Thursday, May 8, 2014

Checking One's Privilege: A Response to Tal Fortgang

The written rant of a conservative Princeton undergrad is being bandied about the Internet, and so I thought I would respond ...

Like Tal Fortgang, I am white, cisgender male, heterosexual, and raised in a home many in America would call "middle-class". Like him, I also had family members who fled persecution in Europe; my great-grandfather fled Czarist Russia, and was only able to do so by posing as a German student who had lost his identity papers. Like him, I was constantly told that working hard and playing "by the rules" would bring anyone where they wanted to be.

Unlike him, I realize that message ain't necessarily so. Even if an employer doesn't use any slurs, they're more likely to hire me than a woman, or anyone with more melanin in their skin, or an accent in their voice. I'm more likely to get better service in a restaurant or a store, to have a credit application approved, or accepted as a tenant by most landlords.

A raw example of privilege happened to me several years ago here in Boston. Several of us stopped at a subway station when we heard a woman crying for help, and saw her on the ground and a man over her beating her. One man ran down to try to chase the assailant away, while I notified a transit worker of what was happening. Within two minutes, transit police had rushed in. They arrested the assailant, and the African-American gentleman who had rushed up to stop him, but they merely took me aside to get my statement. Even after I told the cops: "Hey, that guy was trying to help," they still had him put his hands against the wall so they could frisk him.

To be fair, Fortgang is correct in his caution about making assumptions regarding people's background. Where he gets it wrong is assuming that others are not making those very same assumptions, even subconsciously, and setting others back as a result. My father demonstrated some awareness of this, when he told me why he decided not to attend Princeton - a classmate of his, whom he admitted had done measurably better academically, had been denied admittance, and the only difference between them was that his classmate had an obviously Jewish name.

Unearned privilege exists, regardless of whether folks like Fortgang want to believe it. Yes, you may have worked hard to get where you are, but we must also be mindful that many individuals have worked just as hard and yet still been denied the chance to get there as well, simply because of their race or gender or some other "other-ness" about them. Denying that fact won't make it go away, nor will trying to put a spin on it diminish the damage it causes. By the same token, guilt and blanket assumptions will do no good, either. We need to confront the fact, and find constructive ways to dismantle this reality, even if it means that those of us with such privilege make use of it to educate others and make what changes are necessary.

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