Understanding my privilege

4 min read

I studied in a school with high academic standards. That's another way of saying, we had exams all the time and they were insanely difficult. It was common for more than half the class to fail some exams. The idea was, we'd see a low score and it'd motivate us to work harder because we'd want 100%. The final exam set by the government would be much easier, and we'd all pass that with ease. In practice, I don't think it worked for me. I didn't mind getting 50-60% if it meant that it was near the top 5 scores in that exam.

This changed in 11th grade, when about half the people in school were new. All the new kids were wicked smart and they raised the bar overnight. I remember getting consistently low scores relative to others, which annoyed me. In response I studied harder and in physics, what I considered my strongest subject, I put in twice the effort. I was pleased when I got the result of the next test - 45/70, one of the highest scores among my section of 45 peers. Pleased until I heard that a bunch of folks in the other section got way more, including one person who got 67/70. 67 was an impossible figure for that test. There wasn't even enough time to attempt every question, let alone get everything right. And yet, there was somebody who did.

Most people only get to experience this in college. They go from being pretty good at school without much effort to being in the middle or bottom of the pack when they meet their peers in college. I got to experience it in school. I was deeply upset that day. I was so upset that I doubled my time spend studying. I don't think I ever studied as hard before or since. My marks did improve, but there remained a huge gap between me and the folks at the top. That gap never closed no matter what I tried.

Eventually we all took our college entrance exams, and I did reasonably well. I got an all India rank of 6000 and 2300 in two exams and went to a good college. The guy who got 67 in that test got a rank of 4. 4 out of 398k students. Many of the others I knew were in the top 1000. I understood then how lucky I had been to study with him and others who were smarter and more hard working than me, in an environment that made that distinction clear. It had forced me to up my game and I had benefited from that.

But I didn't fully understand privilege when I was 18, which is why I pushed back at the idea that I succeeded as a result of privilege. Surely someone could say that only if they hadn't seen how much I worked? I had spent late nights and early mornings and entire weekends for 2 years to get where I was. How could anyone deny that?

I know a couple of things now that I didn't know then and that has changed my view.

Studying in that school at that time was beneficial is easy to say in hindsight. But it was well known at that time as well, and competition to enter the school was fierce. Everyone who applied already had near perfect scores, so there were many who were turned away despite being very good. It helped your case a lot if you had perfect scores and knew someone who was part of the school management. Turns out, most of the management were upper caste. And unsurprisingly, most of the people they were friends or friends-of-friends with were also upper caste. Being upper caste wasn't enough, to be clear, but it was an advantage.

Nowadays the school will accept enrollments only in kindergarden. Who can enroll? Students who lived in a 5km radius around it. This seemed like a reasonable policy, until I learned how difficult it is for some people to find a place to stay in Indian cities. I only knew my own experience of speaking to landlords, negotiating a bit on the rent and closing the deal. Research in Delhi (link) shows that this is common, only 3% of upper caste tenants are turned down. For Dalits, that number is 30% and for Muslims, it's 60%. It wasn't impossible to find an apartment near the school if you weren't upper caste Hindu, but it was much harder.

The 5km rule can be bent, but only if someone in the school management wrote a recommendation or the student's parents were alumni of the school. The alumni of this school are mostly upper caste.

That's why almost every student at my school was upper caste Hindu. There was one Muslim that I knew of, couple of Christians, and maybe a few folks who weren't upper caste Hindu. But their proportion was much lower than you'd expect if the system was fair. Like I've written before, we need to investigate systems where representation isn't proportional.

Sometimes, it's hard to see your own privilege. It's especially hard when admitting its existence would partially or wholly invalidate your effort and achievemnts.

When I was a kid in school I didn't think the caste system existed in "modern" India because it wasn't something I spent any time thinking about. Caste and religion didn't matter to me in my every day interactions, didn't factor into any decisions I made, therefore it didn't matter to others either. Or so I thought. Again, that's privilege speaking. These things didn't matter to me because I had never suffered because of it. But they do exist, and Indians need to accept that.