Flashback: Checking his privilege: A response to Tal Fortgang – By Neal Schindler

For a while Ive been meaning to address the controversial essay Checking My Privilege, by Jewish college student Tal Fortgang. At Princeton, Fortgangs fellow collegians apparently advise him to check his privilege on a regular basis. Since I attended hyper-liberal Oberlin College, Im pretty familiar with identity politics. It seems that Princeton, too, is a place where not understanding ones personal privilege (based on factors likerace, 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 familys history of hardship could be the privilege hes being asked to check. Naturally, he starts with the Holocaust: Perhaps its 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 Fortgangs piece is that he doesnt 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. Heres what seems true to me: Fortgang has achieved a lot on his own steam, and his ancestors suffered and persevered,andhe has benefited from some degree of privilege.

Taking aboth/and view helps us avoid arrogance and provides context. It doesnt invalidate what were able to accomplish based on either innate or learned ability. Checking ones privilege doesnt negate personal power. It simply helps us to see whose shoulders (and whose backs) were standing on. Theoretically, it also motivates us to push back against systemic oppressions in whatever way we can.

Fortgang laments that its unproductive to [call] someone out for the privilege which you assume has defined their narrative. Of course, hes 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, Fortgangs reactionary piece labels those who tell him to check his privilege as detractors. If theres one thing privilege isnt, its personal. It may be historical, socioeconomic, and cultural, but it isnt about a persons uniqueness. Its 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 familyincome level.

Checking ones privilege isnt always fun, but its a step towards understanding and overcoming difference. The fact that they have privilege doesnt mean thatthe grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, myself included, have nothing to complain about. By making the conversation about himself, Fortgang misses the point.

Join SpokaneFAVS for aCoffee Talkdiscussion on Addressing Racism and Prejudices at 10 a.m., Oct. 4 at Indaba Coffee Bar. Schindler is a panelist.

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