Re-claiming a working class identity by Stephanie Wescott
Photo by Marie-Flore Pirmez on Unsplash
I’ve recently started caring about AFL football again.
For a huge chunk of my childhood and early teens, it was an obsession — my favourite thing. I knew the names and numbers of every player, could recite past players and premiership wins, and would boast with pride about my great-grandfather who had played for my beloved Collingwood.
Football was like a prerequisite to belonging in my extended family. Because of our history, all children were born Collingwood supporters and disloyalty was inconceivable. It was a means of connection and camaraderie between us. We would attend games together, talk about football, and cling to our rare source of connection. Once, my cousin, sister and I bumped into Eddie Maguire at a game and it was the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to us. Now, with my grown-up eyes I look to Eddie in a different way.
In my mid-teens I forfeited my love of football for other interests. I liked books, writing, and eventually, partying. Football lost its thrill. My family shook their heads in disbelief when I confessed to not knowing where Collingwood was placed on the ladder. When I began university, equipped with a feminist education, I started to see football as a highly problematic cultural object. I inhaled Anna Krien’s ‘Night Games’, a piece of investigative journalism on football’s cultural misogyny, its degrading and exclusionary treatment of the women behind its men, its administration and a huge chunk of its supporter base, and this cemented what I had intuitively known for a long time: football was not a welcome place for women. Women were objects to the boys in charge. The girls cutting the oranges. Washing uniforms. Adding their two cents as pseudo-commentators when really you can’t know what it’s about unless you’ve played… which we couldn’t, back then.
This became a point of tension in my family. I would attend family celebrations and be the object of my uncles’ scorn and my cousins’ confusion. An uncle once said to me, ‘Your grandfather would be turning in his grave if he knew you didn’t care about Collingwood anymore.’ Now, I interpret this as a mode of discipline, a ‘Woah now, get back in your place’ quip. I had strayed too far.
For much of my life, my working-class background was a source of unease. I was the only person I knew whose parents were cleaners. Navigating my first year of uni was a lot harder than it was for the two friends I made, who had both attended prestigious Independent schools. After dropping out and failing a few times, I found my place in an Arts/Education degree at Monash. Through new friends I was introduced to a world of inconceivable wealth and privilege. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I eschewed football — I was trying to adopt the markers of the middle-class. Collingwood fandom was not part of my new identity.
Beginning a PhD this year forced me to reckon with my class identity. I constantly felt like I existed on the precipice of really messing things up; saying the wrong thing; writing the wrong thing in an email; not knowing the correct way to behave. Research has found that academics of a working class origin often feel there is an unspoken knowing that they were denied access to, and at any moment, they will be exposed as an interloper; a fraud; an imposter. This is a constant fear for me too. Eventually, I still believe, someone will gently tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re not really supposed to be here, are you.’
But, in recent years, I have learned that my history isn’t something to be ashamed of. I have been working on speaking openly about the things I used to hide for fear of over-sharing or scaring people away. I refuse to keep secrets now; about trauma, about mental illness, all of it. Maybe this could also explain my return to Collingwood. It is a process of re-working my identity to acknowledge what I have overcome to be where I am. A working class background is not a deficit; it is a mark of perseverance and strength, of navigating a world made for those whose paths are smoothed by those before them.
There’s this tired, old dig, ‘You can’t be a Collingwood supporter if you have all your teeth!’ It’s a play on the idea that all Collingwood supporters are too poor to pay for dentist work, and look, fair enough: that shit isn’t covered by Medicare. But, I’m proud to reply now that Collingwood is in my blood. So is resilience, so is stoicism, and so is the working-class work ethic that got me here.