Brooklyn Magazine

Check Your Privilege: Why Being a White Male Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Not all white men…

Last month, Princeton student Tal Fortgang published an essay in the Tory, his university’s journal of conservative discourse. The piece, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” details Fortgang’s experience as a Westchester-born-and-raised white male who attends an Ivy League institution and the difficulties inherent to, well, being Tal Fortgang. First among those difficulties is the frequency with which Fortgang is asked by his classmates to “check his privilege;” it’s happened, Fortgang contends, “several times this year.” 

Fortgang will have you know, though, that his privilege is just fine, thanks, and that he is insulted each and every time someone levels this command at him, especially seeing as how it tends to be “handed down by [his] moral superiors” where it then “descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at [his] pinkish-peach complexion, [his] maleness, and the nerve [he displays] in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.” It’s like, c’mon, Tal Fortgang’s moral superiors! Let Tal Fortgang have opinions based on his Weltanschauung! Sure, maybe those opinions include believing that Palestinians are comparable to Nazis (Fortgang’s now-deleted Twitter bio declared his location as “Settling the West Bank“), or thinking “that whole thing about a word being ok for a black person to say but not for a white person was a joke.” But whatever, right? It’s not like Fortgang thinks those things because he’s white or rich or male or, you know, racist. He thinks this way because he’s got his own worldview that was probably not a little bit informed by reading The Fountainhead when he was fifteen, and he shouldn’t need to say that he’s sorry for his personal philosophies or for being rich or for being male or for being white. Fortgang makes this explicitly clear by concluding his essay by strongly stating, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

Except, well, as is the case with many college freshman before him, Fortgang is missing the point entirely, and is self-righteously defending his decision not to do something (namely, apologize) which he was never asked to do in the first place. What Fortgang fails to understand is that “checking his privilege” is not about anything other than an acknowledgment that we live in a patriarchal society in which racism is a systemic problem and existing inheritance and tax laws have led to a situation in which the income gap has grown more and more extreme and class mobility is virtually non-existent. And so, as a white male from Westchester who attends an Ivy League school and who has enough clout that an essay he wrote for his college newspaper led to a profile in the New York Times, Fortgang should be capable of assessing his life and realizing that, yes, he does in fact benefit from certain foundational, societal structures, and that while this doesn’t mean that he can coast through life on his “pinkish-peach complexion,” vaulting over any problems he might encounter just because he has a penis, it does mean that there are certain things that are easier for him than for other people who lack these things.

But, of course, Fortgang doesn’t see it that way, and instead decides to completely ignore what the word “privilege” means in the context of “check your privilege” and engages in the basest kind of defense against any accusation, invoking a little-known corollary to Godwin’s Law, in which a person can find themselves lacking any kind of privilege because his or her grandparents escaped from Hitler. Yeah, basically, Fortgang wants you to know that he’s suffered too because of his family’s flight from the Nazis. He continues on to explicitly blame anyone who does not come from a privileged background by writing “It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates ‘privilege.'” You see, anyone can be privileged as long as they share the same values of those who have long been in power. This might be difficult, of course, considering that many of the “values” shared by society’s elites were developed in order to perpetuate the existing power structure, cementing their own influence while oppressing that of other people, but whatever! Stop complaining and start sharing Fortgang’s values! (Which, remember, include building settlements on the land of an occupied people! Such good values, right?) If you do, perhaps you too can be profiled in the Times and hailed as a young conservative hero by the likes of John Podhoretz and Fox News.

Or, you know, don’t. Don’t share values that denigrate and dismiss the very real oppression of huge segments of both this country’s and the world’s population. Don’t try and engage in some sort of privilege Olympics by bringing up the suffering of the generations that came before you. Or, if you do, acknowledge the fact that despite the fact that your grandparents suffered horribly, they were in possession of a certain amount of privilege when they came to seek refuge in the United States by virtue of being white. As Jaquelyn Battalora, a sociology professor at St. Xavier University, points out, “In 1790, the first United States Congress determined that to be a naturalized citizen of this country you have to be white — and that was valid until 1952. So [Fortgang] doesn’t even understand that laws allowed his family to come here and become citizens, and that the fact that they were seen as white conferred upon them an unearned advantage, by virtue of law.” Just because Fortgang’s grandparents didn’t have it easy, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t start from a much more advantageous point than other immigrants with darker complexions would have.

What people like Fortgang who snottily declare that they have “nothing to apologize for” fail to understand is that nobody needs their apologies—or even wants them. It doesn’t take anything away from the plight of Fortgang’s grandparents or the many other people who struggled and worked hard to provide a better life for their progeny to acknowledge that some people didn’t even have the opportunity to work hard and build a life for themselves until fairly recently. In fact, there used to be rather explicit laws in place which made it pretty damned near impossible for, say, an African-American couple to ever get to a point where they could create the kind of life for their family that Fortgang’s family created for him. And as recently as 45 years ago, one privilege enjoyed by Fortgang—that of attending Princeton—was not available to women at all. It should be as plain as Fortgang’s vanilla complexion that, despite what he thinks, meritocracy is a myth. But even so, nobody is asking Fortgang to apologize. Nobody wants to make Fortgang into the victim he so bizarrely sees himself as. Chances are, all that the people who have asked Fortgang to check his privilege want is for him and people like him to concede the existence of experiences other than those of wealthy white males. But that’s apparently too big a concept for Fortgang to internalize, and so yet another privileged white male goes about in pity for himself, feeling unfairly judged for the color of his skin, when what it is that is really being judged is the content of his character, which is very dark indeed.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen