let’s talk about privilege

I was raised in an upper middle-class house. By the time that I was in high school, my family had bought and renovated a large house in one of the country’s most affluent suburbs. I went to an extremely expensive and elite private school (that, to its credit, changed my life) because my parents’ work offered, as a benefit for expatriate employees, partial reimbursement of private school tuition. I am a person of color, but not a black or indigenous person of color. My parents and I are immigrants – I moved to the US when I was one, and I was unable to apply for citizenship until I was in college, even though I spent the vast majority of my life in the Sates. I experienced racism at my elite, private high school and sexism at home with my extremely conservative grandparents. I did well academically and was often both bullied and rewarded socially for that success. My parents are accountants and have white collar jobs, but neither of them was part of the elite growing up. Their English when we moved to the US was good enough to succeed professionally but not good enough to fit in or feel comfortable around the parents of my peers at school or to help with me with homework after elementary school. After high school, I attended Columbia University and my parents were able to pay for it without my having to apply for financial aid. As an adult, I am a high school teacher at a non-profit boarding school in India and while I myself make little money compared to my peers from school and university, I do have a familial safety net that enables me to fly home to the States to see my parents twice a year and pay for graduate school. I feel fear every time I accidentally walk the streets of the city where I live and forget to wear a scarf covering the shape of my breasts or wear too-short a dress in the wrong neighborhood, but also benefit from the privilege of being cisgender. I have strong bonds with my friends from both school and university and I am exceptionally close to my grandparents, parents, and brother. My mother is one of my best friends in the world. I love the work that I do every day. I believe that the work that I do is unjustly compensated – teachers are paid less than any profession with equivalent education requirements and I believe that it is because educators are disproportionately female. Within that unfairness, I am better compensated than most because my nonprofit is well-funded and because I tend to get a boost because of my degree – even sometimes relative to equally (or more) skilled colleagues.

In short, privilege is complicated. I, like most of my peers, have identities that shape how we make meaning of my life, both as a result of privilege and as a result of marginalization. As a teacher who works with adolescents, I think it is important to reflect on the identities that make us who we are, so that we know what experiences, biases, and beliefs we bring into our classroom.

What follows, then, is an exploration of two of the identities I carry.

an identity of privilege: class

I’ve spent my entire educational experience in expensive and elite institutions. Regardless of my relative level of privilege within those communities, the training I got at these schools has definitely given me confidence and hence access to a snowball of elite spaces. Anthony Abraham Jack’s book, The Privileged Poor, talks about those who come to elite high schools on full scholarships, often for high school or 11th and 12th grade, and the access to a ‘hidden curriculum’ this opportunity then gives them. I’m not a member of the privileged poor – partial assistance with heavy tuition bills mean that I can and should still consider myself financially privileged – but I was more privileged as a result of my school experience than my parents’ income levels or education levels would ordinarily imply.

My parents’ social circle was primarily created and maintained at the Hindu temple in the DC Metropolitan area. My family was one of a small number that chose to send children to private school, a choice that isolated me from much of the Indian-American community that surrounded us. As a child, I experienced that as marginalization – I didn’t have friends and was often off to the side at religious or community events. It was only when I was accepted to an elite university that I experienced it as privilege, as I had benefited from attending a school that had a strong pipeline to top universities.

My father’s workplace also provided an allowance for my family and me to fly to India every two years. The resulting privilege led me to develop a much stronger ethnic-racial identity than many of my immigrant peers, which was further aided by studying at a DC independent school, where many of my peers and classmates were from diplomatic families with strong identities that I could learn from and aspire to. I was socialized to believe that this stronger ethnic-racial identity made me better than other immigrant peers – that I was more mature, more grounded, and more in touch with both cultures. This belief was reinforced by pejorative depictions of Indian-Americans, or “American born confused Desis” in Bollywood movies and music.

When I was in 12th grade, I read The Namesake, a novel about Indian-American families that struggle with their identity and their culture over two generations in the United States. It helped me realize that my sense of identity was helped significantly by the ability to fly to India every summer, rendering me fluent in my ‘mother tongue,’ close to my extended family, and familiar with India as a real place rather than an abstract reality. This realization changed me – reframing much of what I perceived as my innate strengths and personality as a product of privilege that I had relatively little to do with – and was my first experience thinking about my own socialization.

