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.

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

  1. You’ve totally missed it. It’s not about apologizing (or not), it’s the fact-whether you see it or not- that we as white people have an advantage in this country, unfortunately.

  2. I’m sure his grandfather was a smart and hard working man but in Nazi Germany that didn’t helped him one bit. Instead, they sent this smart and hard working man to Siberia were being smart and hard working will not help him one bit. Martin Luther King said “A Bootless Man Cannot Lift Himself By His Bootstraps” So white privilege didn’t help his grandfather in Nazi Germany. The fact is his grandfather wasn’t white enough to get white privilege in Nazi Germany. But in 1940 American, to his grandfather surprise, he was white enough for white privilege. Such as New Deal Era of the 1930s and 1940s, the American government provided low-interest loans to returning veterans and other white Americans after World War II, and more.

    His grandfather got his boot to pull himself up by his bootstraps in America. So this smart and hard working man worked his butt off utilizing system that caters to white people. No way this smart and hard working man would make it in Nazi Germany. His brain would eventually turned to mush and he’ll follow the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp that tells 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. You could be from the moon but as long as you’re white and hard working you will get your boot to pull yourself up. The 1940’s, 1950’s and before, you’ll have to be a real dumb and lazy white skin person not to make.

  3. I think you are a shining example of why it is important to think before you post/speak.

    He is jewish descendent. Look at the history of pogroms and persecution against jews. The history goes back to the time of christ during the height of the roman empire. 0__o

    Check yourself first…

  4. Good for him. I’m sick of all the ‘privilege’ crap as well. NO ONE gave me anything because I’m a hyphenated ‘Caucasian’. I had to work for everything I have. It’s not much, but it’s mine. They can kiss my bare white ass.

  5. He should take a remedial English class. Last sentence, 3rd paragraph, it should be “allowed my family and me,” not “allowed my family and I.” Otherwise, well written and bully for him.

  6. …. didn’t read all 121 of the comments so if this sentiment has been expressed already, apologies! Some are born into or given privilege simply by luck or by who they are and some are not. Those that are not born or given privilege just have to work harder or study more or make more sacrifices or whatever it is then those that have privilege. THAT SUCKS for them. Even after all that, they may not get there,(to be privileged). At the end of the day we all make choices to do those things that make us successful or we don’t do those things. It is absolutely without a doubt unfair to those without that privilege. It is easier for “the privileged”. If you don’t understand that then you are not paying attention. It is not fair, it is not supposed to be fair. The privileged know its not fair, including Fortgang ’17. He is young and is just rationalizing the unfairness. Why would “the privileged” be willing to give that up, they have worked incredibly hard, sacrificed many hardships. Why is it wrong for them to take advantage of that hard earned privilege. In the history of the world, since the time of the caveman, it has never been fair, it is not fair today and guess what? . . . it will never be fair,…. we all need to get used to this and move on… and get to work. Stop making excuses.

  7. While it may be true that Mr. Fortang doesn’t have a complete understanding of what people mean when they say, “check your privilege”, it is equally true that most people saying it don’t understand it either. It is mainly used when logic and rhetoric fail and is a form of ad hominem argument, it attempts to invalidate the argument because of who is making it rather than on the merits.

    It’s nothing more or less than sloppy thinking and implies that if only you were sensitive enough, you would agree with those telling you to check your privilege.

  8. Newsflash for the “white privilege” crowd: There isn’t one ethnic group on this earth who hasn’t been kicked around or done its own kicking. Some people may have a terminal case of white guilt, but I have no reason to feel guilty. I will never apologize for my ancestry, heritage, or skin color. Get over it.

    And incidentally, it’s human nature to be prejudiced and wary of others, regardless of color. It’s part of thousands of years of survival and evolution.

    Where in the hell is all this privilege I’m supposed to have because I’m white? My environment was far from prosperous. I come from a working class family in a racially diverse neighborhood. My mother raised 7 kids, mostly by herself. We all worked. My two older step sisters worked two part time jobs, and my mother worked to make ends meet. It was a hell of a struggle. I joined the Army at the age of 18 and served a total of 30 years (20 Active, 10 reserve). My skin color didn’t exempt me from two combat tours in Iraq. My Associates Degree was earned at a community college because that’s all my GI Bill and pocket could afford. My pension is still not enough to cover all the bills, but I still have Social Security to look forward to. Whoopie. No one gave me a free meal ticket because I’m a hyphenated ‘Caucasian’.

