When I read The Princeton Tory cover story “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” written by my classmate Tal Fortgang, I realized that I had just witnessed an attempt at checking privilege that was so unsuccessful it was borderline satirical. Fortgang, a fellow Princeton freshman, complained about the overuse and misuse of the phrase “check your privilege,” and asserted that the phrase was “toeing the line” of reverse racism. To prove this, he detailed his family’s history of persecution under the Holocaust, their journey to America and their ultimate rise to entrepreneurial success. He claims that the only privilege he has is that his ancestors made it to America, were hard-working and passed down wonderful values such as faith and education.
Calling a white male “privileged” in a country with such a clear history and continuing pattern of preference for white males is about as wrong as calling a rich person “advantaged” in a capitalist society. The word privilege isn’t a negative judgment about Fortgang or his character, but simply a recognition that our society’s institutionalized racism and sexism isn’t aimed at white males. And for that Fortgang is privileged.
Common sentiment on campus is a sincere desire that Fortgang open his eyes to reality, not only his own but that of the people around him. This lack of touch with reality was probably evident in the comments he made about welfare that prompted one of our classmates to suggest that he check his privilege in the first place. If he did, maybe then would he understand that there are people on welfare who work just as hard as he does but don’t have the same opportunities. Maybe if he were keen to the realities of racial profiling and discrepancies in convictions of homicides that shift depending on the race of the victims and defendants, he wouldn’t want to punch people angry over the Zimmerman verdict in their “idiot faces.” Fortgang’s understanding of so many issues and people would increase if he took the first step towards recognizing his own privilege. Even as a black woman, whose race and sex has posed unique and difficult challenges, I have done a privilege check. I am privileged to come from an upper middle class family, to belong to the religious majority and to have both my parents in the home. I acknowledge this because it allows me to empathize more with others and remain humble and grateful. Fortgang can do the same, and I highly recommend that he does. If he takes the time to really check his privilege, people will be able to tell, and maybe he won’t be instructed to do so again.
Briana Payton is a Princeton freshman studying sociology and pursuing certificates in African American Studies and American Studies. She is the project manager for Princeton’s Black Student Union, and serves on the university’s Black History Month Committee. She is from Detroit, Michigan.