Writing by Rosa Georgiou. Illustration by Justine White.
Student culture at Edinburgh University has a highly curated image of Londoners. Largely shaped by the infamous depictions of Pollock Hall, London is routinely packaged as a sphere of privilege, private schoolage and pomposity. As such, it has often been assumed of me that I: attended a private school, know everybody else in London who attended a private school; and am, generally speaking, a bit of an entitled nob. The question most common to my first year of university was, in response to stating that I am from London, ‘Oh, so Pollock then?’.
Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t many examples at this university where these assumptions about London are true. The proof is in the pudding, or in our case a certain Pollock TV video. Our university is rife with a culture of elitism and recognising and calling out these spheres of overwhelming privilege is important. In terms of diversity and inclusion, Edinburgh repeatedly falls short of the standards of equality we should have. And the lived experiences of working-class students here demonstrate the harmful atmosphere around class which permeates all aspects of university life. Accessibility has as much to do with atmosphere as anything. Which brings us back to these university-wide stereotypes of London, and why I think they’re such a damaging aspect, albeit of a much wider systematic issue. Because, when a punchline delivers more of a kick than a laugh, you have to question – is it really worth it?
London is, economically and socially, a vastly divided city. Despite glaring levels of prosperity and privilege, 28% of the city currently live below the poverty line. My own borough is among the most inequal in the country, with an extreme contrast between the largely middle-class Western wards and wards on the East of the borough – which are classified as among the most deprived 10% in the country. My state secondary school encompassed a cross-section of the borough and so, whilst acknowledging completely my own privileged position in the city, my experience of London is far from the image presented in our university accepted narrative. It is wrong, therefore, that some of those I grew up with would arrive at this university and feel immediately excluded, by having the identity of this imagined ‘Londoner’ thrust upon them, despite their own much different experiences of the city.
Social stereotypes – these oversimplified reductions of whole cities – maintain and reinforce inequality. By mythologising and valuing the experiences of the few, we do a disservice to the many. We create a toxic atmosphere, which reinforces the othering of those from a working-class background. In this particular instance, by conflating London with wealth and privilege, we impenetrably bind the two. As a result, we erect yet more barriers to inclusivity. Having this image of London so prevalent within our university culture, denies the identity of those Londoners for whom London looks very different. By associating London purely by the private schools it contains, we other the 93% of the state-educated. By assuming such wealth as is evident in some parts of the city as the status quo, we alienate the experience of the rest. By making the dominant identity of London as one which can be found lurking in the halls of Chancellors, we contribute to a hostile university atmosphere, full of class antagonism and intimidation.
Identities are nuanced and personal, and they ought to reflect the realities of our experiences. When they are constructed through stereotypes and assumptions, they become deeply flawed, and we need to pay attention to the far-reaching damage they can cause. As such, just as we need to be more careful about how we impose false identities as a whole, we need to be more critical about the distorted identity of London which pervades our university culture. Inclusivity is the responsibility of the student body.