For many working-class people of color it can be difficult, if not impossible, to find mainstream narratives that reflect their experiences. In Working-Class Perspectives, Adjoa Wiredu explores her experiences growing up in an environment lacking these narratives, and describes the work being done to create and popularize independent black narratives.
As a kid I didn’t expect to see myself reflected in a majority of the TV shows I saw or the magazines and papers I read. It was the same for many children of immigrants in 90s UK. Even though I lived in London and grew up in working-class Tottenham, the media I consumed was white and British.
The only media I could find about people like me were New Nation, Pride Magazine (I did work experience there for years as a young student) and The Voice, but not much else could be considered even close to mainstream. Many others started up, like Colures Magazine, but they found it difficult to grow or even stick around. To read more about black people, I turned to TV shows, films, and magazines from the U.S., like Black Beat.
With so few representations of working-class black people, I was ignorant of the social and economic obstacles built against people like me. I lived within the confines and effects of race and class, and yet I rarely confronted it. For example, as a teenager, I could not buy concealer for my darker skin tone from any high street shop, and I could not afford Fashion Fair, the only line made for black skin. So I used my mum’s make-up for special occasions or I just didn’t wear any. It was frustrating not to have other options just because I was black and dark skinned. It would have helped to read what other people like me had to say about that experience. But without access to stories or voices like my own, I remained inexperienced.
The black working-classes are not taught the importance of our lived experience or to value and work with what we already have. We aren’t taught to search out our talents and potential based on what we study about ourselves. We are not encouraged to learn about tensions or to expose the frustrations and injustices inflicted by the privileged. But we should. Just like the middle classes, we should have the privilege of understanding of our histories. It should be okay for working-class people to tell our own stories and learn from them.
In Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni-Eddo Lodge exposes the ignorance and apathy of black history in Britain. She also encourages the underrepresented to focus on the development of their journeys and set the tone: “Rather than be forced to react to biased agendas, we should outright reject them and set our own.” If we are to see any changes, the voice of the white privileged male that dictates, skews, and leads all conversations must be challenged. Like Paulo Friere, Lodge encourages the oppressed to look beyond what is set before them by engaging in dialogue, asking each other questions, reflecting, and through that process learning.
These questions and my personal interest in documentary where art and research meet innovation — like Teju Cole’s Blind Spot — draws me to the uprising of UK minority voices encouraged at independent publishers. I’m inspired by writers such as Panashe Chigumadzi at Indigo Press, JJ Bola and Robyn Travis at OWN IT, Warsan Shire at Flipped Eye Publishing, Inua Ellams at Oberon Books, Yemisi Aribisala at Cassava Republic. Imprints like Dialogue Books and the new Merky Books are also making this kind of work possible. Most of these authors are young, black, and from working-class backgrounds, genderqueer and non-binary, or of the diaspora community. They are the voices raising important life shaping questions and exposing the issues we face. And their stories reflect lived experiences. This is what I have done in my projects, creating work to document and analyse my experiences using social media, citizen journalism, and even research about interactive Psychogeographic Mapping. To help my development as an artist, I reflect on loopy questions that make my head heavy, all in the hope of discussing the world around me. I question authentic participation and who the work is for. I post plenty of other questions, too, including about the need for support and why funding schemes supports some projects and not others. I am also interested in the need to archive our activities and how to preserve our processes.
A growing number of podcasts is helping these writers reach wider audiences. Podcasting offers dialogue, a free audio library, and, crucially, a catalogue of our development, an archive to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. Independent shows like Stance, Mostly Lit, and of course Women Who create modes for exchange. They acknowledge, discuss, and even critique diverse works. They are inclusive in the way that the mainstream is not, discussing a range of texts and popular culture, middle-class and working-class, and providing common ground for listeners from the same background. For example, during a recent episode of Mostly Lit, entitled All About Love, as the hosts were discussing bell hooks, Derek talked about how his father did not reflect the mainstream father-figure image of a man who is always deeply connected with his children. He shared his personal experience, explaining how he was not deeply connected to his own father but had not taken the time to understand his father’s own upbringing and heritage. As Derek explained, he may not have understood that there’s another angle to be considered, an experience that many can relate to and should not be dismissed. We all get things wrong sometimes. That’s part of the journey, and the podcasters make listening to such stories enjoyable because they are aware of the importance of what they do. For some artists or entrepreneurs, these podcasts are the only recognition their work receives. As these shows grow, even without the funding and institutional support that they deserve, their popularity prods and confronts the status quo.
We see similar confrontation from some more established personalities, such as television host, comedian, and author Trevor Noah. In his memoir Born a Crime, he describes how he came to run a music business at school. He uses his experience to question the poor being expected to work miracles or create their destinies when they are not given tools and advice on how best to use them. He writes about working with Daniel, a white boy at school who traded in bootleg CDs. This “was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from a privileged world to come to you and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’” Through this story, Noah highlights how working-class people need help to navigate a system built to disadvantage them.
But I see something else in this story: that being in position of always working around the system is in fact working with the system. Fighting and navigating around structures created for a privileged group does not challenge the status quo. That is not the best use of our skills. Instead, we should focus on shifting away from this narrative and reflect on our collective and individual stories. It’s essential not just to get by but to understand and trust ourselves even if we remain on the outside. In the UK these days, reassuringly, my younger self would not need a ‘niche’ magazine to get a ‘fix’ of people who look like and come from the same background. She would have many avenues for work experience, for advice, and for public circles to inspire her. I value this progress and learning about the personal journeys that led to it. I think it’s just the beginning. If we can find ways to share our experiences, we can build our own paths, free of the usual obstacles.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-18 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 131,000 times by readers in 178 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.