How I Confronted My Own Privilege as a Person of Color

The ongoing discourse over racial injustice in my adopted country has had me thinking of my own upbringing in India.
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“Of course, people have heard of caste ... But few understand both its persistence and its cruelty for the hundreds of millions of people it designates as undesirable.”

Photo by Amar Wankhede / EyeEm.

“Frankly, Prashant, if I weren’t an exceptional student, I would have committed suicide long ago.”

Having asked my colleague Tanmay Waghmare to tell me about his background, I was shocked by the above response. He’s not given to exaggeration, and what he says chills me to my bones.

He and I had been chatting in the cafeteria at Microsoft, where we both worked and, from all outward appearances, were just two Indian guys having a lunch. But the differences in our backgrounds are deep, wide, and invidious: I am an upper-caste and Tanmay is Dalit, a member of Indian’s lower caste.

How we got to this point of convergence—as employees of Microsoft—is a tale of deep deprivation and extraordinary strength on Tanmay’s part and privilege and mediocrity on mine. It’s an object lesson in the inequality of endowments and circumstances wrought by India’s caste system that is still widely practiced today.

Indian casteism and U.S racism are twin vessels of oppression in different lands.

How I got to be interested in Tanmay’s story is a lesson in itself. The ongoing discourse over racial injustice in my adopted country has had me thinking of my own upbringing in India. Indian casteism and U.S racism are twin vessels of oppression in different lands. And it has been only through understanding white privilege in this country that I’ve come to recognize my own caste privilege.

That privilege, into which I was born and which has facilitated who I am today came from the same system that stymied Tanmay at every stage of his life, mirroring in even starker terms, the very systems of inequality and injustice that America has been grappling with for generations.

While I had been somewhat engaged on the issue of caste oppression before having lunch that day with Tanmay, our conversation was a wake-up call. It had never occurred to me to look inward at my own privilege and measure it against the experiences of people like him.

Of course, people have heard of caste, a complex system of hereditary and occupation-based segregation that has been an organizing principle of much of the Indian subcontinent for millennia. But few understand both its persistence and its cruelty for the hundreds of millions of people it designates as undesirable.

I was lucky to be born into a family in which almost all members graduated university. Though still beset with traditional gender roles, our family had done well—the adult men found stable jobs that afforded us middle-class luxuries.

In a country still recovering from colonial destitution and characterized by great inequality, this achievement was important. Though my ancestors were largely small-business men and traders, both of my grandfathers found their path in education and assumed professional roles in the growing and newly independent country. By the time my generation came, the basic existential needs of life were taken care of. In that sense, my childhood and adolescence were easy and filled with the joys of privilege.

Tanmay was not so fortunate. As he was caught in the punishing cycle of India’s caste, his birthright was not education and privilege, but hardship and despair. For literally thousands of years, generations of his family were locked into the nasty, thankless profession of skinning dead animals and burning corpses in rural India—the occupation of both his grandfathers by the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947. Dalits, formerly called untouchables, number some 200 million in today’s India—about 16.6 percent of the population. Their filthy menial jobs, scraping the very bottom of India’s economic barrel, include manual scavengers, janitors, animal rearers, and corpse handlers. The titles of these occupations are actual slur words in the common vernacular. High-caste children weren’t permitted to play with the children of Dalits for reasons of hygiene. The label of impurity granted by religious sanction gave us a scientific term in which to wrap our bigotry and feel good about it.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t think much of caste; I didn’t have to.

This lack of occupational diversity and related deprivation in Tanmay’s community was not simply a matter of happenstance, but the determined product of a carefully planned and enforced system of slavery. Not only was this a synthetic or man-made system, but it was sold to the Indian population as part and parcel of their Hindu religion.

I recall first hearing about caste when I was 8. My mother told me in passing that our last name meant we were “Baniyas,” or members of a particular caste. Though I understood very little, I later learned from Indian mythology that Baniyas were a sub-caste of “Vaishyas,” which implied that we were tradesman by profession. I learned about the other “upper” castes at that time, too—Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Taken as a group, these members of upper castes are called “Savarnas.”

For most of my childhood, I didn’t think much of caste; I didn’t have to. I grew up in an economic and regionally diverse cosmopolitan neighborhood and with what we thought at that time to be a “modern” outlook. I had come to believe with my idealistic naiveté that, despite its power in history, the caste system had lost its strength. Untouchability, in my experience, was only invoked on history exams. Sure, people married within their caste and faced social opprobrium if they sought a partner from outside. But for the most part, as I saw it, the more damning parts of the caste system had dissipated.

India, after all, was a modernizing country with a progressive constitution and a well-developed idea of citizenship. Many learned, and influential people in Indian society shared this position.

How wrong I was. I cannot recall a single Dalit friend or family associate from my childhood. My bookish and idealistic view of caste belied the painful reality on the ground. This blindness stems from privilege, just as theoretical notions of race and racism in the U.S. belie the lived reality of the minorities who suffer. I had little idea of the difference between my idealistic picture and Tanmay’s lived reality.

