‘We need reform, and class has got to be protected’
Bridgette: How has your background led to where you are now?
Suriyah: I can't separate my background from the work that I do. It really does drive me to work on improvements in the Equality Act, as someone from a working class background. I was born and raised in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham – high levels of unemployment, poverty, especially child poverty now. Around the referendum parts of Hodge Hill were compared with Richmond in London as the stark contrast between the richest and the poorest constituencies in the UK, and I took part in that for BBC Radio 4.
I experienced many different layers of inequalities, largely as a young Muslim woman from a South Asian background within the various systems, whether that was welfare, housing, healthcare. I saw that inequality from a woman's perspective as well… for example, I didn't want to be like my Aunties who didn't know how to drive and had to take the kids to school in the snow and the rain, I had to get my licence. I didn't get a car until 10 years after I passed, but I needed to make sure this was not another layer of inequality that I experienced. I was seeing these multiple forms of inequalities based on different aspects of my identity.
The idea of the social mobility ladder was sold to me, as the only way out. I worked hard, I got my grades. Even though my sixth form careers adviser said I was going to get rejected by all of my university choices, I ploughed on and managed to get a place at Oxford. My education began there. I went from Alum Rock to Oxford, and the gap is so stark. Sometimes still I can't quite grapple with that. From being on free school meals, to a college that has £17 million of Student Support Funds for 400 students at one college. I don't think I'll ever be able to come to terms with that, psychologically.
Bridgette: How did you get on?
Suriyah: At Oxford, they tell you you're the bee's knees. But I felt like a fish out of water. Everyone was miles ahead of me. I had to work extra hard to catch up. I didn't know how to write an essay.
When I graduated, I thought my education at Oxford would translate into greater opportunities, but I wasn't finding that. After completing my master's degree, I was dismissed from my workplace because I raised a concern around child safeguarding, around the showing of a video of 9/11. They accused me of not being comfortable, as a Muslim woman, with 9/11 being put on the curriculum. I went to the employment tribunals, I fought my own case, and I won. All this while legal aid was denied to me, because they said I was qualified enough to represent myself. So throughout my life, I've seen these multiple aspects of my identity cherry-picked, and pitted against each other by different agencies at different moments.
I'm still in the appeal tribunals in London, to get my case reinstated for compensation. I feel like the whole of my 20s have been taken up by this unnecessary fight. I'm in a better place now, but it's been hugely scarring. However, fighting my own case has led me to realise that the Equality Act is not fit for purpose. We need reform, and class has got to be protected. I'm not alone in this. The Equality Act is landmark legislation, and we should be really proud of it, but in my case it has genuinely subjected me to more inequalities than it saves me from.
Bridgette: That's a potent example of how there's an important characteristic that's just not protected, that's allowing cases like yours to fall through some net.
In terms of my background, I was one of Margaret Thatcher's ‘enemies of the state’ – a young working class Mum, at a time where we were seen to be a sign of moral collapse in society. My schooling experience was appalling, really. A few teachers tried really hard and have always made their impact on me, but it was very poor. I know that because I’ve had my children, moved around, and I know now the huge difference between the education that I had and what other kids were having from more middle class areas. It's just a different world.
Many working class kids, particularly girls, were let down… there was a sexist ideology about what girls could and couldn't do. I was told I was going to be a typist. I ended up going into hairdressing. I had low finances but a very supportive extended family, which is quite typical of the communities that I come from. So I went back to school in my early 20s… my child was still a toddler, but there were community colleges just a 20 minute bus ride away, and my little girl could go to the nursery there. It was 50p at the time. I took GCSEs. I was passionate, I loved it. I wanted to know more – did my A-levels, and then made a choice about going to university.
A friend I studied with at the time did go to Oxford, but I just couldn't have even thought about it. I needed to be somewhere where I felt a sense of community and belonging. It was off-putting for me, the very idea of Oxford. I think that's a common experience. And so I went to the University of Sheffield.
The curriculum at that point, the early 90s, was really hidden. Unless you've got some prior knowledge of what they're expected from you, you have to kind of guess. I experienced a lot of classism. I remember going to a lecture and someone openly sneering at working class kids from estates, making caricatures. Academics boasted about plucking me from the factory floor. Like you said, there are different parts of your identity that sometimes get co-opted and used in some ways, and then sometimes in others.
