Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege

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There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in 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 do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.

But they can’t be telling me that everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me into Princeton. Even that is too extreme. So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend. I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.

Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.

Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.

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; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

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, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential.Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?

That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are. Assuming they’ve benefitted from “power systems” or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they’ve done, things of which you may not even conceive. You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still conquering them now.

The truth is, though, that I have been exceptionally privileged in my life, albeit not in the way any detractors would have it.
It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America. First, that there was a place at all that would take them from the ruins of Europe. And second, that such a place was one where they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.

It was their 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.

It was my privilege that my grandfather was blessed with resolve and an entrepreneurial spirit, and that he was lucky enough to come to the place where he could realize the dream of giving his children a better life than he had.

But far more important for me than his attributes was 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.

My exploration did yield some results. I recognize that it was my parents’ privilege and now my own that there is such a thing as an American dream which is attainable even for a penniless Jewish immigrant.

I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents’ education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad. It’s been made clear to me that education begins in the home, and the importance of parents’ involvement with their kids’ education—from mathematics to morality—cannot be overstated. It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates “privilege.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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.

Tal Fortgang is a freshman from New Rochelle, NY. He plans to major in either History or Politics. He can be reached at talf@princeton.edu.

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459 thoughts on “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege

  1. Pingback: I Have A Dream Redux ~ Opinionated Krew | Andy Kaufman's Kavalkade Krew Featuring The Wandering Poet

  2. The ONLY privilidges are these: being a male; money/ male with money.
    Everyone else is privileged within their ethnic/racial/social group equally.
    Everything else is bias. And perhaps bias is much stronger political/psychological/sociological weapon, then privilege ever was, or will be.

  3. One of the issues I’ve found with discussions around privilege and the concept of “check your privilege” is the word privilege is used to shut down a conversation or a certain perspective, as opposed to using the recognition of privilege as a starting point for a larger conversation. We all have privilege to some degree. The lesson should be how we learn to honor our privilege. Instead, when privilege is used as a pejorative, we focus our energy on either denying we have privilege or making excuses for it.

  4. White male privilege is purely derived from the fact that white men on average have superior intellects and are more innovative. If minorities and women were equals, then how were we so easily able to subjugate them for so long? Why is it they only gain freedoms when we decide to give it to them? All humans are animals, and the animal kingdom is governed by the principal “Might is Right”. The jaguar doesn’t apologize to the deer for tearing it’s throat out and eating it’s flesh. Do these soft college brats really think that if Africans were the more successful ethnic group that they wouldn’t have acted in the exact same way as the Europeans did? The strong rule the weak, the intelligent rule the strong. That is the way things always have been, and always will be.

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  6. Am I privileged?
    I am the first born child of a UPS driver and a stay at home mother. Both have college degrees. Both are fluent in English, both are liberal, both are white, both are citizens of the United States of America. They can pay for me to attend college, they can afford for me to fence–a sport of the privileged. My mother came from a broken household, my Grandfather left the family when she was twelve. My father moved from North Dakota to California when he was 17 years old– the age I am today. Is privilege the ability to write these words on a computer while I sit at home on a Friday night in a relatively safe neighborhood in a house that my parents own the deed for?
    Yes. I am privileged.
    Did my ancestors have troubles?
    I do not know.
    Do I have troubles?
    Yes.
    Am I a member of this world?
    Yes.
    Do I use my privilege to create privilege within others?
    No.
    Here’s what I used to think weren’t privileges:
    -Public School
    -Tap water
    -A Job
    -A nightly meal
    -Living in a house
    -Etc.
    Take everything that you take for granted and realize that there are people that do not have those things. They may be trivial things like owning a book but I can guarantee you that there is someone in the world who has not owned a book.
    Am I happy to be Privileged?
    Yes.
    Is it something I take for granted?
    Yes.
    Am I proud of it?
    Absolutely not.