  9. I imagine the reason this occurrence and topic are getting attention is its perfect corollary to the world we live in – reactionary versus empathetic. Without empathy it’s all just a vicious race to the bottom.
    Check your empathy.

  10. “Privilege is the fact that your grandparents were even allowed to start a business when they came into the country.”

    Uh, even under segregation, blacks started plenty of businesses. In fact, they had a built in market.

  11. Strong essay. Puts the lie to illiberal ‘progressive’ hubris and exposes its cant. Children, in general, need to stop their whining and get working, but they have so few examples in broken homes and with polluted public discourse the norm, I have little reason to hope that they will.

  12. Well written Tal.

    I wouldn’t address this nonsense further though. Doing so only lends validity to it. Instead, I would examine it’s origins. This BS hasn’t entered the popular vernacular without a helping hand of sorts. One which is left of Stalin. There’s an end game here and it’s not one of equality or any such thing.

    Good luck with your studies.

  13. Outstanding article. I would be remiss if I said I didn’t have a mental image of the author leaning on a propped leg and wearing a Browncoat.

    This man has nothing to apologize for, owes you nothing, and may drink from my canteen any day.

  14. “Priviledge”/”Victimhood” seems to be a political industry these days, led by false prophets in academia and government. It’s managed group-think with some practical political implications in leading the tribes.

    As a white male over 50 (and out of work for way longer than I ever expected) I’m wondering where my priviledge is…? I certainly don’t find it on job applications with questions to determine my sex, ethnicity, veteran status and other discriminatory markers.

  15. Minorities, if there is such a thing, relish in the shadow of their forefathers. The white liberals, in order to secure political votes, have shackled the Blacks to paper chains. The devastating storm of Katrina should have opened some eyes but, it did not. I marveled at the multitude of Black people who were completely at the mercy of the white establishment to “save” them. New Orleans, a town of full of minorities were clueless to help themselves. Rather, they sat and waited on the white man to recue them. It continues today. Education cannot be forced on anybody and that is a shame. Until the minorities realize that is education that will break their bonds then they will dwell in the ghettos of this once great nation which is nothing more than a modern day cotton plantation.

  16. Unfortunately, we are witnessing the embryonic form of a slowly developing American version of fascism, which will likely lead to re-education camps for those who think or express anything that is politically incorrect or offends someone. There is now a hierarchy of victim hood in this country, where the uber-victim gets the spoils. Black people believe that they are at the top of the cultural Marxist food chain of victim hood, but they are not. The radical Muslim is the uber victim of neo-colonial oppression. This is why a white Muslim can force a university to rescind the honorary degree from a black woman, and the college will accede to his demands, while a white Christian would be laughed off the phone for such effrontery. In the comments section here, a black racist calls you “matzoh boy” and “white boy”, denigrates all Eurpeans, and pooh-poohs the hardships your ancestors suffered because his ancestors had it worse. We all have are cross to bear, and it is specious to compare whose cross is the worst. I bet if you sneezed in his direction, you would be charged with a racist micro-aggression. Recently, I read of a white privilege conference in Wisconsin, where whites were decried as irredeemably racist, and white students wrote on their skin how they are racist and white-privileged. There is something very chilling about this, where it seems that anyone who is white Christian or Jewish is being marked for genocide in this country. Our AG has already claimed that hate crime laws do not apply to whites. Nazis were decrying Jewish privilege and denigrating their history well before Jews were thrown into concentration camps.
    I will be very careful where I send my kids to college, and they will never go to any Ivy League cess pool of liberal fascism where their race, culture, country and religion will be demonized and hated. I work four jobs to keep them relatively well-off in this awful economy. Like hell I will have them taught that only their skin color is responsible for their upper middle class status.

