The troubling phenomenon of ‘white flight‘ in Australia was raised in a recent report about schools in Melbourne’s ‘progressive’ inner suburbs that were full of non-Caucasian migrant kids from the local housing commission flats but scarce on local Caucasian Australian-born kids. Hypocrites! called out some. These sanctimonious inner city hipsters can’t put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the reality of living with cultural diversity. Not so, countered others. We just want the best for our kids – we don’t want to ruin their start in life by being dragged down by low-achieving students.
Then commentator Julie Szego broke the nexus and raised a third, more compelling factor: class prejudice.
Szego made the uncomfortable point that across Australian culture – which has unconsciously absorbed the fallible principles of meritocracy – poor people (in this case, poor migrants) are unconsciously viewed as the result of their own moral and aspirational fecklessness. So one thread of reasoning of this unconscious prejudice is that it’s ‘better’ that the low-performing offspring of the poor not mingle in the same educational and social environment as the children of middle and high income earners lest they blight the latters’ advancement.
But I would challenge you to find anyone willing to admit openly to this reasoning outside closed circles. You need to connect the dots yourself of what you read, watch and listen to. And there’s plenty that will tell you how deeply embedded class prejudice is in Australian society. How unthinkingly, how casually, people from ‘lower socio-economic groups’ are demeaned, even physically avoided. At the least, there’s discomfort around class difference.
Education is a flashpoint. Aside from concern about grades, there’s a much deeper cultural context to the discomfort and, in this case, white flight.
When you consider the easy mixing of culturally diverse school children where there’s less obvious disparity of family income (and geographical differences in where school families live), it’s clear that overt racism is not the burning issue. But in places like inner Melbourne, deep disparities of income and social status sit cheek-by-jowl. It must be discomforting to realise that people whom you’re used to viewing through a socio-cultural prism as charity cases, aid targets or comedy subjects could now, as fellow parents, be your peers. Their children – your children’s peers. That means having to come together with them on the same level in equal social interaction: sharing, learning, eating, discussing, planning, advocating, visiting. That’s confronting.
It also means the possibility of middle and high income household children studying and making friends with poorer children, not just fundraising for them. As well as sharing the same school work and play environment, they might want to socialise with them on the outside. Go back to their homes. Sleep over, even. Your kids hanging out around the housing commission flats? The prospect really is challenging for more affluent people with school-age kids – easier avoided.
Class prejudice is a deeply sensitive issue, a ‘no go zone’ with Australians. We tip-toe around it because of our equally deeply embedded values in and ‘national conversation’ about equality and access to opportunity. Certainly we’re talking more and more about ‘income disparities’ and how the ‘gap is widening between the highest and the lowest earners’. We’ll talk about ‘battlers’ (an increasingly misused phrase) and jab at each other behind craven, meaningless sloganeering about ‘class warfare’ but we’re not prepared to confront actual class prejudice for what it is and what it really means.
Let’s face it – when we think of class, we tend to think of ancient hierarchies like the British class system. We might also think of oligarchies in Latin America and South East Asia, little emperors in China and Ivy League elites in the US. Closer to home, we might view multi-generational poverty in reality TV like Struggle Street, whose subjects try to salvage their own dignity in a sea of well-meaning ‘poverty porn’ voyeurism.
Or in films that lead us inexorably back to our unknown selves, like Snowtown. The latter I viewed at the Brighton Bay Cinema seated next to a trio of champagne-sipping, giggling women. I left feeling as shaken by their flippancy as by the film itself.
We talk on and off about old schoolboys networks that dominate our professional landscape, although this is usually framed in terms of gender or ethnic bias. ‘Old schoolboy networks’ resurfaced recently, with guilty verdicts found against Sydney insider traders and elite private school alumni ex-chums Oliver Curtis and John Hartman.
That’s about as far as it goes. But when it comes to human unconscious bias, the value systems that spawn it, the social environments that nurture it and the behaviours that characterise it, surely class prejudice in cultures that value social equality is the most difficult to grasp, the most insidious.