    I am white. I am male. I am heterosexual. I am middle class. I am privileged.
    This does not create in me a stereotype. I know friends who are mixed, homosexual, a woman, and very close to the poverty line. They are privileged.
    There is an epidemic in America, and arguably in the western world, that things that we have are earned. I am struggling with that mindset. Can we say that a son who is related to a very affluent father has earned the money that his father may give him? What has the son done in his life?
    I know someone who was accepted to the very school that “Checking privilege” became a hot problem. This person was accepted to this university and did not complete a Pre-Calculus class. If one follows the idea that those who are placed in extraordinary situations deserve said honor, why was this individual admitted to this world of prestige? I am better at math than he is. Why did he score higher on the standardised tests than I did?
    It is a privilege to enter Princeton University.
    I will not have my parents be an excuse to be offensive and demeaning. I am me.
    This country, the one it is a privilege to be a part of, creates a world where all men are equal. There are no titles. There is no rank. In the world of Europe and Asia and Africa where there are Magnates, the Peerage, and the Sovereigns, the people are forgotten. The theory behind America is that we are for the people. We are the people. We are all equal.
    We’ve forgotten that.
    Privilege is rampant in our society and in our world.
    Privilege is not white, it’s not heterosexual, but it also isn’t something to be forgotten.
    We are privileged. Check it.

  7. On the second of May
    2014, Time magazine published an article by a young upstart student
    attending Princeton University by the name of Tal Fortgang, in which
    he attempts to defend the crushing disparity between the
    socioeconomic classes with a well-written (albeit heavily corrupted)
    diatribe against disadvantaged minorities. The reason to address such
    infantile thought is that it remains mostly a regurgitation of the
    entire right-wing of political magniloquence that sops upon our
    nation with devastating consequence. Reactions to the article were a
    competent internal representation of the difference in core values
    held in esteem by the citizens of our country.

    On one metaphorical hand – we have the affluent,
    which are allowed every buffer against financial turmoil conceivable,
    even in the face of economic downturn, and on the other, lay the
    majority of our populace, working inexhaustibly without economic
    haven and the brunt of financial responsibility. This is, as Mr.
    Fortgang himself would agree, not a question of race, but of two
    separate financial realms of existence within a climate in which, the
    overlapping of the two is rapidly becoming extinct. Despite overall
    tone, this is not to diminish the underpinnings by which the likes of
    Ayn Rand inspired an entire generation of young conservatives to
    simply “do something”, in short, that is to build up an empire
    from mere grit and iron determination alone, which is to be commended
    even from the most progressive of ideologies. Heretofore it is that
    very same notion which has kept the poor working without end to fuel
    our financial system, decade upon decade in pursuit of what it most
    likely a statistical improbability; “The American Dream”.

    Time and again it has become exponentially irrefutable that
    almost every economic factor of levy is weighted against the
    working class regardless of ethnicity. Rises in taxation have trended
    towards food and energy, property and so-called “sin”
    taxes, undeniably target those who make the least income and are left
    to bare arguably substandard systems.

    It becomes apparent that
    Fortgang’s ranting is the result of a sheer refusal to evaluate the
    even the most basic research regarding the financial structure of a
    country mired by a climate which could be taken straight from a page
    in the communist manifesto (ie. According to Oxfam – the eighty
    five wealthiest people on the planet hold more wealth than three
    billion of the world’s poorest and in the United States eight five
    percent of Americans own about seven percent of all available
    wealth). Further, it can be stated that globalization itself is not
    merely the result of the evolution of communicative technologies, but
    moreover, it lay in the corporate interest of industrial bodies
    seeking to strip out resources and labor from the third world with
    too little infrastructure to industrialize themselves.

    Fortgang’s folly (as it should herein be known) is to presume
    that merely being born into wealth is a privilege exempted from
    the human condition. If those with fortune have experienced suffering
    in any degree (which is plausibly the very nature of existence itself),
    it frees them from the obligations associated with relation to humanity.
    Since the beginning of our species there have been those favored to assets
    and those disproportionately affected by its allocation, with those
    advantaged holding almost untrammeled control over those without
    equal access – so it is a given, that the privileged few are to
    feel made vulnerable by any encroachment upon the status quo and for
    generations, have held that it is nothing short of divine right by
    which they are destined to dangle the proverbial carrot over the
    bloating bellies of the masses, and within this framework they will
    continue to craft and back the passage of favorable legislation,
    exploit faulted laws and lay siege to the taxpayer’s coin purse to
    solidify that privilege – yet to fend for such an already
    invulnerable position, is to tacitly acknowledge its interminable
    flaws. To ridicule the predicament of the very laborers upon whose
    backs they sit, certainly make for a trembling throne.

