Friday, September 22, 2006

undeserved privileges

i've been coming across so much stuff on the issue of unearnt privileges and discrimination.

to put it very briefly, even if i personally do not subscribe to a derogatory caste system and the supremacy of the rich, i still benefit in some ways because these social systems exist. i have privileges that someone else is probably paying the cost of.

im starting this thread with the list of privileges that i see in my life which i have not earnt.

the unearnt privileges of being in the "upwardly mobile" section of society :

1. i've had a complete schooling. it's not expected of me to drop out of school to do the housework or take up a job.

2. it's a very normal, acceptable thing for me to do my masters, maybe even a phd.

3. though a woman, i can wear jeans if i want to, wear my salwars without always adding the dhupatta. and it wont be stomped on as hard by the other people in "my" world.

4. though a woman, i can go out on a social visit and return late in the evening or even in the night.

5. at my age, i dont have to do half the physical labour that a much older but poorer woman has to do.

6. when i'm seeking specialised help for a financial, legal or medical problem, i'm treated with courtesy. the people in charge don't treat me with scant respect because they're doing "Charity".

7. no matter how plainly dressed i am, i can enter virtually any restaurant, pub, hotel, office or shop without being stopped because i dont look like the "right crowd".

8. i can afford to think of taking vacations. of taking a break from work. of reporting sick for a week, without wondering how my children will eat.

9. i actually pay much less than a person living in a rural area for water, electricity, sanitation, medical care, food.

10. i live in a part of town from where hospitals, provision stores, restaurants, and my workplace or educational institution are not horribly far.

11. if i find it too harassing and unsafe, i can better protect my person by choosing to not use public transport.

12. i live in a house where i can turn on the tap to get water enough for my needs, without having to fetch it from miles away.

13. i dont have to stand for hours in a queue, forced to skip work that morning, in order to buy rice and dal for the family.

14. i am aware of my fundamental rights as a human being, and as a citizen of this country. at least in theory, im encouraged to also believe i have a right to demand that these not be violated.

15. if i am in trouble - i have an an asthma attack when im not at home, i know i can confidently approach anyone for help. they wont shun me because i look "dirty" or unkempt. shopkeepers and dhobi wallahs have come running up to check if im fine even before ive asked for help.

16. when i have an accident, the cop generally speaks to me with respect.

17. i studied in an english medium school. i will never be disqualified from getting a job because i dont know english.

18. i can afford to set apart some time and money for exercise if i want to. forget enrolling in a gym or learning yoga - i can set one hour aside to go for a walk.

19. people are quicker to help me when they see me carrying heavy loads.

20. fewer people question my spending on non-essentials to lecture me on my economic priorities.

the unearnt privileges of being an upper caste woman

1. sometimes my maid is upset seeing me do jobs she considers dirty or too strenuous, that however she thinks its ok for her to do.

2. my maid and i subscribe to the same religion. she will never have the access i have to our philosophical treatises or scriptures.

3. my religion as it exists today puts me down for being a woman. but it hails my caste. it belittles her for being a woman and for being from her caste.

4. dowry isnt as big a problem in my caste.

5. my caste encourages us to be educated. i can look at my culture and find backing for the pursuit of knowledge.

6. my culture believes in telling me the reasons for symbolism in my religion. it doesnt order me to blindly obey.

7. i will never be ordered to carry garbage, human wastes, dead bodies or do any such labour because of my caste. i probably wont even have to resort to physical labour of any kind for a living, however poor i am.

8. i can customise my religion to suit me, and gather enough knowledge to defend myself against being branded a heretic if i so wish to.

9. im automatically assumed to know more about some things, for no reason other than belonging to the caste i do.

10. i can trace back my lineage to men who were greatly respected and hailed as spiritually evolved people who contributed significantly to my culture. (but sadly, only men.)

privileges that i have as an upper caste, well-to-do woman:

1. a lot of the freedom that i am deprived of, i can at least dream of fighting for and achieving. my family is progressive, and has the luxury of being able to think about the world at large. to philosophise and choose its way of life for a large part.

2. i can choose to study a course for purely academic interest even though it may not be recognised in the job market. it will not be a severe blow to my parents, or considered a waste of their investing in my schooling.

