Tal Fortgang, a student at Princeton University, was an unknown, until he wrote a piece for Time Magazine explaining in depth why he will never apologize for his white male privilege. Then, he became a pariah, a spokesman of the unapologetic attitude of the rich white male elite while exhibiting a victimhood from those who chose to check him on it:
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in 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.
The last sentence ought to be something he should consider. But the entire first paragraph alone made it sound like Fortgang was being lashed out of spite simply because he is a white male with privilege. He even went so far as comparing it with being targeted by a drone! What?!?
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for 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. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
So, he’s saying that people are judging him unfairly due to his white maleness, and assume that he got to where he is today because of that, not based on the hard work he’s done, according to him. I – no doubt – believe him when he said he worked hard. Still, that doesn’t negate that he still benefits from white male privilege, something he doesn’t believe exists.
But they can’t be telling me that everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me into Princeton. Even that is too extreme. So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend. I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.
Again, he doesn’t believe there are advantages based on a societal hierarchy based on physical characteristics. But he decided to do as the naysayers say and “checked his privilege” using his family’s history.
Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.
Here is where he misses the mark completely. Afterwards, he continues to avoid the target drifting further and further off base:
Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
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?
The end result is this: Fortgang may have worked hard and studied hard to get to an ivy league school and that his family busted their asses to make it in this world. No one faults him or his family for that. That is commendable.
However, his conclusion that white male privilege is a nonexistent reality and how racism and sexism are not contributing factors for the severe inequalities this society continues to influence and exploit is a clear sign of the very thing he doesn’t believe in. The mindframe of privilege is clever enough to mask itself in the disguise of meritocracy while fooling them as to its definition. As such, white males climbing to the top, or are already there, believe they are successful purely on hard work and brains. The thought of the societal advantages created by society that comes with skin color and gender don’t cross their minds. And the beauty behind it is, that they don’t have to think about it.
Fortgang may be intelligent, but he is also sheltered from reality. He clearly doesn’t get how white male privilege is not something earned, but given on the first day on Earth by an unfair and unjust society. Sure, you can work hard and have a high I.Q., but if you’re white and male, chances are you don’t have to work too hard or be incredibly smart to rise.
By the way, he tweeted this on the Israeli-Palestine conflict: