When I believed I was middle class
This article was originally published in the biweekly Stundin.
Yesterday, I chatted for a while with an old friend. As usual, we talked about everything under the sun over a cup of tea.
After having talked about heaven and the universe, we slowly talked ourselves back to Earth. Humans are marvellous, he said, and had a sip of his camomile tea.
My friend had just seen a BBC documentary about class division. It’s remarkable how humans divide themselves into groups, he said. The documentary had talked about British society, where class divisions are evident to all there, as they seem to be in most places in the world.
The British know which class they’re in, he said. They don’t necessarily find that knowledge necessarily uncomfortable. There even seems to be class solidarity, even pride in one’s class. There are many social classes in Britain. They have a lower class, which consists of an underclass who are chronically unemployed, sometimes generation after generation. A working class which is split into the skilled and the unskilled. Then there’s the middle class, which has an upper, lower and middle part. At the top there’s the upper class, which perches above the others, so far up that it’s dangerous to look down.
After having detailed how conscious Brits are about their class division my friend became silent. After a little while, he said: “Icelanders have such low class consciousness.”
Isn’t that just because we’re all sort of middle class? I asked.
“Absolutely not. It’s as if Icelanders don’t want to face what class they belong to.”
I have in many ways suffered from class-blindness in Iceland. I was born in 1991. Between 1995 and 2007, inequality in Iceland is said to have shot up, such that it became bigger than ever before. At the same time, the economic boom came about. It’s as if the boom grew up alongside me. We stuck together, grew together.
The boom always whispered to me that things were looking up; I could see it around me and I believed it. It never affected my life directly, still I believed in it. I was sixteen when Elton John sang at Ólafur’s birthday party, the boss of the shipping company Samskip. I had been working since I was fourteen , so I could buy an Elton John CD and envy Ólafur and his guests from a distance. I felt that Ólafur was really rich, and that the really rich were very few, just like I felt there were very few poor people in Iceland. I had looked through a magazine at the doctor’s office once when I was fourteen and saw an interview with a poor woman. She’s an exception, I thought, and I pitied her. I couldn’t pay for the doctor’s appointment. “Can I pay by cheque?” I asked the woman in reception.
I felt as if I stood between Ólafur and the woman in the magazine, along with everyone else. We were all somewhere in the middle. I didn’t call it middle class at the time, I didn’t have the word for it, but I guess that’s what I was thinking.
This limited class consciousness has stayed with me all my life, until this conversation. I have occasionally re-evaluated it, though. I’ve added people to the category of that woman in the magazine. The group of very rich people has gotten larger, too. I learned about systems and classes in university, but this perception was as if from a distance. The same distance from which I pitied the woman in the magazine as a teenager.
My lack of class consciousness isn’t unique. Guðmundur Ævar Oddsson, a sociologist, has researched the class consciousness of Icelanders and found it to be tiny, and that apparently we want to keep it that way. It seems to be a collective experience, the feeling of equality.
At one point in our conversation, my friend said that if he had to guess my class, he’d say working class or underclass.
It shocked me. I was angry and hurt. I’m not like that magazine woman, I am middle class, I thought. Middle class like you, I told my friend.
But at the same time I felt that he had exposed me. He was discovering something that I had forgotten I was trying to hide. That’s how it goes when we hide things from ourselves.
There has always been some friction between us, some disconnect in our communication. I’ve always thought it was because I’m a girl and he’s a guy. I realized right there that he was right. There was a difference between us: He’s middle class, I’m lower class.
Old feelings poured over me, feelings of shame, and connections I had forgotten were there.
All of a sudden I am back in the block of flats where I grew up. I’m running down the stairs, running out to play.
I run to the football field. The guys are playing football. “Can I join?” I ask. “Sure,” someone responds. I am much worse at it than them, but also much more savage. I was always tackling someone or hurting myself because I wasn’t careful. Every time I played I exhausted myself. I so desperately wanted to prove myself to them, that I could do what they could. That we were equals. We weren’t. Most of the time I had to quit sports when the time came to pay the annual dues.
