The Invisible Doko
JEMIMA DIKI SHERPA
In a recent op/ed, CK Lal notes:
“Among Peggy McIntosh’s oft-quoted 47 advantages of being White, three come to mind while talking about social harmony to mixed groups of Pahadis and Madheshis: “I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial; I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race; and I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” Even enlightened Pahadis judge a Madheshi by who he is rather than what he has to say.”
Lal’s piece, ‘Six Year Itch’, adroitly sketches the disconnect between the seemingly successful rise in Madheshi political representation since 2007 and the abject lack of progress on the goals and issues that propelled these Madheshi leaders upward in what might generously be termed our political ‘system’.
However, his reference to McIntosh’s 1990 article ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ also raises an interesting broader question: What does ethnic privilege look like in Nepal? And how do you know if you have it?
McIntosh’s piece details her dawning realisation of the unearned and unexamined advantages she was granted as a white person in America. It has endured as a seminal text in discussions of privilege; it is credited with opening countless minds to a better understanding of the subtle ways in which privilege functions, and explains why countering only the most crass indicators of power disparity, such as financial status or legally sanctioned mistreatment, does not erase the deep discriminations of an unequal society.
The reason McIntosh’s article proved so influential was her simple checklist of privileges: “… an invisible package of unearned assets… like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” These realisations came, she says, as a result of her work in the field of women’s studies: “… I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overpriviliged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged… Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.”
Discussions of ethnicity in Nepal in 2013 are a very different beast from the United States’ race relations in 1990. Even so, McIntosh’s core point – that systemic inequities of power can be so entrenched and subtle that they become effectively invisible – is a valuable one here too.
In a political environment where conservative commentators are mocking the “undefined adventurism of federalism” as having died a slow, painful and deserved death along with the Constituent Assembly, and at a time when even the federal model’s strongest supporters seem to have lost faith and momentum, the conversation appears to have shifted disturbingly from critically examining the efficacy of these specific attempts to build a more inclusive political Nepal to a broader dismissal of the very basis of making these attempts.
Evidently federalism, or at least in the forms it was proposed, is not for Nepal, or at least not at this stage.
However, underlying the call for ethnic federal states was frustration with the longstanding elite, caste-based domination of the political, public and economic spheres in our country, domination that has been to the direct detriment of minority indigenous ethnic (often self-identified as “janajati”) groups. This systemic domination has resulted in immense disparities in opportunity, representation and human dignity between those who have traditionally wielded power and those who have had power wielded over them in Nepal. The narrative where the CA and the proposed federal models are discredited wholesale goes a long way towards insidiously delegitimizing the underlying pleas to address this fundamental disparity.
Perhaps it would be opportune for those in power – not just political power, but power in civil society and the media as well – to carefully consider if they hold ethnic privilege, which may in turn be allowing them to forget about the anger, frustration and pain in the calls to address ethnicity issues and simply move on to the next fashionable hot button topic. Examining the invisible knapsack – or, here, maybe the invisible doko – of khas privilege in Nepal might also contribute to a more nuanced debate of ethnicity issues. Here is a rudimentary and by no means exhaustive list (some points adapted directly from McIntosh’s, some not) of some of the more subtle benefits of khas privilege in Nepal:
1. I can enter any government office and be certain that I will find a member of my ethnic group.
2. I can send my children to school knowing that the language we speak at home will be encouraged and valued.
3. When I am told about our national history, there is ample recognition that people of my ethnic group played a role in shaping what it is today.
4. I can turn on the television or to the front page of a newspaper and see people of my ethnicity widely represented.
5. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their ethnic group.
6. I can be certain that during their school years my children will encounter at least one teacher who shares their ethnic background and will be capable of dealing with any cultural issues that arise.
7. I can be sure that my religious and cultural holidays are recognised in a workplace.
8. Speaking in an accent common to my ethnic group is not seen as a sign of ignorance.
9. I can count on my ethnicity not to work against perceptions of my financial reliability.
10. I can succeed in my chosen field without being held up as proof of the progress my ethnic group has made.
11. I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of other ethnic groups without facing any penalty or disadvantage for doing so.
12. In the news, people of my ethnicity are routinely reported on in roles other than that of a victim.
13. I can be confident that in competing for a government job, I will not encounter individual or systemic discrimination due to my ethnicity.
14. My ethnicity does not result in difficulties obtaining paperwork to buy and sell land.
15. The traditional clothing of my ethnic group is respected as part of a living culture rather than treated as a costume in popular media.
16. If I am arrested or detained, I can be sure I have not been singled out due to prevailing stereotypes of my ethnic group.
17. My last name does not immediately lead to assumptions of poverty, illiteracy or poor social standing.
18. I can find a political representative that understands and is committed to working on common issues faced by my ethnic group.
19. I can go home from most official meetings or organisations not feeling as though I was isolated, out of place, unheard or discounted.
20. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without assumptions being made or aspersions being cast about my competence (or lack thereof) based on my ethnicity.
21. If I live in an area where a high percentage of the population is of my ethnic group, I can be confident it will receive the same level of public services such as schools and hospitals as other areas in my district.
22. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my ethnicity will not work against me.
23. I can be confident my citizenship or patriotic values will not be called into question based on my appearance and ethnicity.
If you can agree with most or all of the above statements, then congratulations! You hold ethnic privilege in Nepal. Simply by virtue of your ethnicity, whether you want them or not, you are conferred a collection of benefits that aid your life in ways not available to Nepalis from ethnic minorities. Every day these benefits work in your favour, smoothing your path and perpetuating a system where people of your ethnic background hold disproportionate power. Of course, this does not mean your life is ideal; our matrix of injustices is so vast that your gender, your economic background, your sexual orientation, your hometown and any number of other factors may be unfairly placing you at great disadvantage. However, these, specifically, are valuable cards that you hold.
In making her list, McIntosh admits, “… white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.” Unlike in McIntosh’s white America, the myth of a democratic meritocracy is a new one in Nepal, and one that only the most multiply privileged and deluded can even pretend to believe in. However, the myth that we can hope to someday become a meritocracy without explicitly addressing ethnic inequality is one that is widely embraced.
In our public discourse we often confuse knowing what should be for what is; our near-quarter century of democratic revolt has instilled deeply in our national psyche the admirable belief that ethnicity should not matter. Years of ‘awareness’ campaigns and parroted calls to eliminate ‘jaatiya bhedbhav’, along with rapid general social transformation, means that only the most regressive and reactionary individuals among the upper castes still truly think that discrimination against janajatis is justified. It is easy to make the mental leap to believing that this equality has become fact simply through knowledge of how desperately it is needed.
However, here being on the road is confused for having arrived. It appears many ethnically privileged people believe that because they embrace the ‘enlightened’ view that janajatis should not be discriminated against, it is no longer an issue that they have any role or stake in. It is this fallacy that is deeply detrimental both to janajatis’ everyday experiences and to Nepal’s hopes of forming a more just nation; this entitled conviction among our most educated, influential and socially progressive individuals from privileged ethnic backgrounds that their personal belief that a culture of ethnic disparity, disadvantage and discrimination should not exist is license to ignore the insistent voices telling them it still does.