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Part 3: Why does talking about privilege matter at all?

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

By Aprajita Pandey and Jayati Doshi

When we first began to ask these questions, the voice of cynicism first took over: “It’s unfortunate, this unfairness, but this is what it is. Shouldn’t we be figuring out how to navigate this unfair world rather than questioning everything”.

Which opened up the question we were extremely uncomfortable to ask: why does dismantling systemic privilege matter in the first place? Why should we, as people with certain privileges, give anything up?

We will let you think about that for a minute.

Was that hard to answer? We struggled too. If you are anything like us, you are probably wondering, as we did — isn’t fairness and justice just a good thing to have? But why, that voice asked again.

A few answers we came up with (and this may not be an exhaustive list at all):

Morality. And empathy.

Think of a time when you felt you were unfairly treated — what did that feel like? There are groups of people who have experienced that for generations, the burden of disadvantage piling up over the years.

No one should have to feel that way.

But what about the fact that the world can never be fully fair?

There is a difference between fairness as something that works or doesn’t work out in your favour, and access to fairness. If the conversation about privilege was something that was just at the level of something turning out to be unfair for someone out of chance, it would not matter that much. Systemic and social privilege isn’t the same thing — it isn’t about one just being “lucky” to be born a certain way — it is about groups of people being specifically denied access to that kind of “luck” at all.

And it matters because when we assume this unfair world to be “normal”, even if unfortunately so, we are also assuming that it is okay for it to be that way for some people, resigning to it, and through that, continuing to carry the legacy of that injustice.

“Fully fair” is a contentious thing because of the scarcity assumption

But what about reservations? Why do you have women’s days but no “men’s days”? Why aren’t there straight pride parades?. This conversation almost always comes down to such whataboutery.

The simple (but not really so simple) answer we had for that was for those of us who are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

We wanted to see if we could go deeper.

Here’s where that got us (none of this is new and we are by no means the first ones to point this out — we just wanted to bring this in):

We realised that underneath these fears of “losing our privilege and thus getting the unfair end of the stick” lay the scarcity assumption that the only way to make things fair for someone is to make them unfair for others. This “either-or” perhaps comes from believing that the world can only be one way — the way that we have known it to.

  • If we assume that opportunities are scarce, we land up interpreting giving more people access to those opportunities as competition. (“If Dalits start getting all our seats, what will happen to us?”)
  • If we assume that there is just one “right answer”, only one “normal” or that there can only be a limited number of people in the spotlight (and that that is the only way to be heard), and furthermore attach all these things to one’s worthiness (instead of believing worth to be something that is inherent to all), the risk of no longer being always right, or not the focus in the spotlight or “not normal” might feel like risking loss of worth. Which makes it feel like a bigger deal than it is. (“If gay marriages become normal, it will set a bad example on our kids, no?”)
  • If we assume that social identity is always hierarchical, challenging the current social structure could then only mean creating a different hierarchy where we would be lower. (“Do these feminists want to create a matriarchal order now?”)

The scarcity assumption in itself is something that was embedded in our culture by those in power. By constantly reiterating the above assumptions by creating systems (political/ economic/ social), laws, narratives and language that reflect that, those in power keep people thinking that any change is threatening — and thus dissuade them from considering change.

Sometimes, even the people trying to dismantle the system fall under the trap of these assumptions. For example, dismissing someone’s struggles or feelings as “not valid enough” because they have certain privileges, we assume that emotions are scarce and only certain people can feel them.

To be clear, this is not to say all struggles are equal. All we are trying to say is that, at an individual level, all people have equal right to feel pain, hurt, disappointment, let-down for their experience, and it is not for anyone to define what someone can feel. And at the same time, this is where the individual vs. systemic aspect comes in: movements for social change address systemic struggles faced by entire groups due to historical reasons — which is why voices from the margins matter, and why they need to be at the forefront of our social movements.

We want to take this argument a step further. These movements matter also because -

A fairer world is good for all of us.

And we need it. Just because you figured out the way to navigate an unfair world and make it work for you (again, which was partly easier because of your privilege), doesn’t mean that the world works. Crises like Covid-19 emphasise the fact that the world is not working as well as we think it is. And if we have to survive this crisis — and all the crises that are probably going to continue coming our way — we need new imaginations, new possibilities.

In order to get to that, we need to challenge our assumptions, change our language and find new ways of being that dissolve the scarcity mindset. It needs all of us to find radical new ways of thinking about the world, and then come up with solutions to build a world that is inherently different from the one we are in. That requires not just giving access to those previously denied (although that is also important), but also creating a new world order that can allow more people to benefit from the access. Oftentimes, those in the margins — who because of their positions have a lot more distance from the “normative” are better suited to do this than those of us at the center of the advantages.

To imagine this new world is a massive task, and it requires ALL of us. It requires us to move past our personal sense of threat so that we can all begin to pay attention to the larger threat to our world. It requires us to hold all of our multiple stories together and use our lenses as vantage points to imagine a new direction.

Moreover, accounting for those in the margins in design also does good for whom the world already works. For example, designing a curriculum that takes care of the weaker students or students with special learning needs improves the learning design as a whole that works for everyone. Similarly, Covid-19 has unfolded one critical truth that social justice movements have been advocating and demanding for years. We are only as safe as the person who has the least among us. So the moment our social, political, economic and legal systems serve the ones who are at the margins, it automatically serves everyone.

This also requires us to exhibit an enhanced capacity to hold all these ideas together. This capacity can be built only by going beyond our capacity, and that process of transformation is painful and hard. Which is why a more empathetic, patient but also thoughtful response matters. And any story that is simple and doesn’t account for this complexity moves us away from this — at the same time, a story that doesn’t include all other stories is incomplete, not invalid.

We get into some ways to do so in Part 4 of the series.

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 indigenious 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. She 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


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