What Exactly Is “Privilege”?

What Exactly Is “Privilege”?

“Check Your Privilege”

I suppose you may have already seen this piece by Tal Fortgang, a Princeton undergraduate: Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.

It is rather clumsy and reads like something written by a well-read but not well-practiced undergraduate. He makes some good points, misses many more, and at times seems to not quite understand the full context of the debate he is so rashly jumping into:

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, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

However, his attempt to grapple with the nebulous concept of “privilege” got me thinking. And it got a lot of other people thinking and responding as well.

One friend shared this response, by fellow Princeton student, Morgan Jerkins: The Other Side of Privilege at Princeton. I thought it seemed like Jenkins was talking past Fortgang’s point and missing what he’s responding to. Although Jenkins says: “When talking about privilege, or lack thereof, one must persistently be aware that there is a huge difference between the individual and the collective.” Yet a few paragraphs later she says, “I agree with Fortgang when he says that simply telling someone else to “check your privilege” is insufficient without explaining why.” In other words, it is ok to tell someone to “check your privilege” as long as your explanation is sufficient. It’s fine to make it individual and personal as long as you’re wordy enough about it. She says, “no one is asking Fortgang to apologize for his privilege.” But it seems to me that the phrase “check your privilege is doing precisely that. Maybe I’m misreading him, but it seems like what his essay was saying, albeit rather clumsily, is that people were treating it as if it were individual. He was responding not to her discourse about collective privilege but to a different discourse about privilege, one that doesn’t see it as collective, but that does attack the white male and make him apologize for his lifestyle. So I think her article could just as easily have been addressed those people who say, “check your privilege” instead of aimed at Fortgang and his apologetic personal essay. It’s not that Jenkins doesn’t make some good points, it’s just that she never really responds to the key issue: is it ok to shut down conversation by telling someone to “check your privilege”? Is it ok to make it personal? Over and over again she says it’s not individual, it’s collective. But “check your privilege” makes it individual, it puts the individual in the spotlight. If you insist on putting that spotlight on someone in that way, why get angry when they respond with personal testimony?

It seems to me Fortgang wants to be seen as an individual, not a member of the class of “privileged white male”. It’s what we all want. So I just don’t see why someone loses the right to his story just because he belongs to a certain class of people.

Then another friend shared this article with me yesterday: The Origins of “Privilege”. It’s a very interesting piece., satisfactory in a way that Jenkins’ was not because it delved into origins and didn’t directly confront Fortgang’s piece.

It’s also interesting to me that one of McIntosh’s examples of white privilege is: “No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” And yet ironically the discourse of privilege is creating the situation where white people are being made to speak for all the people in their “racial group.” When he is told to “check his privilege” Fortgang is being made to speak for all white males.

I also liked this: “The key thing is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other. ” And yet letting people testify to their own experience is precisely what Jenkins seems to object to if the person is a white man who hasn’t properly absorbed the lesson that Jenkins wants to teach him. Fortgang’s testimony isn’t welcome. She doesn’t want to hear it. This is why I have a problem with the way the term “privilege” is used, it shuts down individual testimony when that testimony comes from a white. (It reminds me rather of this article Here’s why women have turned the “not all men” objection into a meme. It seems to me that what the “not all men” comment is really objecting to is sweeping generalizations. If feminists truly wanted to forestall that objection instead of ignoring the kernel of truth in it, they could try to temper their important feminist conversations by avoiding making statements that need qualification. But if the objection is raised by a man it’s automatically discounted because he’s a man and his voice is too intrusive and powerful and his aim must be “shutting down the conversation.”)

I think it’s one thing to point out systematic and institutional issues of privilege and even to invite people to investigate their own privilege or lack thereof, and completely a different thing to use the notion of “privilege” as a bludgeon to attack or belittle an individual or to dismiss his point of view or refuse to allow him to contribute to the discussion or to take part in the intellectual life of the university because of his so-called “privilege”. Because the real problem in terms of individual engagement is relationship and by dismissing someone and shutting them out of the conversation, you shut down any possibility of having a relationship with them. That’s the problem with telling someone to “check his privilege.” You’re treating him not as a person but as a thing, an object, an idea, an icon of the system. And as Terry Pratchett so aptly says, the root of all sin is treating people as things (See Elizabeth Scalia’s excellent piece Terry Pratchett and the Thing of Sin.)

