The new label (parts one to four)


The new label (i)


The new label (ii)

In terms of what I do for a living, the amount of money I earn, and my tertiary qualifications, I could be considered for Membership of the Middle Class. In terms of the socio-economic circumstances in which our family found ourselves during my childhood in the mid to late eighties, I am Poor White. In terms of my hang-ups and insecurities, I’m Poor White. If I go back to South Africa now and accept a position as a high school teacher, I’ll be just a notch above the working class; in other words, Petit Bourgeois. If I go back to South Africa and struggle from month to month but keep my creative independence, I would be Poor White.

The new label (iii)

Question: Do I want to be a “poor white”?

Answer: It’s not a matter of where I want to be; it’s a matter of where I am. And what am I going to answer anyway? “I want to be middle-class”?

Class consciousness is like political consciousness – linked to your personal experiences. With political uprisings there are always people who ask, “What’s the big deal?” In the same way there must be many of my contemporaries who will wonder what exactly I’m going on about.

If I had spent the first fourteen years of my life in a “poor white” neighbourhood in a “poor white” house with “poor white” food on the table, “poor white” clothes on my back, and “poor white” vacations in the backyard, I might have had more of a feeling that I belonged somewhere. (Would it have made my life better? Not necessarily. The matter is after all more complex than just having a sense of belonging.)

What a middle-class home, middle-class clothes, middle-class food, middle-class holidays, and an idea of what the future may hold gave me until I was fourteen years old, was first-hand knowledge of the so-called bourgeoisie, as well as friends who grew up in the world of the middle class. The main blessing, however, that an initial middle-class life gave me was a relatively easy path to higher education, which gave me knowledge and skills and even experience of the Greater World.

Do I want to go back to South Africa to look for a two-bedroom house in a poor white neighbourhood? No. Do I want to go back to South Africa and position myself amongst a group of Poor Whites and shout, “I am one of you!”? Fuck that. Even Vladimir Lenin said, “Less windy talk about ‘proletarian culture’, and let’s first rid ourselves of a serf mentality. We could do with some bourgeois culture for a start.” (In his last speeches and writings he apparently emphasised proper training and education. It is also true that he had a bit of a romantic idea of people being content working ten hours a day in a factory as long as their party was in power. Maybe he thought everything would work out fine. Or maybe he didn’t care for individual well-being. Would he have seen personal happiness and fulfilment as decadent, capitalist values?)

The new label (iv)/Failure and class consciousness

How and where you fit in the world is, like class and political consciousness, something most people only start thinking about when they find themselves on the wrong side of the line. (“What line?” many will ask again, and think to themselves, “Jeez, this guy has a lot of issues!”)

For years I believed that I belonged in the middle – in the eighties in South Africa as a child, I believed all whites were middle-class people, but later also in terms of dress, language, future prospects, tertiary qualifications, hobbies and interests, and friends. Yet, for years I struggled with the belief that I was a failure in this particular class – the socio-economic domain where I was supposed to succeed.

That I have been living in the Far East for the last several years has only made it possible to conceal this “failure” to a degree. It was, however, most painfully noticeable during the periods when I lived in South Africa after I had graduated from university. I got away in 1995 with the fact that I was still registered for a tertiary course – I wasn’t an unemployed poor white, I was a “graduate student”. But from the very beginning of ’96 my actual status in the Great Hierarchy became clear to anyone who cared to look.

During the six months I lived and worked in Johannesburg in 1998 it was also clear to everyone, and a great embarrassment to myself, that I was definitely not “making” it in the Middle Class. However you looked at it, I was a failure in the class in which I worked, in which I socialised, and in which I resided – the servant’s quarters where I lived rent-free was after all in a middle-class neighbourhood.

From the moment I arrived in Taiwan, I could once again camouflage this failure. Starting from January 2000, however, many other South Africans also came to Taiwan, who had either previously been successful in the Middle Class, or fully expected to be successful if and when they returned to South Africa. I once again found myself in social circles where I believed I had to disguise that I had been a middle-class failure in 1998, and would again be if I returned at any time during the last three-and-a-half years (since 2000).

About this hiding and pretending that I am something that I actually am not, I can solemnly make the following statement: No more. (Or like Roberto Duran muttered in 1980 in his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, “No más, no más.”)

I will climb on a roof and shout: “I am Poor White! I harbour no middle-class ambitions anymore! And I refuse to continue to pretend that I am a child of the middle class! My parents are artisans who constantly shuttle between the lower middle class and the class of Poor Whites! I am a writer, and Poor White! This, you hypocritical bastards, is the reality! This is my reality, and this has been my reality for twenty years!”

And while I’m on the roof, I would take the opportunity to also shout at the other Poor Whites: “Fuck you too with your serf mentality! I refuse to fall back into a poverty state of mind where I encamp with other poor fools and hurl mud at those who possess more than I do … who have a car and a nice house, and who can afford overseas holidays! Good for them! May they be happy! Which one of you doesn’t want these things for yourselves and for your children?! I’m not one of them, but I am also not one of you! I’m in a class of my own!”

And then the Poor Whites on the pavement will shout back: “Yeah, and you can also sod off with your fancy college degrees and your fancy Japanese camera …”