  17. You don’t get credit for your ancestors troubles. White male privilege? It’s a thing

  18. You just don’t get it. No one is disputing the admirable achievements of your ancestors. No one is denigrating them. Nevertheless, simply by being a white, male, heterosexual, from an upper middle class family, you are granted privileges you are not even aware of. No one begrudges you these privileges. No one wants to take them away. But, when you speak of other groups who have not shared these privileges in a disparaging way, when you imply that their lack of success is due to some failure of “effort” on their part, you are exposing yourself to the “Check your privilege” admonition. Your life path has been greased before you; you have not had to personally struggle with basic survival issues. Your ancestors obviously had to. But learn who you are. Learn what struggles many of your peers must CURRENTLY contend with, and be a bit humbler and more compassionate.

  19. I think you need to check the definition of privilege.

    It doesn’t mean that you haven’t worked hard in your life. It simply means you benefit from a racist and sexist system.

    This could be immediate, for example, in the way that you are less likely to be fucked with by the police because of the color of your skin (and if you don’t see that people of color are more likely to be harassed by police, then I think you may actually be delusional and not just ignorant).

    It could be slightly more historical in nature (although, ultimately all privilege is historical). For example, your white ancestors, while certainly facing some difficulties in their lives, were probably able to move to a white neighborhood with a decent education system. This was not (and in many cases is still not) true for a lot of people of color. Their children (and you) were consequently born with the opportunity to work hard and get a good education and go to Princeton. This isn’t saying that you didn’t work hard, it’s just saying that not everyone has had the same opportunity as you to translate hard work into success.

    Privilege can also be much more psychological. As a man you do not have to fear for your safety in the same way that a woman does. You also know that people will not diminish your intellectual and academic pursuits based on how physically attractive you are. As a white person you know that the legal system of the country you live in will treat you fairly when you come into contact with it. You also know that your actions and behaviors will generally be attributed to you as an individual and not to your racial, ethnic, cultural or national identity. This isn’t to imply that you didn’t work hard but you most recognize how knowing these things as a white man has given you peace of mind that other people might not have. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t claim to know the long-term ramifications of that on self-esteem and self-image but would argue that they exist.

    I imagine I’m not the first person to try to explain this to you so I doubt this will sway but I felt like your misinterpretation of the word ‘privilege’ is fundamental.

    • You should check the definition of “arrogant”. This is one of the most arrogant responses I’ve read. You must be the authority on the word “privilege” though.

      A truly groundless response built on zero merit or validity. Nice choice of diction by using the word “fucking” to illustrate your point. It really conveys a strong sense of intelligence on your part.

  20. Mr. Fortgang,

    In our glorious American society, it is the minorities (blacks, hispanics,etc) that suffer the most from racial discrimination in terms of wealth inequality, education opportunities, housing, employment, and in the justice system. The fact that you glossed over these details is disturbing. No one said that you personally committed the crime of slavery or posted “No Coloured” signs everywhere. However, as a white man you do have this privilege where you are not limited by these discriminatory practices. That is your privilege. Enjoy it though!

  21. “…whining that people don’t like him cause his European ancestors decided to kill each other off…”

    As opposed to your your African ancestors, who decide to sell each other off.

  22. This is an excellent essay, Mr. Fortgang. I’m sure your forebears would be proud to know their descendant is able to think so clearly. I too am wearied by the constant appeals to past grievances. People seem to enjoy flashing their history of abuse (most of which happened to other people) like the buttons on a TGIFriday employee’s vest. It’s obscene, and it needs to stop. I’m a human being. You’re a human being. We will treat each other with respect, and proceed from there. Period.

  23. Could I be so bold as to suggest that you ‘go fuck yourself’, if acknowledging your privilege is too difficult for your trembling ego to handle? Failing that, I might direct you to ‘die in a fire’ – something, surely, will see your self-satisfied bullshit come to an end.

  24. It appears to me that Tal Fortgang is angling for an internship with The Heritage Foundation, a spot at Harvard Law, and then a clerkship with Scalia, Roberts, or Thomas. Well done, young man.

  25. Holy cow! Found you from the front page of Yahoo. Very well written. Success is not a straight line, but usually a very crooked and windy road that most don’t see. Sounds like you come from a great family.

