A World of Privilege
The storming of the US Capitol has created shock waves around the world. The world was stunned at the way thousands of supporters of incumbent President Donald Trump, egged on by him, marched to the US Capitol, pushed past the guards and vandalised the building including the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The President-elect John Biden while condemning the event as ‘one of the darkest days of our nation’s history’ said that the police was very lenient, unlike during the Black Lives Matter protest last year. Many reports are noting the muted response of the DC police to the predominantly white mob in this case compared to the earlier Black Lives Matter protests. This differential response of the police is drawing widespread condemnation of silent sympathy from authorities for the rioters this time around. This entire episode is also being considered a display of ‘white privilege’.
The collusion of the police and authorities with ‘protesters’, of a certain kind who are sometimes armed and violent, and the disproportionately harsh abuse of ‘protesters’ is quite common in India. It is easy for the average middle-class citizen, who rarely participate in such protests, to dismiss such events as political patronage or political control of the police force which starts acting as an agent of the political party in power, rather than the constitution and law of the land. It is easy to be cynical about the political process where the average citizen’s contribution is only expected at the time of the ballot. But the lenient and probably supportive police action is possible only when the protesters are bold enough to breach the police barriers, are confident enough to be certain that they will not be apprehended, and sure enough that constitutional values and law and order is secondary to some other kind of solidarity that they have with the police and authorities. This is the solidarity of ‘privilege’ and both parties, the protesters and the police, have a silent, unspoken but shared fear that is under threat. And thus, the protesters actions are justified for both parties, through a morality that is above the law.
A silent assumption of ‘privilege’ lives in most if not all of us. It is not often spoken about and it is invisible. It is a life affirming force for many of us about which we only become conscious when it is threatened. In many ways it is like the oxygen which nourishes the core of our sense of who we are and how we relate with others.
If ‘privilege’ is so important why haven’t we heard more about it? What we have been increasingly hearing of is about ‘discrimination’. Wherever there is ‘discrimination’ there is a possibility ‘privilege’ is also present. In many ways, ‘discrimination’ can only exist if there is ‘privilege’.
‘White privilege’ was on display at the Capitol. Other forms of ‘privilege’ are in display at home, on the streets, in shops, in offices probably everywhere. How many times we resent that list of dignitaries who are exempt from the intrusive patting at the security gate at airports. What did they do to deserve that preferential treatment we often wonder? That is constitutional and diplomatic privilege. At office counters we may have faced a situation where a person skips the queue or passes their application through some colleague of the counter clerk to get quick and favourable service. We wish we also knew someone at this office. That sense of outrage and regret is because we are missing a ‘privilege’. People like us miss having a privilege at certain points, because we are so used to having privileges.
As a middle-class, middle-aged, upper caste, able-bodied male of the majority religion, and a doctor and proficient English speaker to boot, I carry many privileges with me wherever I go. All these identities provide me sense of confidence to negotiate situations and circumstances and remain in ‘control’ most of the times.
It is interesting to consider what happens when any one of these are taken away. Let us say for example my identity was not aligned to the majority religion and I lived in Uttar Pradesh at this time. Despite having all the other attributes, my sense of confidence would probably be seriously eroded, especially if there was a commotion in the streets and I was in the vicinity shopping. If I was not middle-aged but say a Muslim youth, then I would probably refuse to walk back my Hindu female friend to her home after watching a film together, fearful of being harassed or arrested.
Privilege is ‘bred’ into us from the time we are children. The home is the first training ground for ‘privilege’. We learn about our ‘patriarchal’ privileges as boys and about status privileges like ‘class’ and ‘caste’ for both girls and boys. Each of these privileges implies a social hierarchy which is ‘justified’. It is right for boys and girls to be treated somewhat differently and have different expectations from them. The lessons are subtly applied and are internalised by both boys and girls without too much question. Similarly, the hierarchies of caste and class are also imbibed. Each hierarchy is justified by an unseen ideology of social power. As we emerge as adults most of us have been indoctrinated through these multiple ideologies and wear many invisible cloaks of privilege.
Since the middle of the last century there has been a sharp focus on ‘discrimination’. As a result of writings of people like Marie Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Marx and others earlier, there was an increasing understanding about the differences in relationships between people, between ordinary people and their rulers, between factory owners and workers and between men and women. In India Ambedkar sharpened our understanding of caste differentials. During World War 2 the world took a lesson on the devastation that the ideology of discrimination could bring upon all of us. A sharper understanding arose on the nature of discrimination and the aspiration of equal ‘human rights’ for all was universally accepted as a basis of relations between nations and between people and their governments.
