I was coming out of Tesco as you and your friends headed in. You were carrying an umbrella because of the rain, and you were wearing red trousers, because of course you were. My headphones were half-in as we passed, so I didn’t pick up the whole of what you were saying, but you seemed to be talking about a cleaner in one of the halls, and I made out the words “chav” and “council estate.”
I’m not into confrontation, but I think in this case it might have been called for. After all, to attack someone for their social class is to attack them for something they have no control over – just like race, gender, or religion. So what you said was no better – and should be no more socially acceptable – than using the N-word in public. You’re as bad as any other bigot, and should be treated the same way. You remember that story about the Cambridge student who burned a £20 note in front of a homeless man? If he’s the KKK, then you’re one of the racists in the Deep South, who didn’t join in with the Klan but, through their attitudes, legitimised them. Tacitly supported them, even. The likes of him are the logical, inevitable consequence of the likes of you.
And here’s the thing. You’ve managed to get away with it. When you started spouting your hate speech (because that’s what it was), Market Street was busy. People could hear. And nobody batted an eyelash. In worrying about Trump and Brexit unleashing a wave of racism and misogyny into the Bubble, we’ve allowed another form of bigotry – just as pernicious, but somehow more socially acceptable – to gain purchase.
And that’s terrifying.
Terrifying, but unsurprising. Classism is the one socially acceptable form of prejudice left in the western world, and St Andrews is the perfect symbol of that. We’re a hugely multinational university, which we rightly celebrate, but we’ve also got one of the worst access rates in the country for lower-income students. That’s not diversity. That’s a more cosmopolitan version of the Bullingdon Club. And while this doesn’t necessarily make us a university of bigots, it does create the conditions where bigotry thrives.
And, to be fair, for all that I’m ranting about it here, I’m part of the problem. If I’d met you, bigot, in literally any other context, we’d probably have got on fine. I might even have liked you. Because, as a middle class person with middle class friends, it suits me fine to ignore classism. I was vaguely aware we had an issue with elitism here, but before I overheard you I didn’t have to think about it, and nor did I want to. And if I’m honest with myself, I still ignored it when I overheard you sounding off outside Tesco. I’m full of self-righteousness now, but at the time I just slunk off. It wouldn’t have been polite to confront you. Just like it wasn’t polite in 1950s Alabama to ask your neighbour about the white hood in his wardrobe.
So well done, Tesco-snob. Through a combination of the culture you live in and the timidity of people like me, your behaviour will be validated and reinforced. But times change. And hopefully, the future will bring about a more tolerant, egalitarian society, one where your prejudice becomes the social stigma it deserves. One in which you’re too ashamed even to tell your grandchildren about the way you used to be, and are left as confused and embittered as every bigot left on the wrong side of history.