3. i initiate the woman-to-woman bonding sessions with people from my maid's background. and i am at a definitely superior position right from the start without having done or said anything to earn it - even if the other woman happens to be telling me something i didnt know.

4. i can disagree with my menfolk on nearly any fundamental issue with less potential threat to my person.

5. its easier for me to leave an abusive relationship. i at least know vaguely where i can find help and support. and i really have much less to lose.

6. the concepts of privacy and sexuality exist in my life.

so. what does your list look like?

Related: why undeserved, why unearnt?

brownskinspeak, my life

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Anonymous icarus said...

I wouldn't call any of these privileges undeserved.

10:39 am  
Anonymous icarus said...

Sorry, that's not all I wanted to say... what I mean is that none of the things you've listed here would qualify as privileges. By doing so, I think you're setting the bar too low. Everyone is entitled to these things simply by virtue of their being human beings. It's just sad and unfortunate that a large section of people in our society do not have access to these basic amenities...

Here's something I wrote on my blog a long time ago : "Einstein, in a different context, remarked that God (Fate) doesn't play dice. If so, why is it that some of us end up with the short stick? There have been times when I couldn't help but draw the inevitable comparison between our lives. It's not as if I'm ashamed or guilty for all that I have and he (our neighbour's servant) doesn't. I only wish for him to have the same things as well."


11:02 am  
Anonymous harsha said...

Is membership of MENSA an undeserved privilege? Does the fact that I was born with an ability for pattern recognition that is shared or bettered by less than 2% of the population make it an undeserved privilege? I didn't try very hard to be what MENSA chooses to call intelligent. I didn't HAVE to. I was born with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that my brain is wired in a certain manner. And, arguably, that has a lot do with the way my parents' brains are wired. Is THAT an undeserved privilege?
Related points include; the spider-man theory: "with great power comes great responsibility"; "all humans are not born equal" and; the thinker's burden.

But the central theme is this: These 'privileges' are distributed randomly - 'tis true; these become deserved or undeserved depending on whether or not one uses these privileges for doing good.

1:51 pm  
Blogger m. said...

icarus: but just wishful thinking doesn't help anybody!
when people are humiliated, and face injustice everyday of their lives, it is no more merely "sad and unfortunate".
- that philosophical acceptance of matters is not ours to give because we aren't the ones paying the price.

harsha: your parents were also evidently "wired" to have a son when they had you. youre "wired" to be male. you also enjoy male privilege as it exists in our world because of your "wiring".
to take it further, is a woman "wired" to be raped then? to be humiliated, oppressed, sexualised and beaten up?
if i were you, i would tread carefully with the Chosen Ones line of reasoning - history has enough lessons for us to learn from.
as for your "great power brings great responsibility" theory, let me flip that around for you. there is a difference between strength and power. strength comes from recognition and acceptance of responsibility.
you dont get to be king until you can first do justice to the demands of your role, until you do fairly by your subjects.

8:43 pm  
Anonymous icarus said...

The point was simply this : I don't think I enjoy certain 'privileges' but that large sections of our society are deprived of their basic entitlements... and I'm certainly not okay with that.

9:26 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

Umm...I see many of these "privileges" to do more with economic status than with Caste...for upper caste but poor guy will not be treated to the same privileges as of the entire first 20 points on the list. It is a matter of myth that all upper caste is rich...true when it comes to being progressive and education wise it can be said that my parents wouldnt mind me doing my masters or Phd, if they can spare money..but if they themselves are thinking about the next meal my basic education would be a matter of debate, let alone my masters...

I am seeing this larger confusion with caste and economic status happening amongst the so called intellectuals. I don't understand the logic of equating all these with the caste..most of the privileges listed here are a matter of money..than of caste or birth..a policeman dare not humiliate a wealthy lower caste than he can take chance with a poor upper caste..Think you are suffering from an invented guilt of being an upper caste!

12:37 am  
Anonymous harsha said...

i did not mean 'chosen ones'. They weren't chosen. The system is about as random as it can be. All i'm saying is that deserving or undeserving is not to be determined at birth. It is to be determined by actions taken during one's life. People who eat up the resources of my planet without actually doing any good for anyone in their whole lives do not deserve the most basic privilege; the right to live. One is born with a random set of attributes. I'm not suggesting that this is fair. I'm saying I'll do my best to make the world a fairer place to live in for people, whatever the set of attributes one is born with. And I do hope 'my best' is good enough.

