I was at a progressive political event recently and got into a conversation with a young white man who had been thrown off by a presenter’s comment about white male privilege. “I don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said (a whole other issue to examine), and he couldn’t grasp the idea that he had any special privilege. I reached into the handy invisible knapsack to gently point out some ways he probably never thought about how he and I have an easier time than people of color in this country. I told him that in my view, the point of examining privilege is not to get paralyzed by guilt, but to understand these systems so we can work to change them. I don’t know what he took away from that conversation, but hopefully like many of us he can process it over time and challenge himself to learn more. But his visible discomfort with the topic points to some of the challenges and misunderstandings about privilege and why we talk about it.
That fraught conversation is in the news thanks to an obnoxious piece by Princeton student Tal Fortgang about how he’ll never apologize for his privilege. As Mychal Denzel Smith points out, apologizing is hardly the point:
Fortgang’s essay is part of the reason you can count me among the camp that believes we should spend less time discussing privilege. It’s not that it’s not a useful concept. There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. But the discussion has its limitations.
This paragraph from Fortgang is a prime example:
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.
I understand Smith’s frustration with trying to take on this topic given this typically defensive approach. But as challenging as it is, discussions of privilege (white, male, heterosexual and otherwise) add an important layer of understanding when looking at structural discrimination in this country. It’s one thing to recognize that other people are treated poorly, another to recognize the flip side of that equation.
It’s misunderstanding of privilege that results in phrases like “reverse discrimination.” It creates an environment where white Americans actually think racism against them is a bigger problem than racism against black people. A black person could throw whatever anti-white hatred at me she wanted to, but I could still knock on a door at night without much fear that I would be shot on sight. I can emasculate men with my feminist rantings, but that won’t change the fact that women get paid 77 cents to the dollar that men make. Individual discrimination, real or perceived, can be unpleasant, but it lacks the same punch as discrimination backed by institutional power.
Getting past the natural defensiveness to a useful conversation about privilege is challenging, but it’s important work. As Smith points out, talk about privilege isn’t meant as an attack, it’s a “wake-up call to action.”