Class prejudice doesn’t cut across class. Ultimately, it’s the ‘difference’ that we find we just can’t live with.
Parodies like Ja’mie, Private School Girl, are possible because they reflect real young people today who, like the vicious, cringeingly awful Ja’mie King, are weaned on class prejudice in their formative years. They live almost two decades in socio-cultural settings and experiences in their home, community and school environments unconsciously soaking up and playing out these attitudes under the influence of peers and guardians. Attitudes that, ironically, sit quite comfortably with a parallel moral universe that celebrates and upholds human rights, the equality of humans and the right to the same treatment and opportunity.
By the time they enter the workforce, these attitudes and the behaviours and discourses that go with class prejudice, now nicely formed, are ready to blossom in the equally self-reinforcing culture of Australia’s business and broad professional community.
Illustrative of this, a friend who is Careers Adviser at a ‘top’ Melbourne school was approached recently by a Melbourne CBD accounting firm seeking traineeship candidates among interested alumni. A follow-up meeting at the firm revealed a culturally diverse workforce at least below the executive level – including gender – but the CEO disclosed that they were reaching out only to elite inner private schools as they found the experience of recruiting from public schools further out ‘disappointing’. This begs questions about the company culture which, set by its board and executive team, would set the tone and approach to their recruiting practices. My Careers acquaintance felt uncomfortable and considered this a red flag. He brought his class prejudice concern to the Senior School Head of Faculty. Her judgement call was to prioritise opportunity over these concerns. Let alumni know about the opportunity, flag the concern and otherwise leave the rest in the hands of the individual.
He didn’t hear of the outcome but I have no doubt that his concern was quietly dropped. I’m going to make a judgement call of my own and posit that young recruits entering this environment could expect to have their class comfort zones and prejudices reinforced.
Long after the circumstances that generated deep community values like egalitarianism and social equality have passed into history, the values, attributes, cultural codes and behaviours that these circumstances naturally generate stay with us much longer. They are reminders of how we have ‘gelled’ as a society, of what makes us ‘us’. Over time, however, they can become distorted and corrupted. They can become stories too often told, jaded in the telling, articles of cynicism rather than faith.
Clifton Hill’s website reassures parents that “a minority of students are drawn from public housing”. Fear, even hatred, of the poor remains stubbornly resistant to the edicts of political correctness’.
A recent ABC TV program, ‘The Agony of School’, examined the case for public school education or private school education from the point of view of Australian media personalities. Business tycoon John Elliot and his son, broadcaster Tom Elliot were interviewed. Among the benefits Elliot Snr enumerated for going to private school were the great friendships, connections and networks one formed, that would continue, flourish and spread to university and beyond. Yeah, agreed Elliot Jnr with a wry look. Scotch College kids get to hang out with Scotch College kids at uni. Great social experience. Way to broaden your horizons. Elliot Jnr, by the way, is an alumni of Carey Baptist Grammar, University of Melbourne and Oxford University.
I should add here that I also spent 7 years of secondary education at a large inner Melbourne private girls school, Methodist Ladies College, and was fortunate to continue my education at a number of highly regarded Australian tertiary institutions.
Implicit in Elliot Snr’s comment was the material outcome of such connections beyond education into business and the professions. That, of course, is unconscious bias in favour of ‘your own’ and therefore, the old school network in the business world, sidelining or shutting out those outside the inner circle.
In considering his ‘leg up’ courtesy of an excellent education at top schools funded by a father well equipped to do so, Elliot Jnr described as ‘bullshit’ the notion that these days, your educational background counted against you in the professional world.
Well, I beg to differ, Tom. Although I’d agree that it doesn’t apply to everyone. And it’s a phenomenon that is terribly hard to measure, given that it’s one of a multiplicity of socio-economic factors in social recognition and career ‘success’ that the ‘Agony of Education’ conversation skated over.