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  9. “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.” Tal Fortgang

    I do not want you to apologize for anything. I merely want us all to admit that if we are white in America we start with an advantage. During World War II in America no Jews were put in internment camps Tal. Ask anyone born to parents of Japanese ancestry what their relatives suffered.

    Tal, you say that because your family suffered at the hands of the Nazis, you are not a person of white privilege in America. Sorry, but you can not escape your privilege hiding behind your family misfortunes.

    I do not hide behind my disability to explain the problems I face in my adult life. And I do not avoid the truth that because I was born to white parents I received better treatment for my condition. As well as the best education at an all white suburban Boston school system.

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  12. Isn’t it so that people who tell others to check their privilege are typically white and far more privileged than most whites?

  13. Very intriguing article and I do see your point.

    In regards to “privilege”, I’m gonna play the genocide card – which means that you all have more privilege then me. My ancestors were brutally subjected to genocide and with a full beard I am likely to get searched in every airport with the suspicion that I am a terrorist from the Middle East.

    This concept of “check your privilege” is nonsense. People don’t fit into these hastily assembled categorizations, and to anyone who tells me to check my privilege, I will simply say, “Genocide. Please check your own.” .

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  15. I appreciate this freshman’s perspective and the well written article however I don’t believe this young man fully understands the difference among privilege, respect and in-experience. His family’s story is one to be admired. As a young woman born in the Middle East to a family who escaped a brutal war, I also arrived in the United States at the age of 6 with two brothers and a non-English speaking, single mother. After attended CUNY-Brooklyn (the sister school of the author’s father’s alma mater – City College) I too earned a spot at a top graduate school. The hard work that it has taken to earn this achievement, as well as the achievement of the author’s family, deserves respect – not privilege.

    The privilege the author discuss comes in multiple forms. There’s the privilege of knowledge, property, race and gender – all of which he seems to have in abundance. He speaks of his grandfather (and not grandmother) starting a business that initiated his privilege and yet he doesn’t view this opportunity as potentially being an unearned privilege bestowed upon his grandfather by the society of that era. He doesn’t ask himself, how much easier was it for his grandfather to gain ownership of a business then it would have been for an African-American, a non white or a woman prior to Civil Rights? He discusses education beginning in the home and again mentions a male, his father, teaching him the Hebrew alphabet. The author doesn’t discuss the systematic way the educational system prevented women and non-whites from attaining an education in their native language of English and when it became an equal right, disproportionately gave white males most, if not the best resources.

    He mentions a father dying defending U.S. freedom but doesn’t mention women who enlisted in the Navy, Marine and Air force Reserve during WWII, nor military nurses (who were all women at that time) or the Tuskegee airmen whose contributions and deaths often go unnoticed. These military service men and women never received their earned privilege from defending their country, the world and Jews against Nazi Germany.

    The author claims his “appearance certainly doesn’t tell a whole story” yet it tells the one that speaks the loudest – that he is a white male. Yes he is Jewish, but who really needs to know that? The question then becomes, is what he believes to be a sacrifice, made by his male family members, actually an acceptance of an inheritance bestowed upon them from the privilege of being white men?

    The privilege the school is asking the author to check isn’t one that comes from having the option to spend the money you earn. It’s the privilege that comes from unconsciously oppressing someone because of the opportunities inherited from being white or a white male and therefore being in-experienced in using interpersonal communicative skills with people who do not share your background. This unconscious privilege helps to perpetuate racial and gender injustices on a social level.

    Peggy McIntosh, the scholar who popularized white privilege and male privilege said it best: “In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences [..] When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically.”

  16. I appreciate this freshman’s perspective and the well written article however I don’t believe this young man fully understands the difference among privilege, respect and in-experience. His family’s story is one to be admired. As a young woman born in the Middle East to a family who escaped a brutal war, I also arrived in the United States at the age of 6 with two brothers and a non-English speaking, single mother. After attended CUNY-Brooklyn (the sister school of the author’s father’s alma mater – City College) I too earned a spot at a top graduate school. The hardwork that it has taken to earn this achievement, as well as the achievement of the author’s family, deserves respect – not privilege.

