By Helen De Cruz
For several months, I've been bothered by the narrative about how Trump support and the vote in the UK to leave the EU was fuelled by the concerns of a disillusioned white working class, who feel left behind in an increasingly globalized world. In these narratives, the working class is consistently interpreted as the "white working class", and often also as the white working class who have racist and other bigoted ideas.
This testimony by Phil McDuff, a white working class man indicates what is wrong with this narrative: firstly, the working class do not have an adequate voice in the media. People speak for them, and interpret their voting behavior for them. They do not speak for themselves. Secondly, the working class is just not identical to the white working class. Pouring over the concerns, hopes and fears of white working-class people denies an identity to people of color as working class too. My father was an immigrant from Malaysia to Belgium (he is a naturalized Belgian), he worked as a bricklayer for several larger and smaller building companies, and towards the end of his career he became a handyman for a local college. It seems though, that my father's concerns, hopes and wishes do not matter in the working class narrative, and that he is not even legitimately part of it, due to his skin color and origin.
Worse, the narrative of the white working class as bigoted racists who blame everything on migrants denies the true fellowship I saw between my father and his colleagues, regardless of their color or accents. I remember one evening a white friend and colleague who came over to our house, trying to convince my father to take the foreman's exam. As a foreman, he would make more money and he would have to do less physical work. He said something to the effect that my father was the most talented bricklayer he had seen, and he ought to go for it. My father felt insecure to lead a group of largely white men, and declined (I learned later that this was the reason). My father's friend was not a racist. I am not saying there were no racists among his colleagues, but the current narrative would put him together with a large, homogeneous bunch of xenophobes. That is not right. Eventually, my father had to stop working as a bricklayer because of the physical strain. I have often wondered if things would have been different if he had taken the foreman's exam.
Comparing my father with his white colleagues, there were a lot of concerns that united them. They almost all had children and many (like my father) had stay at home wives, and they were proud that their wives could stay at home. They were very concerned about their children's future and my father was supportive and encouraging of my sister and me; we both went on to earn PhDs. I remember his colleagues too were talking about their children's school results - not at all the anti-intellectualism that is now ascribed to them. Yet, they were not the metropolitan elite. Yet now the poor, left behind white worker narrative denies this joint identity. I hope to see more stories where workers (both white and of color) speak for themselves, rather than being hijacked by xenophobic politicians.