It seems that the Internet is still not done talking about Princeton student Tal Fortgang’s essay on why he will never apologize for his white privilege. Privilege is a concept that we work here with at TOL a lot, so it makes sense for us to weigh in on it as a group. Naturally, as TOL has a diverse set of writers with different experiences, we have different ideas on the issue. Check them out:
Debating some 18-year-old college boy on his ad-hoc ideas about privilege is beneath us. Shame on the media for giving him a platform—what he said is exactly what a lot of young, hetero guys say when they’re frustrated with the infrequency with which they’re getting laid, but haven’t actually grown into their adult brains yet. It’s almost as if Time.com, Fox News, the New York Times, etc., knew that this kid’s rant would fit perfectly into the culture war narrative that drives so many damn clicks to their websites. Merryweather is not impressed.
I don’t mind Tal Fortgang’s essay, in fact — I didn’t see much wrong with it. I don’t care about the idea of white privilege (or any sort of privilege). It’s got nothing to do with me and how I live my life. I cringe whenever I read about people needing to “check their privilege” (thank goodness, no one I know would seriously use the phrase). It’s all divisive, and Fortgang’s essay stirs up the liberal status quo’s dust. But I think if more people focused on bettering themselves and others, instead of shutting people down or playing the blame game — we’d be a lot further when it comes to racial issues.
Caroline K. Gorman
I think discussions about privilege are absolutely crucial to understanding our society and working to change it. Out of respect for individuals, we should recognize that their life circumstances and outlook is different in ways we may never access fully or understand fully. Furthermore, a sense of humility about our knowledge of other people could keep us from legislating social mores.
However, in order to fruitfully discuss privilege it can’t become a conversational weapon or a reason to disregard someone’s opinion. It should not become a way of shaming and silencing people (which seems to be the main function of “check your privilege”). Education doesn’t happen through force, so we should resist the urge to talk about privilege in an inflammatory way.
There is nothing wrong with asserting or acknowledging that privileges exist. But it is another thing to “critique” someone’s position, argument, or utterance by chucking a bunch of privilege checklists at them. The latter is ad-hominem-ey. And that is my problem with this privilege-checking business. It is often an ad-hominem tactic and often has little to no relevance to the discussion at hand (check yo’ logical fallacies!). I do not have an issue with Tal Fortang’s unapologetically privilege-flaunting piece. But I wholeheartedly agree with Brian Mayer that he should have stopped at “‘Check your privilege!’ is a lousy argument.” A white-male-heterosexual-cisnormative-able-bodied libertarian argues that we should do away with the minimum wage (overdone policy example, I know). More often than not, the bleeding-hearted interlocutor will counter “of course you think that; you’re not a poor, black, single-mom who depends on the minimum wage!” I happen to agree with Mr. Embodiment-of-Privilege-libertarian in this hypothetical snippet (and on many other issues). But does the position suddenly merit consideration because an Hispanic woman holds it?
I confess: I dislike debates on privilege that happen on the Internet. Not because I’m some anti-PC rager, but I kind of hate conversations in which no one knows what they’re talking about. Social Justice Warriors of different varieties really suck at intersectionality and assume they know better than others what kinds of privilege they receive. Anti-privilegers completely derail conversations, make it all about the phrase “check your privilege” (which I have NEVER heard ANYONE say) and how it makes them feel shut down, rather than, oh, I don’t know Googling the damn term (I’m looking at you, Tal Fortgang) and engaging with the idea. Having privilege is not the same as “having an easy life.” No one has an easy life. Life is fucking hard for everyone. But having privilege means you get to play the hard game on the easiest difficulty level. It doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or that you should apologize. It just means that life is much, much harder for some groups of people because of the way our society is constructed—and that you maybe, just maybe, might not directly understand what it’s like to be them and you could benefit from listening to someone with different life experiences.
There’s a lot more to discussions of privilege than that. Shit’s complicated. But at its source, it’s not something to be afraid of. Just something to be aware of.
Tal Fortgang is a lot like me. We both have pasty-white skin, we both have a distaste for preachy liberals, both of our parents worked hard for their wealth from very little, and I surmise that we both read from the Torah when we were 13. In a lot of ways I empathize with his position. Having privilege isn’t a guarantee of getting into top schools or a good job. We both had to work hard for it, just like everyone else.
What I fear that most people forget is that privilege exists on a spectrum. Whiteness does not necessitate wealth-privilege. You can have privilege as a female–I’ve certainly never been judged on my athletic prowess or have been asked to conceal my feelings–and privilege as a male. There isn’t an end-all-be-all of: If you’re white, male, and come from a wealthy family, your opinion or or experience is necessarily less than another person.
That’s why I prefer the term “count your blessings.” Privilege certainly exists—it creates shortcuts to success. If Tal or I forget that we have been granted special allowances because of our upbringing, it spurs forward conflict, ignorance, and derision. Empathy, I think, is at the core of checking your privilege.
But then, at the end of the day, “checking your privilege” does not do what was intended. If you check your privilege, you nod at the inequality of the world and pity those who got the short(er) end of the stick. It does nothing to fix the problem of privilege itself. As The Atlantic points out, “Failure to acknowledge privilege is very gauche, maybe even nouveau riche… the main result of privilege-talk is scrappiness one-upmanship among the privileged.” For me, it’s a mixed bag. Yeah, privileged people should learn that not everyone has their advantages. And yeah, telling people to check their privilege will probably piss them off far more than actually address the problem.