Art and Words by Harriet Speed
In many ways I know that I am incredibly privileged: I am white, British, and reasonably well educated. But this week I had an experience that furthered my awareness of just how privileged I in fact am.
I study furniture design and making at a small college in Oxford (UK), for which I feel incredibly special, as there are very few institutes across the country that offer the educational experience that I am able to receive at Rycotewood Furniture Center. I also feel incredibly lucky that this institute is in one of the most progressive culture capitals in England. It didn’t faze me anyway near as much as it should have, when I was offered a free ticket to hear the American democrat, Bernie Sanders speak at the historic Sheldonian Theatre; I suppose I am now somewhat numb to the range of amazing opportunities that this enriching city has to offer.
I took up the offer, and found myself sat in the most upper circle of the theatre listening to Larry Sanders emotionally introduce his brother. The audience erupted with applause and I felt goosebumps tingle up my arm, as Bernie began his speech.
Straight after the talk I was to take the train from Oxford right up to the North-East, in order to visit my home in Newcastle for the weekend. I found my reserved seat, and within a few blinks had eyed the person I was to sit next to. Through conditioned ‘train etiquette’ I avoided any eye contact and searched for my notebook in my bag. I was eager to make a few notes from the talk I had just heard. In the midst of doing this, my train companion had retrieved from a plastic carrier bag, two cans of Fosters and held one out to me, “fancy a beer?”
“I’m alright”, I said, as I have never been much of a fan of beer, particularly tinnies.
“So, are you a student then?” He went on to ask.
In the ever so brief moment that followed, I had a split second decision to make: do I engage in conversation with this guy, someone I would unfortunately have to admit I would most likely choose to avoid if I were walking in public; or should I look past the packet of cigarettes and beer cans on his fold-down tray, and see him for what he was: a friendly human being who was attempting to engage in harmless conversation?
“Yes, I am”, I replied, and the conversation unfolded from there. In the midst of our dialogue, I internally reflected on what I had just heard back in Oxford.
President Trump is attacking democracy in three ways: declaring his infallibility to the American people by rejecting any institutes that criticize him and jeopardizing their freedom of speech; reducing the number of voters who engage through legal and economic deterrents that aim to squash the voices of those minority groups that are most likely to vote against his ideologies, and through his conscious attempts to divide citizens in the US by creating a culture of blame within struggling communities, scaring them into turning against one another.
These actions are not welcome within a democracy, and it is for this reason that Sanders explained Trump’s victory was not a result of the harsh right succeeding- it was those on the left failing. “Do not give into despair… The oligarchy have the money, but we are the people!” Sanders words encouraged every person in that room to go out, and seek those who share similar values, and to come together, as there is more that unites, than divides.
We seemingly live in the most progressive period that the history of equality has ever seen. Sexists, racists, homophobes are not able to sustain a position within society, as long as we maintain an atmosphere of love and acceptance within society. However there does seem to be one form of prejudice that there is not yet a legal prohibition: classism.
I am aware that from this point (or perhaps from the very outset of this article) I may sound ‘stereotypically middle-class’, but as I was speaking to the guy on this train, I found I was being faced with my own privilege and misconceptions. I turned the conversation towards politics, interested to hear how Lee, which I learned to be his name, was intending to vote in the upcoming election.
“Ah, I don’t bother with that.”
“Well, you’ve got to be careful what you say on here”, he looked over the seats to the front and back of us. “Don’t get me wrong, I am not racist”- I both physically and emotionally prepared myself for what I was about to hear- “but we can’t keep letting them in, you know with taking our jobs and all that.”
“Why do you think that?”
He continued, “Believe me, I’ve got loads of foreign friends, my best friend is Turkish and he’s a really good business man. But like, you know, you go into a hospital nowadays, and how many English doctors are there?”
“Well, don’t you think if people are coming here to work, particularly in hospitals, then it is important to allow them? And actually we need more doctors, as we can’t train medics quick enough to meet the demand, and junior doctors are treated so badly that such a high majority leave soon after qualifying.”
The discussion went on, as I continued to question some of Lee’s points. As I did this, I realised that those cliché lines that my friends and I often say jokingly to one another, were actually coming out of this young man’s mouth. He wasn’t saying them ‘ironically’ or being ‘satirical’, he actually believed them. It is hilarious that it was probably at this point that my safe little bubble had just been burst. What a joke I am, what a joke society is.
A worry grew within me that I was creating a tense atmosphere between us, but Lee surprised me when he said, “You know what, you are so interesting”. I was startled, and he continued, “Yeah, you know my ex-girlfriend would have never had a conversation like this with me. She would have said ‘voting, what’s that?’ I think this might actually be the most real conversation I have ever had”.
His phone then rang, and as he answered it, he said, “Alright? Yeah, I’m sat on the train right, and I think I have just met the love of my life.”
I couldn’t help but smile, particularly as after he had hung up from his phone call, he went on to say, “Do you think it’s true: opposites attract? Just ‘cos, I have never met anyone like you before. It must just be the circles we’ve mixed with. What are the chances though that we were both on this train and happened to be sitting next to each other?”
“Maybe it was destiny?” I joked. But in fact, what Lee had just said really struck a chord with me. Here I was, sat with a guy who was clearly capable of engaging in reasonably intellectual conversation (toot toot, blowing my own trumpet), but what was more, he found it to actually be stimulating. Both Lee and I were complete products of our nurturing. This fact made me realize just how important our families; schools, communities, and friends really are in shaping us as individuals. Lee told me that he had a sister who was one year younger than I, and she was now pregnant. I wondered how many things might I actually have in common with her, as I had found so much common ground with her brother.
I innocently exchanged numbers with him, but what I took away from the encounter was more than an eleven-digit number, but a realization that if the liberal middle class really wants anything to change within society, it is a necessity to break down economic and social barriers by actually engaging in conversation with others, whether they seem like-minded or not.