Middle class privilege is more than material



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.

Child uses sack labelled 'cultural capital' as they try to climb a wall. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonHer 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 of meritocracy.


"As low-income earners and working class Australians accrue wealth, their upward mobility will increase. But the accumulation of cultural capital will prove to be altogether harder to amass."


Although academics have since argued that cultural capital does not explain all of the social class effect, it was shown to have some impact on educational attainment, and thus prospects of success later in life.

In this way, being born into an affluent family confers more than just material benefits (although the innumerable positive effects of a financial security blanket should not be underestimated). From a young age, a child is exposed to the seamless ways in which people with wealth carry themselves and the ways they fraternise with the similarly well-heeled company that they keep; a network that will continue to bear the child dividends throughout their life.

The child becomes adept at using the language, inflections and tone that reflect their social standing; familiar with hobbies that only the upper middle-class can afford to do — going to museums, art openings, the opera and the theatre — and well-steeped in the ways in which they can navigate this world of unbridled artistic expression and liberation. After all, more often than not, the upper middle-class constitute the tiny percentage of people who are able to carry out work that is thought of as 'creative, intellectual and socially prestigious'.

It is important not to discount the effect that a financial leg-up can have on one's freedom to pursue a personally fulfilling life — especially with the advent of unpaid internships, although even then cultural capital can prove to be as valuable as financial capital.

'We often hear that success is "all about the people you know",' writes Darren Walker in the New York Times, 'as if it's just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people.'

As low-income earners and working class Australians accrue wealth, their upward mobility will increase as they gain access to privileges typically reserved for the wealthy — private schools, housing security, safe neighbourhoods. But the accumulation of cultural capital, the very concept of which is intangible, will prove to be altogether harder to amass.

The next time you read about an artist who has successfully relocated to New York and found themselves immediately surrounded by a healthy circle of friends and with a job in hand, don't despair, remember, theirs is a success generations in the making.


Sonia NairSonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, the Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Sonia Nair, cultural mobility



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Existing comments

Paradoxically one of the key tenets of this claimed cultural capital is political correctness. A worldview which exists exclusively in the minds of elites. How oxymoronic then.

Ben | 25 October 2016  

Education, especially public, in NSW and likely elsewhere in Australia from the 1970's was infected with the notion that you shouldn't impose "middle class values" on working class children. I think there was, and in some quarters remains, a confusion between "values" and "standards". Gently correcting a child's grammar when they say "who done that" is essential to enable that child to give them opportunities so they can compete with (middle class) others at say interviews for placement into a medical school, not to mention office & bank jobs.

Paul Crittenden | 25 October 2016  

Sonia, While I tend to agree with your observations, I think that there is the risk of generalization. I spent about three decades teaching secondary students ; for much of that period all male then mixed gender classes . While most of my students were from middle class backgrounds here in Canberra, I have taught in Sydney and the bush too. I have come to the conclusion that the socio-economic back ground of the parents do play a large role in the expectations and performance of students . However it is very risky to assume ALL students in a class / year will fit that pattern. Some of my best students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, not just academically, but also in social skills, maturity/social awareness, development etc. Some of my worst came from wealthy backgrounds where they 'had it all' and apparently, did not see the need to apply themselves. I know it is a long straw but I believe these observations can be applied to our society generally. Last point, the best performers I have seen were children attending a Catholic College (Year 7-11 'middleclass' equivalent) in the northern Philippines .The work ethic I witnessed was awesome!

Gavin | 25 October 2016  

I agree with much of your article, Sonia, and identify myself as one of the privileged white people about whom you write. But I would like to make two comments. Firstly there are many white people from low socio economic, disadvantaged backgrounds - including those living in deep intergenerational poverty - who are far from being privileged and who struggle immensely in our society. A vast number of these people feel extremely disenfranchised and disengaged from mainstream society - and for good reason. Secondly, those of us who are privileged are not only white. Many affluent Australians today are from diverse ethnic backgrounds and include large numbers of recent immigrants (not refugees).

robert van zetten | 25 October 2016  

What is described applies to all cultures and is not exclusively "white skin" related. Prior to the European Renaissance the white races were predominantly poor, barbaric, steeped in witchcraft and very much underprivileged, with language and the humanities confined to the Church which preserved and salvaged them from oblivion.The privileged classes existed, for example, in all of the black African peoples and were and still are art forms in the Asian cultures which exhibit some of the most blatant examples of class and indeed racism. Such is life! It would seem that after so many millennia with multiple mistakes and opportunities to learn from, Humanity refuses to learn and things ain't going to change!.

john frawley | 25 October 2016  

Sonia, properly, takes no prisoners (with a graphic cartoon to boot!) The implications are manifold, e.g.the male clergy phenomenon from the developing world that we import to 'mission' to an exponentially priestless 'Indigenous' Australian culture. There are many St Pauls in the making here, given the cultural clashes that must ensue when clerical privilege meets head on with white privilege! The other stressed site is undoubtedly Catholic schools, which offer investments of cultural capital unavailable to those who cannot afford the fees or who can't avail of the free choice such conduits for cultural capital acquisition constitute in other countries. The UK Education Reform Act 1988 introduced the idea that parents could choose the school that their children went to, instead of assuming that they could just go locally. Gerwirtz (1995) studied class differences in parental choice of secondary schools. Her study of 14 London schools was based on interviews and secondary data. She found that economic and cultural capital leads to class differences in how far parents can choose a child’s secondary education, itself critically influential in determining a child's life chances.

