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

Tal Fortgang Check Your Privilege

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

Around Brooklyn

See More


  1. Oh Bkmag! You scamp, you. With that article title you teased us into thinking this was your latest anti-male rant, full of offensive, mass-generalizations, but no, it’s just an offensive and inappropriate title for an article about a guy who seems to be a complete douche who aired his idiotic views in a (well known but little-read) college magazine. Of course, Brooklyn magazine is the beach head from which to launch a retort. Must be a quiet day in Bklyn that fodder better suited to a personal blog (“I read an article and here’s what I didn’t like about it”) makes the news feed. I’m looking forward to the next real anti-male article. It’s been *too long*.

    • I imagine the intersection of Brooklyn Magazine and Princeton Tory readers is a huge untapped demographic that will rocket Kristin Iverson directly into the hallowed pages of L Magazine and perhaps Cat Fancy and Soldier of Fortune. This is career-defining moment, people – embrace the journalistic zeitgeist!

  2. In the same day’s issue of The New York Times that featured the story on this young man and “privilege,” there was the obituary of another former Princeton student: Anthony Drexel Duke, who died at 95. Mr. Duke was the scion of three of the wealthiest American families (Dukes, Drexels, Biddles) who might be considered the epitome of white male privilege.

    Yet as a teenager, he was so profoundly affected by seeing kids in the Lower East Side slums that he devoted his life to the Harlem-based organization he founded, Boys & Girls Harbor, an educational and social service agency that has helped tens of thousands of New York’s disadvantaged children.

    As the Times wrote:
    The agency, which, Crain’s New York Business wrote in 2005, “may be one of New York’s great charities,” has served more than 50,000 children over the years. Many have gone on to college, and to professional careers in fields such as law, medicine and academia.

    Descended from three American dynasties, Mr. Duke was reared “in a milieu of townhouses, country estates, private railroad cars and servants,” as The Saturday Evening Post wrote in 1955. Yet before he was out of his teens he had erected a summer camp for needy city children — the wellspring of Boys & Girls Harbor — on Long Island’s East End.

    In the summer of 1935, while a student at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., Tony worked as a counselor at the camp for underprivileged boys that the school ran in the New Hampshire countryside. At summer’s end, he drove two of the campers, a pair of brothers, home to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

    With the boys, the sons of Russian immigrants, Tony climbed the sagging steps of their tenement. At the top, as he recalled long afterward, he confronted their tiny, drab apartment and their careworn mother, abandoned by her husband and with more children underfoot.

    “As I descended the stairs, knowing I was heading back to my life of *****privilege ***** [emphasis mine, obviously] and comfort, I felt unsettled,” Mr. Duke said in his 2007 memoir, “Uncharted Course,” written with Richard Firstman. “I sat in my car, watching swarms of kids playing in the street and thinking of those boys upstairs.”

    He determined to start his own camp for disadvantaged youth, and in 1937 Mr. Duke, then a 19-year-old Princeton undergraduate, established a tiny one — “six tents and 17 kids,” he later recalled — on Jessup’s Neck, overlooking Peconic Bay on Long Island.

    The counselors, recruited from the ranks of his adolescent friends, included Claiborne Pell, the future Rhode Island senator; John V. Lindsay, the future New York mayor; and Paul Moore Jr., the future Episcopal bishop of New York.

    Though Mr. Duke held executive positions in several family companies, his existence until nearly the end of his life centered on Boys & Girls Harbor. For years, he personally interviewed prospective campers, who were referred by schools, churches and social service agencies in New York and Jersey City.

    “My guidance counselor said, ‘I’ve found this summer camp; it’s run by a millionaire, and it’s on the waterfront,’ ” said Justice Padro, who grew up in East Harlem. “Once she said ‘millionaire,’ I said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

    The integrated group of campers Mr. Duke assembled — black, white and Hispanic — eventually numbered several hundred a season.

    “I’ve always worried,” he told The Times in 1986, “what would happen to our country if too many people slipped out of the system. Too many human resources are not being used and people are feeling they’re being left out of the dream. We’ve found that children on the street have a dream. They reach out for whatever tools we can give.”

    Mr. Duke, whose own children attended the camp, lived amid the campers each season, swimming and sailing with them, teaching them to tend livestock and grow vegetables, shepherding them to church on Sundays and kneeling with them for evening prayers. In later years, after campers beseeched him to offer a comparable experience for their sisters, facilities for girls were added.

    Campers were encouraged to come to the Duke home, on the grounds of the camp, at any hour, to talk about anything they wished.

    * * *
    My impulse, given that I’m 45 years older than this young guy, is to assume that he’ll learn more about life and change his attitude.

    But it’s striking that a man like Mr. Duke, even before he was a Princeton student, not only had the understanding of his own privilege but felt that he had the duty, as a teenage boy, to help the less privileged.

    • Sure Mr. Duke understood his privilege – I don’t think there’s an adult white person alive in America who doesn’t implicitly understand this – but the question is, did he formally and respectfully CHECK his privilege and ritually abase himself and his opinions before people of color at every opportunity? Did he always remember to add the words “…but what do I know, for I am a white man and therefore my opinions are implicitly racist and less valuable”? Because if he did not follow these protocols for checking his privilege, then he was a racist as bad as Simon Legree or Strom Thurmond.

  3. “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.”

