The blindness of privilege

It was one of those trips to visit my grandparents in the ancestral village when I was a young boy, and nothing quite out of the ordinary. An elderly man who had worked my grandfather’s fields had come to see me. I touched his feet, as I had been taught to do for all elders. He was embarrassed beyond comprehension. My relatives were visibly flustered. I was puzzled. What had I done wrong? That was the day I learned about caste.

When I was thirteen, I had posters of all of my favorite cricketers taken from Sportstar magazine. Like any young boy at that age, I idolized them. As might be expected, the Indian cricket team was my favorite side, and I grew up with the highs and lows of Azharuddin as captain. But I also loved to watch Wasim Akram. I practiced his bowling action. I gawked at his perfect yorkers in the death overs of one day internationals; I gaped at reverse swing. I envied the Pakistan cricket team, and like most of my generation had counterfactual daydreams about a unified team had Partition never happened. Except when they played India (and I lost my voice after Chinnaswamy, 1996), I generally wished the Pakistan cricket team well. 

Through my teenage years, I was very independent and rebellious. I stayed up late and studied little. I came home when I wanted to: I used to bang on the gate of our residence until the neighbors woke up and my mother came and unlocked it. I rode crowded buses and trains. No one ever bothered me about what I wore. 

In college I was a debater who competed at the national-level in India. I trained myself to understand the strength of arguments. I was good at this. But a collegiate debate happens in a hermetic and friendly environment. It is fencing compared to a real battle with swords. In the real world, an identity determines the consequences of holding a view and the two sides are seldom balanced like in the chamber of a debating union: there is a power asymmetry. One party may be boneheaded, they may be wrong, but expressing their views may also expose them at a greater personal risk.

Through all these years, I’ve learned that privilege takes many shapes and forms. Just because privilege isn’t clearly observable doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact, often the only people who don’t see privilege are the privileged people: that blindness to core to their entitlement. 

I’m male, upper-caste, upper-middle-class, well-educated, fluent in English and multiple languages, and am reasonably well-connected in India. That is a position of immense privilege.  I’m the equivalent of the person who asks to “speak to the manager”. There is little personal cost to my holding a view. I was told to compete with the best and brightest. I never faced the tyranny of low expectations. People in my social class in India have domestic help to do the cooking and cleaning: they take “foreign” vacations.

Imagine then how my world was shaken up when I arrived in the United States as a student! All of a sudden I was aware that I was a poor and brown student in the mainly white Bible-belt of the United States. It was an eye-opener for me because it helped me to come to grips with own privilege.  I had to do my own chores myself and I was exposed to people, ideas, and thoughts from everywhere else. America is not fair or equitable by any means, but the aspirational ideology is that you can come from anywhere and be successful. I know this is simplistic and not true, but this is a foundational belief in this nation of immigrants.

What hope is there for those of us who are privileged? The first step is accepting our privilege. And then, we should try to understand the concerns of others.  You and I are a product of our own race, time, education, environment, class, and society: we shouldn’t assume that will be able to understand everyone’s concerns, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that we will solve concerns we don’t understand.

So, the next time someone says they were discriminated against because of their name or complexion, we don’t get to say, “It didn’t happen to me, therefore it doesn’t exist.” No one lowered our confidence by telling us that a Dom’s son will always be a Dom. After we got jobs, no one openly mocked us for being “quota” candidates. We had networks, access to nutrition and healthcare, and private tuitions. We did not bear the oppressive collective weight of our castes.

Those of us born into Hindu households can claim to be above caste and religion all we want, because our privilege shields us. Our agnosticism and atheism is accepted because we don’t have Muslim names.  We navigated a system that allowed us to claim our irreligiosity, while quietly receiving all the benefits of our caste and religion, by the virtue of our names. We can claim being above the fray all we want, no one is calling us a “puncturewala”, no one is denying us housing based on our names, no one is telling our children not to come to his classmate’s birthday party. No one ever questioned why I liked Wasim Akram as a child or ever told me to go to Pakistan. What do you and I know about our loyalties to the nation of our ancestors and our ancestor’s ancestors being questioned by random strangers because of a silly sport? We don’t get it and so we should listen.

A little humility goes a long way, especially for us men. We need to hear women speak about just how difficult it is to come forward in a toxic culture of shaming, victim-blaming, mob threatening and violence, and male impunity.  We have to have those conversations with our loved ones. We need to be respectful: after all we do not have the right to invalidate their experiences. Chances are that if someone opens up to us and we mansplain, they will close that part of their life from us forever. 

Because in all likelihood when the woman that you love was 12 or 14 someone of our gender did something or said something that stole a part of her childhood and made her despair “my body is not fully my own”. You were not there then, but you are here now. Do not be a moron. 



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