Is it possible to be Middle-Class whilst being brown?

Content Note: discussion of class-identity and being racialisd.

This is the first year I have watched and begun to follow The Great British Bake Off. Whilst some people have seen this as a travesty in terms of how late it is in the day; others have laughed at my entering the ranks of the white middle-classes.

This is England(?) [image of Great British Bake off presenters and judges amidst assorted baked goods.]
Now hold up just a second.

I get that a competitive baking challenge suggests all the frivolity, pricey-ness and spare time/money of a John Lewis window display; but what exactly about baking is white and middle-class? What about pouring energy into creating food is “white”?

On watching the second episode of this year’s series my mother remarked: “where’s the show about all the Asian women who spent their lives doing this?” And that’s just it.

What is white and middle-class about GBBO is that it’s made baking “trendy” because predominantly white people are doing it. It’s made baking a fun activity because it’s a competition for goodness sake. But when you begin to take that tenet too far and suggest that “baking” itself is a middle-class pursuit I’m afraid you’re in dubious waters. Moreover, to suggest that watching a show like GBBO puts you into the ranks of the white middle-classes really ticks me off.

It ticks me off because it happens a lot. Being “classed” by others assessing you. From the University I attend, the hobbies I have, our newly renovated kitchen and my watching of GBBO you could easily assume I’m middle-class. But I want to talk about class and it’s intersection with race. In many ways, “class” in Britain is a racialised concept. Historically, migrants and non-white people would only ever enter the class-system at the lowest level, just components of the “working class”; but the middle-class was something else, something uniquely untouchable and British in its whiteness.

“None of the above”. [image of John Cleese, Ronny Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the Class Sketch.]
I would argue then that middle-class identity in Britain is white. I would argue this because “class” in Britain is far more than an economic or even socio-economic category. And it is for this reason that many, especially nowadays, class themselves vaguely.

The added factor of being the grandchild of immigrants to Britain makes full entry into the middle-classes nigh-on impossible. Sure, there are rich brown people – but we see them as gaudy, materially-obsessed, obnoxious, arrogant, greasy, fast-car-and-rolex brown people. They are not middle-class brown people. Middle-classness allows a degree of invisibility; a cloak of accepted Britishness. For a South Asian who lives on the same street as or earns the same income as a white middle-class counter-part; there is still something that separates them.

That is where, even with my piano lessons, tennis-playing and watered down Yorkshire accent; I have never felt middle-class. Sure, the history of my family as migrant workers in northern textiles factories; my mother’s childhood, her lifestyle etc – have always made me feel less-than-middle-class. Even in my own childhood, whilst I wouldn’t think of myself as working-class, I only realised buying clothes from the charity-shop was “cool” when I came to Uni, when before this I’d always had to “forget where I bought it from” for shame. Even in my own childhood the places we shopped and the way we spent our weekends felt to me a far-cry from middle-class luxury. But on top of this personal feeling of ambiguity is the fact that brown bodies are not accepted into the middle-class. Especially openly brown or Muslim brown bodies.

middle class
Where are the South Asian families?? [image of screen-shot of google-search for “middle-class families”.]
Sure, a few rogue brown people may be able to sit comfortably in Bettys if they can act, speak and dress in a way that makes white people feel comfortable; but even with my Cambridge attendance, nice neighbourhood and indistinct accent I don’t make white people feel comfortable. I don’t actually get to exist in middle-class spaces even if you believe me to be such. The fact that I am racialised acts as a barrier to entering middle-class invisibility. Middle-classness is whiteness because it has defined itself as such. In a way that has perhaps been under-analysed, the middle-class is not only closed off to the working-classes, but to identifiably non-white/“British” people too. As soon as I put on my hijab or hold hands with my shalwar-kameez clad grandmother; as soon as my mum talks to me in Punjabi or my brother’s beard begins to grow out… it doesn’t feel as easy as you’d guess to be middle-class and brown. In fact, it feels impossible.

I feel clumsy in John Lewis; people stare if I go to Ilkley; it’s all disbelief if I touch a piano and I feel loud even if I just sit still in the theatre. British “class” is unnervingly racial. GBBO may be “middle-class” in its superfluous values, but it is also middle-class because white middle-class people enjoy it. As my mum well questioned, it wouldn’t be a “middle-class” thing if it was a show about Asian women cooking… it’s middle-classness lies in its whiteness. “White” is pretty much a void prefix to “white middle-class” because middle-class-ness is racialised as white.

I continue to feel inconclusive about my class identity for these reasons then. My brownness and my Muslimness seem to forfeit my class-identity, and it is for this reason that I remain forever in the limbo of being “accused” of being middle-class whilst simultaneously refused entry.

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