artists to declare their earnings feels instinctively uncomfortable and potentially alienating.
Also, is our class defined by the money we have now, or the position we were in growing up? If a woman brought up in poverty wins the lottery, does she immediately move into a new box?
Or should we tick two boxes? One describing our current income/situation, and one our self-defined class background, i.e. I am a middle class trans man coming from a working class BME family.
I don’t have the answer to this question, and there probably isn’t a perfect answer, but I think it would be very useful for these conversations to start happening. They’re already happening anyway, in frustrated voices at home or hushed voices in pubs, it’s better to bring this kind of talk out into the open. But this does raise its own problems. And this brings me to my next point, and possibly our biggest obstacle.
The Awkward Conversations
Talking about class isn’t comfortable. Even among very close friends of mine, the moment I bring up class you can feel the atmosphere start to tense a bit. And it’s understandable. Having less than someone else is difficult. Having more than someone else is difficult.
When I brought up this topic recently with a group of friends and work colleagues, I was immediately presented with childhood stories of being made to feel ashamed with your upbringing. One friend described coming from a very poor family on a council estate, but getting a scholarship to go to a private school. She said that her dead posh/very well-off mates absolutely hated having so much money, and would fight over who was the richest one, and no-one wanted to be the richest one.
When the conversation goes to which advantages people had and didn’t have, it can feel like you’re having to justify your own struggle. If you’re accused of having a better start in life, it feels like all of the hardship and achievement you’ve gone through thus far is being invalidated, because it’s all been handed to you on a silver platter, apparently. If you say you’ve had it hard, you can suddenly enter a race to the bottom where everyone competes to have been in the worst poverty (‘We lived in shoebox in t’ middle o’ road’ etc. etc.)
However, these discussion still need to happen. Because although I can really sympathise with public schoolboys ashamed of their wealth, they still have a responsibility to use the advantages and privileges they’ve had to help the people who had nothing. You can hide behind #NotAllPoshPeople as much as you want, but there is still resentment building on both sides, and the more it gets ignored in the wider social conversation, the more people will stay in their groups encouraging each other to get angrier, and more and more bitter.
This is the sentiment that means a person can be totally dismissed for having a posh accent or a regional accent. It’s the mentality that divides the country into out-of-touch Eton toffs and thick, violent drunken chavs.
Giving class identity some boxes on the monitoring form allows us to use the language and dialogue that we’re building around ‘the protected characteristics’ to address another rife and seething form of inequality in our society.
Bringing class politics to the same level as the existing diversity conversation means that we can allow for true intersectionality. You can be a black working class trans woman who likes ballet and olives, or an agendered asian doctor from an underclass background that’s now earning a lot of money, but dealing with awful homophobia.
There currently exists one legitimate working class identity in the mainstream media: the angry, disenfranchised white working class. They’re racist, they’re uneducated, they’re the ones responsible for Brexit and Trump. They’re thick and violent but aw bless ’em they can’t help it they don’t know better you see because they closed all the mines.
We are better than that.
People are complicated, and life is hard, and there are many different things that make it easier and harder.
But something we know for certain is we all come from different places, and we all have different amounts of money.
Embrace it, understand it, fight it.
Or if nothing else, just talk about it.
– Elliot Hughes