The same applied in the classroom. I was anxious to prove my smarts. It was mostly in this competition with the guys, which is why I’ve always thought it had to do with them being guys and me being a girl.
The difference also affected homework. My parents had less time and knowledge to help me or keep an eye on my studies. Believe me, my mother did her best, but I stopped asking her for help so that she wouldn’t have to feel bad about not being able to.
I was ashamed, ashamed for not learning to play an instrument, for not being the best at football, for my clothes, my packed lunch, my apartment block, my job at Bónus, my parents’ education. Ashamed at not being middle class.
Then came high school. I started at Verzlunarskóli Íslands in the autumn of 2007, a year before the crash. Crazy boom times. Everything going up and up. Everybody in tune with the times. Except me. Everybody saw right through me. I could barely afford the school fees, to say nothing of the lifestyle in that school. My grades weren’t good enough and I didn’t fit in. I fled across the street to MH.
It’s there that I finally escaped the environment I grew up in. I could breathe a little, and in that breathing space, the crash of 2008 took place. That turned out to have a good effect on me, since everyone became a bit more equal through the crisis.
After having caught my breath and dropped my mask in MH, I started struggling to breathe again.
I realized that I still needed to hide who I was, in other ways. In MH, there was an intellectual class division, while in Verzló it was economic. In MH, the divisions were about status, education and culture, much more than just income and power. The intellectual division survived the crash. In MH, it was seen as important what your parents did and whether you came from a cultured family.
Intellectual class division suited me better. I was much better in faking that than when it came to money.
I continued faking it through high school until I dropped out and into the labour market. I was psychologically ill at this time but couldn’t afford help. My mask dropped off faster than I could handle. I was mentally ill and working without a high school diploma. I had completely failed to bluff myself and others about being middle class. It ended with my own personal crash. I stopped drinking and gave my life an overhaul. Gave myself a thorough self-examination. I started accepting myself as I was and took on years of shame — went to war with it, and did so publicly. I published a book at a young age about being an alcoholic. I allowed everyone to read me. I started caring for those aspects of myself which I had only felt shame for. I even started thinking they were a little romantic and poetic.
Until now, years later, when I sat at the kitchen table with this friend of mine, talking about whether Icelanders were conscious of their class.
“How can you see it?” I asked my friend. “I can see how you’re always trying to prove yourself to me,” he said. He could see it in how we approached money and savings. I spend money as if I’ll never have it again. He saves it because he knows he’ll always have enough. He said he could also see it in the art we create. He said he could see it in my approach to art, that I’m rebelling, that I’m in a dialogue with my class, even trying to escape it by becoming an artist. He, however, is rebelling by becoming an artist instead of a lawyer, as everyone had expected. We talked about how I do art that confront social problems, but that his problem was dealing with all the possibilities that life offers to him. An existential crisis. The classic middle-class existential crisis that I can’t afford.
“I could see a basic difference between us,” I said. “You’ll get help with buying a flat, escaping the rental market, but I’m afraid that I’ll be stuck in it forever.” The fear of never owning a home affects me to my core. The mask dropped off me in front of my friend. I told him about my childhood and growing up. I explained the shame I’ve always felt. I talked about the pressures that come from pretending to be middle class and the fear I still feel that people will see through it. I told him that I fear, in everything I do, that people will realize that I’ve not educated myself enough, that I’m not smart enough, not like the others. I also told him that I’m ashamed of feeling this shame for my class. I just thought there was this huge middle class and then extremes at either side, and that I wasn’t part of those extremes.
But it’s obvious that if I’ve felt shame throughout the years over what class I belong to, I have stronger class consciousness than I thought. It can be so comforting to be clueless, it can be so comforting to not know, but I don’t want that anymore. I want more consciousness of class, and more class solidarity, in the spirit of Sólveig Anna and of Efling. I want to stop being ashamed.
My name is Alma Mjöll and I am working class.
Photos by Heiða Helgadóttir.