  26. Dear Mr. Fortgang,

    A long time ago, the more privileged had a principle. It was called “noblesse oblige”. It goes back to medieval times when the landed gentry would often donate funds to build churches, institutions, or other such things to enhance their community. It was deemed their obligation to do so among their peers. Minding your privilege is therefore not a new custom, though it certainly appears to be new to you. If you look around you, you no doubt can see buildings on your campus in part funded by generous alumni. the same principles of noblesse oblige applied to the successful Americans of days past, though sadly, not so much today. It is why Rockefeller built the eponymous research institute and why Carnegie built Carnegie hall.

    I am pretty confident your success to date has largely been funded by your parents. Or are you saying you are funding your education yourself? You have no doubt have been placed into your situation by a caring family that worked hard to make sure you are where you are today. You are, despite your rather vigorous protestations, are not a self-made man, and in fact have had many privileges afforded to you

    You owe your success to your great-grandparents, to soldiers who risked their lives to free your family members from the camps (something I don’t recall your mentioning, but that’s an entirely different story) , to the hard work of your teachers and to the support of your friends. You owe your good luck in part to the excellent privilege of good health and resources that allowed you to get to where you are. Want to see how all this changes? Dad loses his job and can’t afford to pay your tuition. You (God forbid) get sick and need to take some extended time off from school, or end up on drugs. Would you be patting yourself quite so firmly on your back then?

    Learn the valuable lesson of humility and giving back to those less fortunate. May I suggest you spend some time with some children affllicted by diseases they did not sign up for, but will surely affect their ability to attend Yale, or any other university. This is what minding your privilege is all about. That you haven’t learned this very important life lesson by this point in your personal journey is rather sad.

  27. I have read through most of the Replies to this man of courage to speak his thoughts. I am saddened by most peoples replies, and taken back by some. My father and mother raised me and my sisters in a house on one principle. ” You get out of life son not what you deserve, but what you work for to earn”. He used to say this to me all the time.

    I worked as a construction worker for my father for 10 years. I started off hating my job-after all I was a spoiled young kid with no sense of privilege of my own that my father didnt give me. I started off making under minimum wage as it was his choice that I started my own life path, and found my own way in life as he did. My father also came from nothing. He was raised with 6 brothers and sisters by his mother who worked on and off as a waitress. The clothes they wore were drapes from homes they lived in when they were not evicted by lack of rent paid. My grandmother did the best she could, but lack of good jobs for woman in the 60’s and 70’s led to my father dropping out of school at age 13 to help pay for the growing bills. He played a key part to the survival, as talked in another post, for him and his 6 younger brothers and sister. That lack of education but strong will to survive led him to building one of the largest construction firms in the state of Pennsylvania. Not bad for a kid that didn’t make it past 9th grade.

    His hard ethics on me his oldest son led to my strength and will. I started my own company when I was 27 years old. My company has top honors in 4 counties, and continues to grow not because I was privileged, but because my hard work and dedication paid off at mastering my life skills. I found my way in life, and will instill the same value on my children my father instilled in me. At a young age I found success that no one gave me but myself. Everything I own today was built off of $5.25 an hour.

    American dreams are not built on the backs of men who are handed torches. They are built on the backs of men who were instilled with core values that any dream can be accomplished by putting your pants on every day and doing what you have to for the sake of your family. One will never find success if they accept the defeat from social behavior. My instincts tell me that not one soul in the universe can ever tell me I cant be somebody. My ethics tell me that if I put my mind to a task I can accomplish said task.

    In conclusion to my story and agreeance of this article I want to add. Skin color and social status do not make the man, they only prohibit him from achieving his personal goals. Men with lots of money are not successful in my eyes, but the hard working dedication by men with spirit outweigh all the riches in the world. I am blessed with opportunity all the time. These opportunities fall into my lap not because I am privileged, but because I worked my tail off to be the best at what I do. You master your life skills, and you cant help but to fall into opportunity. Thats not a race thing, thats a life thing. so I say the same that my father said…….”You don’t get out of life what you deserve, but what you work for”!!!!! Change the way you think, and see if that doesn’t help your situation.

  28. Let’s be real, white people. Any “oppressions” lived by our European ancestors, while tragic and formative to family narrative, or hardships endured by our parents, have very little to do with the lives we live as part of this generation and the opportunities available to us. So maybe I didn’t live in the biggest house or prettiest neighborhood growing up, or my single mom had to pull extra hours to help us get by. But guess what? Nobody shot at me on my way to school (they didn’t shoot at you either), nobody followed me around a store trying to make me feel “watched” (they didn’t follow you either), nobody narrowed their eyes at me when I applied for part-time work wondering if I could be trusted behind a cash register (they didn’t look at you funny either). Nobody made negative assumptions about me or you at first glance. You and me, we were always seen as individuals, not exemplifications of a rule, or exceptions to one. When they saw me or you walking down the street, words like “stand your ground” didn’t seem relevant. This isn’t because of “all the incredible things my ancestors endured”. It’s because I’m white, plain and simple, and nobody has to look at my transcript, or my I-90, or my W2 for me to prove it. It doesn’t matter that my grandparents are from non-English speaking countries and came to the US after slavery had ended. They reaped benefits from a system that historically has never distributed those benefits equally. And along with work ethic or ingenuity or whatever other characteristics you want to ascribe to heritage, we’ve inherited those benefits as well. Privileges, in other words. You can’t shed those privileges by making your life seem harder or sadder or more under-doggy. You have to check them. Your efforts and ideas certainly guide you forward, but unless you are a sustenance farmer, somebody somewhere has to open a door for you. Privilege means the doors open much more easily. The door to Princeton University, for example. The door to the bank that gave you your college loans (assuming you need them). The door to a media outlet for your SAT-prep-class-vocab-laden shitty editorial (you know who you are).

  29. Dear Tal,

    I read the New York Times article and wanted to read yours in full. You’re right, you shouldn’t apologize for the privileges you’ve had in your life or for your race or sex. We don’t choose what family, country or body we are born into and don’t have any control over that. You should be proud of your family history, their strength and resilience. Every person in this world has a family history and one can’t possible know or understand that just by what your look like. You mention toward the end of the article that you are privileged, privileged to have grown up in a family environment where your parents valued education and spent time making sure you learned and grew into not only an educated person but one with morale and cultural values. That is a privilege and I respect you for recognizing that. As you know, many Americans and people around the world don’t have that same support from their family, they aren’t encouraged to go to school or maybe aren’t even given that opportunity. You grew up in a place where your family worked hard and was able to provide you with food every day, a good education, a roof over your head, a neighborhood not instilled with violence and probably even a suit to go to your high school prom. All of these things, many, even myself often take for granted on a daily basis because particularly in this country and in the circles of elite colleges, we often assume everyone has or grew up with. However, to assume, often, as the saying goes, makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”. People shouldn’t assume what your upbringing was or what your family history is but simultaneously, consider the long list of benefits and advantages you’ve been given in life. “Check your privilege” is harsh and in the context of race, sex or gender inappropriate. Privilege is not solely race, sex or gender, it’s about everything, your whole life, everything you call your own, the experiences, trips, classes, everything that you’ve been able to do in your life, even the college you worked long and hard to attend. You’ve learned and grown as an individual from all your given and earned experiences. And while you shouldn’t apologize for that, I encourage you to think about all you have done and be humbled by it, grateful for it, and use that knowledge and experience to encourage your friends, family, classmates, future co-workers and everyone that you touch in your life, to promote the values of education, of a safe, loving and supportive upbringing, of diversity and of morals that you were given by your parents and now continue to thrive on and support to make a positive impact. Don’t let ego, resentment or personal rivalries allow your comments and impact to be negative. Be grateful for the life you’ve been given and have earned and help and encourage others to have the opportunity to do the same. Don’t apologize for your privileges but don’t get angry, USE THEM.

  30. The checking of your privilege is an exercise that has to do with relating your current position to the positions of others around you. It does not belittle you or your work to recognize the systemic dependencies that put you in the position you are in.
    Your name and your money put you where you are, not your skin color.

    As a white male who has survived with no income, health care, or reliable housing for the last four years, our respective privilege is very different; Though we share a space in the color spectrum of humanity, we are at opposite ends of an economic spectrum, and that has a much greater bearing on our privilege.

    If you would like to avoid the typical commentary offered to white males, I would suggest a change of attire. Wear the same beat up brown overalls for weeks on end without washing, a series of ugly but brightly colored t shirts throughout the week, and a sweaty bandana covering a crop of wildly un-maintained mane, and people will not be so hasty to accuse you of flaunting privilege. It would also help if you dug trenches until your back was bent into an achy question mark, and then rolled around in the dust for a bit.

    Though your skin will always be a marker for opinion, your economic position is what gathers attention to it.
    And if you’d rather not trying being poor and getting dirt on you to avoid such harsh judgement, at least remember that there are lot of people below you economically who are working very hard to provide you with the privilege you have.

    We are the smelly, loud, opinionated folks who grow food for you ivy league kids…
    The disenfranchised white male farmers of America.
    So you had better impress us with your expensive mind,
    And use your comfortable position to make the world better.
    Lest we put down our shovels and stop toiling in the hot dust for your privilege to sit in an air conditioned room with access to a great wealth of knowledge we too might enjoy studying, if we could afford it.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go plant some broccoli.

  31. I can appreciate the narrative; Jewish immigrants flea oppression, work hard, and become successful in America. What I don’t understand is how the author’s grandparent’s and parent’s struggles demonstrate that the author is not privileged. The author gives vague reference to the fact that he has overcome certain obstacles, “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.” unfortunately, in my humble opinion, he falls short of providing me as a reader with any evidence that he was not privileged. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t see a portion of the narrative that explained, “all the hard work,” he makes mention to. Also, he does a wonderful job of describing the very “patron saints” he claims to not exist; they are the subjects of his narrative, his grandparents and parents.

  32. Check YOUR privilege, not your dads, or grand dads, you are PRIVELEGED to be there because of THEIR hard work, and sacrifice. Not because of your skin color. No-body ever told you that you were there because
    you were white. For an Ivy League honkie, you are not that bright.

  33. You need to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The struggles of your ancestors are irrelevant to the privilege you now enjoy as the son of wealthy parents growing up in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. This column is a joke.

  34. Mr. Tal Fortgang,
    I support you, 100%
    Reverend James G. Borden
    Christian Lincoln Park Church, Hilo, Hawaii

  35. Even though he doesn’t understand the meaning of privilege , I sympathized with writer and his touching story till he mentioned “tea party”, the far right-wing group who are notorious for their inflammatory speeches and racist positions, even by the admission of mainstream Republicans. I would like to ask Mr. Fortgang about his views towards the Palestinians treatment in Israel, west bank and Gaza ( Since he bragged about the Jewish heritage and his Hebrew learning and the “faith” in his article)? Are those Jewish settlers in West bank who are living and building on a land taken from Palestinians are privileged or earned that land by ” merit and hard work”? Are the Israeli Jews who in Israel who are favored over Arab Israelis in housing, education and hiring policies of the Israeli government earned that favoritism through “hard work” or because they were privileged ? I’m really curious to know even though I know the typical Zionist answers to these Israeli policies.

    • Could you kindly restate your remarks in intelligible English, please? I sense you’re upset about something or other in Israel, but I am not sure what. There are NO Palestinian people, only Arabs who live in Israeli territory, who use that fake identity for political gain, if you can call being used as a political tool by other Arab nations “gain”!!

      Israel, as a nation, has every right there is to exist and be left in peace by her neighbors. That those neighbors have chosen to try to forcibly eliminate Israel has led to more than one bloody nose, and, as a military professional, a retired U. S. Marine, I applaud and support Israel in doing whatever it takes to beat back those whose stated goal is to kill all the Jews who live there and steal their land.

  36. What Mr. Fortgang failed to see is that in many instances “privilege” refers to the inherent qualities which we ourselves have NO control over but play a role in the way in which society views us. In other words, Mr. Fortgang is a white male which ALREADY affords him a sense of privilege – regardless of his past – Mr. Fortgang lives in a society where a white man is less likely to be pulled over by cops, where a white man will get less stares walking into an office building, etc.

    It is THIS inherent privilege which we need to be aware of – I’m not discrediting the work of Mr. Fortgang or the struggles which his family has faced – all of which are valid – and I also don’t blame Mr. Fortgang for having “privilege” – he had no control over his race or gender. I’m also not saying that people don’t sometimes use the “privilege” card the right way – sometimes it is used to discredit the work of one individual.

    I am saying, however, that privilege is a very real thing that we need to be aware of. While many people may preach that all black males or POC need to do is “work hard” or “not follow the trend” they fail to realize that on TOP of having to work hard to get out of their situation, they face additional inherent discrimination.

    I’m not asking white people to apologize and I’m certainly not saying that the term “privilege” is used correctly – I’m just asking that people begin to recognize the inherent societal privileges afforded to them.

    -Another white guy

  37. This whole article focuses on the wrong interpretation of privilege.
    It focuses on the privilege of having more; being wealthier. That is not our privilege as white males; there are plenty of white males who don’t have any such advantage.

    Ours is the privilege of being exempt from the plethora of social stigmas associated with being black, or hispanic or any minority for the duration of our lives.
    Yes, as a white male, you still deserve to be where you are. You earned it. You worked hard and succeeded. Nobody can ever say you didn’t. What you should acknowledge is that to get where you are, someone who’s black or hispanic would have to work just as hard as you AND face the difficulties of these prejudices all along the way, from their very first days in school. Social stigmas such as ‘black people don’t do well academically’ or ‘women are not good at maths’ have a huge impact on very young kids and how they perform. If you want actual research to back that up, look up the famous ‘blue eyes vs. brown eyes’ social experiment done with kids in a classroom. As white males are never hampered by those influences, from kindergarten to university to the work force.
    That is our privilege.

  38. Wow, another racist bullshit article from a white cis hetero male, how surprising. Sorry your parents fled the Nazis (OTHER WHITE PEOPLE, BIG SURPRISE) to come to America to shit on people of color. You went to Princeton, certainly you have no inherent privilege granted to you through the patriarchy. Fuck you, white piece of shit.

  39. Reading this essay, it’s clear to me that there’s a reason someone told this smug twat to “check his privilege.” (Hint: It ain’t because he’s white)

  40. Tal. All that phrase means is that you should think about where you personally have been lucky, and think about how to cultivate empathy towards people with other experiences.

    I’m an Ivy League graduate of German Jewish descent. I don’t get to use my family’s struggles as an excuse to imply I know stuff I don’t know.

    Do you know what it is to be hungry? No. Do you know what it is to fear that if you go out on a date with the wrong person you’ll be raped? If you’re straight, no, you don’t. Will you be denied entry to a business or have people watch you carefully while you shop in a store because of the color of your skin? No. These are things happening all around you, every day, right in Princeton, that you probably don’t think about a lot.

    In a world where a billion people go to bed hungry, where many humans don’t have clean water to drink, and where your fellow students have experiences that, if you’re curious and open, you can learn a lot from, we all need to check our privelege. If you want to do right by your family’s struggles to escape the horrors our people endured, then don’t be so defensive about a phrase that simply means, “you need to listen and learn to have empathy right here.” That’s a great challenge that really has nothing to do with who you vote for, or whether or not you believe in God, or where your people came from, or whether they endured a Shoah, slavery, a potato famine, or nothing at all.

    If some people have said that to you, try to ignore that it sounds like a buzzword, and ask questions. What did you mean by that? Is there something I said that offended you? Is there something I need to learn here? People with big hearts and great minds (on the Right, the Left, and in the middle) ask questions, and people who have the GREAT PRIVILEGE of an Ivy League education ought to open their hearts and their minds to what they can do to help. The first way to help is to listen and understand.

    -Jennie Livingston
    Brooklyn, NY

    • great letter Jennie! Did you hear back from the young man? may I ask where in Brooklyn do you live?

    • It is not up to you or anyone else to tell ANYONE to “check their privilege. Who elected you or Mr. Fortgang’s professors his Moral Compass? That’s nonsense. While it is horrible that in today’s day and age we still live in a society that follows a black man around a store, it is equally wrong to assume that a white male is not only automatically “privileged” but is unaware of the goings-on in the world – or is unappreciative of what has – either earned or inherited.

