Classism and racism among north London parents
- Credit: Carlene Fraser-Harris
My husband teaches identity politics. I live it.
Humans have leaned into our basic need to categorise individuals into groups in order to simplify our complex world. This need can be useful but, mostly, it isn’t. So, yes, while my husband explains these instances to his class, with terms like “proximate identity” and “unconscious bias”, I experience it at the playground with my girls, at the store and at school pick-up. This inherent driver to make sure I know my place...and theirs.
I was at the playground with my youngest, enjoying the temperamental London warmth in mid-November, and falling in and out of conversation with other moms, when one told me – regarding the umbrella of cultures that is London: “You’ll see more of your kind of diversity in East London. You’ll feel very comfortable there.”
Naturally, I googled everything about East London: its history, demographics, current affluence. I rained inquiries on my local friends for a more inside take on east London. Because, as it turns out, maybe I do want to go there. Rather than be at that park with that mom.
Traditionally, east London was deemed immigrant quarters, when we trace back to the days of Jack the Ripper and Eastern Europeans’ initial descent here. Indeed, it does carry some notoriety as being the spot for the hearty middle-class who find themselves devoid of financial comfort with too many high-rise housing estates, liquor stores and small churches.
How do you react to these micro chasms when they catch you off guard? When the collective struggles and triumphs of motherhood is divided by classist and egregious behaviour? It’s like headlights – the conviction in their voice when the words hit you. And you’re blinded, momentarily stunned. Roadkill.
I, and countless others, are forced to navigate these everyday words, opinions and gestures. In my commiseration with one mom over our playground episodes, I’ve realised that the wherewithal to endure public places often boils down to what can only be described as resting bitch face. A hugely successful defence mechanism that staves off conversation. But when our children are enjoying the company of other little humans, it only heightens our cravings for dialogue. Then what?
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Sharing my experience offered a space for others to participate their own.
One mom from Highgate was complimented: “You’re so good with her; some au pairs these days can’t be bothered.”
Another mother, over her daughter’s school in Muswell Hill, said, “I called in to arrange pick up and the office person I spoke to remembered me and cheerfully said: 'Ah you’re that black mum.’”
In neighbouring Hampstead Heath, a new mom gives her all-too-common story of shopping while Black: “I stood outside looking at some fruits when two customer assistants rushed over and stood near me, pretending to have a conversation, eyeing me all the while.” She exhaled deeply. “I thought the UK was better than the US but racism is real here. Subtle, hypocritical, pervasive, harmful.”
My mixed-race family and I are New York City transplants to Crouch End, London. And while it is a safe and enlivening place to raise a family, it packs a prejudicial punch when any sign of non-whiteness approaches. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked “those your girls?” I’d be able to fulfil my dream of buying a home here. But lately that dream is choking on the reality that a home extends to its community. After all, it takes a village. And I have been warned, time and again, that this is not my village.
The xenophobia, here, is often neatly tucked behind the perfectly pressed frills of classism, with high-priced housing and a quality of life out of reach to so many.
The exorbitant visa fees immigrants/expats pay to get, or renew, legal stay is a clear, though indirect, invitation to persons of a minimum financial tier.
It was reassuring, though, to see so much awareness in the face of this adversity. One mom knocked those who expect north London to reflect their wholly white upbringing instead of embracing the rich tapestry of cultures that it is. Still, this awareness can sometimes feel like a bandaid on a broken leg when these episodes persist.
- Carlene Fraser-Harris left the public management sector to pursue her once closeted passion for writing. A native New Yorker, she finds herself being happily wooed by life in London.