We need to talk about the performativity, the appropriations and the misappropriations of the working class and most importantly and specifically of the Black WC from art school students and artists in gentrified areas of London, that stem from South East London, to East to West and fastly approaching my own area of North West London. For now, and for arguments sake, here I will be focusing primarily on South East London and using Camberwell College in gentrified Peckham as a starting point location, to open up this dialogue in tandem with last month’s discussion around artist Hetty Douglas, an artist originally from Nottingham living in Peckham, who shared a photo of four men in construction gear in McDonald’s with the caption: “These guys look like they got one GCSE.”
Douglas’s offensive Instagram post caused a huge stir which couldn’t go without the Twitter backlash, why and what caused this particular case of ‘calling-out’ and debate that received such widespread attention? Perhaps due to its reflective nature of a wider trend: ‘the trend of people embracing working-class culture while also showing contempt for working class people’ (Foster. D, 2017). Yet again, here we see the importance of accountability, dialogue, the use of social media platforms, the call-out culture, all of which inevitably go hand-in-hand with the inimical yet unavoidable trolling, death threats, rape threats, the stalking, etc; all manifest collectively on the Web 2.0. due to hypervisibility. No one can escape it and no one is safe.
Starting with this twitter post in response to Douglas’s post that gained high recognition and tweets:
This tweet opened up the space for this important conversation to be had on class in relation to privilege, whichever ‘class’ Douglas may or may not be, it was interesting to see that the term ‘privilege’ used in this particular context was to define her ’snobbery’, implying that ‘she was a spoilt rich girl aiding the gentrification of south London.’ Whilst this may, or may not be true, as I myself do not know Douglas’s financial status, I know that coming from Nottingham is not the same as someone moving to Peckham from Chelsea, Knightsbridge or the surrounding areas, yet this is only one small segment of the conversation. For me, this merely scratches the surface to the underlying, infesting and chronic issue that some would argue may be at the very core of gentrification; whiteness. It’s also important to mention here, that POC, especially those living in gentrified areas of London, have had, have been having and are still witnessing, experiencing and discussing these issues for a long time. This conversation is not new, far from it.
Whiteness, the default. The ability to have access to all things at all times, to take and shape your identity and how the world sees you and perceives you, to dress yourself to whatever identity you wish to be and identify yourself as, the ability to pick up and drop aspects of black culture and other POC cultures when one pleases and as a means to rebrand oneself and to sell oneself as a brand. (See: Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Kardashian Crew to name a few). The ability to venture into locations that are not where you are from originally with ease, such as London maybe, to perhaps, study a Fine Art Degree, to source a place to live and survive with ease, to attain clothing that’s of the aesthetic of the WC cause the ‘chav’ look is on trend and Fila is making a comeback, the entitlement and use of the language of Black Uk CC’s and implement this in their own work, ‘peng ting’ ‘it’s all bless’ and hang them in galleries. The ability to pose with a ‘Job seeker’s allowance form’ on Instagram for likes. Whiteness is the privilege here.
For me personally, this is the first time I have seen it discussed on this platform with such a specific example such as a white artist in gentrified Peckham, specific to my own witnessing and experiences. The witnessing of white students and peers often acclaiming more recognition in magazines such as: ID, SSEENSe, Hyperaware, etc rather than WC POC. I find Douglas’s work to be a type of celebrated voyeurism of the WC experience and of the black WC of London, a celebrated voyeurism that’s been around since before I was born.
Leading now onto the last topic I want to mention on how class intersects with whiteness: We can’t talk about the fetishisation of the black WC without talking about the fetishisation of poverty.
I am a black student from WC background, very few people on my course came from my particular background ethnically, nevermind economically. When you experience and you live a life of constant struggle, a struggle I have always known and am still in, balancing jobs, studies, survival, family responsibilities and your own practice; experiencing hardships ranging from: never enough money to pay bills and keeping your head above water at best, to unable to pay bills, afford resources, pay rent or even pay to travel to get to work to earn the money needed to survive at worst; these experiences are debilitating. To have always experienced ‘just getting by’ is an ingrained experience. It controls your every decision, it limits your every move. It’s an experience that I find only friends of mine that are also WC could empathise and understand fully. This, in turn naturally creates a heightened sensitivity to the witnessing of misappropriations of our experiences of poverty and of the WC. I would hear the constant whine of being ‘broke’, used to signify not having money for booze during my time at University, yet food would still be in their fridges, a roof would be over their heads and they would be at a walking or cycling distance from university, with their parent’s a phone call away in case of an ‘emergency’.
It really puzzled me the statements that were made of ’struggle’ and ‘hardships’ my fellow peers would have to go through in their 3 years at Camberwell..it seemed to have no comparison to the type of ‘broke’ I had experienced for as long as I can remember. It’s a feeling hard to describe that isn’t just annoying or hurtful, it grinds away at you. It’s the unrequested spud from the white wealthy student from foundation that cut holes in their Ralph Lauren jumper in the elbows to give the ‘worn out’ effect and initiate the brief interaction with ‘wha gwan my g’ with a forced accent, it’s when people would act and change how they speak to you in your presence and worst of all how some would try to empathise with your situation by comparing their own current circumstance of ‘broke’ to your entire WC life. It’s how your experiences of hardship are misappropriated and regurgitated back to you like it’s ‘cool’ to be ‘broke’. It’s insulting.
Ultimately, Artists need to be accountable for the role they play in the violence of gentrification whichever economic class they are from. Especially non-POC artists that don’t recognise their exertion of whiteness, there needs to be an understanding and ownership of it. There can be no further steps taken until this is understood and until this is recognised.