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Interview with 'Check your Sinhala privilege'

Last week, three young Tamils from Toronto, Montreal and London, published a piece on the website Tumblr, listing the 'privileges' of being Sinhalese. Since then, the piece entitled 'Check your Sinhala privilege', has sparked widespread praise, criticism and passionate debate online.

Tamil Guardian caught up with the writers, Ram, Ahila and Sinthujan, via Facebook, to find out more..

Tamil Guardian: What inspired you to write this piece?


We were just speaking about the concept of privilege in general, unrelated to Sri Lanka, and som e of the problematic things some of our friends would say. Even though many of them are well-intentioned and well-educated, they often neglect to see the issues in some of their statements. Most of them similarly don't see the ways the social, political, and economic arrangements of any given society are what systematically produce  existing inequalities between different social groups.


This neglect is especially prominent in discussions of Sri Lanka, for instance, when civil conflict is simply explained in terms of “ethnic hatred” rather than through a close examination of the ways societal arrangements in Sri Lanka have benefited some ethnic groups relative to others.


What brought the discussion of privilege to Sri Lanka was one particular engagement with a Sinhalese person in Sri Lanka who was quick to judge one of the authors based on nothing but ethnic and geographic presumptions. We intensely discussed the matter and felt there has never been a meaningful discussion on privilege in inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. We thought it was time to start the debate and came to write this piece.

Tamil Guardian: So how did you come up with the list of entries? Did you write spontaneously from your own personal experiences, or did you ask around and pool together a collection of ideas?

One of us wrote the entire list, and the others added and edited points. We had to make use of our individual experiences with questions of race and ethnic relations inside and outside of the island. It was, however, not necessary that all of us experienced each point. The mere fact that one of us did was testament to the existence of a problem.


Many of the experiences we listed are not just based on our own encounters, but also enriched by those of others who shared them with us over the years. Before agreeing on each point, we discussed them at length aware of the controversial nature of the project.


Tamil Guardian: What does ‘check your privilege’ actually mean? And in what context would you say it's best employed?


It’s  important to note that the concept of “privilege” is not simply an academic concept. The concept of privilege first emerged through both the feminist and civil rights movements, particularly during the 1970’s in the United States. It was a way for disadvantaged groups in these social movements, namely, women, blacks, and gays to demand that we think about the ways the basic structure or organisation of society may tend to the benefit of some groups, namely, men, whites, and heterosexuals relative to other groups.


One common misconception is that “privilege” is limited to the law. That is, people tend to think that groups are unequal only when a society has discriminatory laws. But some groups may be privileged relative to other groups even in the absence of discriminatory laws. Consider, for instance, an example used by many throughout disability activism. Although there may be no laws preventing them from working, disabled people as a group tend to have a lower standard of living when compared to able-bodied people. Those who have not closely examined disability-related issues tend to regard being “disabled” as an attribute of persons:  disabled people simply lack the physical attributes that allow “able-bodied” people to compete in job markets, have a satisfying social life, be successful, and so on.  The disability rights movements, however, has conceptualized the problem rather differently. 

The problem is not with the attributes of disabled people. Rather, it’s the lack of fit between the attributes of disabled people and a society’s dominant practices, norms, and aesthetic standards.  Society’s arrangement of public space and buildings, for instance, are biased to support the capacities of people who can walk, climb, see, hear, etc. It is the dominant society’s arrangements that provide able-bodied people with greater social, economic, and political access relative to disabled people. Privilege, then, is ultimately a question of social, economic, and political access that some groups may have over others.


In demanding that people “check their privilege”, we follow other grassroots and activist movements. We ask that people  reflect on the ways they may have social, economic and political access by virtue of their group’s relationship to the predominant arrangements of a society. This requires acknowledging that social and economic benefits have a tendency to track group differences in various ways.

On the other hand, when privileged groups deny that they have greater access, or when they deny that social benefits track racial, ethnic, or gender differences,  then, it becomes difficult to devise solutions to remedy the systematic inequalities that are present in a social context. We ask that members of the Sinhalese majority think about the ways that social, political, and economic benefits can be co-extensive with ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, as well as in the diaspora. This doesn’t require that they accept everything or anything on our list. It does, however, require acknowledging that Sri Lanka’s social and economic arrangements, practices, and norms are skewed to the benefit of some groups over others, namely, the Sinhala majority. Lastly, understanding which and how benefits tend to accrue to some groups over others will surely requi re more careful empirical study than we could ever provide through one blog post.

Tamil Guardian: It was published only last week. What has been the reaction to it since?

It's been a mixed response so far. Some people, who generally don't understand the concept of privilege, have been critical and very vocal about their disagreement with this piece. But we mainly directed this piece to people who had an understanding of the concept, and we wanted them to reflect on their own privilege as Sinhalese people. It was important for us to help people think about the question of what it means to be Sinhalese and what it ultimately means to be a non-Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.


Tamil Guardian: Given that the piece is centred on 'Sinhala privilege', what has been the response specifically from Sinhala people online?


We've both had positive and negative responses from Sinhalese so far. The negative responses range from accusations of being prejudicial to being racists. Many even called us 'privileged' for having been able to write such a piece which completely missed the intention of the piece. Personal attacks were made in a number of occasions. What was most disheartening though was to see people who champion human rights, people who have appropriated the language of peace and reconciliation, to deny the existence of privilege and lack thereof based on racial and ethnic identities in the island.

What they are ultimately saying is that race and ethnicity don't matter in Sri Lanka. That defeats the entire purpose of attempting to alleviate material inequalities between people. Our piece, however, also received a warm reception by a number of Sinhalese. We were thanked by some Sinhalese for having "opened their eyes". Others even offered their help to co-author a follow up piece.


Tamil Guardian: Do such responses surprise you? 


