“Check your privilege”: a heavily charged phrase

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Will Chavey, Contributing Writer

 

 

Several months ago, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote an article in the “Princeton Tory,” lashing out against classmates who discounted his views politically because he had failed to “check his privilege.” The New York Times and Time Magazine picked up the story a little bit later, and a controversy was born.

Simply put, the phrase commands a person to consider advantages—privileges — that they have received. In its softer form, “check your privilege” evokes studies citing advantages among white males in job applications. It empathizes with the psychological feedback loop that stems from women feeling unsafe going to the bathroom alone. When I hear “check your privilege,” I feel incredibly grateful for my loving family, my dad’s secure job, and an education (from kindergarten through college) that I think compares favorably to just about anyone’s.

Hidden amidst these less controversial points above, “check your privilege” also underscores a much more extreme view. For your accomplishments, don’t thank your own character or even your intellect. Thank instead the norms that shaped society to your genetic advantage. Huck Finn’s bildungsroman in the face of a corrupt society? Character triumphing over circumstances? All fiction, just like Mark Twain’s novel.

I have never met Tal Fortgang, but I sympathize with him a lot. A Princeton University student whose grandmother escaped a concentration camp, he noticed how hard his parents and grandparents worked — how much they sacrificed — to give him opportunities. He appreciated that sacrifice, and worked hard to capitalize on the life they provided for him. More than anything else, he despised the idea that people would cheapen that history with a cursory glance and a stereotype.

Freshman Tal Fortgang from Princeton University wrote an article in the “Princeton Tory” about the  “Check your Privilege” phrase. It then spiraled into a nationwide controversy. -Photo courtesy of Princton University
Freshman Tal Fortgang from Princeton University wrote an article in the “Princeton Tory” about the “Check your Privilege” phrase. It then spiraled into a nationwide controversy.
-Photo courtesy of Princton University

I love to hear stories about people of varying backgrounds — including race, gender and sexual orientation — who have overcome hate or adversity to achieve incredible things. I think it speaks to the power of character, confidence and creativity, and how these factors can still provide a fulfilling lifestyle today, at least in the United States. But I also want to recognize that we all need a little luck along the way — and that confidence and character can be hard to come by when the deck seems stacked against you.

I noticed a pattern in some of the more thoughtful commentaries regarding the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings: They spent little time assessing whether the specific instances were examples of racism, and more time explaining why many minority communities simply assumed that was so. They tell stories about being pulled over by the police, and “accidentally” slipping a college ID onto their driver’s license, in the hope that they will receive better treatment. They remember the one or two times in their lives where they have been fired upon — they were completely innocent, and the police fired shots.

Now, I certainly do not want to turn this article into a diatribe against a police force that I still plan to call the next time I am in trouble. But I do think we all need to check our privilege—the country as a whole, of course, but also as a private school community of the University of Dallas. It is so easy to sit back, relax and wax philosophical about instituting norms that will incentivize behaviors and structures directed toward developing a person, not simply satisfying needs.

But it’s also important that, in our gratitude for all of the blessings we receive, we do not forget those within our own communities without those same blessings: those without families, without access to robust education and with good reason to distrust authorities.

More than anything else, it’s pretty easy for me to get angry when I think that someone would put me in a box and discredit my life on the basis of skin color, gender or anything else. So I can only imagine the frustration when that goes the opposite way — and when those norms and stereotypes actively deprive or even hinder people from pursuing their own ambitions.

Like most other movements, some people take “check your privilege” way too far, and I think that’s what annoyed Tal Fortgang so much. But that doesn’t mean we should simply ignore the phrase, either.

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