Check Your Privilege: Is “Privilege” Really That Big of A Deal?
In my last piece, I described the curious case of Tal Fortgang, a college freshman who fled the internet after an essay he wrote attacking the concept of “white privilege” for a student publication was picked up by the national press. Yet almost all of the response was about Fortgang as a person and had nothing to do with the substance of his arguments, which are worth noting.
Essentially, he felt the same thing I did when I first heard the term “white privilege” while at the University of Pittsburgh on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. It was especially troubling to me—as a someone who hoped to make a living slinging words—that my opinion on certain matters was devalued or outright discounted because I was a white, heterosexual, gender-normative male.
Fortgang wrote in his essay, “I do condemn [those who accuse me of being privileged] for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life…to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.” This is, in my opinion, his central problem with the concept of privilege in general and underscores his total misunderstanding of what “privilege” in this case really means.
I argue that the term “privilege,” while appropriate, is highly confusing to a society with a 140-character attention span. Like Fortgang, I initially assumed “privilege” dealt with things like familial connections, financial means, and a general “easiness of life” that didn’t match with my own experiences. It turns out that what the word referred to was not an individual experience but a generalized experience for all people at all levels of society.
White/male/hetero privilege is a very real thing in our society, and its effects can be blatant or very subtle. When looking at something like racial profiling by police, the privilege associated with being white is both self-evident and representative of a serious problem in “the system” for everyone but white folks. It can also be something as simple as not realizing that the “Sleepy Mexican” or “Sexy Indian Squaw” Halloween costumes are as offensive (if not more so) as the shock-costume staples “the Pregnant Nun” or the corpse of the most recent surprising celebrity death.
The difference between discussions of white privilege and individual experience is the same as discussing the weather tomorrow in Topeka and global climate changes over decades. Of course like everything in the world of college—especially amongst freshman—deeply complex and nuanced ideas are appropriated into passionate shouting matches where neither party knows what the hell he or she is talking about.
The most important lesson—and the one we continually miss—is that at the heart of understanding the concept of male/white/American privilege is realizing that our personal experience of the world is far from the entire story. Rather than taking “Check Your Privilege” as an insult—despite how snarkily it is often said—take it as an invitation to consider another person’s perspective without comparing it to your own.
If folks like Fortgang—or, for that matter, his critics—took a moment to consider that maybe they don’t have everything figured out, they could have a discussion rather than a debate.
Photo by Joselite Tagarao via Flickr Creative Commons