When we wrote this piece, we did expect it to become controversial and polarising, so we weren't necessarily surprised by the repellent reaction of many Sinhalese in social media networks. The response was not very uncommon. Many activists who work in other movements, such as feminist and anti-racist movements, have routinely experienced similar reactions when they try to identify the ways privileged groups may be advantaged relative to others. As we've all been familiar with the concept of privilege in different contexts as well of ways to confront privilege, we were prepared for what was about to come.

Tamil Guardian: Have you noticed any difference in responses between the Sinhala people in Sri Lanka and the expat community abroad?

We couldn't tell a real difference. It seemed like they were more or less in sync with each other.


Tamil Guardian: Many of those critical of the piece have suggested that it is essentially racism. What's your response to that? Are you just racist?

That's a ridiculous point to make. The intention of the piece wasn't to generalize Sinhalese as a people and deny them multiplicity in identities and experiences, or even humanity, but to bring attention to how their ethnic identity as Sinhalese provides them vantage grounds that many non-Sinhalese don't enjoy because they simply don't carry a Sinhalese name, don't speak Sinhala, aren't Buddhists or 'appear' Sinhalese by attire and/or facial features.

Again, it was meant to show the ways in which economic and social benefits can track ethnic differences. Sinhalese, just as any other people, are a diverse people who compromise a number of sub-communities, sub-groups and individuals who may not share anything, but language and cultural heritage. This does not mean, however, that they are “equal” to other groups in Sri Lanka, once we compare their access to that of other groups in terms of variables such as political representation, cultural capital, or even the likelihood of experiencing state-violence.

In Sri Lanka, language and cultural heritage can mean, in the most extreme case, life or death. We expected to be called 'racists' by some, thus we finished the piece with the phrase 'Many of you will call us racists'.

It's a simplistic response which aims to prevent any sincere engagement with the points we're trying to make. It’s easier to accuse than to question of course.

Tamil Guardian: What has been the reaction from Tamil people. Have you noticed any difference between those in the North-East and the diaspora?


The response from Tamils has so far mostly been positive. Some Tamils, however, reacted even more hysterically about the piece than most Sinhalese ever did, but even that wasn't surprising. The level of opposition amongst Tamils seems to be a hallmark for their liberal credentials post-war and their engagement with an uncritical 'reconciliation' discourse. Some of them accused us of being aggressive and bias; others dismissed the piece as it was written by Tamils instead of Sinhalese.


Of course we agree that the piece would have been stronger had it been written by Sinhalese. This issue has been lingering over the island for generations though and no Sinhalese has ever come up with something similar so we simply felt we waited long enough. This doesn't mean we don't encourage Sinhalese to critically engage with Sinhalaness in Sri Lanka though. We do the opposite. We believe it's most crucial for any group to question its own place within society. To dismiss this piece however because it was written by Tamils is simply ignorant. That's in fact racist. Fortunately this was so far only the case amongst a minority of people. The majority of Tamils were supportive of our project.
We couldn't see any real difference in opinion between diaspora and at home. We saw even a number of Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka 'liking' the posts on Facebook.


Tamil Guardian: Many of your critics on social media networks, have drawn attention to your own identities as "privileged" Tamil diaspora. What's your take on that?

Again, this comes from a misconception of the term privilege. Privilege means enjoying as a group or individual a special advantage to the exclusion of others. Let's take the example of a Tamil man from a higher caste and a Sinhala man from a lower caste. The Sinhala man is not always more privileged in relation to the high caste Tamil, particularly in questions of class, status and respect. In certain situations, however, even the low caste Sinhala man is more privileged than the high caste Tamil, namely those where ethnicity and race matter in Sri Lanka. Identities are of course fluid and relational, but the point again is that we want people who identify as Sinhalese to reflect back on what Sinhalaness means in regards to questions of identity, citizenship, belonging, security, justice et. al..


The assumption that being diasporic automatically means being privileged is highly problematic. Not everyone in the diaspora is privileged. Sure, we may have escaped from violence, terror and authoritarian rule, but our social positions in questions of race, ethnicity and class are even, or especially, in diaspora highly contested, undermined and negotiable. The assumption that diaspora means privilege reflects back on the disconnect between people back home and refugee communities. We do not live in the golden cage that many people assume or even want us to reside in.

Tamil Guardian: In relation to one particular line of 'Sinhala privilege' that is highlighted in your piece, one astute reader pointed out that there are no legal prohibitions to a non-Sinhalese/Buddhist being elected as Sri Lanka's leader. What is your response to that?

As we said before, the absence of legal prohibitions does not imply that a group necessarily has access to adequate political representation. There can be other significant obstacles that preclude some groups from finding adequate political representation within and outside institutional settings. But looking at the historical and political climate of the country and looking at the constitution of the country which gives Buddhism the 'foremost place' in the state, it does not only seem implausible to think of a Tamil president, no, it's impossible to actually eye one.


The current constitution indeed allows any citizen of the country to become its president, in theory at least, but reality is far different. We all know of the limits of Sri Lanka's multicultural imaginations and how far the presence of a non-Sinhalese non-Buddhist is tolerated in this island. So there may not be a legal prohibition, but there is very well a social prohibition to be found that renders it impossible for a Tamil or Muslim to become the island's leader (s). Can we expect, for instance, a Muslim to become Sri Lanka’s President  in an social and political environment where even the presence of a simple halal sign on Sri Lankan food packages can lead to violence and harassment of Muslims?

Tamil Guardian: Is this the complete list? Or do you have any further pieces on the way?


We plan to do further pieces in the future dealing with questions of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, gender and sexuality in the South Asian and diasporic context. But for the moment we're keenly observing how the discussions triggered by the piece develop on a number of social media platforms.

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