Monday, May 19, 2014

Seriously, Check Your Privilege

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us,
and not we ourselves;
we are his people,
and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
Luke 12:48

It would have been more appropriate if Tal Fortgang, a first year student at Princeton University, had published his essay on White Privilege on April 1st rather than April 2nd. And it would be easier to understand why the essay went viral on the internet.

Writing in The Princeton Tory, he detailed his objections to the phrase, “Check your privilege,” which admonishes the speaker to recognize that his or her opinions may be influenced by the privilege associated with his or her station in life. This, he argues, negates all the hard work he did to get where he is, and dismisses his opinions simply because he is a white male.

He accuses those who raise the issue of privilege of “diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.”

With all due respect to the seeds he has sown, to speak seriously of “all the hard work I have done in my life” seems a bit over the top. Tal Fortgang is in his first year of college. High school may have seemed like an eternity, and for some young people it is really hard, but it’s difficult to see it as a lifetime achievement.

Fortgang says that he decided to “check his privilege” to see how his past had brought him to his present situation. “I decided to take their advice,” he writes. “I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence.”

Of course, we know that he didn’t go to check his origins because someone told him to check his privilege, but it does make an engaging introduction to his family story. And that story is compelling. His grandfather escaped from the Nazis only to spend years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. His grandmother weighed just eighty pounds when she was rescued from Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war. They came to America and succeeded through hard work and sacrifice. They lived out the American dream.

It’s a great family story. And I mean that quite seriously.

But the idea of privilege is not about whether our grandparents worked hard. It is about recognizing that the place we occupy in society is not (entirely) of our own making. For Tal Fortgang, part of what it means is that he owes a great debt to his grandparents.

He probably would not have gotten into Princeton without hard work, but for most young people, all the hard work in the world would not have gotten them admission to Princeton or any of another several dozen elite colleges. He was born with intellectual abilities that others simply do not have. His parents supported him and taught him to value education. They probably gave him an environment that stimulated his curiosity. He was helped by his teachers and his school, and his hometown. He benefitted from his socio-economic status. There are very few kids at prestigious colleges who come from economically disadvantaged homes, though many feel disadvantaged because they compare themselves to their even wealthier classmates.

Everyone at Princeton, regardless of race, gender, religion, or the economic status of his or her family, has been gifted with enormous privilege.

Questioning his privileged surroundings, he writes: “Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential. Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?”

Yes, Mr. Fortgang, that was and is part of your privilege. Your father sounds like an exemplary individual, and he worked hard to give you the life you now enjoy.

The reminder to “check your privilege” is not meant to make us feel guilty. It is meant to remind us that race, gender, class, and a host of other factors beyond our control have helped us to become the people we are. And that where we are in the socio-economic landscape influences how we see the rest of the world.

We hope that we have been good stewards of the gifts we have been given. We hope that we will add to the cultural legacy we have inherited. And we hope that by being aware of the gifts we have received we will take a kinder view of those who have less than we do.

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