Tal Fortgang is a white-skinned male freshman at Princeton University who induced a flurry of aneurysms among the perpetually prone-to-the-vapors social-justice clique by penning an essay in early April called “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.”
The essay begins:
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….
Two important points here: He implies that the phrase is used to stifle discussion merely because a white male is speaking. This was echoed in a follow-up essay by dark-skinned conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru titled “‘Check Your Privilege’ Means ‘Shut Your Mouth’.” Fortgang also implies that the phrase is hurled in a sanctimonious tone by his self-appointed “moral superiors.”
Despite what you may wish to believe, I bear no hatred for anyone because of their ethnic background or genitals or sexual practices, but I fucking HATE moralistic people, at least ones who make a public display of it. In practice, I’ve found that the most truly ethical people don’t need to pull out a trumpet to announce from the mountaintop how ethical they are. In my experience, loud public proclamations of one’s sterling morality are more a narcissistic social game played by hostility-drenched church ladies than any demonstrable act that actually helps anyone else. As KRS-One once said about violence, “real bad boys move in silence.” I think the same principle applies to real good boys.
When other whites accuse me of white privilege—which is constantly—I’ve always noticed, without a single exception over decades, that they invariably come from far more privileged economic backgrounds than I do. I live in a rural area of Georgia right now, and I’ve never had a hillbilly accuse me of white privilege. So this is very difficult for me to interpret as anything other than some form of guilt-projection on the part not of my moral superiors, but of my economic betters. Remember, everyone who was tut-tutting Fortgang about his privilege was attending Princeton, for Christ’s sake. I bet if he was attending a community college in West Virginia, he wouldn’t have been tagged with the “privilege” smear nearly as much.
At The Atlantic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy says that at least among whites, the whole “check your privilege” game seems to have become a form of “upper-middle-class good manners, maybe even a new form of noblesse oblige, reinforcing class divides.” It is not something the oppressed say; it’s something the privileged say—but always to others.
I don’t remember ever being personally lectured by a black person about white privilege, even when living in Atlanta-area neighborhoods that were 87% black. But when black Americans sound off about white privilege, it’s hard not to think that compared to sub-Saharan Africa, it’s a privilege for anyone to be living in America, at least if you’re concerned about things such as longevity, income, and relative safety from violence and disease.
It’s also curious that the word “privilege” has become an insult. It used to be something you aspired to rather than apologized for. It had roughly the same meaning as “honor” — “May I have the privilege of this dance?” … “Why, yes, it’d be an honor!”
Fortgang goes on to explain how he’s descended from Jews who escaped the Holocaust and arrived in America penniless, then built their way up through the sweat of their brow. And he seems to appreciate the word “privilege” in the old-school sense of something for which you should be thankful rather than penitent:
It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.
Naturally, he was roundly mocked by those who make a living accusing others of white privilege. The Young Turks University said his essay was “The Most Ridiculous Thing We’ve Ever Read,” which implies they don’t read much. I also doubt that they make a big deal of the fact that their historical namesake was a Turkish nationalist group behind the Armenian genocide.
So come forth now from lands hither and yon, all ye bold and ideology-driven proles in the commentariat—let ‘er rip! Discuss the whole “white privilege” concept, especially whether it’s a good tactic to further understanding and encourage healthy debate when you talk down to people and treat them as a despised “other” who were born tainted with the social-justice variant of original sin. And if you think I’m completely missing the point, see if you can find it in yourself to tell me so in a way that doesn’t drip with sanctimonious condescension.