For a while I’ve been meaning to address the controversial essay “Checking My Privilege,” by Jewish college student Tal Fortgang. At Princeton, Fortgang’s fellow collegians apparently advise him to check his privilege on a regular basis. Since I attended hyper-liberal Oberlin College, I’m pretty familiar with identity politics. It seems that Princeton, too, is a place where not understanding one’s personal privilege (based on factors like race, sex, and class) is considered bad form. I also understand how frustrating it can be for a three-word phrase to shut down what seems — at least to some participants — like healthy dialogue.
Nonetheless, Fortgang overcompensates in his argument against the check-your-privilege phenomenon. In a drawn-out scolding session, he sarcastically suggests that his family’s history of hardship could be the privilege he’s being asked to check. Naturally, he starts with the Holocaust: “Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland.” As moral trump cards go, surviving genocide certainly ranks high.
The central problem for me in Fortgang’s piece is that he doesn’t address how being male and white and not exactly poor helps him in the present, and how these factors have helped him get where he is today. He adopts either/or logic instead of both/and. Here’s what seems true to me: Fortgang has achieved a lot on his own steam, and his ancestors suffered and persevered, and he has benefited from some degree of privilege.
Taking a both/and view helps us avoid arrogance and provides context. It doesn’t invalidate what we’re able to accomplish based on either innate or learned ability. Checking one’s privilege doesn’t negate personal power. It simply helps us to see whose shoulders (and whose backs) we’re standing on. Theoretically, it also motivates us to push back against systemic oppressions in whatever way we can.
Fortgang laments that it’s unproductive to “[call] someone out for the ‘privilege’ which you assume has defined their narrative.” Of course, he’s making an assumption, too: that the people who call him out think privilege defines us. It influences us, and it can do so heavily, but it need not define us.
Unfortunately, Fortgang’s reactionary piece labels those who tell him to check his privilege as “detractors.” If there’s one thing privilege isn’t, it’s personal. It may be historical, socioeconomic, and cultural, but it isn’t about a person’s uniqueness. It’s about the forces that wall us off from each other based on aspects of who we are that may have been set at birth, such as biological sex, skin color, and family income level.
Checking one’s privilege isn’t always fun, but it’s a step towards understanding and overcoming difference. The fact that they have privilege doesn’t mean that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, myself included, have nothing to complain about. By making the conversation about himself, Fortgang misses the point.