Not your costume: Leeds University and chav parties

This year Halloween seemed to bring a rash of instances of people putting on ill thought out costumes which exposed their privilege and ignorance (See The Foreclosure law firm who got their employees to dress up as their evicted clients  Or This beautiful post on racism and Halloween costumes).  Now Leeds University Students’ Union has clearly decided that October is too long to wait to roll this shit out again because their holding a chav party ‘Gold hoop earrings, trackies, your best high tops and muscle vests are the order of the day!’.

There are several reasons why this is pushing all my buttons.

I have a strong belief that education should be accessible to everyone regardless of background.    I believe University can be life changing, and though our system is flawed it is one of the greatest tools of social mobility we have.  It changed my life (even though I had to put up with boys called Sebastian asking me if my dad beat my mum up and making jokes about working down the pit).    It really matters to me and because of this I worked in Widening Access to HE.    I also know that the current changes to  funding are going to make our Higher Education establishments significantly more exclusive than they already are.   That the potential of many bright, working class kids is going to be wasted.  And maybe this is the reason why seeing a bunch of privileged students mocking what they perceive poor people to be like,  is particularly problematic for me.

I know a reasonable amount of the demographics of Leeds University students, and I believe it is fair to say that as a whole they do not score particularly high on indexes of  social exclusion.   I know they were recently slated for having an intimidating Student’s Union, described as  a playground for rich white kids.  I’ve lived in the City and I know about the growing split between town and gown, the growing resentment and frustration with the inconsiderate behaviour of many students.

I think University should be a place where ignorance and assumptions are challenged.  Chav is a term which expresses a hatred towards (and a fear of) working class people (check out Owen Jones – Chavs: the demonization of the working class for a much more detailed discussion of this issue than I have the time or the energy for right now).   Its use, especially by people who have no knowledge or experience of poverty,should be challenged.  My feelings on this term are basically summed up by  Liam Cranley (who grew up in a working class community of  Greater Manchester) when a middle class person uses the word ‘You’re talking about family, you’re talking about my brother, you’re talking about my mum, you’re talking about my friends’ (Jones, Owen , Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class,  2011).   And yes, to some extent these students are just kids, maybe they are so closeted, so arrogant and so surrounded by people who are just like them, to realise that certain jokes, told by certain people reek like hell.  But maybe somebody should be pointing that out, you know, in the spirit of education and that.

Or maybe you still think it’s funny.

But imagine what it’s like to be a working class kid, already struggling to fit in and watching Leeds University Union promote this shit as acceptable and unproblematic.   Imagine how it would make you feel about your right to be at that institution at all.

And now tell me again why you think it’s funny.

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About Rachel

zinester/diy-til-i-die/love hate relationship with arts admin/girlpunkfeminist/geek
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8 Responses to Not your costume: Leeds University and chav parties

  1. mike smith says:

    good piece!

  2. Yvonne says:

    The problem is not solely with the students either. While I was studying at Leeds (2007-10), tutors constantly made derogatory references to “Chavs” which I found incredibly offensive. I am a mature student with a 21 year old “Chav” son. However, as I have told him on many an occasion as he grew up, we should accept everybody for who they are and not judge them by their outward appearance. As I said, my son is now 21. He has a good, solid career, has never been in trouble with the police and is a decent and caring young man. Just because he chooses to dress in the clothes he does, this doesn’t make him worthy of derision from others. Equally, just because someone comes from a privileged background does not mean that they are all called Sebastian or Ophelia and are inconsiderate oafs!

  3. trichquestions says:

    Amen. There really is no excuse for being snobbish about people with less money than you. I encountered that a lot while I was at uni. Also, for a while I worked in a DVD rental store and the majority of our customers came from a local university. We used to sell those dumb slogan badges, and one of them said ‘Do I look like I want a fucking Big Issue?’ It caused much hilarity among the rich kids from uni. Once, when a few of them were guffawing over it, my colleague said with a completely straight face, ‘Yeah, we used to have one that said ‘I like to punch poor people in the face’ but it sold out.’ They didn’t know where to look! I could have hugged him for that.

    Halloween really does seem to bring out the worst in people. I wrote a blog post about the use of the ‘mentally ill’ character in Halloween costumes last year: http://trichquestions.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/going-crazy-over-this-costume-halloween-and-mental-health/

  4. Christian says:

    LUU does seem to be failing to be inclusive right now… Nothing changes it seems…

    A few years ago, I went to Fruity, the night in question. I am a mature student. Half way through the night, I sat down on the edge of the dance floor to roll a cigarette (it was long enough ago that I was perfectly entitled to do this). Next I knew security picked me up by the arm pits and dragged me outside, and without consent proceeded to empty my pockets.

    When I asked why I was being searched, they said they thought I was selling drugs. When I asked why the response I got was ‘you don’t look like a student’.

    LUU makes a lot of noise about inclusiveness and making provision for less traditional students. But surely a good start would be making sure non-traditional students are comfortable in the events they already have.

    Also, both these incidents are little different from the complaints LUU has about the wider community stereotyping students.

    I would suggest that people make a complaint about this via the website at http://www.leedsuniversityunion.org.uk/complaintsprocedure/ or if anyone is a student perhaps use the student democracy procedure to attempt to mandate LUU to not hold this night (if there is time) or commit not to run similar themed events in future.

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  6. Sara says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your article if I tried! I completely and utterly believe that every person of every social class deserves the same access to Higher Education. It should not matter whether ones income is low or high, if somebody has the want and desire to pursue their education into University, then that is fantastic. One of my recent exam questions is on the opportunities for working class students within Higher Education. Reading up on the severe lack of representation of wider social class within the more so called ‘elite’ or ‘red-brick’ universities, is quite disgusting to say the least. I have experienced many students within Leeds University being very judgemental about class, for example, on my third day of my first term, I heard a girl say to her friend “yeah, but mulberry is so mainstream now” – this isn’t a stab at people from a more privileged background at all, it is just a demonstration of how there is significant inequality between classes at University. Good on you for writing this article, I believe LUU should seriously reconsider their approach.

  7. Steve says:

    Hmm, I can see your point and why those parties/attitudes leave a bad taste in the mouth.. but there’s also something I find a bit unsettling about the argument that these activities are going to have a negative impact on ‘the poor kids’ (I know that’s not a phrase you used!). My younger sister is Uni age now, her and some of her friends probably tick a fair few ‘socially excluded’ boxes but that doesn’t mean they’re going to feel threatened by people dressing up in trackies and gold hoop earrings.. because being ‘working class / low income / whatever’ doesn’t always result in that particular dress sense. I know you know this. It’s just something that grates on me, and has done so in a fair few things I’ve read recently – and this one happens to have a comments box!

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