Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government is reported to have added an interesting new component to its orientation programme — a privilege checklist. This means asking its students, all poised for ascent in careers of public leadership, to examine their own social backgrounds a bit. It’s an informal process, not mandatory coursework on “white power” as claimed by an indignant right-wing, but it marks the institutionalisation of a casual retort heard so often online — “check your privilege”.
The phrase was devised in the ’80s by a women’s studies scholar called Peggy McIntosh, and encouraged people to introspect on whether their being white, male etc, had anything to do with their experience, hard-held beliefs and prospects. These checklists often include points like “If I fail at a job, it won’t be seen as a black mark on my entire sex”, “I have never been mocked for my accent”, “I can criticise the government’s policies and what I fear without worrying about considered an outsider”, or “I can be sure that if I ask to speak to the person in charge, it will be someone of my race”.
It’s a pretty useful mental exercise to place yourself in context, see the random advantages and disadvantages you have, but it makes some people very mad. They think it is an attack on their unique selfhood, an attempt to reduce their success to the accident of birth, to guilt out hard-working, clever people, deny them due credit, and impose permanent victim-oppressor roles.
But now think of our own colleges and their obliviousness, as institutions, to caste or gender, which gives free play to the callow biases of 18-year-olds. There is no counter-narrative provided, and so, no systematic awareness of how one’s own situation compares to that of others. This is worst in technical and professional institutions, where self-assurance, competition and resentment about reservations combine in horrid ways.
The point of a privilege check is that you get out of your own skin for a bit. I went to a liberal arts college, where we spoke a lot about gender and occasionally about class, but rarely, if ever about caste. My father was a civil servant, and I’d always thought that those who get past a competitive exam were somehow worthier than nepotistic politicians or those who go into daddy’s business. Except that the entrance exam is a very arbitrary point to measure worth.
Recent analysis of IIT-JEE results has confirmed that the test is tilted towards those from urban, high-income backgrounds. The common complaint is that quotas lower the exacting academic standards of our star institutions, the IITs, the IISc, AIIMS. But when we define “deserving” at the point of the exam alone, we don’t factor in how many Dalit or Adivasi students who make it have done so without the schooling and home advantages of the others — without the books, informal assistance, or even leisure that better-off students take for granted. We don’t remember that higher education was implicitly reserved for forward castes for so very long. Even though students who have been aided by quotas face insult, jokes, even assault from students and insensitivity from the administration on many of our most aspired-to campuses, it is only now that IIT Bombay made the first proactive move to understand discrimination on campus.
In the US, affirmative action has been accompanied by active intervention to explain and understand, with equal opportunity cells on campus. Here, nothing. In 2007, the SK Thorat committee on caste discrimination in AIIMS recommended a set of reforms including catch-up classes in English, faculty responsiveness on internal assignments, keeping a watch on segregation in the classroom or residence, immediate consequences for discrimination, and so on. But neither AIIMS nor other campuses have cared enough to enact them.
I think it would have been hugely helpful for me to have a bit of reality testing. College is the best space to sit back and see social shaping; you’re old enough to think you know, but open to challenge. It’s not about self-flagellation, or putting on a pious, understanding look — looking at how social and cultural capital is passed on can just give you impersonal perspective, let you see that someone who seems terrifically well-read just had convenient parents. It lets you unpack your own notions. For example, look at the way we carp about political dynasty while being utterly blind to what we have been handed down. It’s the enormity of inherited luck we seem to object to, not the principle.
I know this privilege checklist sounds like a woo woo “let’s have a dialogue in the common room and transcend politics” exercise, but I also think it’s remarkable how so many young people live in such mentally partitioned worlds. It can’t hurt for colleges to help them look at the deck they’ve been dealt, and know that their future is a matter of both ability and luck by chance.