Today I saw this wonderful cartoon about how (and why) we should occupy positions of privilege responsibly and thoughtfully. I welcome reminders of this kind, knowing that privilege is elusive and often invisible to those who have it, knowing that it is my duty to put in any effort required in checking my privilege. I try to be conscious. I try to be responsible. I think I do okay.
Though I surely fall short of my ideals at times, it is at least my intention to be mindful and aware of my privilege. It is at least my practice to use my privilege only when it will help level the playing field. It as at least my policy to reject opportunities to abuse my privilege.
But a little voice in the back of my head this morning whispered of atheists in foxholes. Of course, we’re not really talking about atheism or theism here, though religious beliefs – or lack there of – do dictate certain positions of relative privilege in our culture. (Ask any atheist who’s run for political office.) And for the record, I don’t agree with the claim that metaphor is usually attempting to illustrate. Atheism is not simply a failure to recognize one’s own mortality. But I suppose there could be individual cases (and probably have been) where the viewpoint of atheism was challenged by the tight spot of impending death. And I can’t help but wonder if my viewpoint on privilege, and my self-image as someone who rejects the abuse of privilege, could be tested and come up short in certain desperate circumstances.
On January 26th, 2001, I was in India when a devastating earthquake hit the western district of Gujarat. The death toll reached 20,000, and another 600,000 people were left homeless. I was safely on the other side of the country in Calcutta, now “Kolkata”, in West Bengal (the little orange place labeled “WB” on the map.) Gujarat is the red one labeled “GJ.”
So I wasn’t personally affected by the disaster and did not witness the aftermath firsthand. But a lot of our volunteers, upon hearing of the earthquake, packed up and headed west to see how they could help. I stayed where I was, doing volunteer work at a home for malnourished and afflicted children. After some weeks passed, the volunteers started returning from Gujarat, and their reports of what they’d seen trickled in over the next couple months.
The most striking news they brought back was about how the foreign aid was being handled. Donations had, of course, flooded in from all over the world, but the distribution of these resources still had to happen within the context of the local culture. And the local culture in India at that time was (and is) still influenced by the caste system.
It’s harder to find a better example of systematic privilege than India’s caste system. It’s officially illegal, and many measures have been taken to undo this system and reverse associated damage. But even today, this ancient and deeply-ingrained worldview influences many aspects of Indian culture.
After the quake hit Gujarat in 2001, the reports back to us from returning volunteers overwhelmingly included stories of foreign aid being distributed according to caste, with priority given to those of higher status. This was disturbing for a lot of people who went to try and help. From a western perspective, the caste system sounds pretty messed up. But the western world is not without its parallels, nor are we free from oppression, discrimination or assigning privilege based on some pretty arbitrary stuff. It could even be argued that most of those volunteers, the majority of them Catholic missionaries, were operating from a strong position of relative privilege, and in some ways, abusing that privilege.
(For the record, I don’t know how widespread the use of the caste system in determining who got foreign aid was in Gujarat. I only know what I heard from our returning volunteers. It’s possible that these were isolated incidents. But I believe they were true accounts and am not surprised by them, based on my own experiences in India.)
So back to the whisper in the back of my head. What if I were a mother of high caste order in Gujarat when that earthquake hit? What if flexing my privilege were the only way I keep my children from starving to death? Would I do it? Would you?
I like to think I wouldn’t. But that view of myself is, in itself, a luxury. I haven’t been in such a desperate situation. But I could be. If a massive natural disaster hit home, and I found myself struggling to protect and feed my family, could I stick to my ideals? Would I refuse to take help afforded to me by some position of privilege I occupy? Or would I take that opportunity to abuse my privilege out of desperation? I wish I could say for sure.