The system I thought had largely disappeared was simultaneously destroying his aspirations. He was victim to scores of incidents in which he was singled out due to his caste, including by a teacher who, when Tanmay was only 8, declared he was “not even touchable, not to mention teachable.” By contrast, my childhood was filled with clear encouragement from my teachers, peers, and others in my social graph.

While for me caste was a theoretical construct, for Tanmay it was real, present, and inescapable. Not only was he bereft of any amenities, but he was also intimidated by the powerful castes around him. He grew up feeling dejected, helpless, and looked down upon—like an outcast.

For thousands of years, Tanmay’s ancestors were not even allowed in public spaces; in some places, they were not only “untouchable,” but also “unseeable.” Religious texts called for molten lead to be poured into their ears if they tried to educate themselves even by listening. In every corner of the country, Dalits were assaulted and subjugated. With unrelenting harshness and unrelenting predictability, these life-killing practices became part of culture and tradition—accepted by the Savarnas, or simply ignored.

With economic deprivation and other societal obstacles, very few Dalits make it this far in the first place.

Though there were countless uprisings throughout history—and they continue even today—untouchability persists. In fact, there’s evidence that crime against those on the lower rung is on the rise. With the ferment of the independence struggle and the leadership of Dr. B.R Ambedkar—Tanmay’s hero and prime architect of India’s constitution—Dalits did gain some civil rights, including benefits of the world’s largest affirmative action program, called reservations. But as with so many similar situations, these rights were de jure and less commonly de facto.

The particular situation with regard to higher studies further divides Savarnas and Dalits. I myself succumbed to the mainstream propaganda, but not for reasons of contempt or religious fundamentalism. The highly competitive nature of Indian university admissions—coupled with the unremitting narrative of the powerful classes and castes—creates a propagandistic environment in which the systems of affirmative action create even more hatred and divisiveness. While this exists in U.S. colleges and even in the workplace via affirmative action and diversity programs, the scale in India dwarfs what we see in the U.S.

With the system of reservations, the scores required for Dalit students to get into college are lower than for Savarnas. This is exactly how affirmative action should work, of course. It factors in the obstacles Dalits and others face along the way and attempts to balance and correct them with slightly loosened standards for admission. After all, with economic deprivation, unrelenting humiliation, and other societal obstacles, very few Dalits make it this far in the first place.

Unable to manage either economically or survive the harassment society heaps upon them, about three-quarters of Dalit students, I would later learn, drop out before graduating high school.

But for a hard-working young person like myself, with only a bookish understanding of caste, the idea of reservations seemed a blow against equality. If we want true equality, shouldn’t all standards be equal?

With these perceptions of unfairness and with the social baggage we grew up with, university life was characterized by a clear boundary between Savarnas and Dalits. I remember with great regret referring to Dalit students with derogatory terms because of the perceived injustice that my own friends were unable to get into the university while “less-qualified Dalits” were given “an easy route in.”

It’s an indication of great privilege to invoke equality only when it serves oneself and to be blind to struggles for fairness and justice—equality itself—and maintain silence when it serves others.

No doubt there were Dalits from well-to-do families who were able to avail of the reservation system to get in. But what large social system doesn’t have such cases? Savarnas in modern Indian society are overrepresented in all empowering positions in business, government, and education because of the head start they get and are more likely to choose people who belong in their social networks.

Great jobs at companies like Microsoft, are a ticket to riches.

The rich and privileged use “the system” to their advantage every day, but when someone else uses the very system in the very same way, we blanch and invoke morality. In a curious inversion, we declare ourselves victims.

Dalit students, who have fought tooth and nail to get a glimpse of the decent life via education, often are broken; many commit suicide. The media often relate these suicides to the lack of ability to cope with the academic pressure, but from all indications, the vast majority of these suicides are connected to mistreatment and harassment. In fact, this is a known phenomenon called “Death of Merit.”

After understanding this, Tanmay’s invocation of suicide that day at Microsoft made sense to me. That he marched through all the difficulties and is now a successful engineer is amazing and rare. He credits his mother a great deal. She was adamant about educating herself and her children, and he found courage through her strength. The system of reservation gave him the confidence that if he excelled, he’d be able to get into a good institution.

He points out that for many, these great jobs at companies like Microsoft are a ticket to riches. To him, they are a path out of a shackled life.

Now, Tanmay is working on a number of different fronts to ensure the next generation of his community isn’t similarly constrained. He’s working with a number of NGOs in trying to protect Dalit rights and educating the international community on plight of Dalits in India. He has also been involved in ensuring that Dalit history is preserved in American textbooks.

In the end, Tanmay taught me about myself and about a society I thought I understood. There’s no doubt I too worked hard and faced some challenges to get where I am. But for the most part, my life has been one of privilege. Talking to Tanmay made me understand just how true that is. Sure, there are Savarnas who have had to overcome obstacles to succeed and Dalits who find a much easier path forward than most. But for the majority of Dalits, the effects of multiple oppressions are that much harder to overcome.