“Check Your Privilege?” No!

posted in: Opinion | 0

Note: This article is the con position of a point-counterpoint.  To read Edward Gelernt’s pro position, click here.

Tal Fortgang, a Princeton University student, recently published an article in TIME entitled “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.”  It highlights a very real and dangerous issue in our society: the degradation of people and their opinions based solely on their skin color or gender.

Racism has been a constant problem throughout American history, from slavery to the Trail of Tears to Japanese internment camps.  Sexism has been a similarly serious issue, from women’s suffrage to sexual harassment in the workplace.  It is therefore both ironic and unexpectedly unsurprising that racism has finally reared its ugly head against white males, a demographic that have historically more often been the agents of discrimination than its victims.

In his article, Fortgang focuses on one phrase in particular that both he and I find to be both racist and counterproductive.  “Check your privilege,” a phrase often levied against white males when debating sensitive issues, implies that white males’ accomplishments and views are less valid because of the advantages they have supposedly enjoyed.

The key word there is ‘supposedly.’  Not only is it clearly racist to dismiss someone’s opinions simply because of their racial background, but in many cases white males are not from privileged families. Fortgang, upon being told to check his privilege, did just that, and discovered that his recent ancestors were anything but privileged.  His Jewish grandfather narrowly escaped the Holocaust, while his great grandmother and several great uncles and aunts died in concentration camps.  His grandmother survived starvation and a grueling deathmarch between concentration camps.  His grandparents came to the US without money, education, or the ability to speak English, but through hard work and stubborn resolve they were able to thrive and send their children to school.  One of those children, Fortgang’s father, worked from dawn to dusk for twenty five years to support his family. When people try to silence him by claiming he is inherently privileged based solely on his racial ancestry, they shamefully disrespect the resilience and bravery of his family.

The argument that the phrase ‘check your privilege’ still applies to Tal because he is privileged, even though his family was not, is foolish, hasty, and inherently discriminatory. When people look at white males and assume they are advantaged patricians who’ve had everything in life handed to them, they ignore their religion, sexuality, political views, nationality, socioeconomic status, and other factors that may make them very unprivileged indeed. Tal, for one, is of Jewish ancestry and thus faces anti-Semitic discrimination. As a Princeton student born to a middle class blue-collar father, he has overcome socioeconomic disadvantage to attend one of the world’s finest universities.

My issues with the phrase “check your privilege” don’t stop with the fact that it is often misapplied to unprivileged individuals.  It is also important to remember that even if Fortgang was as inherently privileged as some assume him to be based solely on his appearance, this would not inherently discredit his beliefs about any subject whatsoever.  Arguing that one person is right and the other is wrong simply because the former has faced  more discrimination is rather like saying that gelato is better than ice cream simply because it is more expensive.

“Check your privilege” isn’t inherently a bad thing to say.  It’s useful to remember the advantages one has enjoyed in life, so one can be thankful for them, be aware of how they affect one’s point of view, and try to help people of less fortunate backgrounds.  The problem begins, as it so often does, when the usage exceeds moderation.  The way ‘check your privilege’ is constantly thrown at people as an argument is both counterproductive for reasoned debate and grimly ironic considering supposed advocates of equality are condemning another group based solely on their race and gender.

Next time someone tells you to go and “check your privilege”, tell them to go and check their hypocrisy, because it looks full to bursting from over here.

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