Living “Relatively Visible”

living room in middle-class home in North India

Upper-middle-class home in Delhi

I am born to a Tamil, working class, OBC (Other Backward Caste) couple who immigrated to North India to earn their livelihood in the mid-1980s.

My father had begun working with an American cultural agency, a full-time job that he would continue to do for the next three decades. My mother, by default, stayed at home, raising her two children, and managing the household with the skills and knowledge that she had learned.

My sister and I, for the first two years of schooling, went to a low-budget private school, which had rooms covered with tin sheets and no doors. My parents took us out after the second grade and enrolled us in a private school, which they could barely afford.

When my father was transferred to a new city in the late 1990s, we had to be enrolled in the best school again. The “best school” meant for them, higher tuition fees managed with a low income. It also meant trying to acquire for their children a social class different than theirs, so we would not suffer the humiliation that came for trying it. I remember my father recounting how the school’s administration questioned him whether he could pay the tuition fees of his two children in a timely manner – a question that he had no choice but to answer.

Upper-Middle-Class Snobbery

In 2007, my family moved again to Delhi, in order for us to go to college. By this time, my family was in a better financial position – my parents having invested in the necessities that were important for us, our education. My sister and I received our postgraduate degrees from premier universities and by 2014 were working in the nonprofit sector at managerial positions. But, we had one shortcoming. We were still living on rent.

I alternated between two class-realities at the same time: the working-class that I did not identify with and the middle-class that did not identify with me.”

The community that we live in is dominated by families owning businesses and holding public offices, and multiple real estate properties, cars and other assets. They call themselves “the upper-middle-class.” In this community, the working-class often suffers classism, racism, sexism and, not uncommon, xenophobic prejudice. It is liable to be treated without respect and humility. In my case, the systemic class and gender identity asserted itself when my house-owner casually asked me once, “Do you work as a receptionist*?”

Alternating between Class Realities

The question, although presumptuous, forced me to think how I alternated between two class-realities at the same time: the working-class that I did not identify with and the middle-class that did not identify with me, and how others perceived me from the vantage point of class. Unlike the permanent visibility afforded to an individual by a house or an SUV, an academic degree only offers relative visibility, which exposes the individual to disowning one’s achievements.

There is a chapter in Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth dedicated to Colonial War and Mental Disorders. Fanon delineates for the reader the sustained onslaught of colonialism on the mental health of the colonized individuals. I think classism has a similar effect.

Fanon writes,

“Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’”

The sad reality of classism is that I cannot compensate for my position in the society by only acquiring the relatively visible achievements such as an academic degree. Unless, I complement these with visible achievements, I will remain invisible. Or as my father says about himself, “[I am a failure because] I have not been able to buy a house even after 30 years of work.”

* The position is filled by the working-class population and more often by women in India, and is, thereby, considered low-status.


2 Responses

  1. It’s, certainly, a wonderful reflection Rathi. I remember Bourdieu for his reflective sociology while reading you. The dichotomy of identities have cramped us all the way.

  2. Gigi Jones

    Good explanation of experience of classism in India. Though it works differently in each country, the result’s the same-feelings of inadequacy leading to self-esteem issues one must fight all the time. Glad you became a sociologist with a goal to serve others, despite the tough times. It’s clear your parents’ love & care helped shape you. Namaste.

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