1:09 am  
Blogger Sea and Sky said...

Interesting to look at the list. I have my teo pice bit on it, but that's for later. Here's my list:

1. I'm free to pursue any educational qualification I want.
2. I'm relatively free to choose whom and when I marry... or whether I marry.
3. I'm free to travel wherever I want, and in most cases, whenever I want.
4. I can talk talk about feminism without being labelled "bra-burning sexually-frustrated/frigid male-bashing woman".
5. My opinion is treated as worthy of attention and consideration in public forums.
6. I am free to choose if I want to have kids... how many and when.
7. I can work. I am expected to work. I will never have to wish that people approved of the fact that I work. I will never have to worry - "what if my in-laws don't like it!". My work will not be considered lesser than my collegues' at the work place because of my gender.

1. I get attention at airports, restaurants, malls, shops, trains, buses...
2. I can walk into virtually any place and take care of my business. I can approach people with confidence that they won't laugh at the way I dress up or speak.
3. I have many more avenues open for seeking and sharing information, such as the internet.
4. I can read my favorite book in the park, without having to wonder where my supper's gonna come from.
5. I can dream about a vacation to Namibia, and know that it can actually happen.
6. I can have my own book, music and movie collection.

1. I don't get discriminated on the basis of caste.
2. Nobody wonders if I keep neat and clean... its a given.
3. The women in my caste group usually receive education... because it is celebrated and normative. So all of my female cousins are educated, and many of them work. This adds to my overall socio-economic status from a larger perspective.

These are just a few. The list is pretty long. Also, many are the same as what you mention in your post... like being aware of my rights, available services and supports etc.

I would also like to qualify that many of these privileges are subjective, and are contained within my personal circumstances and contexts. For instance, I have a pretty liberal family, and have had a rather unconventional upbringing. And that has a bearing on my priviliges. I can not worry about not being a doctor, lawyer or engineer... and be in a profession that pays much less... and not have to face pressure from my family for making that choice. Also, I don't have to worry if the person I want to marry comes from the same religion/caste/race/ethnicity... because of my upbringing and my family. So though this is a privilege that I get as a man, these privileges are somewhat common for all men, but carry riders that are different for different men. For example, men are usually free to choose their profession... as long as it pays well, because their salary will win bread, while their wife's salary will more often than not considered some sort of "pocket money".

M., I also want to say that I am in slight disagreement with the title of your post. In that sense, I agree with what icarus is saying, but make take on it is a little different. The title of the post is "Undeserved Privileges", and the first line of the post mentions the term "Unearned privileges". I view both of them as different. A privilege could be unearned, but deserved (I can get three square meals a day. That's probably unearned for me because this factor was largely shaped by the family I was born in. However, I deserve it as well, I think its my human right. Similarly, I have freedom of speech and expression. This is unearned too, because I was born in a democratic India after independence, and not as a Jew in Poland during Nazi occupation. So this is unearned too. At the same time, I deserve to have freedom of expression.). On the other hand, there could be privileges that are earned, but not deserved (For example, a terrorist has the ammunition and the training to kill. And he's probably "earned" it through whatever means. However, that's undeserved for obvious reasons.). I believe the privileges that you mention in your post are not undeserved... as a human being and as a woman, you deserve them all. However, you may not have earned them all. Would like to know your opinion on this.

7:59 am  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

Excellent post...I assume you've read the male priveledge checklist on amptooms? If not, you really's brilliant

10:03 am  
Blogger annie said...

indeed, a wonderful post, m. honest and well thought-out. am linking to it at HOTHL. :)

3:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post. It proves beyond doubt that it rocks to be rich.

Can you also write about the privileges of being urban, rich, beautiful, and backward ?

4:42 am  
Blogger Vikrum said...

Hi M.,

I got here from Annie's link at How the Other Half Lives.

This was a thoughtful, insightful, and humbling piece. Anyone who is reading this article or this comment is privileged, as they can read English and have an Internet connection (in the Indian context, that translates into a whole lot of privilege).

One way to make society more egalitarian is to examine the privileges that we often take for granted. Thanks for doing that and making us think.

