There was an article making the rounds this week in which a Princeton freshman does a “take down” of white privilege. It has been widely circulated as some kind of gotcha moment for people to subscribe to the idea that racial inequity is a thing to be concerned with. And while I hesitate to connect issues of racial equality to a political party because I strongly believe that racial reconciliation should be a bi-partisan effort, I’ve been disappointed to see the glee with which certain conservative news outlets have highlighted Tal’s piece as a wrist-slap to the concept of white privilege. If I were a Republican, I might be asking myself why some of the mouthpieces in my own political party seem to be so bent on disproving the experience of racism. And I might ask myself what I could do to change that narrative within my politic party.
But politics aside, 19-year-old Tal Fortgang wrote a compelling argument against having to “check his privilege”, outlining the hardships his own family faced in getting where they are today. It resonated with a lot of people, and you know what? I understand why. If I believed that “white privilege” was a term meant to diminish my personal achievements . . . if I thought “white privilege” meant that I had to apologize for things that happened before I was born . . . if I thought that “white privilege” meant that I need to be ashamed or embarrassed for being born white . . . if I thought that “white privilege” dismisses the very real hardships and challenges that I’ve had in my life . . . if that was my understanding of white privilege, I’d probably be a little resentful about it, too.
But instead, I’ve taken the time to really understand the concept. I realize now, as I hope Tal can someday realize: white privilege isn’t about me individually. It’s not a personal attack. White privilege is a systemic cultural reality that I can either choose to ignore, or choose to acknowledge and attempt to change. It has nothing to do with my worth as a person or my own personal struggle.
This is what I find so frustrating about Tal Fortgang’s piece. He didn’t take the time to learn what white privilege means, and instead railed against it in an essay that clearly shows his lack of grasp on the subject. And worse yet, Time magazine reprinted it. (No doubt they are basking in the glory of the pageviews on this one.)
Here’s what our fresh-faced Princeton undergrad gets wrong as he spends several paragraphs outlining the struggle of his own family: the concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to issues of systemic racism. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced. (And ironically, as Tal outlines the discrimination his Jewish grandparents faced, he acknowledges the imbalance for them while glossing over it as a possibility for others.)
There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. “White privilege” is simply an interchangeable term for racial privilege, and refers only to race, not to other privileges a person may have been born into. This is what Tal Fortgang gets really wrong, because his essay assumes that white privilege refers to any kind of privilege. Not so. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . . we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive.
Tal Fortgang is also incensed that he has been asked to “check his privilege” in conversations around these topics. And once again, he is railing against something he doesn’t understand. The phrase “check your privilege” is typically invoked when someone is being woefully ignorant or insensitively dismissive of the oppression of minority groups.It’s not because someone wants a white person to apologize for being white, or dismiss someone’s opinion based on race. It’s a way of reminding someone that they may not know or understand what they are talking about. It’s a gentler way of saying, “You are kind of being a self-absorbed asshole and you should maybe learn more about the minority experience before you continue talking.” And based on Tal’s essay . . . yeah. I can see where he might have heard this phrase before. But here’s how a privilege check usually works:
If I suggested that black people were over-reacting about Trayvon Martin, I might be told to check my (racial) privilege.
If I said that gay people should stop complaining about marriage rights because they are free to love each other and that’s all they need, I might be told to check my (hetero) privilege.
If I suggested that my kid’s school should stop sending home paper assignments and just let the kids do their homework from their own ipads, I might be told to check my (economic) privilege.
If I whine about the presence of handi-capped parking spaces at a concert venue, I might be told to check my (ability) privilege.
Being told to check your privilege has nothing to do with apologizing for being white. It has to do with being insensitive to the life experiences of others. “Check your empathy skills” might be a better phrase, but nonetheless, it’s not an attempt to shame someone’s race, but rather to point out that someone is refusing to acknowledge privilege differentials.
Fortgang goes on to imply that it is his families ethics and virtue that have gotten them where they are . . . which again, no one is denying. But it’s missing the point. Morgan Jerkins says it well:
When Fortgang speaks of altruism and self-sacrifice as values that are deemed as privilege, these are abstractions. We are talking about human beings. There are those who have these characteristics and still face a tougher time trying to secure the same opportunities.
Tal Fortgang refuses to apologize for his white privilege. Fine. But I think he does need to apologize for writing about something that he hasn’t taken the time to understand. White people: no one wants you to apologize for being white. If that’s what you are hearing in conversations around privilege, it’s your own bias or unwillingness to examine yourself, and your attempt to instead create a straw-man situation to avoid seeing racial inequality. And that’s exactly what white privilege is.