We do not speak about the privileges in academia as efficiently as we should have. I was having a conversation with a colleague from the Global South, who also comes from a working-class background. We reflected on how we find ourselves in conversations on privilege with other scholars from the Global South, in a manner as if we were equals back there. This colleague, always more articulate than I am, then continued giving an example that was too familiar to me. That, when she comes back home at the end of the day, to her parents’ house, there is no possibility of telling the parents about her academic achievements, or even her everyday struggles. The inability to find a proper language to share your work life with your parents was something very familiar to me as the person who was the first to receive higher education in the extended family, and the only person to receive a post-graduate degree in the extended family (both maternal and paternal). The romantic mind would assume that this would be welcomed by the family as a success story — and it largely was but not always and not in full comprehension either. Yet, our ability to share the very content of everyday experiences is incredibly limited.
At Cambridge, we have high table dinners and it is such a proud moment for the students and the fellows alike to invite their parents to the high tables. It took a while for me to compare how a large number of my friends from the Global South can easily invite their parents to the high table, and let them witness their children’s achievements. This was in contrast with an average lower-middle-class Global South academics’ experience. Often, the high table events would host guests who are excited about being part of the privilege and might be a little bit (often more than a little bit) intimidated by the environment. Yet, that’s not really the issue I am referring to. See, the high table is one of the rituals of Oxbridge elitism that comes with certain elite rules the members of the college need to observe. Even if the college is relaxed with rules, if you are at the high table with the rest of the fellows and their guests, you and your guests are at least expected to communicate with others sitting close to you. So, simply put, the attendants should be able to speak in English; something only a very small proportion of the Turkish population can do — and the percentage is even smaller for those over age 55.
The struggle in order not to be marked as an awkward subject in an elite institution that is built on systematic exclusion then is a result of hoarding a number of micro experiences of awkwardness. You would be addressed by a wide range of individuals, more indirectly than directly, as unfit. Discrimination takes the least direct forms in such elite spaces. When discrimination, racism, and elitism are not direct, they take the most creative forms too. Like, how Prof Esra Ozyurek once said in her book launch, that we should give more agency to racism. Just like that, Oxbridge discrimination is the most agentive. It can hide in the shadows and let itself known only to the discriminated, craftily disabling the discriminated’s ability to expose the problem. It is like male gaze sexual harassment in Istanbul’s streets: it cannot be proven (by the harassed), so can be denied (by the harasser) easily too.
What turns those micro-moments into a deeper struggle than it already is when you realize that those moments are not to be shared with your friends? The agentive capacity I pointed out, the elite discrimination’s ability to play in the pain sight without leaving much trace other than your very own soul, also steals your ability to share. Then you feel deprived of the support mechanism that could have helped you with your struggles. The gaze that is theoretically critical of discrimination, race, class, or any such issues would then suddenly stops being critical of the system, and starts questioning the victim. Elitism is quite cynical in that sense. It is theoretically coherent but flawed in practice.
Elitism is quite cynical indeed. That, the newcomers are not supposed to resist the class dynamics. Rather, they are expected to internalize such dynamics in the form of “cultivating” themselves. The cultivation is not about adapting to the ritualistic basics like serving the port from right to left (or was it left to right?). Resisting such rituals won’t gain you much class consciousness anyway (not if your resistance would be lost in translation).
The cultivation is on how you make yourself agreeable, indirect (always a class denominator — as opposed to direct and blunt), and soft-toned. The reason why you cannot share with your friends is deeper, though. With all the race and ethnicity and gender elements in operations of elitism, lower-class women from the Global South are not supposed to remind the class difference they have with their comrades.
What is equally important to note is that the class difference comes with a number of interpretations. The same behavior that is registered as genuine in a lower-class environment might be registered as something completely different and the chances are, you would rather not be falling into those registers.
Feel free to share your notes as I perceive this to be a conversation starter.