While the Buddha is an extreme example of someone who renounced all his worldly privileges and attained Nirvana, it is safe to say that most of us continue to enjoy the privileges that have been bestowed upon us. The word ‘privilege’ means a special advantage that only a specific group has and you, by attribute of belonging to the said group, enjoy it. Privilege can be multifold; it could be benefits you enjoy by virtue of your economic status, gender, race, caste, social connections and so on. With the rise of internet activism and social justice movements, hashtags such as #knowyourprivilege and #checkyourprivilege are facilitating discussions on social media.
Growing up in an average middle-class Indian household, it is impossible to not be made aware of your economic privileges. Many parents often contrast the various privileges their kids enjoy to the relatively fewer ones that they did. However, instead of encouraging gratefulness among kids, this approach often ends up feeding guilt and resentment. The whole point of being aware of your privileges is, after all, not to be guilt-ridden or to beat yourself up. It is to prevent you from becoming entitled. Not all who are privileged act in an entitled manner, and as a society, we would benefit from having more socially conscious people and fewer entitled people. Entitlement is the feeling that you have a right to certain benefits that others do not, and in a community full of entitled individuals, people not only feel slighted when they are not favoured, but they also only care about their own wealth, security and preserving the status quo.
As the discussion around privilege continues to evolve, different people are reacting differently to it. An anonymous quote says, “Privilege is not only the money in your wallet, but it is also the contacts of your parents.” In an interview, Alia Bhatt, a Bollywood film star who hails from a film family, was questioned about the infamous nepotism in Bollywood to which she responded, “I can’t wake up and say, ‘Sorry I was born in this family’, but I can definitely say that I will work as hard as possible to prove that I deserve to be here.” Can hard work offset the unfairness of being privileged? Definitely not. While her response places emphasis on personal merit, it veers away from social justice. The conundrum here is that she conveniently does not put herself in the shoes of someone who is not from the film industry, is just as talented as her but is unable to achieve what she has simply because they did not receive a leg up.
In his book Born a crime, Trevor Noah explains how growing up in South Africa, he was treated as ‘white’ because he was of mixed race, and all his maternal cousins were black. He reflects on being the naughtiest of the lot and still never being punished by his grandmother. Noah displays a rare ability to truly empathise, to see outside of his own world by stepping into the shoes of others.
“My own family did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.”
It is difficult to acknowledge your privilege because reflecting on it would mean to be made aware of the inequalities that pervade society, to accept that you benefit from a social structure that is fundamentally discriminatory. However, it is important to do so. In doing so and in making individual contributions to rectify a flawed social design, we rise as a society and inch towards a more equal world. No matter how important gratitude is as a personal value, neither gratitude nor guilt can help make a less broken society. It is progressive actions, not mere feelings, that will create a level-playing field.
Asma Khan is a celebrated Indian-born British chef who ran ‘Darjeeling Express’ in London, fully staffed by immigrant women. She shares her father’s words to her, “Use your life to make a difference because being in a position of privilege you have a duty to lift others up.”
Divya is a writer, constantly torn between celebrating life for its little joys and renouncing it for its many oddities and injustices. She has written for The Hindu, Feminism in India and The Times of India (students’ edition) as its star correspondent and student reporter. She has done her Bachelor’s from Indian Institute of Management, Indore.