Tal Fortgang, I came to your column, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in the Princeton Tory very recently via Facebook. Someone I knew in college posted it around the time it was going viral, essentially lauding your ideas as a new stock defense against some perceived indictment of American white maleness (which, given our track record, might not be entirely unjustified, sorry to say). So here I am, intrigued by what you said, and with things to say myself. I, like you, am straight, white, and male. I, too, have a Jewish heritage of which I’m proud. So, given that you likely won’t see this, consider this our meeting, our e-introduction. Now onto it.
I’ll start, Tal, by saying I don’t disagree with the entirety of what you said. Without knowing you, I still believe that you are intelligent, reasonable, and ultimately try through actions and words to arc toward what is right. I think, and I hope you’ll forgive my presumptuousness here, that you are, indeed, in the process of checking your privilege, but that you’re not finished. I think that you’re at the beginning. Many of the ideas in your column are consistent with this. Again, having never met you, I’d wager that as a student you hear words and expressions such as “patriarchy,” “oppressor,” “privilege,” and “check your privilege” quite often (but likely not often enough) on your campus, so much so that in your mind they must seem like the ambient noise of some hipster coffeehouse in which you don’t feel entirely welcome.
I know, Tal, because I remember these expressions from my college days at the University of Michigan. Although, it is important to point out that these words most often came off the tongues of upper-middle class, white, liberal students like me. Also, like me, they didn’t have the first clue how to use them except to spit them at each other, or themselves. Truthfully, there just weren’t that many people of color on campus. But I digress.
These expressions must seem like part of a massive conversation to which everyone but you and every other straight, white, male has been invited. On a level of your psyche you likely don’t acknowledge or see, you might even be feeling unwelcome, or dare I say “excluded.” It must suck. It must feel like you are the butt of some awful inside joke you don’t know, or that there’s a story everyone is telling about you, but not to you—or maybe they’re telling it to you, but you still don’t feel like you get it.
You might be thinking, “Hey, random blogger dude, a lot of what you’re talking about doesn’t appear in my column.” Remember, Tal, I’m addressing the subtext of your argument as much as the argument itself. You might also be thinking “I don’t feel unwelcome or excluded,” or better “You don’t have the first clue who I am, what I’m thinking, or how I feel.” While you’d be absolutely right, make no mistake: I do know what you’re thinking, and I do understand how you feel. Your ideas smell of defensiveness, Tal. I just thought you should know. Like, if you were wearing I dirty shirt, I’d tell you. It’s okay. You’re young. Maybe your first year of college wasn’t your first time being exposed to a broader discourse on issues of social justice, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Justice is messy. But remember, injustice is a lot messier.
I can’t speak for women, people of color, or the LGBTQ community. I can, however, tell you what significant others, friends, and colleagues who identify as members of these communities have expressed to me about their experiences, particularly at universities. Imagine, Tal, you are a woman of color in a program dominated by white males at an elite university. You are beyond motivated, beyond brilliant. You are sitting in a lecture hall in which women comprise a fraction of a percent of your peers. You are the only person of color. The demographic composition of the faculty in your department is even more skewed toward white maleness. It’s indescribably discouraging, but again, your motivation is unshakable.
Unshakable, that is, until your peers start questioning your abilities, your intellect, and your very right to sit among them and receive an education. Your peers and professors routinely tell you that the only reason you were accepted into your university was Affirmative Action. You are routinely ignored during study groups, in campus organizations, and by the policy decisions made at the University’s highest administrative levels. The Supreme Court of your country decrees (in so many words) that racism is dead, and the legislative weapons most crucial in killing it ought to be buried with it. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise you because these sorts of decisions have been happening at the local and state levels since as long as you can remember. That very month, Cliven Bundy, Don Sterling, and their ilk confirm for you what you never needed confirmed: racism has indeed not flat-lined.
Now, Tal, let’s get back to us. The unpleasantness you feel when you hear expressions like “check your privilege” is a reaction to the fact that you do enjoy privilege. It’s kind of like being the sucker at a poker table—if you can’t tell it’s you, it’s likely you.
I’m not judging you, Tal—this is not an indictment. I’m the same. We’re the same. I am, however, going to challenge you. I’m calling bull***t on your assertion that you’ve checked your privilege. Name a single time you or another straight, white male whom you know was accused of getting into Princeton solely because the university needed to meet an Affirmative Action quota. Now ask yourself how many straight, white, males have you heard make some version of the “Affirmative Action shortchanges white guys” argument. If you’re being honest with yourself right now, you’re probably going to need paper and a pencil.
Before I wrap up my ramblings, I want to turn to your vivid and moving descriptions of your family’s history, your Jewish heritage. I connected with this, Tal. My father is Jewish. Obviously, history has not been altogether kind to Jews. Obviously, it’s unlikely that the grandsons and great-grandsons of shtetl-or-ghetto-born European Jews who emigrated during the 20th century are the grandsons and great-grandsons of Southern slave-owners. Obviously, our grandparents and great-grandparents fled to America leaving behind hundreds of years of diaspora, legislated isolation, pogroms, occupation, and extermination (does any of this sound familiar). While we may have left this history behind in Europe, it’s hard to imagine it has left our blood.
But Tal, we are still white. This country has been far kinder to us than it’s been to people who aren’t white. Despite how hard our respective families have had to work to make a way for us, despite how hard it seems you and I have worked to keep on that path, our way has still seen fewer obstructions in this country. And yes, while our history is fraught with horrors of its own, we have not faced them as abundantly here. And yes, while you and I might not be descended from slave-owners (or so we’d hope), the economic, cultural, and political legacies of our nation’s travesties do benefit you and me directly as straight, white men. The “oppression committees” are real—the political machinery is kept grinding knowingly and purposefully to our advantage. By virtue of our race, sex, and sexual orientation we’ve enjoyed a level of access and opportunity within one generation that many people outside our demographic have had to fight across many generations to taste. Countless people are still fighting for a taste of it.
Am I saying guilt is the answer? No, though it’s often an initial byproduct of recognition. I’m saying awareness is part of the answer. Another part of the answer (but by no means the rest of it) is advocacy for justice, which can take many forms, and is a way of life, I’d argue.
I guess my point is that the feelings of being questioned, challenged, or even judged that would prompt you to write a column like this likely pale dramatically in comparison to the feelings of students who, both historically and presently, struggle with underrepresentation in our country’s most significant avenues for upward mobility. Like Princeton. But I’m not trying to shortchange you, Tal. I really do believe that you’re talented, intelligent, and worked hard to get where you are. But I also believe you’re not fully acknowledging the role your privilege has played in helping you get there. I believe it’s very likely you would’ve needed to work much harder to get there without it.
I believe the conversation needs you, Tal, and that you could be an important voice within it. I believe there are some books you should read, classes you should take, experiences you should have, and listening—yes, lots and lots of listening—you should do. I believe that if you are willing, you can become a wonderful advocate for social justice. I even believe that you believe you’ve checked your privilege. I just believe you might want to check it again—that you should keep checking it until you see it.