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Part 1: Peeling off the layers to the privilege conversation

This is Part 1 of a 4 part series exploring the concept of “privilege” in our lives. (Read the introduction, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

By Aprajita Pandey and Jayati Doshi

We usually speak about “privilege” in the context of identity groups such as caste, class, gender, religion, race, sexuality, or characteristics such as able-bodiedness, mental and physical health, educational status, etc. There may be many other kinds of privileges, but we are more interested in understanding “privilege” as a concept.

Most simply put, privileges are a set of circumstances and unearned benefits one gets as a part of certain groups that gives them certain advantages that people from other groups did not have.

Now, let’s break that open a little bit.

What are “unearned benefits”?

Now, the term “unearned” becomes one of contention because it seems to imply a certain un-deservingness. To clarify this — ”unearned benefits” refer to things we got simply for being who we are that gave us an easier start than many others in different circumstances or even supported or accelerated being where we are.

To be clear, privilege itself is often not enough to get anyone to where they are (although sometimes, that may also be the case, but we aren’t talking about those extremes right now). Our privileges give us some advantage over the others, frequently in invisible ways. Think about it like having a better set of tools — we still need to do the work to finish whatever we are doing, it is just slightly easier for someone with these better quality tools than it is for someone who doesn’t have the tools of the same quality. (If you haven’t seen it already, this comic offers a super simple but powerful explanation about how this works.).

Let’s take a simple analogy that helps understand this (rather a fairly simple one just to unpack the concept here).

X and Y are two twins (because twins are always great for examples!) born into a family of doctors. X grows up to want to become a doctor, whereas Y wants to be a dancer — something that no one in their family has any background of. Now, as they grow up, even if both of them receive the same love and support from their parents, and both put in just as much hard-work into their lives and are equally intelligent (whatever that means), the journeys would look slightly different for the two of them.

X would have some obvious advantage on their path — they would already have much of what they need to learn (resources), they will grow up seeing examples of what it means to be a doctor, get help readily when they are stuck, and have constant tips and motivation along the way (access to opportunities, knowledge and support). But they will also have other unseen advantages — their definitions of success are more likely to be matched by their family’s (norm-creation), for example. This may lead to increased pressure and other sorts of annoyances for X that Y wouldn’t have to deal with, but when it comes to opportunity, X certainly has an upper hand. Now, say they both land up being as successful in their careers — it doesn’t mean that X did not deserve this success, but it is a fact that Y had to start from the very scratch, whereas X didn’t.

This extra advantage is what privilege most simply is, and the fact that there is no reason for X to have received this over Y, is what this “unearned” part means. In real-life, where X and Y may not be just siblings, this story would have multiple layers of social identity, characteristics and life situations — some of them giving them some initial advantage, and some putting them in a starting place of disadvantage. Which brings us to the second part of the definition.

Understanding the relationship between the individual advantage and the “group”

Privilege would not be a concern if we were functioning in a vacuum; if we all began with “all things being equal”. The ‘privilege’ discourse is about the systemic and structural inequalities that make resources, respect, opportunities and knowledge available only to those already in the position of greater power; and as a result, cultivates disparities in basic quality of life, safety and well-being. This is honed in on the idea that — ‘Privilege is about the advantages received by a few on account of all-things-not-being-equal . It isn’t personal’.

This is also why one’s privilege doesn’t always feel obvious — it is so deeply embedded in everything around us that it may not even be visible to us.

Another way of stating this is that these systemic structures that seem so obvious are actually that way by design. For example, historically, around the time we began agriculture and the idea of ownership became a thing, heterosexual relationships became important because they were linked to producing children, which was tied to inheritance. Over time, everything — from the laws to the social rituals to media representation, portrayed these kinds of relationships as “normal”, and everything else was basically an exception, and hence the ‘exceptions’ missed out on the privileges be it in concrete ways (like laws that don’t support them or don’t protect them against attack or violence) or in invisible ways (the implicit bias they face).

Now, by design doesn’t imply intended malevolence, just that the world around us has been designed by the status quo — so its systems are designed for these privileges to become advantageous. Which brings us to the last part of the definition.

In what ways does it grant us advantage?

Some of the easy-to-spot advantages that privileges grant us are resources and access to opportunities, knowledge and support. For example, having money, networks, studying in a good university etc. The less visible ways these advantages are experienced by the privileged is through power and norm-creation — i.e. deciding what is considered “normal” and hence automatically gaining more power in the society, something that has been happening historically. (The popular privilege walk is a constant reminder to come back to about this. Also, this article gives a great example to understand the difference between earning one’s climb and earning one’s win).

