On my very first day of college where I had enrolled for an honours degree in English literature, the teachers of my department assembled all the first-year students in a classroom to get to know them. Because I had a five-hour round commute to my college that consisted of multiple transportation – local train, buses and autorickshaws – I had arrived just in time to manage to get myself a seat at the back of the room. Being excited was, of course, an obvious emotion to experience on this day. Those who sat in front were already known to the teachers, as their parents had met with the faculty before. These students had also been to top city schools, and lived in the city all their lives. As the introductions trickled down to the back of the room, it was finally my turn to answer the two questions that everyone had been asked (and in this order): where do I live and what school did I go to. I never got to answer the second as the first, which was suburban, was enough to dissipate any curiosity left among the teachers. Those who sat on my left never got to answer any.
You might wonder how this relates to privilege, but here are some other things that happened in the next six months which may make the relevance of this anecdote clearer. I volunteered to sit at the registration desk of a seminar hosted by the department, probably because no one else was interested in turning up at 9 am and sticking around till 6. A former teacher who had been part of the faculty (and was obviously unknown to me), registered for the seminar but was barred from paying for it, having been a member. I had accumulated thousands of rupees throughout the day and had promptly handed them over to the faculty. However, in the next few weeks, I was questioned several times, implicated in the politest way possible, that I had lost or possibly pocketed some of the money as the records did not match the gross amount. I pointed out that they had waived that one person known to them, but had registered her for the record. The first time when I had been questioned, I had hoped that it was simply a fact that had been overlooked, but after being summoned multiple times, I realised I was being implicated.
And all this because I commuted all that way and wore the same pair of jeans everyday and two or three cheap t-shirts. Nothing about me screamed privilege, and even though I had taken the entrance exam and gotten through because of my own merit, I had nothing about me that would suggest I couldn’t be a thief. In fact, if money was missing, it was probably the modest, aspirational kid who thought she could study here just because she did well in the college entrance exam, who had volunteered to handle the money in the first place, who did it.
You would be surprised to find that it wasn’t the implication of being a thief that offended me the most in those months. It was that, somehow, some of them had decided I couldn’t speak English. Again, even if you’re not interested in knowing what school I went to, maybe I could bring your attention to the exam you conducted, on the basis of which you allowed me to join you. Or, because that might be too much of a bother, let me speak in English for two minutes. Theatre had saved me as a child suffering from crippling social anxiety. This time, when there were parts in the departmental play that no one wanted to do, I asked to try out and lo and behold, I could actually speak the language that was a prerequisite for the course I had enrolled in.
Those of us who are operating in this world purely on the basis of individual merit – a combination of innate talent and hard work – are affected the most when we hear stories of blatant privilege. There’s a sum total of fifty American parents listed by the FBI as having gotten their children into top universities through unfair means. You could add greatly to that number to project the number of parents who haven’t been investigated by the FBI in the US alone, who have not only gotten their undeserving children admitted, but probably helped them sustain their academic profile as students to eventually graduate and get the best jobs. Though their methods may not always be as insidious as bribing admissions officials, donating expensive equipment or money for maintenance etc. have always been pretty overt methods for those who are privileged to get their children the best education, without sparing a thought for those who had the merit to receive that education but who were not meritorious enough to get one of the seats that wasn’t for sale.
And that, is the struggle. As it has always been. If you don’t come from privilege, you have to work much harder, without realistically expecting success, or getting what you deserve. Hard work doesn’t always open doors, but privilege almost always can. Even if you don’t have parents making huge donations, just being from a certain background can skew your chances towards success. The way I looked and where I lived was enough for certain people to judge my abilities. I did not have to utter a sentence or share anything about myself. I never got to tell them what my parents did for a living.
But, does that make me a victim? Of what exactly? First impressions? Assumptions? And isn’t that an utterly human thing to do so? Don’t we all almost subconsciously decide about class, income, religion etc., the moment we meet someone? Isn’t there just a preponderance of privileged people being better educated because they have better access to resources, and thus a likelihood that they are also more skilled in their chosen careers? If being poor doesn’t necessitate being ignorant or stupid, surely being rich doesn’t necessitate it either. Not every privileged kid needs to have their parents buy their spot.
It is the system that is suspect. Say there was a box of oranges in front of you. Anyone who smiled and said “please” would be given one orange. However, someone decides to go and grab one, maybe two, without smiling or saying anything. And it works. Suddenly, everyone decides to stop smiling and simply start grabbing as many as they can. If the system allows you the easier way out, and you can afford it, you’re not going to try the harder way.
Education is, after all, an industry like any other. If we can accept the notion of privilege in healthcare, why should education be stuck with moral idealism? Just because almost every academic discipline teaches some form of it, doesn’t mean it will practise it. Much of what we learn cannot be applied to our lives outside the curriculum. However, we expect educational institutions to be not as corrupt as administration or healthcare, because it is the nature of the beast itself to make us believe that hard work and curiosity should be enough.
In contrast to many like myself who survive through merit alone, I don’t gloat over the potentially incarcerated futures of Lori Loughlin and others. Yes, all that privilege on display over social media is disturbing, especially when that expensive education is not reflected in their actions, but the difference here is that she and the others had the misfortune of getting caught. There are many, many others who never will be, nor will universities suddenly start blindly admitting students on the basis of their merit alone, and prefer to remain ignorant of their backgrounds. I doubt there has ever been a class, at any academic level, which has consisted only of people who deserve to be there through their own merit. Maybe those with privilege will try harder, but if the systems continue to fail to realise their own bias, nothing will change. The rest of us will have to continue to work harder, expecting but not necessarily being guaranteed success.
What are your thoughts on the recent college admissions scandal?