“Shhh, Your Privilege is Showing!” What the Liberal Woke Ignore When No One’s Looking

Social Commentary

“Shhh, Your Privilege is Showing!” What the Liberal Woke Ignore When No One’s Looking

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

“Why do you care so much about Section 377? You’re not one of them, are you?”

In the past couple of months, I’ve received variants of this reaction countless times for voicing my opinion in favour of LGBTQ+ rights in India. It’s as ignorant as it is insensitive, representing the perspective of people who haven’t paused to consider what life must be like for someone who doesn’t fit in with society’s definition of “normal”. But here’s the irony: All of these responses have come from well-meaning people I hold in high esteem. People who are woke, say the right things, and put their weight behind the right causes.

It’s not the only reason their misguided sentiment affects me. What guts me more is that this is exactly the way I used to think a few years ago. And if I hadn’t befriended queer people or familiarised myself with their daily struggles, I would have very easily been the one hurling “That’s so gay, lol!” as a comeback, a joke, or an insult. The lines of separation were that thin.

I usually have an array of comebacks ready to counter everyday homophobic statements, such as, “Do you realise that any form of sex that is not vaginal intercourse is technically illegal, according to the law?” or “It’s 2018, shouldn’t you stop viewing homosexuality as a psychological disorder?”. But there have been instances when I have kept quiet. More importantly, I can afford to choose silence only because people’s opinion on queer rights don’t affect me personally. Because I’m straight.

It didn’t take me long to realise that my heterosexuality is my privilege that shields me from being actively affected by the persecutions of homosexuals in the country or from regularly taking a stand in their favour. Like me, the people who look at homosexuality as a crime have the luxury of being ignorant because of their entitlement as straight, mostly upper-caste, and upper-class individuals. So many of us find it difficult to interpret how power and privilege operate, until we personally bear the consequences. It’s why Marie Antoinette was able to say, “Let them eat cake”.

Recognising privilege is a lot like sex education in India: You are never formally taught about it and are expected to shoulder the responsibility of educating yourself. So we all develop blind spots – until it becomes relevant to our own life.

For instance, when the Bhima Koregaon protests had reached Mumbai, my colleague had proclaimed that there was no need for these protests. In her eyes, it was only the upper-caste folk who end up suffering, “I know a Dalit who is a doctor and he’s not oppressed. So reservations are a failure,” she swiftly concluded. The unbelievable part about this exchange was that it came from a rational person who had opened my eyes to the perils of patriarchy and gender discrimination. The fact that she could comfortably ignore the attacks on Dalits peacefully commemorating an event important to Dalit history, baffled me.

As a person who recognised and spoke against privilege in the context of gender, how could she refuse to see it in the context of caste and social injustice?

The answer I believe, lies in the amount of indifference our varying privilege allows us. My colleague isn’t alone in her ignorance. No matter how woke we’d like to be, all of us have entitlement that we are willing to see and entitlement that we can afford to turn a blind eye to. My colleague’s blind spot was caste and for a lot of other people, it can be race, gender, sexuaity, and even disability.

The truth is that we’re all guilty of fostering our own unique sets of blind spots. But how long can we use the excuse of not recognising injustice only because it hasn’t knocked on our doors?

If you’re a young Indian woman navigating your way in sexist professional waters, chances are that, like me, you’d grasped the concept of gender privilege pretty early. We saw how we were treated differently and conditioned to police our behaviour. Deep down, we believed that we would be held responsible for our own abuse if we don’t dress or act a certain way. It’s why we are constantly aware of the power men hold over us. And also why most men seem to be oblivious about gender inequality being ingrained in our society – their chosen blind spot.

We’re consciously making efforts to live up to our inherently damaging conditioning instead of rectifying it. Like men who complain that women aren’t hard-working because they always want to leave early from work… the same men who also demand a clean house and a home-cooked meal from their working wives. Or rich kids who sincerely advise their middle-class friends with unhappy jobs to “quit and travel!” as the way out of a difficult phase.

In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh says, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognise white privilege, as males are taught not to recognise male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

The truth is that we’re all guilty of fostering our own unique sets of blind spots. But how long can we use the excuse of not recognising injustice only because it hasn’t knocked on our doors?