Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged
- 6 May 2014
Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang has been told repeatedly to "check his privilege" - to be aware of how his socio-economic and cultural background shapes his views - and he's not happy about it.
"The phrase," he writes, "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."
(Weltanschauung means "worldview". I had to look it up. But then, I didn't go to Princeton.)
In an opinion piece originally carried last month by a conservative Princeton student publication and reprinted on Friday in Time magazine, the 20-year-old condemns those who paint him with the "privileged" label 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".
To answer his critics, Fortgang recounts his ancestry, which includes a grandfather who fled Poland after the German invasion in World War Two and a grandmother who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp.
"That's the problem with calling someone out for the 'privilege' which you assume has defined their narrative," he writes. "You don't know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are."
He says he is privileged, but not in the way the liberals think:
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 realise the dream of giving his children a better life than he had.
He says the virtues of "faith and education" passed along from his parents are his privilege.
"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'," he concludes. "And there's nothing wrong with that."
Asking him to apologise for it, he asserts, is "insulting".
"This guy is going to go far," writes the American Conservative's Rod Dreher. "And should."
On Saturday the New York Times ran a profile of the freshman, saying his essay "touched a nerve".
All of this nerve-touching has rubbed Salon's Kate McDonough the wrong way. She calls Fortgang's piece "a ridiculous baby tantrum".
"Nothing in the essay is a new or shocking expression of white privilege or the astounding sense of entitlement and self-regard shared by white racists," she writes.
A lot of people in the United States also believe that race-blind meritocracy is real and that discussions of privilege and institutional racism are just sore losers being sore, and many of the people who think this way also happen to make our policies or control most of the wealth in this country.
It's likely that Fortgang will have the opportunity at Princeton to learn about the racial wealth gap, the legacy of red-lining, the unemployment rate among college educated men of colour versus their white counterparts, the convergence of racism and sexism that leaves women of colour disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, the gender pay gap experienced by black women, the deadly violence faced by black children and the myriad other manifestations of racism in the United States. Basically all of the things that he will never have to experience as an extraordinarily privileged white man.
Being asked to "check your privilege" means "recognising, identifying and challenging the insidious operations of racism", she concludes. "He doesn't want to confront racism and white privilege because those things have - and will continue to - really, really help him out in life."
Fortgang is a good candidate for an "ideological stoning", writes Mediaite's Luke O'Neil.
He says Fortgang "courageously struck out against the oppressive climate of basic cultural awareness and bare minimum human decency that has despoiled college campuses everywhere".
"Like most entitled white guys, upon finding himself on the opposite end of the entire world's fawning approval, he started crying about it," he continues.
O'Neil says that many of the privileged class, if they go back far enough, can find an ancestor who didn't have it so good. Does everyone with a grandparent who faced adversity get a free pass?
"Violet Baudelaire" on the Jezebel Groupthink site explains privilege in terms of a one-legged man running against a two-legged man in a race. Just because the two-legged man trained hard and persevered doesn't mean he didn't have an innate advantage over the one-legged man. Just because one-legged men occasionally win their races doesn't mean they are competing on a level playing field. And having a one-legged grandfather doesn't mean you can claim you don't have "two-legged privilege".
Checking your privilege doesn't mean anyone is asking you to say "I only have things because I am part of privileged groups". It does mean someone is asking you to say "By position of a characteristic I was born with, I have been helped, or at least not hurt, more than others without this characteristic". It does not mean anyone wants you to apologize for it; it does mean someone is asking for an acknowledgement of the implications of it, either for how it is impacted where you are now, how it might be skewing your perspective or level of knowledge in discussing a subject, or for how the lack of that same privilege may have made things different for someone else.
Race and privilege have been hot topics of late, with the controversies swirling around Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and basketball team owner Donald Sterling, and last week's Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan's ban on affirmative action in college admissions.
This explains why an Ivy League college freshman and his "no apologies" defence of a colourblind US meritocracy has become a national story.
It's a Weltanschauung conservatives are eager to endorse.