Privilege is a conundrum. Often when we recognize someone has a particular privilege that we do not have—the ability to do something we do not have the means to do—we feel irked and resentful, especially if that privilege is unearned and the recipient does not recognize the privilege themselves, On the other hand, if we receive a certain privilege, like being upgraded to business class on a flight, we feel lucky and blessed. Rarely do we turn down a privilege offered to us. But when we accept the privilege, if we are socially/politically sensitive, we may feel pangs of guilt created by imbalance, like having hungry people watch us eat.
Here in India, so many different kinds of privilege become strikingly obvious. Here are just a few:
Food Privilege: I am noticing how international students at RIMYI apply their economic standards to India, and think nothing of spending a couple of hundred rupees on lunch or dinner ($4), or feasting on figs, or hiring a cook to make a daily meal for them. However, to most Indians, these are rare treats, if accessible at all. I am conscious of how our apartment of 4 international students produces so much compost, more than double or triple our neighbors, because we are consuming so much each day.
I noticed food privilege quite starkly when the 2 youths I have been sponsoring since 2005, Trupti (now age 19) and Tushar (age 17), invited me to their 1-room dwelling for tea. Their auntie made a strong black tea with no milk and a lot of sugar. Sugar is important to Indians because it provides cheap calories. If it’s several hours until supper and you’re hungry, what can you do?
Muscle Privilege: The level of physical activity I choose to do each day requires quite a bit of protein, which can be challenging to acquire in a nation whose staples are rice and dal. Not only did I haul several pounds of organic nuts and seeds to India from the USA, but I need to carry around packets of cashews and groundnuts to keep my blood sugar from plummeting and to keep up my energy level for yoga practice and study. Although India’s overweight population grows, like many of the obese in the USA, the excess weight is created by inexpensive carbs.
Size Privilege: Also related to Food Privilege and Muscle privilege, It takes tremendous resources to grow large people like the Westerners here. Even someone my size feels they are taking up too much space, requiring too much energy. I feel like a Land Rover among Civics.
Yoga Privilege: Not for a minute do I forget how privileged I am to be here studying. Trupti and Tushar have never had exposure to this practice, and cannot relate to it. Only the well-to-do in India have access to this path. Not only must they have the money and time to study, but they also need to know English, the language used in many classes.
What to do with all my unearned privilege? Is it possible to deny myself these privileges as an act of solidarity? However, this disengenuous stance wouldn’t solve the larger global problems of inequality, unfair trade, white supremacy, and exploitation. The issues of privilege here are the same we have in the USA, except more extreme. Back home, even though I have given up much of my economic privilege, and have never enjoyed white privilege, I still benefit from educational and class privilege.
I see the project of “de-privileging” myself as a decolonizing process. That is, as I become increasingly immersed in Indian culture and society, I may become less dependent on my privileges. In the USA I have layer by layer shed middle-class privileges such as retirement benefits, health insurance, my own home, etc., in order to devote myself more fully to the yoga path, Perhaps the next stage of the yoga path for me is to become more aware of my place in the world, and how I perpetuate or challenge hierarchies everywhere, not just in the USA.
Here in India, I feel literally and figuratively that hungry people always watch me eat. May I sit in that discomfort, recognize my privilege, and with full consciousness, find ways to live the yoga message of liberation for all.