Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Privilege

I have been thinking about privilege lately, and subtle ways in which those in the majority (in an area, a country, a profession - any context you can think of) flaunt it, often unintentionally. Of course, male privilege has long been paired with sexism, but there are so many other kinds. In India, there's caste for instance. Remember all the brouhaha about the song from Aaja Nachle two years ago? I shrugged my shoulders then, and wondered what the big deal was, feeling that the song wasn't offensive at all. And then I read this, and recognised my privilege for what it was. I live in urban India, I was brought up Hindu and almost always taken for one, I am rarely asked my caste - and if I were, I would probably give a blank look and claim I don't know (which would be a lie, but that's the politest way I can think of of answering that question). I am not from a lower caste, I am not a Dalit: I have never had to face the kind of oppression they still routinely face.

The festival season makes me wonder at the kind of privilege Hindus routinely show. Loud bhajans blare out; young men come around asking for donations for the neighbourhood pooja, people send forwards to their entire contact list invoking Ganesha(or some other Hindu god)'s blessings. It annoys me: I can only imagine what people from minority religions feel.

Last year, the Guy and I visited a friend's house on Diwali. Our host and his roommate performed pooja: they also insisted that we join them in the rituals they were performing. The guests in the room were the Guy and I, both atheists; one Christian woman; and one Muslim guy. The Guy and I were merely amused at the procedure, but the Muslim friend seemed distinctly uncomfortable. It's unfair to abuse your privilege as a host to make your guest take part in a ritual that is against his religion. (And yes, the Muslim friend had politely remained outside the room and only come in after he was asked to more than once; he sat in a corner for some time but was repeatedly asked to participate; and he finally left the room. He was too polite to voice disagreement, however.)

I have witnessed (or endured) marked signs of privilege in north (and to an extent, west) Indians. The other day I was told confidently that everyone celebrates Raksha Bandhan or Bhai Dooj or some similar festival to celebrate brothers, right after I mentioned that it was not celebrated in Assam. Being asked whether I was fasting for Karvachauth merely displays an ignorance of my culture (Karvachauth isn't a part of either Assamese or Gujarati culture, so there's no reason why the Guy and I would celebrate it even if we were religious). But being asked something of that sort - or whether, for instance, we had done a pooja for the house - also makes me wonder why the questioner assumed that I am Hindu (because a name or a face isn't a good enough indicator, is it?) Is everyone assumed to be a Hindu unless proven otherwise?

I am not singling out any particular community, though. One of the most rude comments I got was from an Assamese acquaintance who, on learning that my fiancé and in-laws were vegetarian, suggested that they should be fed non-vegetarian food. He was extremely surprised to learn that I was vegetarian as well (because, of course, in his limited mind, one has to be born into one's life, not make one's own choices: I'm surprised how people of such mental capacities manage to get jobs and earn a decent living).

We Indians are surprisingly intolerant of difference, given how many different communities and cultures there exist in the country. I suppose it comes from being part of relatively insular communities. I can only hope there are so many inter-community marriages that the lines between communities blur.


Anonymous said...

Yes it really annoys me whenever i am being identified or expected to be in certain way. Even in my own home i am repeatedly asked to take part in rituals that i don't believe in. When you refuse to oblige you are being seen as arrogant and alien or insulting their sentiments.

"one has to be born into one's life, not make one's own choices"

When people realize how wrong this is, most of the issues we Indians face in our society ceases.

Unmana said...

hamactor: Being repeatedly asked to participate in rituals you don't believe in in your own home is a bit different from displays of privilege by near-strangers, though. Don't they take your refusals seriously? When you say 'in your own home', I take it it's parents or older relatives who insist?

Your last line contains a sentiment I thoroughly believe in. I believe we do not spend enough time questioning and analysing the choices we have.

Dr. Ally Critter said...

"being forced to participate" is what gets my goat too. Or having to step very carefully around religious feelings. I recently posted something on my facebook- a link to someone who had a parody of the Bible as a political statement. And one of my schoolmates, without reading the context went on a "I am so outraged" martyrdom spree. I have not brought the link down, but I wonder, don't people even read?

Anonymous said...

I agree that one should not be forced to participate in religious rituals.On the other hand, I remember this incident where thi christian person vehemently refused to accept prasad from an old woman (I was just a bystander to this event at my friend's place).The prasad was normal mithai which I am sure he would have eaten anyway.So its not like giving pork to a jew or beef to a hindu.I felt, he could have simply taken the prasad in his hand,without causing such a big scene.Especially since its difficult to make the old woman understand what is 'politically correct' or not.

Nilesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nilesh said...

lostonthestreet: Why should the old lady force anyone to take that 'prasad' anyway? If you don't want it don't take it - why should anyone force you, no matter how old or young

dipali said...

The assumption of a homogenous culture is most annoying. And TV has added to this propaganda in the worst way.
I've fought with school administrators against the caste column in employment forms, to no great avail, but I felt it was necessary.
So many stupid people think they are doing a great favour by including 'others' in their rituals.

Unmana said...

@lankr1ta: Not surprising that religious people are touchy, is it?

lostonthestreet: Eating prasad is a ritual too. I would probably take prasad if it was offered me just to avoid confrontation, even though it would make me uncomfortable. But it does have religious significance, and I think a person has every right to refuse. Think of it from that person's perspective: taking prasad might be sacrilege, depending on their beliefs.

Someone being old doesn't mean others should bend over backwards to fulfill their irrational demands, does it?

Nil: I agree.

Dipali: I agree completely. We've had a similar discussion on forms before. :-)

Aishwarya said...

Just saw this - 1. I (obviously) completely agree with you. 2. Thank you!

Nitu Saksena said...

That sooo true... When I moved to Bangalore everyone asked me if i was Cristain or Muslim (which I am not) coz i didn wear bindi!! I used to get very offended coz i wasnt raise to belive that i must wear a bindi just because I'm Hindu. I felt why do you have to bother about my religion!! And as you said forcing someone to follow your own religous beliefs is soo terrible!!

Sarkywoman said...

Yes, we Indians are amazingly intolerant. About everything! The way we eat.. "Oh, you eat with your HANDS?" I've been asked. Or "You washed your hair on a FRIDAY?!" (By the superstitious).

Everyone thinks the way they do things is right. And they react by disapproving or laughing at those who do things differently.

Pallavi Sharma said...

hey, no more posts?
everything alright?

Unmana said...

Sorry for being so lazy about replying to comments.

Aishwarya: You know I'm a fan of your blog!

NuttyNits: Indeed, I never thought wearing a bindi was an integral part of being Hindu, but I'd faced the same (though not often) when I was one. However - why did you find it offensive that you were assumed to be non-Hindu?

Sarkywoman: "I do a lot of other things with my hands too... Would you like to know more?"

simplypallu: Everything's fine, thanks. I've just not felt like posting, and only realised now that I hadn't been replying to comments either. I'll be back soon, I hope!

Anonymous said...

I can only hope there are so many inter-community marriages that the lines between communities blur.

Unmana I am just finishing a post that touches upon this. I wish we'd see a world where this happens...

I always thought the person offering prasad and including the other person in the pooja was being very liberal... though I perform none and I have faced subtle criticism about err... lack of sanskar (....) now that's a subject close to my heart but I didn't start a discussion, out of polieness (....)
I fully agree with you - in a way this post is a bit of an eye opener...

Unmana said...

IHM: I also saw nothing wrong earlier, with including other people in your rituals. It was only when I read the Mad Momma's post on the subject (it was a long time ago, I think, not sure I can find it) that i thought more about the same. Then I witnessed that incident that I wrote about, on Diwali last year. It's nice to invite someone to participate, but it should be quite all right if they refuse.

Vetirmagal said...

Well said. Intolerant and for being different , one may be punished in various ways too. Subtly, cunningly, by friends and relatives.

This is our culture..mmm

Good Post.

the mad momma said...

i have no idea how i landed on this old post but i'm glad i did. i cant find that post either. maybe it was on the old blog. but i have to reply to lost on the street - someone being older than you doesnt make your religious beliefs any less important, right? while i have begun to accept prasad over the years, i have to admit it was a huge struggle to so blatantly violate every tenet i had been raised with. and now its simply a matter of principle to me - why are my beliefs less important than the other's? but i just take it to avoid a scene and because i dont really have any strong religious beliefs any longer - atleast not in this matter.

Unmana said...

the mad momma: Yes, I think it was on the old blog. It opened my eyes a bit, because while I agreed with you in principle before, I had never really thought about or faced anything like it.

In a way, I'm as vehemently atheist as most people are religious. I refuse to participate in something I don't believe in. Not that I never do or never have, but I feel like a hypocrite when I do, and I feel annoyed when I am expected to participate. Why should your beliefs override mine?

And I appreciate more and more what minorities have to go through. We are all minorities in some way or the other, yet so insensitive to everyone else.