    So, and I ask this in all sincerity, what the fuck DO people want from white people when it comes to “acknowledging” our privilege? Seriously? What, exactly, is the point of this exercise? Because in my experience, when someone stridently demands that you recognize or check your privilege, what they’re REALLY telling you is that your opinion doesn’t count as much as theirs does and that you should basically shut up because you’re white. Which seems somewhat counterproductive in establishing a free and open dialogue on race. And how often do we have to acknowledge our privilege? Is it like getting born again? Is there a ceremony where you get dunked in a lake and then the scales fall from your eyes and you can see your privilege forever after and know that you are WRONG and BAD? Or do we have to make abasement for our whiteness and privilege every time we interact with a person of color? Maybe we should hand out buttons or armbands that say “Ask me about my white privilege” or “I checked my white privilege today, have you?” Also, do we get gold stars or baked goods or some other kind of rewards from communities of color for checking our privilege? I mean, what’s the actual incentive? Because, honestly? White privilege is pretty fucking awesome – you guys have no idea what you’re missing. See, I always thought the goal was to extend the privileges of whiteness to everybody. Not to strip them away and make everybody equally miserable. This “check your privilege” thing seems like all stick and no carrot to me. What’s in it for white folks?

  4. What, exactly, does “checking” our “privilege” mean, exactly? I’m not trying to be a jerk or anything, but what’s the point, other than a rhetorical one? It just seems like a way to stifle honest debate to me. It’s not like most Americans – of all races – don’t understand the implicit racial privilege built into our society. Is this now something we need to bring up every time a white person has an opinion on anything? The whole thing seems like an academic fad to me: intensely important in dormroom debate, and absolutely useless in the real world.

  5. I think the best rebuttal that I read via the Nation. “Its not to discount one’s hard work and effort being rich and privilege but privilege means you are unhindered by barriers that lead to your fruits of your efforts.”

  6. Thank god for Tal, who else can work you up into a six-paragraph long rant? Without guys like him you couldn’t prove how virtuous you are, and how much white guys suck. Shame on you Tal! Brooklyn Magazine saves the human race one bloated blog at a time. If they didn’t mail it to me for free I’d even be willing to pick it up at Pathmark in the rack next to houses for sale in Florida.

  7. Kristen, I read your’ s and his article and think that you have incredibly twisted what he had to say. Over the years I’ve found that when someone name calls or stereotypes another person it’s usually because they don’t have an honest, unbiased response, so they resort to ridicule and stereotyping. As someone who had experienced much, spoken to many , observed much and worked with many minorities of all nationalities I’ve found that the student is correct.

  8. I’ve seen so many minorities of all nationalities excell (actually at my work as a nurse I’m the minority) and rise to the top though they may have originated with nothing. When my kids were in school they would tell me how many minorities would accuse others of ‘acting white’ because they had worked hard on their grades and tried to speak with good grammar. Why are so many minorities moving up the socio-economic ladder and others not? Probably why many whites aren’t while some are-it’s easier to blame and accuse others than to do the hard work yourself. It is hard-no one said it was easy, but if you keep blaming others for why you can’t do something while others in your group show you can-you’re just digging a pit for yourself. I hold the original student-writer and his family up as an example of excellence with my family.

  9. “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.”

    Any credibility gone.

    • I’m not so sure about the patriarchal society anymore. Daddy’s word isn’t law and with some minorities Dad isn’t even there. I agree about the existence of racism. I’ve experienced it from black to me and have often seen it in African-american’s against Haitian / Jamaican and vice versa, among the Asians , etc. in fact, I’ve seen it in every people group where many think they’re better than somebody else for whatever reason. Interestingly, I’ve found that African Americans are the most bigoted and prejudicial of all the people groups I’ve seen-and will often quickly justify their positions and see nothing wrong with it. Every people group has wronged another at some point in their history. Follow the examples of the minorities who have recognized the potential here , have seized it and accomplished much.

    • Just for the record, I’ve known many immigrants and minorities who have risen through the economic classes. Main reason for economic disparities are Obama’s economic policies and people complaining/blaming other’s instead of researching good investment ideas and asking questions of those who have excelled.

      • All real sad bar RGrayson. You remind me of the fool who opines ‘Those people who are discriminating against us are mighty successful!! We should emulate the most successful of them then maybe we’ll be where they are!’

        Not even worth rebutting the utter tripe seen here. Thankfully there are some of us (yes I’m white male) who are still humane …. or do I mean human? I guess both. No there is nothing in ‘it’ for us.

        Oh, can ‘t I be racist and sexist? Of course you can – why your papa was, and you sure can be little Johnny boy ….

        • Again, note those who have nothing of substance to share and how they deteriorate to name calling and mocking. These are no arguments and you didn’t respond to those individuals who have done exactly what your’e saying can’t be, rising to a different class and bettering themselves economically. Why can’t you learn from someone else how to improve your lot in life? What’s wrong with learning how to invest properly and successfully? Instead of berating those who have been successful why not learn from them and do the same? No discrimination has to take place at all. As my family’s economic situation improves we’re able to help others more. Everyone wins. I’ve heard it said that a man’s best friend is his dogma. Much truth to this. Many will ignore blatant reality/examples in order to keep their pet philosophies.

        • I’m not even sure what you’ve written! If this is an example of how you speak and write I think we’ve discovered why you’re frustrated with attempts to get ahead-and it’s not from discrimination.

  10. This is the best reply to Tal Fortgang I’ve read so far. Pity he probably won’t be reading it. I also loved the story about Anthony Drexel Duke. It would be great if this kid Tal could be invited to read that one!

  11. I like when racists bigots like Kristen Iverson get defensive when their assumption about the nature of the human condition are challenged by those who she thinks should just docilely accept the roles that Kristen tries to assign them. “Check your privilege” is just the newest iteration of a long held belief by race mongers and fear mongers that one group’s opinions are automatically based on ignorance of the Other, while the Other group speaks from a realist perspective. If she wants to actually debate the nature of how people get ahead in America, which is the veneer covering her racist rant, she could probably have a genuine point. However, because she is just using that as a film covering over a heart filled with racist intent, in this article Kristen revels that in reality she is that which she rallies against.