Should Tal Fortgang be checking his privilege?

Two months ago, Tal Fortgang was just another Ivy League freshman, but his April op-ed for The Princeton Tory thrust him onto the nation’s stage and into the center of a historical debate. In “Checking My Privilege”, Fortgang argued that he should not have to apologize for his status as a white male or to “check his privilege” because society should judge based on individual experiences, not skin color. After his controversial essay “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” went viral, Fortgang received numerous supporting and dissenting responses, including “Dear Princeton privileged kid”, “Dear Tal”, “Dear Privileged-at-Princeton”, “Dear Tal Fortgang and the Princeton University Community”, “Tal Fortgang, Yes!”.

The phrase “check your privilege” aims to remind the person making a political point that he or she comes from a privileged background. Privilege itself is the idea that certain demographic traits– being white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, for example– give people specific benefits in society.

American feminist and activist Peggy McIntosh first connected  the word “privilege” to one’s skin color in her 1988 essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, in which she articulated situations in which her skin color served as an advantage. She described that she knows bandages advertised as “flesh-colored” will match her skin tone and that she can access medical or legal help without her race affecting her treatment. “I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms,” she said. “Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.”

As a white male in the United States, Fortgang too can be seen as a member of this “main culture”. However, he himself protests that classification. “[‘Check your privilege’ is a] command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” he wrote. “[T]he phrase… assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it.” He concedes that he has privileges, but not the ones that “detractors” believe he has. Rather, “It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America… It was my privilege that my grandfather was blessed with resolve and an entrepreneurial spirit, and that he…could realize the dream of giving his children a better life than he had.”

Supporters of Fortgang’s essay agree with his idea that prejudices do exist against whites. He believes, “My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting…You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still conquering them now..Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.”

Jennifer Kabbany, associate editor of the The College Fix hails Fortgang’s essay as a “powerful message”. To her, Fortgang’s thoughts are “meant to remind white, heterosexual males that they have it so good … They haven’t faced tough times, they don’t know what it’s like to be judged by the color of their skin. Oh, but they do. Those sick of being labeled are the very same ones doing it to others.”

GOP pundit Shosana Weissmann tweeted %20)that Kabbany’s response was a “ridiculously eloquent retort”, while Commentary editor and New York Post columnist John Podhoretz complimented Fortgang directly; his tweet read, “Good for you, kid. Good for you.” These commentators all agree that no one should be judged solely on the color of their skin, and that white males — those often labeled the oppressors– may be equal victims of stereotypical statements as people of color.

However, some believe that white privilege is worth checking lest one’s priviledged perspective perpetuates race-based hierarchies.  Fortgang’s opponents, including Columbia students, Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani, argue that he completely missed the point and doesn’t actually understand the definition of privilege. Their response in the Columbia Daily Spector reads, “[Fortgang] clearly hasn’t checked his privilege—because he doesn’t even understand what it is. The very act of writing a defense of white privilege (and a condemnation of those who point to it) is in itself an exercise of the very entitlement he refuses to acknowledge.” Some have gone even farther, calling Fortgang a “jerk” because his essay does not acknowledge that his family’s white skin offered them certain opportunities in America, even as immigrants. Meanwhile, people of color who may have been citizens at the time were still victims of racism, including insults, lynchings, and laws with racist undercurrents, such as Jim Crow. Katie McDonough, editor for the news and entertainment website Salon, argues, Tal Fortgang will never have to experience “the legacy of red-lining, the unemployment rate among college educated men of color versus their white counterparts, the convergence of racism and sexism that leave women of color disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, the gender pay gap experienced by black women, the deadly violence faced by black children, and the myriad other manifestations of racism in the United States.”

To these dissenters, Fortgang is not only a “white man” but an “extraordinary privileged” one at that because his societal position offers him both advantages, such as the welcome into the United States his grandparents received, and immunities, such as from Jim Crow laws and other manifestations of racism.

“Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” has sparked vehement compliments and criticisms alike. I do agree that Fortgang makes a valid point — one’s skin color should not define his or her successes, and everyone should understand another’s background before making sweeping judgments. This same angle causes some to applaud his approach on the socially sensitive topic of “white privilege”.  However, Fortgang’s analysis of his position as a white male from a stable economic background and student at a prestigious Ivy League institution does not recognize the historic, political, and social institutions that favor light-skinned men like himself. This same omittance is the reason others see Fortgang as entitled, hypocritical, even a “jerk”. Publisher of The Princeton Tory Zach Horton perhaps summarized the national debate surrounding Fortgang’s essay best, saying simply, “[Fortgang] has some very interesting thoughts. He will stir the pot and get people thinking and get people talking.”

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