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Middle class privilege is more than material

  • 24 October 2016


Earlier this year, an excerpt from American writer Fran Lebowitz' famous 1997 interview on race with Vanity Fair was resurrected when various people shared it on my Facebook feed.

Her words encapsulated a disquiet I'd felt at the proliferation of what has been deemed 'lifestyle porn'. Through this medium, the experiences of upper middle-class, mostly white people whose ability to dress in the right clothes, decorate their houses in ways that are reflective of the overarching taste of the time, travel the world with unrestricted mobility and nail the job of their dreams are trotted out as universal experiences that say to the average reader: anyone can have this.

But not everyone can. To quote Lebowitz: 'What it is like to be white is not to say, "We have to level the playing field," but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with.

'White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so immense, that to use the word "advantage" at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.'

The privilege of being white can be extrapolated to being middle-class, male, cisgendered heterosexual, able-bodied. When the experiences of people who have won the genetic lottery are paraded without an interrogation of the deep-rooted structural forces that propelled them to the fortunate position that they find themselves in, the picture that manifests is an illusion of magnified proportions.

Which is not to say that they're devoid of talent or don't work hard (although this is true in some cases), but that the many advantages of class and social privilege underscore the myth of meritocracy.  

Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu posited the disturbing finding that academic underperformances in lower-class students could be traced back to their lack of cultural capital, which is defined as 'familiarity with the dominant culture in a society, and especially the ability to understand and use 'educated' language''. The dominant culture in Australia is commonly understood to be that of the white middle-class.

According to Bourdieu, the mainstream education system assumes a certain level of cultural capital and as a result, educators speak in a manner that is only understood by a privileged few. As a result, lower-class students are seriously disadvantaged in their pursuit of educational credentials, with their failures then attributed to reasons