I have never been asked to “check my privilege”. That is by no means indicative of my actual status in life, one that’s already vastly higher than most by virtue of being born in a First World country. Not only do I come from a middle class family in a wealthy nation, but I also happen to be both male and straight. Those two facets of my person alone have freed me from a world of verbal [and potentially physical] abuse. It’s no mystery to me how good I have it going.
Taking all of that into account, and I really do dwell on the reality of how much better off I am than others on an almost daily basis, I can say with confidence that I would not enjoy hearing those three words. I acknowledge that they would feel like not only an admonishment for not thinking through whatever I had just said or written, but an outright dismissal of my viewpoints.
I want to state this as clearly as possible: no part of me supports the usage of any phrase to “strike down opinions” or otherwise silence others. I am a strong proponent of discussion and this activity flies in the very face of that. My issue is that the purpose of the article I’m responding to appears to be the throwing out of these three words completely, and generally appears to completely miss the point.
The article is, as the title of this post indicates, “Meet The Poster Child For ‘White Privilege’ – Then Have Your Mind Blown”. Before we get into the actual words of Tal Fortgang, a white 20-year-old Princeton freshman and the article’s titular poster child, we need to break down the language used in the introduction leading up to them. Written by associate editor Jennifer Kabbany, it emotionally primes readers, swaying them to one perspective through overgeneralizations and descriptions of injustice.
Firstly, there’s the assertion that those leveling the term against the young man in question are “ethnic and feminist studies college students and professors who frequently and vehemently complain that this country is steeped in racism and sexism and is only fair and just and equal for white, heterosexual males.” To start with, the United States of America is rife with racism and sexism. Donald Sterling may have received [what I hope to be a fraction of] his comeuppance two days ago, but he owned the LA Clippers for 33 years. There may be no place for him in the NBA now, but at one point there was, and that continues to be a problem. On top of that the assumption that every one of these individuals believes that things are “only fair and just and equal for white, heterosexual males” is a gross hyperbole.
Secondly, and this sums up the heart of Fortgang’s “powerful message”, is that associate editor Jennifer Kabbany informs us readers what those words are supposed to mean. She tells us that “check your privilege”:
“…is meant to remind white, heterosexual males that they have it so good because they’re white, heterosexual males. They haven’t faced tough times, they don’t know what it’s like to be judged by the color of their skin.”
Given an introduction that pigeonholes those spouting the phrase and asserts their intentions in doing so we can now move on to the meat of the article, or what Fortgang himself has to say to those people who are “sick of being labeled” and who “are the very same ones doing it to others.”
In his starting paragraph Fortgang follows in Kabbany’s footsteps by first describing those reprimanding him as “[his] moral superiors” and then ascribing his own meaning to those three words, which he perceives as-
“‘-a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.”
I don’t want to break down his diction, but it can essentially be boiled down to “people trying to make me feel bad.” Much more than that, he continues on to state that these same people are “diminishing everything [he has] personally accomplished.” While I obviously cannot comment on the contexts surrounding the several times the saying has been leveled against him, Fortgang believes that each and every instance is an overt criticism of any hard work leading to where he is today.
That in turn brings us to the heart of his open letter, if I can call it that. Given the numerous times he has been the phrase’s target he decided to “take their advice” [present in the first half of the block quote up above] and dig deep into his heritage. I’m going to completely avoid picking apart his word choice here for the sake of this article’s length; suffice to say it drips indignation.
Essentially the next four paragraphs are Fortgang asking those he deems his attackers if many of the hardships his family endured constitute privilege. To wit:
“Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland…”
“Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures…”
“Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other…”
“Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job…”
It’s a return to his argument that those asking him to check his privilege are implying that his current position owes nothing to hard work, that they assume he was buoyed up to his current position due to his Whiteness and maleness alone. Given his view that none of the above could ever be considered as privileges, he then begins to list what privileges he has had in his life.
The painful irony is that both lists expose the flaws in his argument.
While his grandparents’ time in Poland can by no means be viewed as bearing them any form of advantage, he says that it has been his “distinct privilege that [his] grandparents came to America”, that it was a place where “they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.” What the United States was to his grandparents is not at all what it was for the majority of non-White people. If his assumption here is that these opportunities were available to everyone he is sorely misinformed.
What immediately follows that is vastly more telling, that it was his grandparents’ privilege “to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.” I’m not even sure where exactly to start here. If we want to talk about just moving there to begin with, in 1882 there was a law signed by the President to prohibit the immigration of Chinese workers to America. This wasn’t repealed until 1943. That alone was an extreme form of institutionalized racism which they were able to bypass completely.
In regards to his father being able to attend City College, and then a top graduate school afterwards, that in and of itself would have been exceedingly difficult had he been a racial minority. It wasn’t until 1954, only 60 years ago, that the USA decided that separating White and Black children into separate schools was against their constitution. A mere eight years after that had President Kennedy literally federalizing troops to enforce an order allowing a Black student to enroll at an all-White university. While the road to where he is today was not an easy one, his father’s race allowed him to avoid several hardships and seize opportunities not available to all.
Having finished with that he states what is most important for him, and what goes beyond the trials and tribulations his grandparents and father faced, is-
“the legacy he sought to pass along, which forms the basis of what detractors call my ‘privilege,’ but which actually should be praised as one of altruism and self-sacrifice. Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it’s called ‘environmentalism,’ and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called ‘privilege.’ (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.) Such sacrifice of any form shouldn’t be scorned, but admired.”
Allow me to finally come right out and say it: the words “check your privilege” are not the boiling down of your current situation to being wholly dependent on your sex and race. No one just “gets into” Princeton, let alone just starts out with the ability to afford attending the university. The privileges that Fortgang enjoys take far simpler forms.
It is his privilege to not have to uncomfortably answer the question “Where are you from?”
It is his privilege to not be “randomly selected” when traveling through an airport.
It is his privilege that he doesn’t get pulled over by the cops due to the very colour of his skin.
It is his privilege that his likelihood of being the victim of violent crime and sexual assault are nothing compared to if he were a woman.
It is his privilege to live in a country where the media in almost all of its forms not only represents him, but caters to him as well.
None of these benefits or advantages are dependent on what his family endured and suffered through, all of which, barring the tragedy in Poland, were made easier given their race. Every morning that Tal Fortgang wakes up he can rest assured that his being both White and male gives him a significant leg up as a citizen and resident of the United States of America. Here’s the kicker, though:
whether or not he realizes it doesn’t make it any less true.
If he doesn’t believe that what he was born as significantly affects his life today then he’s no different from so many others who believe that race isn’t a factor in the grand scheme of things. In no way am I railing against the concept of meritocracy, or that hard work doesn’t lead to results. The thing is that sweat and blood will get you far, but we don’t all start at the same line.
He ends with the following two paragraphs:
“Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.
I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”
No one I know who is aware of the existence of white privilege is expecting those who have it to apologize for who they are, and those who are saying that I want nothing to do with. I do want to add, however, that I also want those who have it to acknowledge it. It’s not a crime to start the game of life with a pair of aces, but don’t tell me that it’s no different from my offsuit seven and two.
A person’s first impulse upon hearing the words “check your privilege” is to grow upset, and I don’t blame them for that. What I do want is for them them to find the truth in the phrase, the cold, hard fact that they are privileged. From that point on they can get to the bottom of why it was quoted; if they said something offensive that may not have been starkly apparent to them given their circumstances. If that doesn’t work they can feel free to step away from the conversation if they find themselves being silenced or shamed.
Check your privilege. Apologize for the things you may have said that came across as insensitive or outright wrong when revealed by a perspective shaped by them.