You’ve ‘Checked Your Privilege,’ Huh? Good. Please Check It Again.

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.

9 thoughts on “You’ve ‘Checked Your Privilege,’ Huh? Good. Please Check It Again.

  1. Pingback: BEN GOLDBERG REPS THE GLOVE WELL | The Dirty Glove

  2. Phil

    Your point is that Tal’s feelings of being questioned, challenged, or even judged likely pale dramatically in comparison to other students’ feelings of being questioned, challenged, or even judged? (but you are not trying to shortchange him, right?)

    1. That’s one of them, yes. I guess I’m saying, among other things, that being asked to acknowledge privilege is nowhere near as hard as being actively denied access.

      I’m not entirely sure how you mean shortchange. I’m guessing you’re asking whether not I believe he’s had to work hard to get where he is. Yes, I believe he has. I believe he is smart and hard-working.

      However, I also believe he has to recognize that his privilege has played a role in his success.

  3. Jon Simon

    My goodness, Benjamin Goldberg, you have indeed mastered the art of being patronizing. Perhaps you fail to understand Fortgang’s argument, or perhaps your moral compass has been completely demagnetized by the leftist dogma from which terms like “white privilege” emerge. Either way, your anti-racism has become overtly racist. Racism will never be defeated or eliminated by another form of racism.

    And we Jews are not white. We have never been and will never be white. Sometimes we may feel mainstream, and often we are called white. Many Jews, like you, call themselves white. However, we are not white culturally, religiously, racially, historically, and legally. We are Jews.

    1. Patronizing? Maybe, though I hope not. Demagnetized moral compass? Most assuredly, though not even for the reasons you list. Overtly racist in my anti-racism? Hold up.

      I’m morbidly curious to know how you define racism. I’m morbidly curious to know how it is you think asking someone to examine their privilege (however well or poorly I do it) constitutes racism. If by “racist,” you mean I’m not only prejudiced but somehow wielding my institutional advantages in ways that oppress people of color, then I’m curious to know how this post demonstrates that. If that’s the case, and I’m truly saying this without irony, I’m listening. Otherwise, I’ll quote “The Princess Bride”: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

      Finally, most American and European Jews are white. “White” is a racial distinction. “Jewish” is an ethnic and religious one. I’m not entirely sure how one can be “religiously” white, but racially (and legally), we Jews predominantly are. The persecution Jews have endured doesn’t change that.

      1. Jon Simon

        You are racist because you say that success and failure are based on race. An individual no longer has power. Here, you look at who you call a white man and say, “You have had advantages as a white man. That explains your success.” That implies that, then, you look at a black man and say, “You have had disadvantages as a black man. That explains your failure.” Oh, sure, you probably acknowledge that individual ability and hard work play into it all, but you primarily look through the lens of race. That is racist. That is also an incorrect view of reality.

        I have worked with black families who focus hard on their kids, pushing them for success. Being black certainly matters, but it doesn’t matter much because they strive for better. I have worked with Asian families who don’t focus hard on their kids, failing to push for success. Being Asian does not work magic. The individual and the family matter so much more. To say otherwise is to be racist, and you say otherwise.

        Yes, there are areas in this country where corrupt police forces subdue black populations. That institutional racism is absolutely terrible. What an intelligent black person does, what any intelligent person does when faced with a terrible place to live, is move. And many of them do. They are not powerless. We are not in Soviet Russia. We are not in apartheid South Africa.

        So I call bullshit and racism on you. Fortgang is essentially right. Oh, sure he could add some nuance, but he is right. You are wrong and racist, and no matter how much you nuance your philosophy, it is, at the core, racist. The concept of white privilege is racist.

      2. At this point, I’d like to formally invite you to stop misrepresenting and/or misinterpreting what I was saying, and what history says. For starters, please take your shoddy paraphrases of my arguments out of quotation marks, because at no point did I say or even imply any of what you’re attributing to me. I was asking a white man to consider the ways his whiteness might’ve influenced his life chances. Arguing that his whiteness “explains his success” (which I never did) is not the same as arguing that it influences his chance at success.

