OPINION: To be young, gifted, black, and middle class
'The only reason I don't remember it is because up until this May, the [economic] struggle was all I had. And I don't know that it ever really ends.'
Carmen Rios's words reverberate globally. Born to a working-class, single mother, she grew up on Pop Tarts, Toaster Struddle and budgeting, with the words 'have to my name' embedded in her memory as her mother's favourite phrase: "I've only got ___ to my name", "I don't have ___ to my name'." Navigating moving up the economic ladder, she writes about the incredibly fraught experience of trying to cement your place in a different class, and the anxieties that accompany it.
Her narrative is relevant to the experience of the so-called 'black middle class' in South Africa, reflecting the anxieties of social mobility and the underside of the economic dream. In our content, the untold stories of social mobility are often silenced by facts, statistics and figures that seek to prove that there is 'a good story to tell', heard to the strains of a distorted Nina Simone. 'To be young, gifted and black', we are told, is 'where it's at'.
But exactly what that destination, 'where it's at', means, is often misread in interpretations of the black, middle class. It is overshadowed by the presumption that the experience is vastly similar or exactly the same as belonging to the white, 'established' middle class or past ideas of what middle class meant, with 'evidence' provided by income, assets and expenditure. Parts of the narrative that don't fit the 'good story', are often conveniently left out, muted or forgotten.
The growth of the black middle class is often held up as a success story of our democracy: the poster children of the transition, sold as born-free and care-free, with access to equal opportunities and the benefits of a life free from oppression, with little investigation of the textures of this life.
In an article recently published in The Conversation, Professor Grace Khuna shattered this myth, stating that 'belonging to the black middle class brings with it shaky privileges'. Missing from the success stories and statistics about the black middle class, which often point to the exception to prove the rule, is the acknowledgement of what being young, gifted, black and middle income looks like (in its different, Biko-defined permutations), and the narratives behind the figures.
The lived experience of belonging to this shaky social class is fraught with simultaneous privilege and oppression, class uncertainty and the anxieties that come with having no safety net either through savings or parental help to fall back on - should you miss one pay cheque, need a deposit for a car or house, lose your job, or have to provide some measure of sustained financial support to your extended family. These experiences are largely absent from simple, easy understandings about what it means to earn a particular income.
It is often presumed that the jump between classes is immediate, easy and final for the 'black middle class', and that the experience is the same across the board. Neat understandings fail to recognise how 'members of this group continue to occupy a complex and sometimes precarious position in society - one that requires constant renegotiation'. This is not to say that the black middle-income class does not exist, but that it is does not exist in the way that it is assumed to - affording the same privileges as white middleclassness in South Africa. The experience of the black middle class is both extremely particular and uneven.
Defining the concept of the middle class is 'slippery', and often reduced to various markers or boxes to tick, which misses what qualifies the experience. A crucial distinction needs to be made between being middle class and middle income, which are vastly different experiences as a particular income does not automatically guarantee belonging to a particular class, with all the experiences that come with it.
Being part of the black middle-income class is complex. It is often a confusing or jarring experience of being both privileged and oppressed, with access to some of the promised, multiple benefits that social mobility affords occupying the same space as an acute awareness that your middle-class experience is defined by the intersection of your race and class. Many of the familiar burdens and institutional oppressions remain, taking on new shapes and forms:
Structural oppression still echoes through your life, both directly and indirectly, in multiple ways that reveal its many layers and levels. You remain haunted by the fear of slipping back into your previous class, thrown by the difference of your experience from your extended family's daily realities, grateful for everything that you have, and guilt-ridden about the insecure feelings that persist despite the many benefits of this 'new' life. Life in this precarious middle-ground between classes can often feel like a double-edged sword. The economic and socio-political effects of this economic halfway-class keep you with your foot permanently in two doors, but with no home in either place.
This underside of social mobility is often silent, but echoes through daily existence in a precarious, uncertain middle, where you have to acknowledge your immense privilege and complicity in these systems and structures of capital and inequality. There often is a constant awareness of the numerous privileges that have to exist side-by-side with the acknowledgement and experience of being intimately close to those in a worse position, which is a sobering reality and has you permanently checking yourself. Nevertheless, there is a constant awareness that the architecture of your financial well-being is built an inconsistent, unstable foundation. Being part of this class, exposed to its inner workings, and trying to assimilate to it is often a heady mix of exclusion, comfort and fear, as eloquently expressed by Lelo Macheke.
It is not about lamenting this position, but arguing for the need to realise and acknowledge it when speaking about what black middleclassness means. It calibrates life in distinct ways that often cannot be quantified, and goes beyond the money that lands in your bank account at the end of the month.
When economics are removed from their social, political, historical and familial connections, equality becomes simply about finances, data, rate of growth, spending habits and statistics - read against the backdrop of the past. This idea relies on the presumption that people simply need similar income for there to be economic equality and a black middle class easily and naturally manifests. It disregards the immense effect of generationally entrenched structural inequality, where a R20,000 income for one person is not the same as R20,000 for another. While for one person, that money has to meet individual needs, for another, that money has to address structural inequalities, individual requirements and an extended family's financial needs in various ways.
Globally, the meaning of middle-class life is shifting. Analysts, writers and commentators - particularly in the US and UK - have announced the death of the middle class, arguing that what life in this class means is different in our time. It is now fraught with uncertainty, and underscored by a growing divide between rich and poor, and a 'missing middle', increasingly defined by high levels of debt, consumer habits, an inability to save and financial insecurity. A class that was previously understood by its access to a good education, steady job or income, house and car is now one wracked by debt and populated by people who might never own property or have a permanent job.
Yet we live in a world that continually glamourises stories about people making it, at all costs, sharing stories of people working three jobs and 95 hours a week as a marker of perseverance and 'success' and not exploitation and oppression. People across the world, sold the middle-class dream, are echoing Carmen Rios' question: 'does it ever really end?'
The global context is relevant to our experience. However, in South Africa the economic balance of power remains uncannily similar to the past, with intersection of race and class defining people's positions on the economic ladder. An acute generationally entrenched inequality continues to influence our lives in numerous ways, despite ideas of equal opportunity and meritocracy. Middle-class life is continually defined in outdated terms, and in ways that disregard particular experiences.
Facts, statistics and figures need to be understood in terms of the experiences that colour them, the narratives that define them and the particularities that qualify them. Desperate to mute the past in our analysis of the South African reality, we often silence the stories of the present. The narrative of the black middle-class is often made unspeakable by championing the exceptional aspects of what it means to be young, gifted, black and middle-class, removed from a complex lived experience and a precarious existence that is defined by more than what you have 'to your name'.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler