Check Your Privilege: Calling In Princeton’s Privilege-Denying First Year

Tal Fortgang, courtesy of The College Fix

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“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.


8 thoughts on “Check Your Privilege: Calling In Princeton’s Privilege-Denying First Year

  1. “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..”

    While I agree with the thrust of the piece, I think you might want to look into this paragraph a bit more deeply. 1. Are you aware of the quotas which existed in this country during WWII which limited Jews from immigrating?
    2. I think it’s a bit of a minimization to compare wartime atrocities which impacted populations at war with the systemic rounding up and execution of 6 million people based on their religious background.

    Perhaps you want to consider your own privilege in your ability to essentialize the experiences of others into experiences which are familiar to you. Jews may have white privilege, but that white privilege can look very different from other forms.

    • Jake,
      Appreciate the comment, as it does give me plenty to consider and it does call on me to reflect on my own privilege.

      A few things in reply:

      To your first point, I am indeed aware of those quotas, which is why I mentioned that the U.S. allowed “White, educated Jews” into the country while denying others access, as it was significantly harder for Jews to get a visa if they didn’t have an advanced degree of some sort (which is, notably, still a common practice in U.S. immigration, and was a key component of the Chinese Exclusion Act). But I do think that noting the quotas is an important thing to do more explicitly, so your criticism is well taken.

      To your second point, I do see how it can be minimizing to make the comparison I made. And I appreciate you calling me on that. My point was to point out that U.S. immigration policies have tended to favor White Europeans (even White, European Jews depending on the time in history to which you’re referring) while other groups, most notably people of Color, have been explicitly denied access to the United States. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be how White Jews were given access to visas during and after WWII while other targets of the Nazis like LGBT people or people with disabilities or Gypsies were not. Should White Jews have been given those visas? Absolutely. But it’s notably a citizenship privilege.

      I will note, though, that my point was to note less than explicitly that the denial of people of Color under legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and others stems from dehumanization, a dehumanization not dissimilar to that which drove the genocidal policies of the Third Reich.

      And most definitely the White privilege that White American Jews have is profoundly different than the White privilege that White American Christians have, which is to my point about how privilege is not a monolith. I attempted to point out that complexity when I noted that Jews had access to White skin privilege while also having to navigate a tremendously anti-Semitic country. Thus, it helps to call White people into a consideration of their Whiteness and privilege while holding the tension of our cultural identity that goes beyond constructions of Whiteness.

      I clearly failed to make my point without furthering the already-present minimization of Jewish suffering in the U.S. and abroad, and I appreciate your call to reflect on the privilege inherent in that.

  2. I completely agree with you about the ways in which Fortgang “doesn’t get it.” But, what I take away from all this is how the prase “check yor privilege”, contrary to what you’ve argued in one of your above articles, is actually self-defeating. It’s true about the system of white privilege, obviously, but given the reaction to the phrase – the feeling of being chastised that Fortgang refers to – maybe it’s time for a reevaluation of identity politics discussion tactics.

    After reading many comments on this article I pieced together my own version of what I think Fortgang should have said; a way that he could have taken his valid point about issues of identity discussion and said it in an equally valid way (because I agree with you that the way he said things in his article was completely frustrating).

    So, if I were Tal Fortgang here’s what I would have said!
    (Note: I know a little bit about the family personally.)


    I understand that I have experienced privilege throughout my life. I am a white male who was raised in a close-knit family with parents who provided everything for me. I went to excellent – and expensive – schools. I had summer camp and vacations. I had opportunities to get jobs or other positions if I wanted them. And now, here I am at any Ivy League institution. I am thankful every day.

    But the reason I’m thankful every day is because I take NONE of it for granted. My grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to America from nothing. They built their lives from scratch, the life that I now can experience. So, my family history makes me hyper aware not only of the ways in which I benefit today, but also of the struggles of others.

    That being said, I take issue with the phrase “check your privilege” and the ways in which it is being used against me. I feel personally chastised by the multiple incidences in which someone lobbed the phrase at me, on the basis of my whiteness and maleness, thus automatically excluding me from having a voice in the conversation. The phrase is defensive, and it sets up barriers between who does have a voice and who doesn’t in the identity politics arena. It’s like saying, “we don’t have a voice in real life, so we’re going to win now by taking away other people’s right to speak in the very conversation where it is important for us to have allies and to join together!” The phrase is self-defeating, and it is also offensive for the ways it disregards the struggles of the person now, in a sense, being discriminated against (ie excluded from having a meaningful opinion) in the conversation. Yes, I am privileged, and I know it. But I was on your side until you lobbed that phrase against me and made me feel unfairly attacked.

    I think the better way to ultimate social change is to connect with one another on the basis of our shared experiences of disadvantage. If you really have no disadvantage ever in your life or your ancestry, then, in that case, you might need to be told to check your privilege as a way of relating. But most people have something in their own lives or in their history that was a defining struggle. How about instead of blaming people, we tell them, “see? You get it. Your grandparents were Holocaust survivors. You know what struggle means. Look at ours, see ours, help us in ours.”

    Appeal to common experience. Don’t draw lines.”

  3. Something I see in so many conversations of privilege is a conflation of individual and institutional. That’s part of Fortgang’s problem, of course…he assumes his individual experience can be extrapolated into institutional power dynamics. But I also see this conflation in the way some sj folks use privilege discourse.

    Like every once in awhile you’ll see someone suggest doxxing some asshole straight white cis guy who’s done or said something horrible…as though the oppressive nature of the institutions whiteness, straightness, cisness and masculinity somehow make it acceptable to target and take down some individual who inhabits those oppressive identities. And, of course, a group of queer women (for example) doxxing a straight cis man, is different to a group of straight cis men doxxing a queer woman, in that a group of queer women don’t have the institutions of masculinity and straightness from which to draw. But having those institutions to draw on is not the same as being the embodiment of those institutions…

    Or the difference between the hashtag #killallmen and a woman saying “I want to kill Paul Elam,” or whatever.

    Those are extreme examples…but it happens in little things too. Like the assumption of malicious intent (which is a problem in itself). So some guy does something sexist and instead of saying, “that thing you did is sexist,” I’ve seen folks say, “that thing you did is sexist, and I know you don’t care.”

    I’m rambling a bit…and this is somewhat tangential to your main point…but I’ve been thinking on this for awhile so I’m throwing it out there.

  4. Absolutely incredible. This post is making me reflect on my own tactics of bringing people in and how I approach conversations. I forget that my knowledge does not elevate me above the person I am confronting. Thank you for this important lesson. I plan to show this to a lot of people in hopes of reframing the conversation.

  5. […] in proving to Tal Fortgang that he has privilege or what actions he should take now (this essay and this essay already do that). I am more interested in expanding on what Mychal Denzel Smith eluded to in […]

  6. […] Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang wrote a piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for my White Male Privilege” that was published in Time Magazine this week. If you haven’t seen it yet I encourage  you to read it to fully understand. There have been numerous truly brilliant responses that have helped me to process the article. Find them here, here, and here. […]

Comments are closed.