It is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Almost every community of humans have organized themselves in a hierarchy. Today, we look back with much disdain at Hammurabi’s Code of Law which distinctly identifies 3 classes of people: superiors, commoners, and slaves. We cannot even imagine such a society being fair. Our society today touts the virtues of equality, or at the very least, equal opportunity. Yet, if a fictional society of the future were to look back at how divisive today’s society is, they too might find themselves in equal disbelief. In the current American narrative, most of us would acknowledge the inequalities between race and gender, but wouldn’t immediately question the unfairness between being born into wealth vs being born poor ("That’s just how capitalism works, your parents worked for it!").

On reading a chapter in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens about this, I wanted to introspect upon the different pillars of privilege that go far beyond wealth/race/gender. I posed the question to myself as - what are the implicit cards you’re dealt (that you cannot change) that are strong determinants of “success” in today’s world? This beautiful video does a good job of explaining it. I began to list them out. I definitely must’ve missed a bunch and some of them inevitably overlap. But here goes:

  • Race: Some have it easier than others given the generalizations they have to deal with. Black. Hispanic. Asian. Indian. White. Others.
  • Gender: Male. Female. Others. There is a large dialogue surrounding the advantages men have in modern society over women. If you’re neither, it’s that much harder.
  • Sexuality: Straight. Gay. Other. There is also a large dialogue surrounding this, and the situation is improving at least in some countries. Overall though, it’s definitely much more difficult to be Gay or any other sexuality but straight.
  • Skin Color: Very distinct from race, a distinction I’ve grown up with in India. Light-skinned people have it easier than dark.
  • Language: Those who have grown up speaking English or the language local to their country have it easier than those who haven’t (think refugees).
  • Religion: Some religions have it harder in the modern state of the world than others. Christians. Catholics. Hindus. Jews. Buddhists. Muslims. Parsis. Others.
  • Religiousness: Something you’re born into, really. One would argue being born into an overly religious family would be an impediment to progress.
  • Citizenship/Nationality: Again, something particularly close to me as an Indian. Your passport determines where you can and can’t go and where you can and can’t choose to stay for a while. Some passports are stronger than others, and you by no means get to choose your passport or nationality.
  • Geography: Where you were born and raised. Whether it was high income or low income? Was it safe? Was it urban or rural? Did you move around significantly? Was it diverse? How developed was the infrastructure? How polluted was it? Did you have accessibility to things and experiences you wanted to purchase? And a plethora of other factors.
  • Wealth of your parents: Often dictates your geography. Dictates the kind of education you can have, the resources you can afford, the music and sports classes you can go to do hone your skills, the degree of risk you can afford to take, whether or not they will depend on you for income after.
  • Parental education: Children are highly biased to do what their parents do. And a lot of your perspective on the world is shaped by your parents. People who go into academia, for example, are very likely to have parents in academia. The degree to which your parents were educated is highly indicative of your success.
  • Parents’ Marriage Stability: Those who grew up in single mother households, or with step-parents or in a broken home typically have it harder.
  • Genetic Health/Disability: Were you born with a disability or an impairment? Do you have a genetic disease? Are you predisposed to a higher risk of heart disease? Or mental health issues? Are you more prone to having bad vision?
  • Aesthetic Appearance/Beauty: It’s well known that those that look better have it easier in life.
  • Height: Also closely tied with beauty and your genetic draw, but it’s a tremendously under-appreciated privilege. Being a short man in today’s society is, no pun intended, getting the short end of the stick.
  • Luck: Even controlling for all this, there’s undeniably an element of luck. What if your father passed away unexpectedly at an early age leaving your family without a source of income? What if you happened to be hit by a drunk driver and remain maimed forever?
  • Others: There are a plethora of other smaller factors that somewhat stem from the ones I’ve already listed: how many siblings you have (none may affect you differently, too many is probably not great), how much attention your parents were able to give to you, your parents’ general parental decisions about your life.

All these variables are not independent, but I’d contest they are 90%+ capable of predicting your future “success” by any reasonable metric. From a machine learning point of view, these signals have complex interactions - for example, being a female in some parts of the world are worse than others (an interaction between gender and geography). The variables are also interdependent. You can say a lot about your race/wealth from your geography, and vice versa, for example.

These factors can be more difficult to reason about than you might immediately think. We might at first think something like weight is something one can easily change if they put their mind to it. However, let's say you're born into a family with typically poor nutrition habits in a low income neighborhood where unhealthy food is the only food you can afford. You have a terribly slow metabolism and have never known what healthy food meant. Already, the cards are stacked overwhelmingly against your favor. Being fat can have large repercussions on your future dating prospects, career prospects and healthcare costs - and it's difficult to attribute it solely to one's bad judgement.

I find it strange that we raise concerns about some of these “cards we’re dealt” - we have quotas, affirmative action and more - but not the others. What if you’re a tall white straight male born and raised in a well-to-do family but you’re 5 feet tall, your parents had a messy divorce, have always been farmers in rural Wyoming, and you have dyslexia. There’s not a lot of support for you there. Or imagine you’re a poor Chinese woman from a single mother home in rural China, with limited English knowledge, who’s moved to America in search of a better life. There’s also not a lot of support for you there. Allocating resources to mend certain imbalances of privilege, in my opinion, is a good step but it's a temporary bandaid for a much deeper wound. Shifting focus to certain privileges takes away from others. To really “even the playing field”, one would have to quantify the effect of the different aspects of privilege on the same scale, and no is going to agree.

This blog post is not meant to preach nor demean. I simply have found it a very humbling exercise to be cognizant of my privilege. It helps attribute any degree of success I may have had or will have to a distinct head start in a race, and not to me. After all, if you beat Usain Bolt in a 100m and thought you were faster than him without acknowledging that you started at the 90m mark, you’d be quite the fool. Don’t be a fool.

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