Last year, I met with some older students in the NGO I used to work for. From the slums, they were terrified to walk into a Barista or a Cafe Coffee Day. Yet people like you or I can walk into places like that and never have to worry that we will be evicted because we are not the "proper crowd". If you are interested, please see this article on the topic.

9:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a fabulous post. thank you.

12:41 am  
Anonymous abhinav said...

The definition of priviliges seems to be any activity that you can perform which certain other individuals are unable to because of the accident of birth. These you call unearned priviliges for which you believe somebody else is paying the cost. But there is no connect between these statements as nobody other than you pays a price when you wear jeans.

The fact that you can go out at night is something that you have earned by paying for a vehicle, if you did not then you would be attacked irrespective of your caste as made amply clear by the attacks on women, an example of the medical student in New Delhi who was raped in daylight.

When you seek medical advice you are treated with care precisely beacuse you can pay for the service.

You pay more for your water, electricity and others services because you pay taxes, people in villages dont.

In overview, there are many activities that you can do which others cannot, but this does not mean soembody else is paying the cost for that.It is a fallacy to believe that you are eating out of their share. The true irony is that you can pay for many services that maximise your potential as a person while others cannot pay for those services.

5:44 pm  
Blogger m. said...

icarus: yes, understood.

krish: please note that there are 20 wealth related issues in contrast to the 10 under caste.

harsha: ah. yes. merely circumstances of birth shouldnt dictate everything. but again, i wonder. if im starving, poor and sickly, what social service can i do for whom?! itll probably be all i can do to stay alive. what happens in that case? :)

sea and sky: thank you for responding to the list request! i honestly wanted to know to see if id overlooked anything major (which is so sadly easy to do!). as for the "undeserved" bit, i hope the next post answers that :)

aishwarya: i havent, but thanks - heading there now!

annie: gracias!

anon: how about coming up with that list yourself? ill vouch for the exercise being interesting if also a little painful.

vikrum: hey. thanks for dropping by. honoured! :)

anonymous: thank you.

abhinav: urban entitlement is a myth that the government has been assiduously assisting ever since it decided to woo the private sector. if you want to look at basics, the rural economy is mainly agrarian: no matter how rich you are, you cant eat money. ever heard of "anna dhatha sukhi bhavo" ?

8:54 pm  
Anonymous abhinav said...

I think you misunderstand the role of money. If everybody were to be suddenly given twice the money, everybody would not become twice as rich and the scarcity of food will not dissappear. And who are these people who have money but no food to eat, name them.

I dont know what is the basis of your statement about urban entitlement and government appeasement. Do you think the situation was better before this appeasement started?

11:30 pm  
Anonymous sayan said...

profound observations...
however, these facts are known to most people, on both sides of the fence, so more important than just being aware of the facts is the willingness to do something about it...
since we, on this side of the fence, are aware of the issues as well as enjoy the privileges, power and facilites, it's really upto us to try and do something about it, in our own ways.
im not talking of earth-shaking ventures, just a little bit of help and work from everyone in this direction, won't mean too much for us, but collectively, would change lives.

11:34 am  
Blogger m. said...

abhinav: i said "no matter how rich you are, you cant eat money."

sayan: true.

3:57 am  
Anonymous aj said...

Sorry! No comments as I feel I am out of place among you "self admiring club" of back patters.
Do post me any thing substantial if ever,any thing comes out of your discussion,post me at,no intention to come back again

8:52 am  
Blogger Professor Zero said...

I also thought this post quite profound. Undeserved privileges, no, and yes, most would be available to all in an ideal world. But they are not. Here in the U.S., for instance, people tend not to realize at all that for most people in the world, it is difficult to get clean water. Etc., etc.

8:56 pm  
Blogger m. said...

aj: indeed, i would be shattered at the thought of not having you around, considering you cant even differentiate silence from opining.

8:59 pm  
Blogger m. said...

prof. zero: thanks. the sad thing is that its possible to experience that perception blur even when living amidst all that in a third world country!

9:02 pm  
Anonymous April Moon said...

I’m incredibly pleased to have found your blog - i’ve just recently become involved with a new movement/site based around Darpana’s new production Unsuni (based on Harsh Mander’s book “Unheard Voices”) … if you have a moment, please take the time to check it out - i believe the site to be very relevant to what it is you're speaking about - there’s also a calendar on the page listing where and when you can catch an upcoming show.

4:34 am  

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