When I read Tal Fortgang’s article in The Princeton Tory (a publication that is bankrolled by a wealthy non-profit dedicated to grooming young Conservative leaders), where he now famously stated that he has no need to apologize for having privilege as a White male, I wasn’t surprised. However, after seeing him on Fox and reading his article republished by Time, I, like the rest of the Black community at Princeton, started to grow more incensed. As a graduating senior who has been at this institution longer than he has, I’ve grown tired of being afraid as a Black woman to talk about privilege within this ivy-covered bubble and have decided to respond.
When talking about privilege, or lack thereof, one must persistently be aware that there is a huge difference between the individual and the collective. I learned this distinction the hard way. Two years ago, I was accepted as an opinion writer for The Daily Princetonian. At the time, I was the only Black woman on staff. In my first opinion article, I argued that Princeton University’s creative writing programs should change its selective, application-only admissions to a more inclusive open enrollment that welcomed all interested students. The first comment on my piece was submitted by an anonymous individual who said that I should’ve been rejected from Princeton because the university doesn’t need any more “whiny Black girls.” It took the moderator several hours to delete the comment even though my supporters bombarded him with emails about the vitriol. My picture was not next to my article, only my name. Not once did I mention race or gender in the article. Yet, for the offense of expressing my opinions on a subject, my racial and gender identity were ridiculed. It was then that I realized that while I may be an individual, I am a part of a larger social category—Black women. Because of this identity, some of my peers believe that I don’t belong and refuse to listen to my voice.
There are unique challenges that come with being a Black woman on any predominately White college campus, but Princeton’s environment makes the experience particularly distinctive. I have to make sure I never raise my voice too loudly in precept (smaller meetings of lecture classes) when talking about race in order to not upset white classmates. In fact, according to a Wharton study, university professors favor white males over women and/or minorities for mentoring. If I speak with passion in my voice, the person to whom I’m speaking may snap his fingers, roll his neck around, and say in a exaggerated, stereotypical tone, “Na-uh girlfriend!” We have to rationalize when we have campaigns like “I, Too, Am Princeton” because our own roommates don’t believe that these projects are necessary because racism doesn’t exist on campus. Telling a Black student to know his or her place is common here. I would be remiss if I did not mention the few Black male students who are constantly interrogated by campus security for being in the mathematics building after hours when they are members of the department. It’s not easy being Black here. Ask First Lady Michelle Obama, who did not come back for her 25th year reunion—something a number of graduates like us opt out of.
I agree with Fortgang when he says that simply telling someone else to “check your privilege” is insufficient without explaining why. Allow me to broaden the discourse, from one Princetonian to another. Very few people would ever refer to Fortgang as a whiny, White man for his article in the Tory. In fact, there are countless commentators (and Princeton students) who agree with his point. That discrepancy in and of itself is a privilege. You can profess your beliefs openly without someone condemning for things you cannot change about yourself, such as race and gender. Furthermore, no one uses these intersections to prove that you don’t belong at a traditionally all-White institution. People like Tal Fortgang can walk around Princeton (and many other spaces) with the perception that whatever they are deserving because achieve is by their own individual effort. On the other hand, people like myself are constantly told that we are underserving for having arrived at elite places like Princeton through affirmative action only and not by our own efforts. For this reason, Fortgang and others assert that they should not and will not apologize for their privilege.
However, no one is asking Fortgang to apologize for his privilege. He didn’t make the decision to be born White and male, just like I didn’t make the decision to be born Black and female. That’s just the way that it is. Privilege does not mean that your fate is sealed, so to speak, and nothing you do deserves merit. What privilege entails is that you are the benefactor of a system that makes certain opportunities easier to attain, like holding high positions in companies and stating your opinion on national platforms without receiving racial slurs.
When one brings up a personal story in order to exonerate himself from guilt, it is nothing more than deflection. Privilege is not an individual issue but a systemic one, and that is where Fortgang’s argument falls apart. No one is discrediting his story about his family fleeing Poland and coming to America because it is inspirational within its own context. Struggle is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Trying to say that people seek divisions of White or Black, male or female is the equivalent of walking through this world with a blindfold. Others do not seek out these divisions. The divisions precede us by many centuries and they matter deeply in our current moment. Again, privilege is not about the individual; it’s about the collective.
Therein lies another privilege within his argument: comfort. Fortgang has the ability to navigate his world believing that he can attain whatever he wants through values like faith and education because he has the freedom, in a sense, to do so. He doesn’t have to worry about things like racial profiling or unequal pay between the sexes because in both of these two cases, he is either exempt or the one who receives the benefits with the system that is currently in place.
No one is asking a privileged person to apologize for his or her lifestyle. You don’t need to grab a picket and sign and protest somewhere. All we ask is for you to be aware that not everyone has the same experiences as you. We aren’t whining or making up excuses for pity. It’s just the reality of the world. When Fortgang speaks of altruism and self-sacrifice as values that are deemed as privilege, these are abstractions. We are talking about human beings. There are those who have these characteristics and still face a tougher time trying to secure the same opportunities as Fortgang. If it were as easy as having a kind and good-natured character, then the Stop and Frisk law would not have been in place or there would not have been a ban on affirmative action by the Supreme Court in Michigan. We all have eyes. Open yours and realize that privilege isn’t just about you. You as well as everyone else are a part of a larger unit within a system that either works for or against you. It pervades our entire existence. You have the comfort of being known by name while others have been constantly aware of their color as a means of subjugation. So no, don’t check your privilege. Learn what it means first before you assess.