Male. Muslim. Sunni. Punjabi. Lahori. Aitchisonian. Though I hope I am more than the sum of my parts, the words listed above are some of the parts that I am composed of. These are words I have used to describe myself from time to time, sometimes in isolation, sometimes together; in the not-so-distant past, almost every time with a sense of pride. Though I will invariably use these words to introduce myself in the future too, as I have also done in this article, the difference will be the accompanying sense of unease, and sometimes a sense of guilt, that I now tend to feel due to these associations.
- Part of a world where one gender has been guilty of subjugating the other.
- Member of a country where members belonging to one particular faith have always tended to marginalise members belonging to other faith or faithless groups.
- Part of a sect within a belief system which has a clear numerical majority in the country, often times to undesirable political and social effect.
- Living in a province which has dominated the political, judicial, bureaucratic, and military spheres, often to the detriment of the other provinces.
- Residing in a city which has been accused of being the focus and beneficiary of the developmental policies of bygone provincial governments.
- Studied at an institution viewed as pandering to the notions of elitism and inculcating a false or unwarranted sense of superiority into those who attend it.
- Realising all of this, and always finding myself on the right side of the power dynamics.
- Always on the side of the persecutor, but never the persecuted, so to speak.
As mentioned above, guilt and uneasiness best describe the emotions I feel when associated with any of the above. Such uneasiness stems from the realisation of the privilege, for someone born and raised in Pakistan, these labels entail – the sort of realisation that leaves an imprint on your conscience, and on how you perceive your reality, your achievement, and your failures.
It’s often written about how the privileged don’t realise their privilege, or how their success was not down to their privilege at all – a recent illustration which may be fresh in most people’s minds is Donald Trump saying all he got from his father was a ‘small’ loan of a million dollars – or the privileged talking about how they’re burdened by their privilege (indeed this train of thought led to the colonisation of half the world). I don’t wish to do any of the above, and I hope I don’t inadvertently come across as any of the above either.
What I want to do instead is simply put into writing unstructured and unfettered thoughts of someone who realises his privileges but has not yet learned what to do with them.
Everything is given a context once you realise your privileges. You are able to dislocate yourself from your reality and assess a situation from an objective point of view. And in doing so, the pride or sense of achievement is taken away. This may not necessarily be a bad thing and is certainly not an invitation for pity. But it is fresh. A sort of emotional detachment where you cannot revel even in your (small, relative) successes which one would expect from almost every sane person. And I am still unsure as to how I feel about my new found ability to alienate my thoughts from my life trajectory.
Got a new job at a prestigious law firm? Well you should have. After all, you were afforded the best possible education, in your hometown, in a home environment that was always supportive of and conducive to your education. I had no excuses for not getting good grades in my school years. Similarly, getting into a good university for my bachelors and then my masters was the least I could do given how facilitative my studying environment had been, and how I was lucky enough to have parents who were open to – nay – insistent upon, footing the financial bill associated with my studies. Getting a place in this firm was little more than a necessary by-product, a inevitable next step on the ladder.
On the other end of the spectrum, your (relative) failures are much more pronounced with the knowledge of the privileged life you have led. Laughing at how someone pronounces a certain word, cursing a rickshaw driver when he doesn’t follow lanes, finding it amusing to see families at airports waiting for the airplane to take off so that they could wave at their loved ones, for example, are all things that I have done or felt in the past even after having realised my privilege. Those are failures on my part and the sort of things I intend to rectify.
What I want to do is put into writing unstructured and unfettered thoughts of someone who realises his privileges but has not yet learned what to do with them.
On an individualistic level, this recognition and realisation is important because even if all realising one’s privilege does is make one more empathetic, then just making others realise their own privileges would have a much needed impact on an increasing intolerant, compartmentalised, and polarised society such as the one that we live in. Being more empathetic towards others and being more aware of ourselves would help us respond to situations instead of reacting to them. It would help the privileged look at those less fortunate than ourselves as much more than their ability to speak, ability to spend, ability to carry themselves, more than their jobs or their schooling, or more than their opinions. It would help us realise that they are exactly what we are: the product of our circumstances.
In many ways, realising my privilege has been a humbling experience. I feel and hope that it has made me humbler and more empathetic as a person. However, I am still unsure whether that is an end in itself or just a means to an end. I hope it is the latter.