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Illustration by Isabel Ríos

I'm Concerned About The Stipend Changes. Don't Ask Me To Check My Privilege.

On a campus deemed a “bubble,” where do we draw the line between recognizing privilege and fighting for what we want?

Aug 30, 2020

Being an NYU Abu Dhabi student is rewarding in more ways than one can count. But a characteristic part of the NYUAD experience — one that we both neglect and grapple with — is indulging in the gray and exploring, or I dare say, perhaps even celebrating the dissonance that is part and parcel of the NYUAD experience: the dissonance that comes from understanding our contextual privilege and critiquing this institution.
2020, undoubtedly, has been an unforgiving year. Accompanied by a long list of crises, there have been countless moments that have, put rhetorically, made us “check our privilege.” As the pandemic forced universities globally to shut down with only a few days’ notice, leaving low-income and international students immensely vulnerable, the NYUAD campus commendably remained open for the remainder of the semester and throughout the entire summer. All students immediately received funds to fly home and/or ensured there were no financial obstacles to continuing their education at home. Graduates continued to be housed and fed if unable to fly back home. Now, as per the ambitious Return to Campus Initiative, hundreds of students have been approved to return to campus for the upcoming semester.
We do have so much to be grateful for and while that requires acknowledgment, an acknowledgment in and of itself is insufficient and unproductive. If anything, untimely acknowledgements of our privilege and displays of gratitude in place of long overdue criticism can create a culture of performative activism and inaction which hinders institutional change.
Oftentimes, we create for ourselves an illusion in which we treat this institution as a sacred entity, beyond all reproach. The illusion is founded on the argument that our relative privilege and our cognizance of it should be a force that halts any and all criticism of this institution. We are made to believe, by many around us that insist on policing the morality of our grievances, that because we are given so much, it would be ungrateful to highlight any form of institutional injustice, or to demand safeties and guarantees we were promised. Instead, we should continue to display our gratitude and in situations where we cannot muster gratitude, we must manage expectations. After all, what morally compromised person would you have to be in order to critique an inequitable disbursement policy that financially handicaps a significant fraction of the student body.
Some insist that we think about underprivileged children picking up garbage in dumps or those in a war-torn country and abandon our opposition to a policy that threatens our financial freedom and safety for gratitude. Such arguments centered around privilege are frequently employed and framed as responses to other issues. The premise of said argument is that our cognizance of our relative privilege should restrict us from critiquing the institution or striving for more. This worldview and knee-jerk reaction to demanding accountability effectively leads to erasure of some students’ lived experience, detracts from the issue at hand and allows others to liberally indulge in oppression olympics. It is also remarkable that such a line of argumentation on community-wide issues is oblivious to individual contexts and lack of relative privilege.
That said, who has not struggled with at least one of the following ethical dilemmas that inevitably derive from living in the Saadiyat Bubble: How much do we deserve? Who do we compare ourselves to when asking questions relating to fairness and justice? Our former selves? Or our situational context? Or better yet, our global context? Should our privilege restrict us from fighting for our markedly lesser needs and wants? Is the best that our cognizance of relative privilege offer us mere passivity disguised as activism?
What is this cognizance, this acknowledgement of our privilege worth, if it only acts as a cage of inaction? What is our individual guilt worth if it only cripples action? How does our guilt, our silences and compromises, in the face of our relatively privileged shortcomings, tangibly help those scattered around the world with considerably less than us? The short answer is that it does not. Acknowledging that we are more privileged than those who lost their homes in Lebanon would not turn rubble into houses. Our unfought battles are a careless misalignment of impact and intention at best and simply virtue signalling at worst.
Certain frames of reference — particularly those in which we become passive over lesser issues — allow us to tackle personal guilt. They can be deceptively comforting and almost allow us to perceive our inaction itself as an action: an action that represents the acknowledgment of privilege. That is why many of us, knowingly and unknowingly, cling to such a frame of thought; after all, it boosts our sense of self-worth and seems morally sound at the surface. But after a moment of consideration, we quickly realize that this is far from the case. It is imperative to understand that acknowledgement of this form, in and of itself is, means very little. If anything, one could very well argue that this inaction, disguised as an acknowledgment of privilege, is a small cost to buying comfort and ridding ourselves of the burden of guilt. It is our — seemingly — good deed of the day.
We can be selective about our frame of references to suit our worldview. But it is integral that one pauses and considers whether their intentions and impact are aligned. This brings us to the heart of the issue. If after a certain point our guilt stops us from striving, from demanding accountability, where are we really headed? Let me paint a picture: an inertial world where our guilt holds us back from fighting our own battles and where this holding back is our perceived contribution to society and those who are less privileged than us. That leads us to and leaves us with, a less than stellar combination of performative activism, inaction and unproductively channeled guilt.
The key to navigating the dissonance that comes attached to our privilege is understanding the nature of local and global problems. Explore and indulge in the dissonance and you will find that it likely stems from accumulated guilt instead of the acknowledgment of privilege. And once one identifies the source, it is imperative that they consciously align intent and impact. It is also important to realize that this is not a zero-sum game. That is, my financial safety or the lack thereof, in all likelihood, does not impact a ragpicker’s future in New Delhi.
Instead of letting our privilege consume us, we must attempt to channel it. I can fight for my stipend and still volunteer at old age homes, donate to those affected by the Beirut blast and amplify voices of people of color. We can pick multiple battles of varying scales and attempt to fight them all. Often many of these causes would be isolated from each other: the only common link would be our will to fight for them. And fighting for a cause does not mean betraying another.
Acknowledgment of our privilege and navigating our guilt should not cripple our will to criticize the wonderful institution that NYUAD is and from fighting our own smaller battles; if anything, it should empower us. Instead of disguising inaction as an acknowledgement of our privilege, we must accompany said acknowledgements — as individuals and as a community — with action and impact. Active conversation about and criticism of this institution are not reflective of our lack of gratefulness or cognizance of our relative privilege. In fact, they are a part of what makes us the community we are and also empower us to fight for issues that transcend our own matters.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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