As an adult, I have struggled a lot (and continue to struggle) with my privilege and the ways that I continue to be socialized. In my first job, I got a ‘pay bump’ as a result of my degree – my starting salary was higher than other first-year educators because I went to Columbia. I definitely thought this was deserved – I believed in a meritocracy that I had succeeded in. It didn’t help that those who thought my pay bump was unfair were also misogynistic, and would intersperse arguments about the meritocracy with the fact that I was a woman (i.e. that I didn’t deserve the pay bump because I wasn’t going to be a ‘breadwinner’), which made it much harder for me to be receptive to any potential truth in their criticism.

Now I work at a nonprofit school that holds pay equity at its core, but my education still gives me often unfair access to conversations and ensures that my voice gets heard at work. Times where I am inarticulate or nervous are not taken as evidence that I’m incompetent, but rather, that I’m nervous. This doesn’t happen for most of my colleagues, who have fewer chances to get it ‘right’ even though their embodied knowledge as marginalized women in a nonprofit dedicated to girls often outstrips my own. I try to use my voice to amplify theirs, but I don’t know how to change the system or structure that continues to privilege my thoughts over theirs.

an identity of (partial) marginalization: Indian/Indian-American

Even though my parents did attend colleges in India, I felt (and still feel) like a first-generation college student. My mother stopped being able to help me with homework in 5th grade, my father in 8th. Classmates regularly excluded me, and me alone, from birthday parties, recreational teams, and group projects. One parent told my mother that people like us “didn’t belong” at my school, after which she stopped coming to any games or performances I had at school for years.

My brother and I spoke “Disney Channel” English at school, so we knew how to talk about love and romance but didn’t know, for example, the words for camera or potato. A lot of those lessons, for me, came either through embarrassing public incidents or through reading books, which for me was a much safer world than the classroom for many years.

Growing up, I associated my Indian identity with experiences of marginalization. Today, I am both an Indian immigrant to the US and an American immigrant to India. Now, my Indian identity also comes with caste identity. I am Brahmin, which forces me to add an element of privilege that I’d never considered salient before 2016.

When I started teaching, much of the paperwork has required me to declare my caste, and students have expressed discomfort or awe when they realize that I’m upper caste. When I talked about my brother’s rudram lessons, the knowing smiles from some colleagues suddenly represented a caste-based cleavage that I didn’t know to expect. Suddenly, a tradition and identity that I’d associated with marginalization became one of immense privilege – a dissonance I am still trying to figure out and internalize.

synthesis

There are many, many ways in which I am deeply privileged. Considering that I am currently employed, supported, and happy, I’m inclined to state that my privilege outweighs the ways in which I am and have been marginalized. But those stories, too, are true, have impacted the person that I am, and are deeply unfair. In the classroom, I hope that reflecting upon my privileged identities grants me humility when hearing the struggles of students who don’t share them and that remembering my own experiences of marginalization gives me empathy and compassion for the young women who are just beginning their own journeys.

Over the last 1500 words, I reflect on two aspects of my identity that are important but not the core identities that I use to drive my work and my person. My most salient identities (and most significant experiences of marginalization) are those around gender and sexuality, but I don’t yet know how to discuss these with the right balance of authenticity and nuance on paper or with any semblance of concision. I struggle to write about the many ways I have been socialized around gender, about the many beliefs that I hold at least in part because of internalized patriarchy, about the pain and struggle when acknowledging that some of what rings true for me personally can be oppressive to others. In one of my other classes, a student problematized an issue in literature on bilingualism: in describing diglossia, one academic wrote about ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of the same language for different contexts (Arabic is the classic example of this). The student, rightly, brought up that the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ perpetuate the privileging of certain kinds of knowledge over others. I, however, suddenly realized, through the discussion and through the vocabulary of ‘high’ and ‘low’, that Tamil, my mother tongue, was also diglossic. Suddenly, my childhood confusion with the news or a politician’s speech were not a product of ignorance but rather a documented linguistic phenomenon. My experience with gender is similar – I find wrestling with the various concepts and languages both societally problematic and personally illuminating. Perhaps a topic for another post.

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