Let’s get one thing straight: I did not grow up in the Bronx, Southside or any other side. The tiny hamlet of Pennorth – thirty houses, twenty bungalows, a phonebox and a postbox – lies on the west side of Llyn Safaddan, the second largest natural lake in Wales, to the north side of the river Usk as it snakes its way from confluence with the Honddu in Brecon toward Crickhowell and then Abergavenny. With the Brecon Beacons dominating the horizon in one direction and the Black Mountains the other, the landscape is the most un-Bronxian you could find.
But there is one thing I feel in common with Jennifer Lopez. It can be encapsulated in the star’s most famous lyric. ‘Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I’ve got,’ sang J.Lo back in 2002, ‘I’m still Jenny from the block / Used to have a little, now I have a lot / No matter where I go I know where I came from’.
It was a catchy little ditty that dominated the airwaves at the time, and still gets radios turned up today. But I think the global appeal of ‘Jenny from the Block’ lies in the way people right around the world, from various nations and backgrounds, can identify with its theme: social mobility.
That final refrain – ‘I know where I came from’ – is so important to those millions of us who, over the course of a lifetime, migrate between identities and – with varying degrees of difficulty and success – navigate change.
On the face of it, I have little in common with my childhood self: the boy growing up in Pennorth from the age of three, until leaving for Cardiff and university, never experienced a takeaway meal or an aeroplane flight. His life was rich in love and books and muddy walks, but for somebody who has ended up working in journalism and media, it is perhaps surprising that he was raised without a telephone or a television, and without newspapers save for the sports pages of the Daily Mirror passed on by Mr Jones next door.
He did have access to Dad’s collection of National Geographic magazines, perfect preparation for the teenage captain of a team who competed at the UK finals of the Geographical Association’s ‘Worldwise Quiz’ (the only state school among twelve finalists). But real worldly wisdom, or rather the cultural capital required to navigate the world beyond the Brecon Beacons – the urban world, the world of the middle classes – was not developed until well into adulthood.
For all the current discourse around identity politics, and particularly the nine ‘protected characteristics’ enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act, there is still widespread reticence around discussing class and its effects on the way each of us perceives the world. It’s particularly important, I think, for journalists and writers to acknowledge the lenses through which their world has been filtered.
Studies have consistently shown that journalism is an industry dominated, especially in senior positions and at more influential publications, by white, university-educated men. And this is where things get complicated for me. In terms of protected characteristics, I might be defined as ‘hyper non-diverse’. White, male, het, cis, Christian, married, not disabled, not pregnant – and just about able to admit to being middle aged!
"That final refrain – ‘I know where I came from’ – is so important to those millions of us who, over the course of a lifetime, migrate between identities and – with varying degrees of difficulty and success – navigate change."
Writer, Editor and Journalist
So why have I joined Inclusive Journalism Cymru? There are two reasons. One is to do with solidarity; put simply, people like me need to stand with people not like me, and be seen to do so. Second, there is the much more complex issue of my continued identification as working class.
Half of this complexity is my own story of social mobility; the other half is the contestability of the term itself. Definitions of social class have shifted hugely during my lifetime (I was born a year and two weeks after Thatcher came to power). The old association of the working class with manual work and the middle class with clerical or professional jobs has been rendered obsolete by Britain’s radical embrace of a service economy. And then there is the cultural dimension, by which every aspect of our lives can be run through the prism of what might be called ‘the class police’.
I wear Adidas trainers and designer glasses. I own my house and shop at Aldi. I have a masters degree and a weakness for kebabs and curry sauce (not together). My socioeconomic and cultural class identity is a bundle of contradictions. Although in relative material terms I used to have a little, now I have a lot, I don’t have ‘rocks’ for you to be potentially fooled by. I know where I came from.
Helpfully the Social Mobility Commission have a set of metrics which validate my lived experience: parental occupation at age 14 (incapacity benefit and school dinner lady); type of school attended at age 11 to 16 (comprehensive); free school meal eligibility (yes); highest parental qualification (O Levels). So despite the beauty of the Brecon Beacons and my Marc Jacobs spectacle frames, I am unequivocally ‘from the block’.
Ticks in all four boxes shore up my class-ification, but in common with J.Lo and anybody else who has experienced social mobility, there is something that still rings hollow.
Discourse on inclusion so often revolves around the identity of the self. For writers and journalists, it is really important to know where you came from – to check your own prejudices and biases as much as to support self-expression – but more important still is understanding and faithfully representing where other people are coming from. Their lives, their stories, their perspectives. Radical empathy.
That’s my idea of inclusive journalism.