Social mobility and the “come up” is often glorified as a dramatic, earth shattering experience in which an individual ascends to a status that their peers can only dream of. However, I argue that this narrative is false and fictional. It wrongly fixates on the final product, at the expense of the often tiresome journey. Gatsby, Slumdog Millionaire and Hoodrich; the narrative is all too familiar, but the “come up” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In reality, social mobility is the awkward cognisance of not dropping your T’s in front of suits, just in case they realise that your smooth elocution is something you’ve had to learn from sitting in front of the news evening after evening. This includes deliberately playing down hand gestures and all other outward expressions of personality for fear of coming across as ‘emotional’ or ‘aggressive’. Corporate boardroom environments have the potential to become a performance, where you caricature a personality that isn’t you. Speech becomes a battle ground between the real you and the not-so-real one. Regional accents disappear as, ironically, your voice can be the very first thing to go on the way ‘up’.
Believe it or not, there aren’t many that proudly claim the banner of deprivation. As most of us become more career minded and begin to pursue avenues for gaining experience, administrative forms and their myriad of tick boxes for determining exactly how “disadvantaged” you are have a way of putting a mirror up against your life and showing you that you kinda ain’t sh*t. The enormity of pursuing a career that you would be considered “one of the few” in cannot be dwarfed by the occasional diversity talk hosted in a high rise in Central London somewhere. Equally, the frustration of further education lies in the deferred gratification it offers. Emphasis on the ‘deferred’, that is. Building a career is a process, undoubtedly. But when you’ve got an entire family or community rooting for you that you need to bring up after you, seven years of a-level study followed by an undergraduate degree can feel like a long stretch. The path is not only riddled with constant uncomfortable ‘first’ and ‘only’ from your specific demographic, but the backing track of ‘you’ll always have to be ten times better’ is a constant reminder that the spaces we occupy are not ours (yet). We want it all, but not just for ourselves.
As you climb higher, the micro-aggressions and stereotyping that you’re expected to laugh off are shrouded between flutes of Prosecco and empty platitudes that you eventually learn to smile past with gritted teeth. “You’re so different” becomes code for “how did you get here” and the slope only feels like it’s getting steeper, when it should be levelling out in theory.
Not knowing if you’re being grouped as the disadvantaged scheme kids or if you’re being heralded as the next Obama sets us against an impossible standard that we are destined to fail at measuring up to, every single time. As a North-West Londoner, watching Zadie Smith’s “NW” on a Saturday evening curled up on the sofa was the first time I realised I’m not the only one. It’s not just me, or you. Navigating spaces that aren’t traditionally ‘meant’ for you is a rough ride and there aren’t enough rough riders to go around.
What parents and your local community might see as you finally “making something of yourself” can instead feel like you are diminishing your true essence for others’ satisfaction. Everyone wants to “make it”, but no one wants to lose themselves in the process. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not completely convinced that blanket roll out diversity schemes do either. What this is meant to be is hope of some kind, that by telling our own stories and existing unapologetically on our own terms we can finally overcome the imposter syndrome nagging at the back of our heads. Whether it’s sending the ladder back down to help others like yourself come up or arguing that your workplace lunch menu needs spicier food, we deserve representation and influence everywhere. Bottom to top. Diversity should no longer be a laborious box ticking buzzword for the corporate world, but a means of ensuring that it’s practice doesn’t make those it seeks to include feel even further out of the fold.
Setting our own terms for success doesn’t eliminate us from society’s gaze, but it does create spaces for rest from the constant demand to progress and head up. Our identities are not mere add-on acronyms such as “BME”, they should be a source of strength and resilience that equally provide refuge when we encounter symbolic violence in wider society. Drop your T’s because it’s you. Put your gigantic obnoxious hoops in your ears in because it’s you, even double up your laces if it suits. Assimilation is overrated and we’re smashing it up. At least, I think we should.
Written by Danielle Koku