Here’s another real life event that could throw light on how advantages work. Our domestic worker shared the news a few months back with tears in her eyes that her niece passed class 12. It turned out, her niece was the first generation learner in her family and to ever complete matric exam. It was out of the ordinary for a child from her family to matriculate. No matter how little money we had when we were growing up in our respective families — and money was scarce — not going to school or matriculating was never even a consideration. That’s a privilege! Moving forward, her niece wanted to study to be a lawyer, but that she couldn’t just decide and go for it, because they didn’t have financial resources to afford it. But despite money scarcity, some of us could walk into any bank and receive a student loan. That’s another marker of less visible advantage, just knowing that we would get a loan.

Another way that this advantage works is that because the “normal” also assumes that certain people have a natural right to certain spaces and positions, and thus when they make mistakes, it is easier to forgive, it is a “human mistake”. However, when someone who has to fight to be granted those spaces and positions, they are constantly required to “prove they are worthy” of those, and thus, mistakes are costlier. Haven’t we all heard, said or been in spaces where mistakes, failures or crimes have different repercussions for different communities? If a Dalit person working in a bank, commits a mistake — say an accounting error, or mismanaged a project team — everything is blamed to their caste (and reservations). But when the same mistake is committed by an upper caste person, it’s not assumed to be a characteristic of a whole group of people. When a female driver is involved in an accident, it becomes about gender shaming, women’s inability to drive and commit mistakes. But when the same happens with male drivers, their gender doesn’t even come in the picture. Again, it’s a human mistake and misfortune.

Privilege cannot be understood in binaries, but in levels and intersections

Every person holds a constellation of identities that include both privileged and oppressed groups, including, but not limited to, caste, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion and geo-political location. Some of us are more oppressed or privileged than others. Understanding which identities and privileges push us forward and which identities and oppression pulls us back is crucial to understand how power and privilege works in action. Everyone possesses multiple identities, and these identities work together to shape each person’s societal and cultural experience. Intersectionality offers a holistic lens to look at how these social and political systems interact. An intersectional lens helps us understand the co-existence of our identities in two primary ways:

  • Some individuals and communities face multiple levels of discrimination and oppression, when they belong to more than one marginalized group. Ex: Dalit queer womxn (caste, sexuality and gender oppression), muslim womxn with disability (religion, gender and disability)
  • For some individuals and communities, oppression and privilege intersect, instead of multiple levels of oppression. Ex: heterosexual Savarna womxn (heterosexuality and savarna being privilege identities and womxn being oppressed identity), upper class gay men, heterosexual Savarna men with disability.

Can you ‘undo’ your privilege?

‘Privilege’ is a social and political position, a reality, a structural fact — that stems out of a system and hence one cannot ‘choose’ to ‘not be privileged’. The ‘choice’ however lies in how we make sense of it, engage with the system and act against it. However, a person with privilege, who may work to become incredibly aware and empathetic, make certain lifestyle shifts, and even attempt to deviate social norms or stereotypes, but can still be seen and treated as privileged by the world. Ex, a Savarna person’s privilege won’t go away if they ‘choose’ to get away with their last name. And that’s why this conversation is important to have.

Now that we have unpacked some core layers of privilege, let’s get into the next part which moves our understanding of privilege a little further from here, and specifically digs into some existential questions that makes our engagement with privilege hard and ineffective.

Note (We have used the following terms in the articles that might be new):

  • The term ‘Dalit’ means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’ in Sanskrit and is a political term used for a member of lower caste communities in India
  • ‘Womxn’ is an inclusive term for cis women, trans women, non-binary and queer persons
  • The term ‘Savarna’ is used for a member of upper caste Hindu communities in India
  • The term ‘Adivasi’ is the collective term used for all the tribes and indigenous people of India

Aprajita is the Founder & CEO of Haiyya. Young feminist entrepreneur, community organizer and social justice campaigns trainer. She tweets at @AprajitaPan

Jayati is a story-curator, facilitator and coach at sensemaking lab who wonders about how people make sense of themselves, their worlds, and themselves within that world, and how to help them do that better. She tweets at @jayatidoshi

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Jayati Doshi

Jayati Doshi

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Story-curator. Facilitator. Wondering about collective sensemaking, stories, love, belonging & questions that have no complete answers. https://jayatidoshi.com/