        Further, at no point did I deny the hardships that his (or my) Jewish ancestors endured. At no point did I deny his intelligence, talent, work ethic, and yes, personal responsibility. In fact, it’s not a matter of me “probably acknowledging” individual ability and hard work, as you say—I outright credited him with these attributes in the post. So, again, please stop misrepresenting my arguments.

        You claim that I “primarily look through the lens of race,” and that “that is racist.” You’re partially right about the first bit. In this post, I do examine race. Of course, any person’s outlook, including mine, Tal’s, and yours, can be more expansive and nuanced than a blog post reveals. However, I focus more explicitly on race in this post because I believe Tal Fortgang fails or refuses to do so himself in his column.

        But let me be clear: a person’s race (and social class, gender, etc.) absolutely influence their life chances. You heard that in my post, and you’re hearing it from me now. However you scramble this message, though, is on you. The fact that race so closely ties with people’s life chances does not reflect a defect within them or their race, but in the society to which they belong. I’m not going to discuss the body of research that substantiates the existence of white privilege (indeed, every form of privilege) except to say that it’s inexhaustible, and that it behooves you to familiarize yourself with it. Or you could just look around you.

        Physical forces like gravity are foundational to the world and our experience of it. Being unable or unwilling to recognize them doesn’t change that. Social forces such as privilege are just as real. It’s beyond deluded to believe that such forces don’t influence our lives in ways that warrant acknowledgement, interrogation, and ultimately discussion. It’s dangerous. So amidst my calling your position dangerous (and everything else I have to say to you) let me take a moment to genuinely thank you for discussing. Now back to it.

        Your straw man mischaracterization of my position is actually quite revealing. Or are you outright misinterpreting? You claim that I, by implication of an argument I don’t make, “look at a black man and say, ‘You’ve had disadvantages as a black man. That explains your failure.’” First of all, I work my hardest to not assume anything when looking at any person. I certainly don’t presume to know what kind of life he or she has had. I don’t look at a black man and assume he’s a failure. Do you do that?

        Calling into question the influence of whiteness on a white man’s chance at success isn’t even remotely the same as defaulting to the assumption that a person of color isn’t or can’t be successful. If you can’t see a distinction between these then you should examine why. Otherwise, don’t project your myopic vision onto me.

        Your understanding of the words “racist” and “racism” is critically misguided. I get that Webster is still behind the times on this one, but most people committed to ending racism define it as a combination of personal prejudice, institutional power, and the willingness to wield it. Click your heels three times and call me racist if you’d like, but it doesn’t change the definition, or your apparent inability to recognize racism when you see it. Or for that matter, when you don’t.

        How you get from statements like “I have worked with black families […]” and “Being black certainly matters, but it doesn’t matter much because they strive for better” to conclusions like “The individual and the family matter so much more. To say otherwise is to be racist […],” is breathtaking in its intellectual faultiness. Your logic, sir, is beyond tortured. Be humane and put it out of its misery.

        For a moment, it seems like you’re actually trying to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. How, then, do you make statement like “What an intelligent black person does, what any intelligent person does when faced with a terrible place to live, is move”? You speak as if institutional racism is localized to these isolated pockets and not endemic to the country. As if uprooting a family were as simple as getting into car. Your suggestion here is stunningly oblivious. The very fact that it’s your first and only solution reveals that you, too, should “check your privilege.”

        For the sake of argument, let’s say 1) that relocating is every bit as easy as you seem to think it is, and 2) that there’re places somehow both free of institutional racism and affordable for a socioeconomically disadvantaged family. Why is it incumbent upon the family to move? Why isn’t the onus on our society to treat its citizens justly? You speak about responsibility as if it only belongs to the individual. What about societal responsibility?

        You’re right. We’re not in Soviet Russia, apartheid South Africa, or any other place you might list to obscure our own country’s past and present injustices. We’re in America, and America has plenty to answer for. The last word’s yours if you want it. Otherwise, take care, and wake up.

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