    The privilege the author discuss comes in multiple forms. There’s the privilege of knowledge, property, race and gender – all of which he seems to have in abundance. He speaks of his grandfather (and not grandmother) starting a business that initiated his privilege and yet he doesn’t view this opportunity as potentially being an unearned privilege bestowed upon his grandfather by the society of that era. He doesn’t ask himself, how much easier was it for his grandfather to gain ownership of a business then it would have been for an African-American, a non white or a woman prior to Civil Rights? He discusses education beginning in the home and again mentions a male, his father, teaching him the Hebrew alphabet. The author doesn’t discuss the systematic way the educational system prevented women and non-whites from attaining an education in their native language of English and when it became an equal right, disproportionately gave white males most, if not the best resources.

    He mentions a father dying defending U.S. freedom but doesn’t mention women who enlisted in the Navy, Marine and Air force Reserve during WWII, nor military nurses (who were all women at that time) or the Tuskegee airmen whose contributions and deaths often go unnoticed. These military service men and women never received their earned privilege from defending their country, the world and Jews against Nazi Germany.

    The author claims his “appearance certainly doesn’t tell a whole story” yet it tells the one that speaks the loudest – that he is a white male. Yes he is Jewish, but who really needs to know that? The question then becomes, is what he believes to be a sacrifice, made by his male family members, actually an acceptance of an inheritance bestowed upon them from the privilege of being white men?

    The privilege the school is asking the author to check isn’t one that comes from having the option to spend the money you earn. It’s the privilege that comes from unconsciously oppressing someone because of the opportunities inherited from being white or a white male and therefore being in-experienced in using interpersonal communicative skills with people who do not share your background. This unconscious privilege helps to perpetuate racial and gender injustices on a social level.

    Peggy McIntosh, the scholar who popularized white privilege and male privilege said it best: “In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences [..] When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically.”

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  19. Pingback: Should Tal Fortgang be checking his privilege?

  20. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » The Origins of “Privilege”

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  22. The funniest part isn’t that some privileged douche is whining about being privileged, and then inserts a reminder IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH that white people rule the world.

    No, the funniest part is the statement “But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life…” coming from a college freshman.

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  28. If you want to be diminished you will be diminished. You have no self esteem? No pride, you want but you wont work? The hell with you. No one gives you squat, you earn it. Quit your damn whining and grow up. The color of a mans skin is not the color of his soul okay? So quit whining or blacken your skin or whiten it I don’t care which but quit your damn whining and get off your ass and go to work. Be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem! We have better things to do than listen to you complain. Do you understand? Do you Capisce? Your are repressed? Get the hell over it already!

  29. Pingback: Annals of “check your privilege”: Bullying Jewish Princeton freshman for being white and male | Stupid Girl

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  32. It took me a few days to figure out why this phrase ”check your privilege” was so abhorrent to me but I think I have it. The problem with the phrase is that it places people in groups not because of what they say or do but because of what race and gender they happen to be. It stops the debate before a concept is introduced, an argument is advanced, before any evidence is presented. It is the antithesis of what its users profess to be trying to eliminate in society. There is no question that privilege exists and there are many legacy admits and ”senators’ sons” at all of the elite schools (with two exceptions; see below). Yes, all of the top schools have their Chelsea Clintons (Stanford). Its funny, during four years at M.I.T. , I never heard this phrase once. I can’t imagine hearing it at Caltech either. Think about why… The exercise will do you good no matter which side of the argument you are on…

  33. What you don’t get is the privilege your grandfather got by receiving reward for his hard work as a human being, which millions of black in America never got….and that is what privilege means when someone tells you “check your privilege”.
    And by the way, the year is 2014 and still blacks with Ivy League degrees still struggle to get jobs, so don’t go all about having an education or wanting to work! http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/5/22/black-grads-doubleunemployment.html
    The issues about inequality are more complex and without a broader perspective, you’ll never get it!

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  40. See Vijay Iyer’s keynote to Yale Asian American alumni on the “complicity with excess” — that’s how to properly check one’s privilege, whether it was earned through hard work, randomly by birth, or some other means:

    “What I humbly ask of you, and of myself, is that we constantly interrogate our own complicity with excess, that we always remain vigilant to notions of community that might, perhaps against our best intentions, sometimes, embrace a system of domination at the expense of others.”

  41. You note that your grandparents were oppressed in Europe and were saved by America, but the grandparents of African Americans were oppressed IN AMERICA!

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