Who are you to laugh at chavs?

When I hear people ranting about chavs, I want to lock them on a council estate with £100 a week and three kids
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The Independent Online

Only a handful of privileged people will ever admit to themselves that they fear and hate poor people. It's a strange phenomenon: individuals consistently act to protect their own privilege and damn the poor, but they do not think about it in such naked terms. Instead, the privileged create subtle myths that suggest the poor are dirty and stupid and lazy, and therefore deserve their poverty.

Only a handful of privileged people will ever admit to themselves that they fear and hate poor people. It's a strange phenomenon: individuals consistently act to protect their own privilege and damn the poor, but they do not think about it in such naked terms. Instead, the privileged create subtle myths that suggest the poor are dirty and stupid and lazy, and therefore deserve their poverty.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let's take a look at The Little Book of Chavs, which I found on the counter of Borders this week. "Chavs" are, it explains, "imbeciles" who do jobs like hairdressing, cleaning, bar-work and being a security guard. They live on "Pot Noodles, cheap cider and McDonald's for Sunday lunch". The extremely popular website www.chavscum.co.uk tells us how to spot a chav: "Chavs have such a tribal dress code that you can spot one yards away! Now what makes the Chavs [sic] attire so funny is they think they are at the cutting edge of fashion... In reality they look like a bunch of pikeys!"

Of course, the people who read this book and website will insist they don't hate all poor people. Just all the ones who live on estates and talk about their mobiles and wear tracksuits. This category sounds suspiciously large to me. Indeed, whenever I hear the term chav, I hear naked and defensive class hate; it is a category that now embraces almost all white, working-class people below the age of 40. The lexicographer, Susie Dent, identifies the word as "just one of the many newly popular, blatantly classist labels that have become popular over the past year. Look at 'council house chic', which describes brands like Burberry and Kappa. Or 'the Croydon facelift', where a chav's hair is pulled back so tight it makes the skin taut".

These are words and phrases that make it possible for privileged people to laugh at and hate the poor without admitting to themselves that this is what they are doing. Indeed, one of the things about chavs that seems to anger middle-class people is their loudness and lack of "taste". "Why are chavs so in your face? Why can't they just shut up?" asks one website. They want their poor people to be passive, silent, unseen. They want them to be a kind of trainee middle class, humbly saving up to buy the same labels as decent Middle England folk. If they develop a value system of their own - or if they dare to intrude into middle-class space in any way - then they must be put in their place with this degrading and cruel label.

Many of my relatives do chav jobs: my grandmother cleaned toilets for a living. My dad is a bus driver. My nephews have "Chav names", according to ChavScum. When I hear the children of privilege ranting about chavs, I want to lock them on a council estate with three kids, no education and a hundred quid a week to see how they cope.

The extent to which the chav label hides real social problems can be seen if we look at the story of a young working-class woman who has been described as "the ultimate chav" - Jade Goody. Jade was ridiculed when she appeared on reality TV show Big Brother a few years ago because of her lack of general knowledge and apparent illiteracy. Nobody asked how she had become this way. When she was two, her father dumped her seriously disabled mother and ended up in prison. Jade did not go to school much because she insisted on staying at home to help her mother dress, eat and get around. For showing this degree of compassion in extremely tough circumstances, Jade is slapped down as a "moron".

For every chav, there is a story like this. Growing up on an estate in Britain has been an unusually tough experience over the past 20 years. Britain's biggest social problems - from poverty to addiction to unemployment - have been played out on chavs, and they have coped as best they can. The "underclass" routinely denounced by rich politicians and journalists is the direct product of the decades of Thatcherism that rolled out unemployment and slashed school budgets and provision for the poor across Britain. If one of their coping strategies is to fetishise a few silly fashion labels, isn't that forgivable? I don't hear anybody mocking the rich and middle classes for doing exactly the same thing - or is Nicole Farhi acceptable while Burberry is vulgar?

Not very far from the surface of talk about chavs is the idea that the poor are culturally - or even in some way genetically - deserving of their circumstances. Do you think people are poor because of lousy educational opportunities, wildly unequal social conditions and layer upon layer of middle-class privilege? Think again, say the prophets of chav-hate. ChavScum tells us the real reason: "Stupidity, alas, breeds stupidity." One poster on their message board explains, "They have no shame because they have no brains - it really is as simple as that." No need to worry about redistributing wealth or investing in schools; there is simply a genetic sub-race of stupid, crude chavs who will always eat crap and think crap and can be happily ignored. Sit back and enjoy your privilege - you deserve it. Even in polite liberal company, the white working class are routinely abused in shockingly vicious terms that aren't used about any other minority. How often have you heard people talk about "white trash"? I've even noticed a weird phenomenon where people try to justify their hatred of poor people by saying the poor are racist and homophobic. In fact, the Institute for Public Policy Research conducted extensive research in 1997 into the attitude towards other ethnic groups among British people. It found that the white working classes were - in many important respects - the least racist of all groups. They were more likely to have had sex with members of another ethnic group and more likely to "marry out" than anybody else. It's easy to blather about multiculturalism from a wine bar; on my sister's estate, these supposedly racist chavs are actually doing the real anti-racist work of falling in love with black and Asian people and producing a post-racist generation of "miscegenated" kids.

As for homophobia, who is the latest chav icon - the Queen of the council estates - but Nadia Alamada, Big Brother's transsexual winner? If you want to be a snob and sneer at white working-class people, fine, but please don't tell me you are doing it for anti-racist, pro-gay reasons.

The snobbery of the right is, as ever, even worse. One newspaper recently sent Petronella Wyatt - the talentless daughter of the late Lord Wyatt - to East Croydon to meet some chavs. This is a woman who quit Oxford University because the other students were "common", only to walk - after blatantly playing on her father's name and connections - into a string of high-paying jobs. Yet she feels perfectly entitled to mock the "laziness" and "vile food" of chavs. (Memo to Petronella: they can't afford to shop in the Fortnum & Mason's food hall.)

She reports with shock that chavs "take so long over one Big Mac". That's because they don't have any money or anywhere else to go, except back to their cramped houses. Didn't this occur to you, Petsy? Did you imagine they would just pop into Harvey Nicks for a few drinks and a spot of shopping that night?

Give me a chav over a snob any time.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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