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”

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Fasting for Change

For almost two years of my life, I fasted every single Wednesday, which, for me, meant that I consumed nothing (no food, water, mints, anything) from sun up to sun down.  Whenever people asked why, it was hard for me to explain.  Most folks assumed it was some sort of religious reasoning, as that was their only context for understanding fasting, and it wasn’t.  While it was most definitely a spiritual exercise, I did it for more practical reasons.

I chose to fast to stay in touch with my privilege.  I have never once gone hungry in my life except out of choice.  And that is an incredible privilege!  I have had nourishing meals to keep me well fed and fueled every single day of my life.  I mean, what percentage of the world’s population can boast that?

It is a mark of great class privilege to be able to literally pop something delicious and/or nourishing in my mouth every time that I am hungry, and it helped me to stay in touch with that privilege to feel the hunger that rolled in every Wednesday afternoon while I fasted.

I stopped fasting weekly when I became a teacher.  I just couldn’t keep up with the afternoon energy of my students when I was so lacking in blood sugar.

Since then, I have fasted only sporadically.  I often fast a day or two during Lent in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters and once a week during Ramadan in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters.  I’ve fasted on occasion during Yom Kippur, and a few years back, I participated in a 38 hour fast to honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez while recommitting to my own social justice work.

In thinking about these fasting experiences as opposed to my Wednesday fasts, I realize that what I was missing was the experience of fasting in community.  In community, we can talk about our shared reasons for fasting, our shared experiences of hunger and the reflection it prompted.  In community, we can break bread together at the end of the day and laugh and reflect on our privilege to eat so well together.

Fasting, much like social justice work, is best done in community.

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