The first time someone pointed my privileges was, rather surprisingly, not in a straight-faced, skirting towards an accusatory, blame inducing tone but with such subtlety that my then unaware self didn’t realise that that would be an introduction to similar, just more pronounced and elaborate conversations in the future. “You are so privileged that even your mistakes come with their own fire extinguisher!”, joked someone once, and I could, like any privileged person wrapping their head around all the comforts and opportunities their capital spined them with, only get defensive. My immediate defense, composed of my constant state of anxiety concocted with the always looming pressure to perform even the most mundane tasks the best, wasn’t the needed anchor in that conversation, I realised later.
When you are informed about your how your social and cultural locations serve as cushioning platforms to rely on for opportunities and prospects of growth, it is usually dismissal, explanation, and/or reflection that follow. As an English speaking woman from a middle-class family born in an urban city, my immediate surroundings prevented that looking within. It wasn’t until I moved out to another city where my master’s degree in gender along with the regular discussions (and dawning realisations) around exclusion and power hierarchies with people around, made me aware of how one’s privilege measuring capital is not just economic but also social and cultural. I realised, then, how a mere nod of acknowledgement towards your privilege isn’t enough, it is acceptance through practical steps that can yield us closer to understanding the nature (and our place) in various power hierarchies governing us, and therefore, towards a more human, inclusionary world.
When last year Jack Dorsey held a “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” poster given to him by the Dalit activist Sanghapalli Aruna, a social media frenzy ensued. Twitter spatting of savarna intellectuals going berserk about the ‘brahmin’ in the poster went on for days. I saw my social media flood with Uma Chakravarty references, as it is she who named the problem, by a surge of activists claiming how privilege shattering/mirroring the situation was. I began seeing people acknowledging their sheltered lives caused by their ascribed and acquired privileges, sharing content by Bahujans (Dalits, OBCs, and Adivasis), updating their mass online following with their discovery of ‘caste’. So far so good.
But for how long, I asked myself, could we remain clung to the shore of acknowledgement? When and how does the movement towards the current of acceptance occur? How long can we keep layering the traumatic experiences of Bahujans with our revelations of how their stories have directed us towards realising our own privileges? Because when you keep ranting about having acknowledged your privilege(s) and not making active efforts towards accepting them, you sidetrack the marginalised voices even in trying to mainstream them. If you have realised/are realising the capital you come with and instead of remaining comfortable in it, you choose to use it to further inclusionary politics and dismantle the power hierarchies of caste, gender, religion etc, here are some points for you. What I present is by no means an exhaustive list but certain steps that I have tried and try to practice in my everyday.
Educate yourself: You have had the eye-opening/click moment and now is the time when you choose to either simmer it down by postponing it or let your ignorance burn to grow into knowledges that you never knew existed. Begin with reading more about the struggles, movements, life journeys of marginalised communities; read about the ways in which the brahminical structure is thriving, how you are playing a role in it. Use social media, where there is an active and growing presence of diverse voices making discourses of dissent and exclusion available for the masses at a click.
But it’s two way: you cannot just read about the oppressed from a distance, you have to place yourself in the discourse to understand how we all have and continue to reinforce power based hierarchies of caste, gender, religion, everyday. Recognise that the brahminical structure is still intact, the ways of oppression might have changed with the structure being malleable to the status quo, but it exists in all its oppressive roots.
Share your knowledges: With friends, family, followers on social media platforms. The Economic and Political Weekly journal removed the paywall on Chakravarti’s Brahminical Patriarchy article when the Jack Dorsey incident occurred allowing many people to access the article. I was informed of the same through the social media accounts of activists. Likewise, if you read, watch, learn something new, share it. Knowledge is gatekept in academia, the discourses produced from the lives of the masses hindered from them. Break this.
Speak up: Have a friend, family member, relative who uses casteist/homophobic/racist/derogatory slurs? Speak up to them. Also understand that we all are socialised into biases and that we all can learn to unlearn them. Talking down to someone from a position of superiority isn’t always the best way to make people think for themselves about what they might have said wrong. And that is precisely what we have to do, to educate people to a point where they start thinking for themselves, to facilitate their thought process, not command it. Everytime we stay quiet at a derogatory comment, we let the person normalise the marginalisation and strengthen their sense of power. By comforting ourselves with the ‘it will not happen again’ narrative by not educating the other person, we let them think that being casteist/sexist is okay. It’s not.
I know such engagements might be draining. Bearing the responsibility of asking people to reflect on their comments, while we ourselves are in the process of doing so, might make us frustrated with the thought of how can everyone not educate themselves. But if I look back, such interactions have actually been my most effective sources of learning because when you talk to other people about a problematic comment they make, you too learn in that process. Engage. Teach. Most importantly, learn.
Know when it’s not your turn to speak: The Trans Bill passed in Lok Sabha last year ensued protests all over the country. The fact that its earlier version was constructed without consultation from the community itself shows us the horrors of speaking on behalf of a marginalised community whose struggles we have no experience of. It was only after suggestions from the trans community were taken up that the revised bill, although still inaccurate, was passed.
But this in no way implies that you don’t get to support. Turning up for protests, sharing information/news, educating oneself, is all part of your allyship. What is required , I think, is we learn to follow, not lead. Something which the trans community is trying to convey through the controversy over the book, Invisible Men written by Nandini Krishnan, who has been called out by the community for misrepresenting transmen. It is crucial to understand that it is them who articulate politics not only for themselves but also for all of us. It is only then that liberation for us can follow.
I know this is not the total picture. From the socio-cultural location that I have been raised to understand (rather not understand) things, there are blinders which I am open to discussing. These are some steps I have taken, some steps you too could begin with. And in doing so, don’t compromise on your mental health. Engage but also take time for yourself. Learning, and more importantly unlearning, are processes, and we have to give them the time they require without letting our guards (read biases) become blockades. What we have to do is to just begin.