Identity, Privilege and the Staircase

  With Identity, there may come privilege. In my case, it certainly does. My privilege has got to do with being a Tribal from a certain class background. That's right. I am a member of the ST caste and I acknowledge a certain amount of privilege, which is not to say that I face no discrimination or inequality of opportunity, but to acknowledge the fact that in many little ways, my access to the world is not the same as other members of my community.

Photo by Esther Wiegardt on Unsplash

  My father is a Tribal hailing from Jharkhand and my mother is a Goan. Both were born and raised in the metropolitan cities of Delhi and Mumbai. I was born and brought up in Mumbai. I call myself culture-less. But if you needed a word of identification based on where I come from, I would call myself a Mumbaikar. Growing up, for better or for worse and solely their own private reasons and maybe even shortcomings, my parents did not introduce me to or educate me about their cultures. Till date, it's a rather tedious task to exact information about Jharkhand or Goa from them. Most of what I know about both places and cultures has trickled down from conversations with family over Easter dinner or a shared meal at any other time of the year. Or, you know, when anyone in the family decided to visit the native place. I know what you're thinking. So what? You could still engage with your family members who are open to answering questions. Right. I agree. Except for certain personal and no community-based reasons, I have never felt close enough to my family to do so. Ergo, sometimes, like an alien entity, I learn about the cultures that birthed me through the internet. That's how I first understood caste privilege. 

  For as long as I can remember, I had a difficult time accepting that caste exists in modern India. I understood differences in economic backgrounds, but never caste. My father has a caste certificate. I do not (because of a corrupt process). And so I've never used a caste certificate. In all honesty, I've never needed it. Please understand that I am academically weak and the certificate would have definitely helped me. But my weaknesses are helped by my privilege. The privilege of being a middle-class, English speaking, fairly well-travelled Indian citizen. These traits of my identity are steeped in privilege, and help me navigate life and academics without a certificate. I believe that my privilege accords me no need for one. Here, I would like to clarify my thoughts - all members from marginalised castes and communities (even privileged members) have every right to access affirmative action provisions because everyone's privilege is different. I think that this also helps to build the community and to help each other. Because the playing field - within the community and outside of it - is definitely not equal. 

  But what has recently had me at odds with privilege, to my own surprise, is not caste but the English language. In retrospect, apart from being qualified, I also think that the reason my father could get a stable and well-paying Government job was because he could speak in English - that one very distinct ability that 125 million Indian people share. He had his own set of barriers to face before he could learn the language. I didn't. He didn't have the access and privilege that would be required to have a thriving sports career (he had been a district level swimmer in school). I did. He has been belittled with respect to his caste throughout childhood and adulthood, at school and the workplace. I have been too. Yet, our struggles have been completely different. And so, I won't equate them.

  My father still doesn't share the extent of his life experiences with me. He proudly says, "I am a tribal," but never speaks of his struggles to me. It's almost like he has tried to forget those parts of his past, passing on only the sunshine-y parts to me through little, oh so little, tales of vacations spent in the village and the tall grass of the farms. And I don't know if I'll ever find out.

  I've been made to feel guilty about my caste by schoolmates, teachers, friends and even certain family members. It's a constant part of life. Oh, you tribals with your quotas. It's not fair to the common man of India. But I've grown to be in a position where I can engage in dialogue with people to help them understand that there can't be equality after a history of oppression, but only equity. And equity requires affirmative action. A lot of such dialogue (I'm still learning), on my part, is possible because I can access articles and information on the internet - most of which are written in English. It's the reason why I can not only use but also, to a certain extent, understand fancy jargon. And fancy jargon, sadly, shuts most people up even when they don't agree with or understand one's point. Because as long as you fit a powerful language narrative and the expectation of the lifestyle that comes with it, you aren't "considered to be other." Oh, you're one of the good ones. Which again points to the issue of speaker privilege, apart from the obvious caste discrimination.

Photo by Matthew Garoffolo on Unsplash

  The ability to speak English, from childhood, has definitely accorded me privilege. This didn't strike me as hard until very recently. A friend of mine was looking for a part-time job but didn't think that she could get a job like I had. Simply because she couldn't speak as fluently or confidently in English. Think about it, some of the most popular part-time jobs are writing and social media based. A lot of these jobs can also be done from home and while they aren't as easy to do, they are also not very hard to get. However, not everyone in the country has a fair shot at them. It really irked me that my friend had this barrier in her path - a barrier that I had never faced. I've held 5 part-time jobs since I was 17. In retrospect, speaking English helped me have access to them. I do think that, post-graduation, I could definitely land a job. Even if it's one that doesn't pay much. Simply, because I can read, write and speak in English. Knowing English also means that more often than not, people are more willing to hear what you have to say and more willing to engage with you. Now, how unfair is that? 

  Obviously, speaking English doesn't mean that I'm infinitely privileged. Yes, I am privileged in certain ways but I'm also not privileged in many other aspects. I work a part-time job, sometimes jobs, because I need the money to support myself - in the little ways that I can - and to save up for future education. I can afford only public transportation. Going to a cafe with friends means an entire revision of the monthly budget to find money to spend and to make sure I'm not asking from my parents what they cannot humanly give. I actually go out very rarely. I've renounced birthdays and gifting - haha. It has become a running joke in my family, but outside of social circles, the restaurants we most frequent are affordable udipis. We're always looking to save money because we've known economic instability and financial crunches. It's a ghost that continuously haunts us. And yet, we are privileged in ways that others just aren't. 

  There's no hard or fast measure of privilege. Like a friend told me recently, "Privilege is a staircase." You may have varying levels of access while some may have absolutely none. And maybe, we could all do better and know where we stand, so that we could turn the staircase into an equity-based playing field. 
  I think we can. What do you think?