Elliot Jnr also touched on a worrying element: the narrow social focus that the old school network fosters and reinforces. There’s a contempt and a real fear of what ‘the other side’ is like. It’s like seeing people moving in psychological gated communities. We see it in the narrow geographical focus of our pre-eminent urban newspapers. We see it reflected in characters like The Slap‘s inner Melbourne-dwelling Anouk, who has never visited ‘out there’ – somewhere beyond the yellow lines that marked the inner-city zone-one train and tram tracks on the Melbourne transport maps’.
And we see it in the words of another acquaintance, an East Malverner who grows his own food, sells ear candles and only recently sold a Collins Street building that he retrofitted to lower its carbon footprint. A guy who cares about the planet. When I mentioned a newspaper series featuring interesting facts and reasons to visit lesser-known Melbourne suburbs like Bundoora, he looked at me with pure contempt and said: ‘What on earth could you find interesting in that shithole? Who’d waste their time going there?’
Um, a lot of people. Families. Students. Businesses. Foodies opening eateries. People going to hospital or to visit their departed ones in the cemetery. People who want to grow their own food. People.
When this comes to values systems in practice, you can see the noxious logic of the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude towards equality, human rights and social diversity. This is parodied by Legally Brown, in which a white Australian couple share with their friends, over lunch at their home, that they’re sponsoring an Aboriginal girl from a financially and socially disadvantaged community but would never dream of inviting her to visit, on the spurious grounds that she’d feel ‘uncomfortable’.
Another all-too-common example of casual – and not less real for its casualness – is the demeaning language we use to describe whole communities and classes. Sometimes in conversation, my partner – from a blue collar European background and now a well-paid professional – refers to destructive habits like drug taking and alcohol abuse as being essentially a problem of what he euphemistically refers to ‘blue collar people’. The default assumption is that it’s primarily poor people who are alcoholics and drink drugs. Upon reflection and discussion, he acknowledges that alcoholism and drug abuse are no respecter of class. We talk about it and reason honestly through our respective biases, It’s an ongoing dialogue.
Elsewhere, a friend and member of the Melbourne judiciary laces his conversation freely with four-letter expletives. Perhaps he has a sense of being ‘beyond’ socially acceptable language. Maybe his friends talk like that and no-one’s held him accountable for language that makes them feel uncomfortable.
‘Why is he so foul mouthed?’ I’ve been asked more than once. ‘He’s educated enough – he should know better. Maybe all that bad language from people appearing in court has rubbed off on him?’
What we see here is an irony-free prejudice that assumes
- a highly educated person at the top of their profession is ‘educated enough’ to adjust their communication to different social settings and has both the agency and self-control to do so
- the same person nevertheless appears to lack agency or self control to moderate their language
- the default language of people appearing in court is socially unacceptable
- they are incapable of adjusting their language in a courtroom; and
- they simultaneously have an uncanny influence over the language choice of the presiding judge when said judge is out and about socially.
Sociologist Stephen Threadgold sardonically notes that ‘of course, the more privileged of us swear, fart and take drugs, just like the less privileged…But they don’t have exploitive documentaries being made about them. They are usually the ones making the documentaries.’
When it comes to class prejudice, this issue is harder to grasp and address honestly. It’s such a slippery beast. Admitting it seems is like betraying our own collective identity.
This kind of unthinking prejudice against ‘blue collar’ or ‘lower socio-economic groups’ is painfully widespread. Just recently I posted an article about media personality and Collingwood football president Eddie McGuire and his misogynistic language about senior sports commentator Caroline Wilson. Some respondents, condemning McGuire, referred to him as the ‘bogan from Broadmeadows‘. Again, parallel moral universes. On the one hand, we see condemnation of misogynistic treatment of women. On the other hand – from the same sources – we see an unconscious tendency to make sweeping judgements of a person based solely on their lower socio-economic background. How dare someone treat someone as though they were somehow a lesser human? Ah, now we know why. Easy. They’re a bogan from Broadmeadows. By implication, when you put someone in a lower class and locate them in a poorer neighbourhood, they’re morally a lesser human being. Could be a boozing drug user too. Kids probably headed for a life on the dole. All the decent, kind, interesting, successful, community-minded people in the same neighbourhood don’t count.