So I had a bumpy ride, but I got through it and still had a passion for learning. I realised quickly I wanted to work in teaching-based institutions, because I felt quite alienated from research-based institution – not just as a working class person, but as a woman in the department at the time. I got a job at what is now Leeds Beckett University, which has around 50 to 60 per cent of ‘first generation’ students. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to change curricula for students who don't feel they belong, for one reason or another. Now I just want to focus on that.
At the same time my life has changed. I got a job that was paid fairly well, moved to a bigger house and and started to experience services from a different perspective. I realised that doctors and medics were talking to me differently. I know now, how shortchanged people from working class backgrounds are. We're judged. Research has found that for these so-called elite jobs, they’re using an implicit job specification, one that isn't articulated. A kind of ‘poshness test’: signs of background, university, taste. The poor representation of working class people at any of these levels where people make decisions, is not protected in law. Neither is it protected in law that some health authorities can give differential resources based on the area people live. It can't be legal, that any organisation could give differential resources to reproduce impoverishment in that way. Children face all sorts of class-based prejudice within the education system: again, not protected by law.
It became quite clear to me that we need to change this. But we've not been able to talk about social class explicitly for so long. Over the last 20 or 30 years the notion of class has been invisible… we are a ‘classless society’. You talked about being sold this model of social mobility… well, weren't we all! But there are certain features which will get in the way of this ideal notion that if you work hard enough, you'll get on. That's clearly just not the case. With my research, people know what class is, they know that they are judged, but they struggle to articulate this. We've been disarmed by the language around class, even though our society is so fundamentally classed at almost every level.
I think about class as a status that depends on social, cultural and economic aspects of our lives. The material disadvantage that people face is important, but there are also social advantages in the personal ties and networks that we can develop or inherit, and there’s cultural capital in the extent to which other people consider our interests and preferences as legitimate. Are our values respected? I've never wanted to become middle class, most of my life is connected with people from my background. I've just wanted that background to be valued. I don't want to become someone else. I know people that work really hard to camouflage – change their accent, buy all new clothes – but the research shows we are found out, we are judged over and over again, particularly when we try to access some of these more powerful positions.
So that's where I've got to. And now, Covid has revealed the power of class, and especially intersectional relationships with BAME communities. We’ve seen increased deaths, but also lower vaccine uptake where it's been clear that some societies simply do not trust the government. They feel they've been treated in a disrespectful and poor way, and have learned to fear. It was only when they got the vaccine centres down to a real community level, in mosques and churches, local social centres, that rates started to go up. So that's put social class back on the agenda, and the government is talking about ‘levelling up’, which is code for a class but also region. The doors are open. Certainly not wide open, but ajar, and I think we can kick it open a little bit.
I'm getting so much out of working with psychologists who have studied class, bringing all this together because psychology has been very poor at studying class. Sometimes it's been involved in reproducing notions of inferiority in working class communities, for instance, just the same as the history of scientific racism. So to just stimulate research, to get that alive, it's an exciting thing. It doesn't just have to be about working class people. We can talk about everybody's class. I want to invigorate the subject of class within in psychology.
Suriyah: I'm trying not to get emotional now, because everything that you said I could think of where I also had a similar experience. I'm always myself. But in different places, people will see me differently and perceive me differently. These inbetween spaces where you’re like, ‘who am I?’, ‘where am I?’, ‘what am I?’ In one of the tribunal hearings, I was an outspoken, feisty woman, fighting my corner. As soon as I said, ‘I don't understand, can you help me with this?’, the judge gave me six different documents and a flowchart of all the resources available to me. It’s as if you spend your life working hard to escape stereotypes, and then people are forcing you back into them, into submission.
I think back to university. In sociology modules we had a week or two on class, including ‘does class exist?’. And we had lectures from a demographer who openly published that Muslims will take over the white British population by 2050 because of the high fertility rate. His papers had racist connotations – it wasn't presented as a good thing – and I question why I let some things just pass. Well, I don't have the energy to put right every wrong that comes up the spaces that I'm isolated in, because of my background, a large part of which is determined by class. It's a lot. It's a huge burden.
Bridgette: It's exhausting… and the blowback can be very difficult, you can end up further ostracised. Psychologists suggest that people don't do that… they just try to survive, they won't engage, they just get through intact.
There’s good research coming through from clinical psychology, including from Victoria Clarke [see tinyurl.com/5n8cac37], which shows that at the same time that practitioners may say ‘I don't see class’, they also engage in and repeat derogatory stereotypes about working class. Then the person experiencing class-based discrimination has no means to tackle that because it's been set in this space where it's not about class. We need to start a class consciousness campaign, giving people the words and the ways to consider and reflect upon class, including their own class-based prejudice.
