I Learned To ‘Pass’ As Middle Class To Survive

Photographed by Laura Chen.
It’s hard to forget the first time I felt utterly surrounded by posh people and acutely aware of my social class. They had steadier accents and more money in their bank accounts than I did. 
It was the moment that a colleague spun round in her desk chair and told the office of her plans to go skiing in Italy with her parents and her boyfriend. The trip was her birthday present. The announcement prompted everyone in the office to tell their funniest, clumsiest and craziest skiing stories, comparing resorts and asking each other where they usually went skiing.

I felt sick as faces turned to face me.
They meant well. It was a genuine effort to include me in the office socialising but it made me feel completely isolated. In case it’s not already clear: I have never been skiing. Until that moment, I didn’t think it was something people actually did unless they were part of a sports team or they were Felicity Jones, playing a chalet girl in a film. 
I grew up in a council flat in a mining town in the West Midlands. I lived there with my teen mum. Skiing was never part of our leisure time. I’m okay with that but it doesn’t always feel like other people are. 
People from lower income backgrounds have always been the subject of stigma and stereotyping but in recent decades this has been exacerbated, in no small part thanks to TV shows like Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle. In truth, it’s completely possible to receive state support and grow up in social housing and look just like anyone else. Indeed, I’d argue that the pressure to look middle class is so strong that, often, you’re more likely to appear well-to-do than those who actually are. 
Since leaving said mining town and moving to a middle-class bubble in the centre of the South Downs, I frequently feel like the only person in the room who doesn’t come from wealth. But that’s the thing about social class: it isn’t always obvious.
Other people don’t always realise where I come from until they’ve known me long enough to hear my life story. When they do, it usually provokes some uncomfortable conversations. 
Last year I was a friend's 'plus one' on their family holiday, which meant going away with people I’d never met. The family in question had, incredibly kindly, brought me along to a manor house in the countryside. They turned up in sports cars and, to me, every sentence they uttered and activity they engaged in – tennis, golf, remarking upon other people’s non-flashy cars – highlighted their obvious abundance of money. 
For the most part, though a bit awkward, the holiday was smooth sailing. Then one of the extended family members complained about a council flat being built near his home. 
"It’s going to bring down the value of my house and we’ll be surrounded by criminals and teen mums," he scoffed. 

I don't look like I lived on a council estate because I'm not smoking weed and wearing a McKenzie tracksuit? Is that your perception of people in council flats?

I knew I couldn’t say anything and, more to the point, I didn’t want to. What would it achieve? Once we were alone, I blew up at the friend who had invited me. 
"I can’t believe he would say that! With people he doesn’t know who could take offence right there?"
"Yeah but you basically pass as middle class," my friend replied. "You don’t look like you lived on a council estate," he replied, as though it were a compliment. 