Julie Szego wrote of her shock ‘to read how explicitly class bias is being paraded as a virtue, without even a flicker of self-consciousness. Clifton Hill’s (Clifton Hill Primary School) website reassures parents in that “a minority of students are drawn from public housing“‘.
When it comes to class prejudice, this issue is harder to grasp and address honestly. It’s such a slippery beast. Admitting it seems is like betraying our own collective identity. Unfortunately, as Szego points out, ‘(f)ear, even hatred, of the poor remains stubbornly resistant to the edicts of political correctness’. Where and how do we call each other out on the popular discourses we take part in that encourage us to avoid confronting class prejudice, reflected in shadowy expressions like ‘we were disappointed with these candidates – we’d rather use alumni from local schools?’
As Harvard Business School researchers John Beshears and Francesca Gino comment, “It’s extraordinarily difficult to rewire the human brain,” but we can “alter the environment in which decisions are made.’
A vital example of this is the way we employ language. Policing language is an inherent social response and continues to sit at the centre of organisations’ responses to prejudice. The recent ‘Words at Work‘ campaign, auspiced by the Diversity Council of Australia and hosted by 2016 Australian of the Year, former Australian Defence Force head David Morrison, is a case in point. But there’s a growing recognition that cultures of ‘naming and shaming’ people and policing language can further entrench bias.
And naming and shaming allow us to talk the talk of cultural inclusion without walking the tough walk.
Instead, these need to make way for systemic approaches in which people make contact and engage with ‘others’ in meaningful interaction at work and socially, where people hold each other and themselves accountable for the way they talk about and treat each other.
Culturally acceptable language, should have, at its heart, an understanding and acceptance that socially ‘appropriate’ language and communication discourse provide necessary structures and discourse spaces within which we can get to the real labour of implementing and maintaining systemic contact, engagement and mutual accountability. This should not happen with naive expectations of outwitting individual bias or an unthinking assumption that the ‘right language’ is per se an end in itself.
Eddie McGuire is an example of how an individual may be incapable of changing core attitudes that foster prejudice – they are too deep. But the structures and conventions of socially acceptable language can and should act as a bellwether – or maybe a canary in the mine – of how and whether our communities and organisations are fostering cultures and practices of contact, engagement and accountability.
Coming back to the question of identifying and addressing class prejudice: contact and engagement across classes will be shut out where contact and engagement across gender, ethnicity, age, special need and religion are let in. This is where accountability comes in. Even though our social circles gel naturally around people of the same class, even if our work teams comprise people drawn from the same class and educational background, even though we hold deep-seated fear and unconscious antipathy towards ‘other classes’, we are still capable of holding ourselves accountable for our class biases by calling out prejudice where and when it’s expressed. The language we are prepared to accept and use represent a real psychological barrier to contact and engagement. So it’s a good place to start.
Try these for size:
‘I don’t understand why being from Broadmeadows is a negative thing. I’m really like to know why you think this.’ Or,
‘Could you tell me some more about why “blue collar people” are always alcoholics and drug users? I just want to understand, because there’s huge drug abuse and alcoholism among professionals and drug use among elite high school and uni students.’ Or,
‘Can you please explain this phrase “a minority of students are drawn from public housing”. Because what I’m reading from this is that this school doesn’t welcome poor people.
‘Well I have to admit, I used to think the same about (suburb) but I’ve got a couple of friends from around there and they showed some great eating places and there’s some beautiful bushland – I would never have known. So I’ve changed my mind.’
Hard, isn’t it, to hold people and ourselves to account. But I see this as the only way to start honest conversations with ourselves and each other about where our class prejudices come from, how they infuse our social, educational and professional environments. Maybe, from there, we can work through some of this prejudice to reconnect with the ‘classless society’ values we profess to hold. And ‘fess up to our real class reality.