Check your privilege

It is a rare class where the word ‘privilege’ particularly ‘white privilege’ does not get mentioned.  Although it is a term thrown around often, what does it actually mean within the context of our experiences in India so far?  Are our experiences, our thoughts privileged?  Despite the effort we put into counteracting such forces, it is often inescapable.  The best we can sometimes do is acknowledge its presence.

Discrimination in all forms is present everywhere, but sometimes it is less noticeable than at other times.  Sometimes it can work in my favor – i.e. when I am allowed to pay the Indian price at tourist sites just based on the color of my skin.  At other times (aka most), it can be infuriating.  The reality is that people are treated differently on the basis of the color of their skin, inherent judgments are made based on looks.  White tourists are seen as easy targets by thieves, but also as novelties by natives.  Last weekend, my program took a trip to Mumbai where we went on a walking tour of famous sites from VT Station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Station) to our hotel right by the Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum).  The next day we visited another museum and in the afternoon went to visit a Durga Puja pandal in, you guessed it, Shivaji Park.  The crowd was crazy, but it was a great experience.

However, one part of the experience really bothered me.  Our group was given VIP access to the pandal since we were tourists.  The organizers wanted to make a good impression on the foreigners and showed us through a special back entrance.  As we each took off our shoes, we entered the passageway one by one and upon entering, I was stopped by a staff member at the door.  He threw his arm up in front of me and said, “Yahaan nahin jaa sakthe,” (You can’t go this way).  I was flabbergasted.  I was following my friend right in, but he did not seem to get that.  He saw brown skin, which equals Indian so not part of the foreigner group.  I was about to reply, “Main uske saath hoon,” (I’m with them) when I realized I’ll have more of an effect speaking in English with my American accent even if he couldn’t understand so I pointed at my friend and said clearly, “But I’m with them!”  He immediately put his arm down.  As I passed through, I was furious that he would stop me, but then thinking about it even more as I walked ahead and entered in front of the Goddess Durga, I got even angrier for a completely different reason.

I, along with the rest of my classmates, was standing right in front of the giant statue of Durgaji riding her tiger, a couple of yards from the pandits conducting rituals for the puja.  Behind us was a crowd of people behind metal blocks pushing to get to the front for a chance to see the statues and say their prayers.  The rest of my group looked around, took their couple of photos, and walked out.  I took photos, bent my head and prayed, then walked out, all the while thinking.  How is this fair?  Why do we get special treatment for something that means nothing to us while the people for which this is their biggest holiday of the year is forced to jostle their way for a glimpse of Durgaji?  They have come for their faith, an auspicious event, while we just snap some pictures, marvel at the beauty, and go on with our day.  I know it may not seem like a big deal, but the injustice really struck me.

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These kind of things happen every day – it is not exclusively true in India, but when we have the power to change it, I believe it’s important to take action.  I am not really blaming any particular person for being at fault – we as tourists didn’t know any better and the organizers wanted to make a good impression.  However, the end result is the ultimate issue.  This need to please blinds us from what is important so we must be aware and push back against it.

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