"Why?" I asked him. "Because I’m not smoking weed and wearing a McKenzie tracksuit? Is that your perception of people in council flats?"
He didn’t reply. 
That was the first time anyone told me I 'passed' as a different social class from the one I grew up in. It was delivered like a compliment but it felt loaded with discrimination and judgement. We hear about the concept of passing in relation to gender and race but it exists with class, too. And since that horrible evening, I’ve come to understand that class passing is the subject of plenty of research and a more common phenomenon than I realised. 
Usually, class passing is something that’s done on purpose. 
Will Atkinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Bristol who wrote a textbook on class, describes class passing like this: "With different levels and types of resources comes a certain lifestyle and way of acting or talking, and people know it. So even those without the resources, they might try to use those symbols to give the impression that they’re higher or lower than they are – pretending to like certain forms of music or speaking in a certain way, for example."
I am not the only person who grew up in a low-income household but appears to come from a middle-class family. 
Twenty-six-year-old Anna, who works in administration, moved to a middle-class area with her family when she was 16. She says she 'performed' as a higher class than she actually was by disguising her working-class signifiers in order to fit in. 
"I moved from a pretty rough area in Yorkshire to a posh place in the Home Counties," she explains. "When I first got there, I realised everyone was a lot richer than me. Basically all middle class, and my parents had warned me about that as well."
In a quest to make friends with middle-class people, Anna initially limited how much of her life she shared with her peers. "I basically didn’t speak about my hometown, my family and the money troubles we had moved away from," she explains. 
Anna doesn’t think she was necessarily 'trying to be middle class' – rather, she just wanted to fit in. 
"It wasn’t a massive lie or anything, I wasn’t Anna Delvey," she continues. "I did make friends in the end and open up about my life but [passing as middle class] definitely helped me make [those friendships]."
Passing as a higher social class doesn’t always come with benefits. As Atkinson explains: "There are negative aspects – that sense of wearing a mask, or putting on a front, can be hard work, make people anxious, but also it can come with a sense of betraying who you really are or where you come from."
This was the case for 29-year-old Tamara who, like Anna, moved to a middle-class bubble. "I moved from Grimsby to Oxford when I was 18 for university and felt like I had to quickly learn the ropes of fitting in with people from old money," she explains. "I’d got into uni through a scholarship for people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds – I’d been on free school meals and my parents were cleaners."
Twenty-seven-year-old Kate, a working-class artist from southwest London, recently started doing freelance work as a curator in central London. Like me, she was quickly exposed to the unfair opinions and judgements held about working-class people. "I wasn’t hiding my class or trying to pass," she explains. "For the first time in my life I wasn’t even thinking about stuff like that. I was just doing my job."
Kate wanted to clock in, get the work done and clock out without any bother but instead became part of some uncomfortable conversations. "There have been some efforts to get more working-class people in the art world lately – a lot of funding schemes and grants," she tells me. "One of my colleagues – who didn’t mind telling people how much old family wealth she had – said the schemes were 'handouts' and working-class people would just have to work as hard as she had to get her foot in the door."

If people are trying to pass as a higher class than they are, they might be seen as fakes, as 'getting above themselves', 'not knowing their place' or being 'pretentious'.

Will Atkinson
"She said it to me confidently, as if I’d definitely agree. It did occur to me that this might have happened because I didn’t look working class," Kate continues. "I have a neutral accent and dressed similarly to her (the art world is more thrifty than designer so it’s easier to pass)."
Like me, Kate didn’t feel like this ability to pass was any sort of superpower. "I felt like a class traitor. I almost wanted to start laying the 'working class' on thick but that would just be obnoxious."
Of course, it does happen that way too. Though it’s far harder to understand the intention of upper-class people performing working-class culture, it happens every day. If you have TikTok, you’ll have seen working-class creators mocking their middle-class peers who pretend to be 'just like them'. The middle-class, North Face-wearing girl who pretends to be from a social housing estate in south London and makes an embarrassing attempt at gang signs while dancing at house parties has been immortalised as a popular meme.
Atkinson explains why this happens. "There might be specific situations where a privileged person wants to be seen as less privileged than they really are – in certain company, for example, to be seen as 'posh' or 'out of touch' can be a disadvantage, or just embarrassing. They might want to present themselves as 'normal' or 'ordinary', which means pretending, or sincerely trying, to like or know about, for example, aspects of popular culture."  
Class passing is an age-old phenomenon. Think of fairy tales – of Cinderella being able to dress up and attend the ball. The story of transcending your background is embedded into our cultural fabric.  
There’s good reason for this. As Atkinson explains: "Class is all about perceived worth or value in the world – whether you are above or below other people, whether you are 'successful' or not, so it touches at the very core of our self-identity and self-worth." 
People might attract animosity for class passing. They might be perceived as liars or manipulators or traitors. "If people are trying to pass as being higher than they are, they might be seen as fakes, as 'getting above themselves', 'not knowing their place' or being 'pretentious'," Atkinson concludes. "Those trying to pass as lower might be seen as condescending or patronising."
Most of the time, class passing is just about surviving. It certainly was for me, anyway. It’s uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing to discover that signifiers of your social class aren't welcome in the environment you inhabit, or that your peers may confidently make derogatory comments about you if you pass as their social class. But this discomfort and shame will help us to challenge class inequality and, I hope, build a future where class passing is no longer a necessary survival tool. 

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