      The problem with biases are the assumptions behind them. This Check Your Privilege crap is as racist as patting down a black kid because of the color of his bandana. Discrimination is discrimination.

  41. Shaniqua,

    You my dear exemplify precisely what young Fortgang wrote about: you are so enamoured of your ‘victim’ status, that you can get past yourself: you DEMAND that someone hand you all you want, when you want it, and how you want, and you never have to foot the bill for all of it.

    Your river of tears demanded is a cop out, yet another crutch that you provide yourself so that you needn’t take responsibility for your thoughts, your words, or your actions. You make excuses for how you think, what you say, and for the severely bigoted positions which you reflect so clearly in the racist terms you directed toward young Fortgang:

    “..poor Mayo boy…”, “…white boy..”

    Let’s change it around shall we, but for you this time?:

    :.poor Choco girl…”, “…black girl..”

    Do YOU like the sound of those phrases? No?

    You shouldn’t like the sound of them, because the prime focus is skin color, rather that the character of the person at whom they are being directed. Get the drift?

    I would add that your implied anti-European (white) bigotry when it comes to just who killed whom, and for how long all of that went on, illustrates a SEVERE ignorance of history, HUMAN history, and the foundations of why things happen. The proof of it is in the vacuous manner in which you give African history a pass on the ‘standard’ you seem to use against white Europeans.

    News flash oh proud ‘victim’: Africans sold Africans into slavery in West Africa, because when the slave trade began, and for the next approximately 300 years, the white Europeans could not and did not venture too far inland, because of the ‘bad air’ (Bing search the Spanish word ‘mal aria’).

    Yoruba peoples conquered Ibo/Igbo peoples and many others along the coastal and near-inland areas, while the Fulani Muslims raided other black African peoples and sold them to the Yoruba for the slave trade.

    The tens of thousands of black slaves who were forced onto those ships, were sold into that situation by OTHER black Africans.

    Oh yes, the names of the fine fellows for the first, roughly, two hundred years of the slave trade?

    Hispanic names, because for those first nearly two hundred years, the Spanish and Portuguese ran nearly all of the slave trade, THEN came slaver merchants with Dutch, French, and English names, but only AFTER the Spaniards and Portuguese nations diminished in power.

    Here’s another News Flash Shaniqua: the Slave Trade is STILL ongoing: it is engaged in by BLACK Muslim Africans, as the latest act to go public in Nigeria proves all to well; Muslims acting according to what the Muslim prophet Muhammad commanded, and his successors commanded: that enslaving non-Muslims is a profitable and ‘allah’ supported positive act, NOT a sin.

    Arabs by black African slaves, they’ve been doing that at least since 600 AD in Kenya and southwards in East Africa, and for longer than that in North Africa.

    Slavery was not a ‘white’ invention: it was a human invention, practiced in nearly every culture, in every land, for nearly all of human history.

    I know none of these FACTS will sway you from your deeply held bigoted points of view; that would take a supreme effort to confront yourself, your severely ignorant misconceptions, and the very clear hatred which you so carefully nourish in your heart, towards white people.

    Check your victim privilege Shaniquah.

  42. Funny how your “privilege” derives from what your parents and grandparents did, not anything you’ve done or earned.

    It is your privilege to have been born into a family of means, given to you by generations before you.

    It’s your shallow character, however, that equates the luck of genetics with superiority, that because you heard the stories of the challenges your parents and grandparents overcame, you’ve somehow experienced them yourself.

    Unfortunately, you haven’t been privileged enough to inherit the humility your parents and grandparents exhibited through hard work and determination. Nor do you understand, as they likely do, that self-aggrandizement does not come from strength of character, but from a misappropriated sense of entitlement and, yes, privilege.

    • “Funny how your “privilege” derives from what your parents and grandparents did, not anything you’ve done or earned.”

      And yet he references “you didn’t build that.”

      Privileged AND entitled.

  43. As a campus recruiter, keep in mind that this is a highly charged subject and regardless of whether you agree with him or not, be careful what kind of essay you prominently display in your online school newspaper. First thing we do is google and check social media websites. A bunch of red flags here. Not a good idea to publicly bash the school you went to or their professors (“moral superiors”). Save these conversations for the classroom.

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