Many of us believe in progressive realisation of rights. There are many examples of incremental change all around us. If we consider the issue of racial ‘discrimination’ in the US we see that even though ‘equality’ was enshrined in the US Constitution a civil war was fought to abolish ‘slavery’ of black people about 90 years after the constitution was signed and adopted. The ‘civil rights’ movement another 100 years later removed segregation, and now people of different ethnicity can aspire to and have occupied all places in American society, including the White House. This can be true progress towards equality.
The Capitol riots prove that all may not be right in this pathway of progress towards equality. While there are many signs of change in the earlier discriminated social group, there is also strong resentment against some of these changes. This resentment is even more sharp when the change among the discriminated social group hurts the ‘interest’ of the privileged group.
In my circles in India I have heard this kind resentment often mentioned against ‘reservation’ in reputed Government sponsored colleges and universities. There is a strong resentment that applicants from the ‘reserved’ caste groups secure admission with fewer marks than their ‘upper caste’ but academically better children. There is less resentment about ‘government jobs’ because the aspiration for government jobs is less among my peers for their children, even though most of our fathers were government servants.
I have been working for two decades now on male or patriarchal privilege, and it is my understanding that it will be difficult to reach a situation of equality without acknowledging and addressing privilege. And this needs to be done by those who enjoy these privileges. The problem is that those who enjoy these are rarely ‘conscious’ about these because they are universally accepted and so accepted. They become visible only when challenged but that is when the privileged person also becomes threatened and takes evasive subversive or aggressive action.
In our work with poor men in rural areas and in some urban and peri-urban areas we were able to discern that men especially younger men with small children were able to examine their privileges successfully and make changes. Mahadev, young man in his late twenties from Sholapur district in Maharashtra told me this story. Earlier he would come home from the fields tired and irritated. He would shoo his small children away, scream at his wife if she was late in getting him his hot cup of tea. He needed some space for himself for the new grind at home. Now when he comes home he first plays with his two children. A short romp with his three and five year old son and daughter would be so relaxing that he didn’t need the cup of tea. His children were now happy and so was his wife. The evening housework was no longer a grind and he now had a better relationship with his wife. Mahadev, and his wife later shared their story on the Amir Khan Show “Satya Meva Jayate.” But this is not an isolated story. We have similar stories from hundreds of villages and thousands of men across the country and many of these have been published as articles in magazines, blogs and globally reputed books and journals.
Clip from Satyamev Jayate featuring Mahadev and Lata
Today all struggles for equality are focussed on removing discrimination. Much of the struggle for equality is aimed at the state and at formal authority. The discriminated are encouraged to lead the struggle and those who are their allies are expected to support them. In our work with male-privilege we realised that the only role men can play need not be supportive of women taking new actions. We encourage girls to have an equal education, women are encouraged to take a job. However, we never encourage our boys to learn cooking or to do household chores as a matter of routine. At best I have heard from mothers is that ‘I don’t my daughter to learn cooking’, while they themselves set an example by taking all the household responsibilities.
It is not surprising that among the boys who didn’t learn to cook and the girl who also didn’t learn, the boys get through life expecting their partners to cook while the girls take up this responsibility out of a social expectation. We often focus on the girls in this situation, but what we miss is the sense of ‘privilege’ that gets embedded in the boys. There is an equal situation for these girls and boys in their parents’ homes, but the situation changes in the marital homes.
If the events in the US shock us, we need to examine the many privileges that we carry with us every day. We agree with the empowerment of girls, but we still perpetuate male privilege in our homes. We agree with a caste-less society but blame reservation when our child does not get admission to a premier educational institute. We want a secular country, but we also feel but that there may be some justification to preventing love-jihad.I have realised that feeling ashamed for all these privileges that I carry can only paralyse me into shock and inactivity. The naming and shaming approach, that is popular in some situations does not work in many cases because it brings about denial and raises a strong defence mechanism and does not provide a way forward. We have found respectful confrontation is more useful to understand ‘privilege’ by the privileged. For all struggles for equality to succeed we who are the privileged also need acknowledge our privileges and go ahead in our own lives with some small and probably uncomfortable steps to change these. The results can be extremely rewarding, both for us and those who are in various relationships with us at home and outside.