And that’s why I find this second piece so much more appealing: her starting point is precisely wondering why the relationships are breaking down over this issue of privilege. Her whole approach seems to be trying to bridge those gaps between people, to help them understand each other. And hopefully the end result will be that “privilege” doesn’t divide us and blind us to the other person’s point of view but instead lets us truly listen to the other person’s experience. And I felt that’s what Fortgang’s piece was trying to do: to testify to his own experience. It’s sad that instead of opening doors and building bridges the discourse of “privilege” has merely turned the problem on it’s head and is being used to exclude white males. People are so entrenched in the ideology of privilege that they cannot listen and understand the testimony of white males whose personal experiences are being discounted. I don’t think we should ever dismiss anyone’s personal testimony, either that of the underprivileged and marginalized of of those who are in seats of power and authority.

Honest intellectual inquiry should be just as ready to listen to a white man as a black woman because each is an individual, with individual experiences. Neither can be reduced to membership in a class or category. Moreover, both are made in the image and likeness of God. When the idea of “privilege” becomes a road block that prevents you from seeing the humanity of the person next to you, then I think it has outlived whatever usefulness it once had as an intellectual category. When “privilege” leads anyone to treat another person as a token to score points off of, then it has deprived both people of their humanity.

So please tell me what I’m failing to understand. Tell me how my own white privilege is blinding me to what Jenkins is really trying to say and why Fortgang is so very, very wrong to share his story in this context. Sorry, I just don’t get it.

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  • In reference to “not all men”, I’ve only ever experienced it as a rebuttal to a specific complaint about about a specific man. It’s “check your privilege” in reverse, moving away from the individual”, although it’s certainly not as wholly bad as “check your privlege”.

  • I like this. I have not read the two pieces on “privilege,” but I agree wholeheartedly with your take on the “not all men” piece. While condemning the “random man” who says “not all men” for shutting down the conversation, those who take that position are setting up a deliberately exclusionary discourse that does not admit anyone who is not from–I have to say–the special interest group that is being privileged in the particular discourse. Because every argument has the potential to set up its own scenario of privilege–“you can’t talk about this with authority because you’re a [fill in blank].” It’s a silencing–a sort of rhetorical revenge.

    As for the “check your privilege” conversation, I think defining “privilege” in terms of maleness and/or whiteness is always problematic 1) because you are blaming something for their genetics. If this isn’t essentialism, I’m not sure what it is. And 2) because that’s not the whole story. Socioeconomics are HUGE factors, as well as education, parents’ education, and even the region in whcih someone grew up. There’s an old feminist slogan – “the personal is political.” Perhaps it needs to be trotted out again? We are, we are told, more than our race and gender. And yet, that only works for non-white, non-males? No, I absolutely reject that idea. Unfortunately, it is a political stance, and so is not a matter for logic and persuasion.

    • Thank you. When I write about feminist discourse I always feel like I’m going out on a limb. And yet these pieces were driving me crazy. I had to write about them to sort through my thoughts.

  • Additional thought clarification: it strikes me that what’s wrong with the rhetoric of privilege is that it exists within a secularist framework that denies both the existence of sin and the idea of man as imago dei. Thus it attributes evil to social and cultural structures and people are not judged by their words or deeds but on their membership in a particular group. So as long as you belong to the right group, the “underprivileged” you can do or say anything you want and you are always right. There is no personal sin or culpability in that worldview, only the proper political and ideological orientation.

    • Absolutely right, Melanie. Unfortunately, discussing or arguing about these issues in a rational manner becomes impossible because the point of bringing up “white privilege” is to condemn groups, men and women alike, to silence because they are part of the intrinsical Evil oppressors. Since the late 1960’s we have had affirmative action to mitigate those privileges. No one mentions the discrimination against white males that has gone on for four+ decades — penalizing young men who had no part in the privilege in the first place. Especially ethnic Catholics or Jews who were also routinely shut out of the bastions of WASP privilege — I know this first hand because I am in my 70’s and lived it. It was the understood norm of the time. It is the reason so many Catholics and Jews became doctors and lawyers. They could control their destinies outside the corporate structure that shut them out of the executive suite.