The reality of privilege | TEDx EF Academy New York
The Reality of Privilege
Let me begin with a simple question: ‘What is your favorite clothing brand?’
For me, I love to shop at mainstream stores like Forever 21, H&M, or Zara, it’s okay quality, affordable and pretty. But some time ago, on one of my trips to H&M, while I was going through their racks, I noticed one common trend ‘Made in Bangladesh’ written over and over again on the tags at the backs of t-shirts, dresses, skirts of different styles, colors and designs.
Now, many of you probably have never noticed these tags or ever heard of Bangladesh, or even know where it is. This is quite common actually. But, then where is Bangladesh? I’ll give a small hint, Bangladesh is not India.
This country, Bangladesh, located at the edge of Asia and independent only 50 years ago, has been growing fast, yet, it is still struggling significantly and not because of the misconceptions that Bangladesh has less literate or qualified people but because of inequality. The inequality all of us here knowingly or unknowingly contribute to, including me, when we decide to support those stores I mentioned earlier, yes, H&M, Zara but also Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and many many more.
For people in my country, this means multi-million dollar corporations paying the average factory worker around $100 per month in conditions far worse than we can imagine in factories that destroy the environment, all in the name of keeping profits high and making the rich richer.
Our favorite brands are the ones who are failing us, and the perfect example of their unethical practices would be the Rana Plaza tragedy which took place on the 24th of April, 2013 when a garment factory collapsed crushing, suffocating, killing 1134 individuals and permanently injuring hundreds more. This tragedy is not unique and is bound to repeat, yet, many people who shop at Zara or H&M and similar brands don’t even know about this incident or others like it. This is ignorance and this is privilege.
This leads to my next question: “how many of us are aware that two realities exist?”. That a world outside of our own breathes and lives and functions as imperfectly as ours, and that they both rotate around the sun.
I was always aware of the two distinct realities; one clean and the other dirty. The first with steady roads painted black and traffic lights blinking red, green, and yellow. Cars lined neatly in rows, yellow signs for directions and zebra crossings for pedestrians, so much organization and a place for everything. This is the developed world.
But the world I come from is messy. Cobblestoned streets sweating from humidity with lines of cars, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles creating never-ending traffic. Piles of plastic, garbage, and litter on the side, and threads of wires hanging above. Here, people are overflowing, on the nonexistent sidewalks, in the buses, in the middle of the road everywhere. People selling handmade junk for 20 cents, people begging for money, people trying to survive.
In this world, nothing is easy, not going to work or school or buying food. Their days are shorter with less time for everything, while something as small as roads barely makes a dent in ours. This is convenience and this is privilege.
We view the world with rose-tinted glasses but the reality is that privilege exists in nooks and crannies everywhere. It’s unfair because of the inequality it represents, where some win because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, and more, while others lose. It’s not going to go away but it’s our responsibility to understand the differences, judge them fairly and work towards giving all people the same opportunities.
I spent hours on those roads and my people still spend years in poverty. There was never a moment I was not aware of my privilege.
How could I be?
When I had the luxury to sit in air-conditioned cars, while people tapped on my windows chanting for taka- money. The harsh reality, always, right outside. I could never ignore this world but I was also part of the lucky few who saw a world different from this, a world without so many people living on the streets. It was almost like I was living two lives, one in Bangladesh and the other with those who once colonized us.
Gradually I felt guilt for having this life. A life, only 10% of a population of 165 million people can have, a life I did not work for, a life given to me, a life I did not deserve. Yet, it was when I finally stepped out of the bubble of privilege that I was born into that I understood why my parents and grandparents distributed food at orphanages and hospitals every time we had something to celebrate or donated blankets in winter and clothes in aid or helped them in their every sickness and joy. I am slowly learning from them and to be like them, thus, I started by working with small charities that distribute necessities, tackle taboos, and alleviate poverty. I only just started this journey and there’s a long way for me to go but I am so glad that I have finally begun.
Now, here is the twist: I’m NOT saying, don’t shop at Zara or Forever 21 or any of the others because, at the end of the day, these people making $100 a month have families to feed and bills to pay, so that $100 is… something. But it’s not enough.
Not nearly enough to escape the cycle of poverty or stop struggling for the rest of their lives.
So I am asking you to take action, to use your voice, your power to tell these companies that you want their workers to be paid fairly and to give them what they deserve. Today, let’s come together and help those who need our help the most. And we can do this by creating awareness, signing petitions, and donating to organizations like the Awaj Foundation which fights for workers’ rights and bridges the gap of inequality.
Today, let’s make a promise to build a community inclusive of everyone, a society built on fairness rather than privilege, and a world different from the one of yesterday.