Michael Furtado | 25 October 2016  

There are many elements that make up "cultural capital" of which Sonya has mentioned only a few ... rural vs urban, being one of them. At the private catholic boarding school I went to it was the country kids who could spell and add up, and not the children who attended that school from prep. I think one of the key elements of distinction between rural and city people is how grounded country people (and kids) are in life and what really matters. They live with their hearts and their minds in real time. The myths that form and shape professionalisation and academia, are lived out in their heads in scientific 'catch-up' time. Remember, science requires validation and proof which takes time to show itself. "Knowing the right people", in this context, is not living prophetically or trusting God will support you in your unfolding ... unfortunately, the elite don't get it as they spend their lives trying to control outcomes and prevent reputational damage ... no wonder the world is in the shape its in! When will these elite people start to take some responsibility for the mess our world is in? "With great power comes great responsibility".

Mary Tehan | 25 October 2016  

Don't underestimate the 'cultural capital' of people who are not WASPs. Tradie culture, for example, in Australia is alive, vital and well. And in many ways less boring. Bright kids don't have to conform to the museum going culture to have rich satisfying lives. Smug WASPS may be surprised to know what they are missing out on.

Elizabeth Kleinhenz | 25 October 2016  

I really agree with what you have espoused in this article.

LynneZ | 25 October 2016  

I think you misread the article, Ben, when you interpret Bourdieu as championing political correctness. Whiteness, even for poor Whites, confers a privilege that persons of colour, nomatter how socioeconomically privileged, are denied by virtue of appearance. How else might one explain support for Hanson, Le Pen, Trump and UKIP? Such privilege stems from a colonial mindset and history that is deeply embedded within everybody's cultural DNA. This explanation is much more plausible than the lazy analysis of Universal White Guilt on the one hand, and Universal Black Innocence on the other, as if both were merely flip sides of the same equally obnoxious racist coin. While Jesuitical intellectual perspicuity should properly guard against aims to pit various groups of people against one another on specious grounds, the world is sadly also full of people who classify as oppressors and oppressed. Granted that human beings shouldn't be portrayed as members of mutually hostile groups, the tools of structural analysis also reveal that morality is beyond being an individual and personal responsibility construct. Thus, while polished Australian social commentators like Sonia Nair and Jamila Rizvi have highly educated backgrounds, their commentary dares to challenge the established order of White privilege.

MLF | 25 October 2016  

Hi Sonia Your recent article in "Eureka Street" was of particular interest to me as a De La Salle teaching Brother. In 1703 John Baptist de La Salle, from upper middle class French society himself, published his "Rules of decorum and Christian Civility". I quote from Gerard Rummery: In many aspects, this "best-seller" was potentially the most revolutionary text of all the writings: it assumed that the artisan & the poor could aspire to a "higher" place in the society! The rules are those of Christian good manners. The "true disciple of Jesus Christ" learns how to conform to the customs and manners of the time in a free and responsible way, thereby becoming a good citizen."

Peter Gilfedder | 26 October 2016  

One of the major functions of elite private schools is to give a social leg up, a network of mates and thus access to superior health, legal, vocational/career aspirations, real estate and recreational opportunities. Commutative justice used be part of Catholic teaching but unfortunately many of the schools are held in thrall by rich parents as prisoners in the Stockholm syndrome. How do schools of privilege, privilege which is least obvious to those who have it, teach their students that privilege entails responsibility to those other than their mates?

Michael D. Breen | 27 October 2016  

" .... '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." Lifestyle porn is when the Internet makes a giant neighbourhood in which the residents (white and coloured) of the 1st World can chat to each other about their lifestyle topics in front of the 2nd and 3rd Worlds who peer in through the window knowing that not 'anyone can have this', much like the situation in 1 Corinthians 11:21’s "For as you eat, many of you proceed with your own meal to the exclusion of others."

Roy Chen Yee | 28 October 2016  

Interesting piece. When I last looked at this literature I understood that cultural capital restricted access to higher education - so that the year 12 exams (whatever they are called now) is a defacto measure of social class (and that includes cultural as well as money capital). Once they are in university the performance levels out so class is less of a factor - once you are in.

Shane H | 28 October 2016  

Can someone tell me how I know what social class I belong to? Is there an assets test? Or does it depend on how I pronounce "dance"?

AURELIUS | 28 October 2016  

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