Cultural appropriation makes victims of the vulnerable. It is the middle class that benefit, particularly in the case of gentrification. The wealthy and educated elite of London wishes to select what they view to be the fashionable, trendy elements of working class culture. They wish to retain their privilege whilst projecting a working class image: the most popular (and expensive) venues in London tend to be warehouse-style spaces resembling factories or dingy basements, while the people that fill them turn up dressed in a way that if spotted on a genuinely working-class person, would instill a sense of negative judgment and even, for some, fear.
The Bussey Building in Peckham has become a notoriously ‘cool’ hang out amongst students at some of the best universities in the country, but how many of these students embrace the residents of Peckham as much as they do its over-priced, imitation-rich clubs, bars and pubs? The middle-class students and young professionals that now choose to wear Nike sportswear, caps and scuba jackets are often the same people who feel fear – the result of stereotypical assumptions – when encountering authentic East-London locals who “sport” the same style.
We want their cheap rents. Businesses want our money. Working class communities become the homes of the most popular clubs, bars and pubs in order to appeal to the young people dreaming of ‘making it’ in ‘the big city’. As working class communities become popular places for students and young professionals due to cheaper rent, rent prices are inevitably forced up. Places across East London such as Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Dalston, Peckham and their surrounding areas have all fallen victim to gentrification. What remains are caricatures of the working-class: the new, ‘better’ version. Working class culture 2.0. Not actual working-class work places, but clubs that resemble them. Not actual working class locals in their distinctive casual and sporty style, but privileged kids imitating them whilst simultaneously making it known (most notably through sites such as instagram) that they in fact live affluently.
However, the root of the problem does not wholly appear to me in the form of oppressor vs. oppressed or victim vs. perpetrator; instead, I find faults within the fixed but subjective structures of society. Fundamentally, this concerns the optional segregation of human beings based on gender, to religion, to race, to class. No matter which kind of social group we feel we belong to, we are guilty of buying into the concept of inherent difference: we avoid each other, believe that we each pose some kind of threat to one another, that we mustn’t get to know our neighbours and should fear strangers. Communities cannot be claimed by one ‘type’ of person alone. Just as the working-class should not be driven out of certain areas, middle-class and working-class students/young professionals cannot be rightfully barred from living in areas that are affordable. That does not mean the working-class are doomed to appropriation, nor that we should quietly accept their gradual elimination from East London. If we’re going to embrace and celebrate certain elements of working-class culture, should we not also be embracing and celebrating the original people that inspired the trend? After all, we are taking a communities’ sense of self, driving up the prices of their houses, clothing and social life – we are robbing the working-class of their identity in order to appear like them, whilst making it perfectly clear that we are not them.
Gentrification is a shared burden. As a student, I am desperately keen to see my university’s area remain affordable, diverse and culturally significant. If prices continue to rise, the population of London will become so elite than even students like me won’t be able to afford to live there – we will eventually find ourselves in the same position the working class are currently in: London will be exclusively home to the 1%. Becoming more involved in my local East End community has benefited my own sense of self and belonging immeasurably. Tutoring at a local school where the majority of the children are from disadvantaged backgrounds, has been indescribably rewarding; in equal measure, discovering local businesses, and voting in the area during various political elections has been of value. I do not feel like an intruder in the East End anymore and I ardently believe that getting to know the community more intimately is essential in rejecting social segregation and learn to protect one another from a city that is becoming increasingly exclusive, with only parodies of London’s original diverse community remaining, most likely spotted in bare-brick clubs and on the Instagram pages of the young, trendy and wealthy.