Real life instances of privilege recognition
My friend had delivered a child. His father held the newborn and said that he had a young boy in mind who will one day make a fine match for the baby when they grow up. My friend interjected, "But Dad, how do you know she won’t be a lesbian?"
A male servant complained of a toothache. When I said he could come to my clinic, my mother became uncomfortable. She mumbled something about you can’t put your hands in his mouth. She sent him to another dentist, who extracted a tooth. But then the man developed a very painful infection in the socket. Finally my mother asked me to sort out the issue because she needed him to be well to work. Her first reaction had been rooted in the deep-seated socialisation of untouchability even as she claimed not to be casteist. As for myself, as a dentist, I had an ethical responsibility to treat anyone who needs treatment and also cause no harm. Giving into my mother’s wishes ended up causing more harm than good and remains a huge blot on my career as a dentist. My choice to “give in” to avoid confrontation with my mother was not apolitical. Nor was my mother's later convenient setting aside of her casteist socialisation simply hypocrisy. Both of us made political choices that were available to us because of our caste privilege.
Most of the time when I receive an unsolicited call from a telemarketer, the caller addresses me as “sir”. This subliminal patriarchy is such a flashpoint for me. I always ask the caller to use my name or to address me as ma’am. But despite repeated reminders from my side and occasional apologies from the other side, they trip after a sentence or two and go back to calling me, sir. Don’t women count for anything? As I type this, I now realise that I am also encouraging classist company policies by not insisting that I be called by name; why should we be called ma’am or sir by anyone? Hmmm … that’s two separate points to raise when I get a call in future.
A colleague corrected me when I said "blindspot" to describe my limited understanding of a topic we were discussing. She seemed uncomfortable. “You mean ignorance spot”, she corrected me. I resisted at first because the word blindspot is so common. But now I realise how our scriptures, folk songs and everyday life practices and communication are ableist and discriminate against blind people as deficient. I learned that one way to challenge ableism is to examine our language. Another ignorance spot was my internalised racism. I do not see myself as racist and yet, I often used words that associated black with bad and white with good.
A few years ago a stranger whom I gave a lift to on a scooter in Pune asked me for my surname. As my surname doesn’t make my caste obvious, he asked for that then directly. When I refused to divulge that information, he tried to elicit it using a variety of approaches. But it was not a long ride and I held out. But I will always remember it as a ride that revealed to me, for the umpteenth time, how deeply caste is ingrained in our psyche.
My childhood friend posted on our Whatsapp friends group, "Muslims are responsible for spreading the Coronavirus. They organised their gathering in defiance of the lockdown." I asked, “When did the government announce the lockdown in India?” Someone in the group replied, “22nd March”. I asked, “When was the Tablighi gathering held?” No one responded. I wrote again, “Before 15th March, before the lockdown was announced.” I asked again, ‘Do we know how many public gatherings took place despite the lockdown from March to June? People closer to the government even encouraged them. The head of Hindu Mahasabha organised public cow-urine drinking parties, and the Ram Navmi Mela in Ayodhya and Puri Rath Yatra in Odisha brought together thousands of devotees in late March and early April. Many temples across India were still filled with thousands of devotees." I asked them, ‘ Why do you think the government is scapegoating Muslims? What role is the media playing?"
After coming back from the anti-caste Cafe, I found myself noticing how my family functioned in kinds of, you know, very particular ways. My aunt’s constant “Wash your hands”, “Don’t let the maid hang out your bath towel but it’s okay if she puts away my shoes”, “Don’t go too far for a walk, use the path going around the gated colony”, “Don’t travel by public transport, fly as first choice of travel, make sure you have a reserved seat on the train” ... My sisters are told “keep your elbows tight and your legs together”, it’s almost like there’s no place to trust anyone expects a few people who are related to you or coming from your very close social networks. Since the cafe though I've been trying to resist these pressures. It's tiring but now that I know what all this means, it's difficult to just say "Yes" and follow the rules.
So we have this person who makes our beds, cleans and tidy up after us, and is constantly being called to do this and that, sometimes together, for up to 16 hours a day. And still we aren’t supposed to trust her when she says she needs time off for a family emergency. She has to plead and plead … and then my father kind of says yes very grudgingly, it’s like she only exists to work for us but still the idea is that she doesn't "work" and is only fudging to have a good time. Do you see what I mean? We call her kaamwali [one who works] and then say but she doesn't really do any work, that labour rights are just as much applicable to her as they are to my father or to me. We say she does only "mindless", physical labour but then keep scolding her like this: "Have you lost your mind", "Is there sawdust in your head instead of brains?" It was only when I visited her home for the first time, which was 15 years after she started working for us, that I began to see how we convince ourselves to accept these hypocracies to preserve our privileges and comforts at the cost of others' lives. I began to see what lies beneath the farcical division between work and labour, that some work is work and the rest is just well, mindless labour. Now I'm wrestling with arguing all this out with my family. They aren't listening yet, but they don't know that I'm prepared for as long as it takes. They say I'm making the home atmosphere unpleasant and I'm the only one having a good sleep at night.
I’ve been wrestling with how so much of my family’s comforts are thanks to “wise” investments and banking decisions. When I started looking deep into this, it dawned on me that so many of those stocks grew when the workers in those companies were being squeezed, or forests were being cut down. Now I make it a point to discuss this openly with everyone in our extended family and friends. I am also educating myself about ethical practices in business.
everyone in our extended family and friends.