The polite, white middle-class mass that encompasses most of the publishing industry doesn’t hold prejudice against foreigners, probably voted Remain, and yet they will still shut the door in your face.
If you’re not British and middle-class, the chances are that you won’t understand the subtle and unspoken cues that separate you from the inner circles of networking that uphold this industry. Even if by the skin of your teeth you get a first class degree from a Russell Group university, it means little to people whose perceptions of class are ingrained into their psyche.
As someone who has experienced this bias (unconscious or other) based on my accent first-hand, I wanted to reflect on the intersection of these issues, drawing upon some of the points that I made in an essay for The Tilt, an experimental anthology of new writing by publishers The Lit Platform and No Bindings.
The Regional Accents Report
The 2021 Regional Accents Report shed light on concerning statistics about the effects of regional UK and international accents on the experiences of those who work in the publishing industry. A third of respondents felt that their accent impeded their career progress, and over half felt the need to change their accent to appear more employable.
Over the years, I stripped myself of all the markers of my otherness; I practised my British accent into late hours of the night after seeing people’s faces furrow at the way I stumbled over my words. I twisted and spun stories about my mother’s occupation because I hated the way people cooed in sympathy after telling them she’s a cleaner. I am fortunate enough to be able to choose my career path, but many immigrant and/or working class parents feel that this is an unsuitable career due to the inherent need for connections and to be frank, an inherent poshness, leading to the alienation of such people from publishing and an appalling lack of diversity in both positions of decision making and published writing. As a result, many people’s stories are never told, or rather, never heard.
A voice is not an isolated thing — the ‘othering’ of people based on voice alone cannot account for the complicated influences of classism, xenophobia and racism upon individuals in publishing.
Having carefully crafted the voice and image I present to the industry, I now speak with a sanitised RP. My simmering resignation was kept firmly at bay, until I grew increasingly disillusioned with the way the industry treats anyone it deems to be an outsider.
The voice of reason
It is difficult to wake up from the state of what Mark Fisher calls reflexive impotence. Many of us recognise that capitalism and the system we live in is flawed, but feel that there is nothing we can do to change it. The cycles of classism continue to centrifuge us until we are sick of hearing about who’s rich, who’s poor, and Christ, what does it matter anyway, it’s hopeless! It is a given that the more you understand your own oppression, the more resigned you may feel. I can’t magically choose to live outside of the structures of class that press down on Britain with all their might, but I can choose to be aware of how I’ve pandered to them by pretending to be someone I am not. Being working class and ‘foreign’ isn’t a disease to heal from, nor should it be something to get over to get to ‘the other side’ — the posh one, with Pret meal deals, and people who have parents who know someone that knows someone.
I assimilated, constantly living in fear that someone might see through me and say I don’t belong there. People always tell me they’re surprised by how posh my accent is as a compliment (which suggests a whole other myriad of problems), but to me, it’s just a stark reminder that I made it all up. I’m an imposter, blowing a gauzy bubble of middle-class Britishness until I decided to burst it myself because I am angry and tired.
I can only really speak for those who tick the ‘White (Other)’ box in the ethnicity quiz, but fundamentally, publishing as an industry is exclusionary because it does not account for the way being working class and foreign affects every facet of your existence, nor does it want to listen to the stories that make the status quo uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not just ticking a box — it’s also taking accountability for the ways in which the people who make up the majority of the publishing industry unknowingly (and knowingly) do not listen.