Suriyah: I think class consciousness is pushed aside because of this idea of social mobility. Social media is the new school playground, where everyone's having fun and playing but some of the key things that are shaping people's lives are outside of this bubble. There are more food banks in the UK than branches of McDonald’s. We're seeing class divides more than ever before. Even the middle class, or the people who have achieved social mobility, are experiencing the pinch.
Bridgette: Maybe that wide impact is an opportunity to move away from this notion that if you’re poor it's somehow your fault. The bootstrap discourse, the meritocracy. Philippa Carr’s research has found that very wealthy people will say that they should have their wealth because they have worked hard. But nurses work really hard, care workers work really hard, and there’s still this rhetoric that if you don't have the money, it's somehow your fault. The cost living crisis may start to demolish some of that discourse. It's no one's fault that the food and fuel prices have gone through the roof.
Suriyah: I guess London, or Westminster, can seem so detached from the rest of the country. Recognition of class within the Equality Act could go a long way in breaking down the north south divide, which is, which is openly talked about in academic articles. The haves and have nots, it's not even about the north and south anymore. It's one part of the city to another, in Edinburgh, Birmingham, London, so many different areas. I taught on the social determinants of health inequalities this term at Edinburgh, encouraging students to use this intersectional lens with gender, race, age, disabilities. With socioeconomic status or class I was struggling, partly because it still isn’t formally recognised.
Bridgette: The fact that it's not protected means that we're not obliged to measure it, in a systematic way. With the concern about class and inclusion, the university has driven a raft of measures that are a proxy for class – postcode data, some on ‘first generation’ to go to university, maybe just occupation. Measures aren’t always comparable and we're not systematically capturing class. I do work on working class women academics, and we don't know how many people enter the work, how many stay, how many are promoted, because it's not captured in any systematic way. All we've got is people's experience, and that tells a quite torrid story. If class was protected, that could become a central part of discussion. As it is, class is positioned as illegitimate in some way, as unimportant, when actually the evidence speaks to the need for much more systematic assessment of class, so we can track the journey.
Perhaps we could finish on the challenges you’re facing with the Equality Act review?
Suriyah: One of the major problems is a lack of recognition for the work within academic spaces. I really value talking to you, because few academics have actually appreciated and seen the amount of work that goes on. My pet peeve is invisibility. I've got this policy experience, I'm bringing this academic activism forward to enrich experiences. It hasn’t translated into recognition, a promotion or even an extension of my contract. I'm an early career academic, and I'm on short-term contracts. Every March, April, I'm looking for new jobs – that application cycle again, and it's exhausting. The report that you read, it's not in a journal. I just don’t want to hear the term ‘impact factor’, it really rubs me the wrong way. We've got MPs working with us, we’re in the news, but it doesn't mean anything in academia. Am I in a bubble of mine or mine, some LaLa land where I'm seeing impact but no one else is? Can I communicate this better, pitch it?
Bridgette: Maybe there’s nothing wrong with your communications, there are just all these words that we're supposed to be using but no one's told us about.
The problem that I'm facing is that none of us are getting any funding for any of the research that we're doing. We've all got quite big jobs and then this on the side, into the evening and weekends. This work will need to be discontinued without direct funding, or support for what we see to be really important work. I’ve met PhD students who couldn't get a PhD sponsored on social class, so they're doing the actual PhD in the lab, and then on the side they're doing work on class. The irony that this is what is happening to working class people in academia…
Suriyah: This is my experience – the employment experience of Muslim women, on the side. The Equality Act review, on the side.
We're in a highly classed industry. Access to these research applications, knowing where they posted, it’s a class thing. Knowing how to write them, it’s a class thing. I think you're right, we don't have the language they want us to use.
Bridgette: I've got a language, a great one, it's just not valued.
Suriyah: Exactly. I found a home in anthropology, more than sociology and academia more broadly, because some in the field, such as Lila Abu-Lughod and Antonio Gramsci, have long advocated for ‘inside anthropologists’ or ‘organic intellectuals’. The way we need to learn about communities is people from those communities talking about them. And I think that's what me and you are, we are inside anthropologists. But even though that's probably the term that has kept me in academia and research, it's not valued.
Bridgette: I really like that term, and I'm going to be thinking about that for some time. Thank you so much for talking with such candidness.
- There is an online event around the Senate campaign on 20 May.
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