It seems the Right in the United States has a new hero, a first year student at Princeton named Tal Fortgang. What did this young man do that earned him the accolades of Rightwing sites like The Blaze and the Independent Journal Review?
He published an article in The Princeton Tory explaining that when people tell him to “check his privilege,” they’re all wrong because what they are calling privilege is actually his really awesome “character.”
Fortgang explains at length the struggles that his family has endured, escaping Nazi Germany and eventually making their way to the U.S. where they have been able to thrive thanks to strong character and hard work. His point, then, is that systems of privilege and oppression are “imaginary” and that we are all simply products of our (and our parents) own hard work and character.
And so he closes, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”
In response, White people and men all over the country are crying out “Hallelujah!” They’ve found their prophet who can, once and for all, shut down those Liberals that are “arguing like everything was handed to white families on a silver platter, and imply that no one had to work hard for what they got” (despite that this is not what people advancing privilege discourse are, in fact, arguing).
And those of us who are working hard to expose systems of White supremacy and privilege (as well as other systems of oppression) are shaking our heads in frustration.
After all, his arguments are not new. I have heard these exact arguments from White people and men and cis people and Christians and Straight people and legal citizens and on and on . . .
“Privilege isn’t a thing. My family worked hard for everything we have. You’re the bigot for claiming that my appearance privileges me in society.”
And in response, we can provide him with endless evidence of how the idea of the U.S. being a meritocracy is, despite his protestations, a myth.
We can explain the ways that the “equal protection” promised in our constitution and that he claims grants everyone equal opportunity is, in fact, a myth.
We can talk about how, even though his family came relatively late to the Whiteness game, they still had countless forms of White affirmative action available to them that gave them legs up not available to people of Color.
We can go into the ways that his assumption that “hard work” and “character” are what alone led to his family’s successes implies that all of the low-wealth people in the U.S. (who are disproportionately people of Color) simply don’t have good enough “character” and simply don’t work hard enough to realize the American dream that he so proudly can boast (an argument which is blatantly classist and racist once you sort through the coded language).
But it seems to me that he is writing this letter because people have tried to show him these things and that people have called him out for these uninterrogated privileges, but he still is convinced that he and his family are simply products of their own design.
So we need a new tack.
Getting Beyond “Check Your Privilege”
“Check your privilege,” the phrase that Fortgang is so tired of hearing, makes sense. It is born out of the frustration of oppressed people having to explain over and over to people of privilege that systems of oppression exist and that overt expressions of identity privilege hurt others.
And as such, that phrase can and should continue to be used. But for those of us who are actively seeking to be in solidarity with oppressed people and groups, we have a responsibility to go beyond “check your privilege.”
We can’t just call people out for their privilege. We have to call them in to deeper considerations of identity and resistance to oppression.
In their brilliant piece “McIntosh as Synechdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism,” the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective explain that the conversation about privilege is important but that a focus solely on calling out privilege actually can be detrimental to the wider goal of inspiring antiracist action.
After all, our identities are complex, and privilege is not a monolith. In the case of Fortgang, his family did not come to this country with wealth privilege, but they did have a certain level of citizenship privilege in the way that the U.S. allowed White, educated Jews to come during and after WWII while systematically prohibiting others (even others effected by the same war like the Japanese or Pacific Islanders) from immigrating to the U.S..
And as White people (in the way that Whiteness has been constructed since the early-to-mid 1900s in the U.S.), they had access to job and land-owning opportunities that have been systematically denied to people of Color to this day.
It is entirely possible for Fortgang’s family to benefit from White-skin privilege while also struggling to find a place in a widely anti-Semitic United States.
All of these things can be true simultaneously because our identities and, in turn, our privileges and oppressions are intersectional and complex (to borrow Kimberle Crenshaw’s term).
Thus, while oppressed people have no responsibility to call Fortgang in to consider the complexity of identity that leads to his inability to see privilege while also acknowledging his family’s real struggles, those of us who share his identity do have that responsibility.
In short, we need to call him in.
More than “Good” vs “Bad” White People
In her article “Tiffany, Friend of People of Color: White Investments in Anti-Racism,” Audrey Thompson explores the ways in which many White people strive to be seen as “good” White people by people of Color and other anti-racist White people, creating a “call them out” culture that doesn’t lead to critical investment in anti-racism or to growth that actually can combat systems of oppression.
As people of any identity privilege, so long as we think of ourselves as “more enlightened” than “lesser” people who share our identity (even if we wouldn’t use those words), we stifle our ability to bring people into the work.
Our goal shouldn’t be to act more antiracist than every other White person or more feminist than every other man or more of an ally than every other Straight person. Our goal should be to end oppression, and to accomplish that goal, we need to call in people who share our identity in hopes of inspiring anti-oppression action in and with them.
Thus, with Fortgang, it’s clear that there is a need for acknowledgement of his ethnic and cultural identity that is more than just Whiteness, and acknowledging this identity can not only be an important way to break past defensiveness about privilege, but as I argue over at Everyday Feminism, it can be an important part of inspiring investment in anti-racist work.
Similarly, as Peggy McIntosh taught me in a workshop that I’ve described also at Everyday Feminism, recognizing that not every aspect of our identities affords us privilege and validating the legitimate ways in which someone’s identity does not have privilege is also an important part of calling them into a conversation about how they are exhibiting and exploiting their privilege.
Calling In Our Fortgangs
Now, I would guess that some people have tried this with Fortgang, and really this lesson is one that is bigger than his diatribe about the merits of the “land of the free” and the evils of privilege discourse in a student newspaper.
This is a lesson of how we as people of identity privilege must engage with anti-oppression activism. My inclination in reading Fortgang’s piece is to shake my head, write him off, and look down my nose at him. But how often do I exhibit the “but that’s not me!” sentiment that’s key to his position? And how often do those I love blatantly display their privilege in ways that advance oppressive systems? Do I not still have a responsibility to call those people in?
In this work, then, it is important for me to remember and for me to call others in to understand that privilege discourse is not about expecting people to “apologize for being White” or for having other privileged identities (though it seems that the beacon call of privilege denial has become “I won’t apologize for being ____!”).
Instead, this is about acknowledging the values that Fortgang espouses in his piece, ones that most everyone believes are or wishes were realities in the U.S.. This is about holding ourselves and others accountable for creating a society in which those values are upheld.
After all, Fortgang believes vehemently (despite all evidence to the contrary) that hard work and good character define people’s success in the U.S.. So let’s start there. Let’s discuss the ways that we as a society fall short of those values, and let’s discuss ways that we can make them realities.
Because telling others to “check their privilege” serves an important role, but unless people are invested in listening to that call to reflection, it doesn’t get us any closer to inspiring work in solidarity for justice.