Ever since the ink dried on the idea that maybe, just maybe that America's non-majority members have been getting a bit of a raw deal from their culturally hegemonic counterparts, there's been a major degree of pushback. Most noticeable is the pushback against white Americans not only coming face-to-face with their own privilege, but also the feeling that they're being made to apologize profusely for it at gunpoint.
And that's where young, bright-eyed Princeton student Tal Fortgang comes in. In a recent Time article, he laments the assumption that he, as a young white male in a society where being a white male is widely considered "de rigueur," benefits from such a privilege. To counteract said assumptions, he outlines the various struggles his family endured in order to attain their very own piece of the American Dream for themselves and their offspring:
Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.Tal Fortgang: good kid, great head on his shoulders, but he's a Star Wars stormtrooper shooting at Jedi here. The kid is missing the point, but how? Well, let's start with what wheatdogg over at Little Green Footballs has to say about it:
Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential. Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?
All right, Tal Fortgang, you’re a clever lad, and a credit to my alma mater. You make some good points, noting that your immigrant grandparents fled the Nazis, and that a working class Jewish kid does not neatly fit in the “white male privilege” cohort.One of the interesting things about white privilege is that it all depends on outward appearance, at least up to a point. This explains why your average Appalachian can only dream of leaving his or her Eastern Kentucky confines to purchase their own vacation getaway estate on Cape Cod or schmooze with the likes of
I get that your father’s parents and your parents did not come from money, and your being at Princeton is a testament to their hard work and your presumed intelligence. In that, you and I are a lot alike.
But, holy shit, Tal Fortgang, you are still clueless. Before 1950 or so, Jews were not even admitted to Princeton. You’d be singing a different song if you had applied back in 1914.
And despite the lofty prose of this excerpt, the opportunity to claw one’s way up the social ladder still depends on your gender, your skin color and your mother tongue. You are committing the same sin of over-generalization as those who lump you in the “white male privilege” group by virtue of your pale skin.
Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild and company. Nevertheless, it's also why a man of color still gets odd looks whenever he attempts to integrate himself into the white collective. Getting the "swarth" out of the Italian or the "unruly papist" out of the Irish is one thing, but no one's quite figured out how to get the "negro" out of a Negro without sufficiently sullying the collective's pristine appearance.
Tal is understandably fed up with being lumped in a group by virtue of his outward appearance. Scores of young black men would likely sympathize with him on that particular account. But at the end of the day, Tal remains the right shade in a land where being the right shade lends you a far greater amount of slack and far less scrutiny than being a highly-visible outlier. It's this fact that goes sailing over Tal's head as he goes further into detail:
That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are. Assuming they’ve benefitted from “power systems” or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they’ve done, things of which you may not even conceive. You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still be conquering them now.One can only assume the bolded is supposed to be a dig against black American claims of the system being institutionally predisposed to retaining men and women of color at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. The remainder of the message serves to remind these same folks that there are plenty of whites around who don't truck with that "white privilege" mess and have even laid their lives down in defense of freedom and civil rights.
But the fact that Tal can easily shed his Jewish vestments and effortlessly blend into the bland background that makes up most of American society is utterly lost on him. This literal "fade to white" ability helps when it comes to snagging various opportunities that those without it have to fight tooth and nail to get.
Speaking of which, it reminds me of a story someone told me of how some black Americans had to make their fortune during the heyday of Jim Crow: "you have to sneak by them." And many black Americans have had to "sneak by" people and institutions that would have denuded them of their wealth and livelihoods if given half the chance. Tal's grandparents may have had to sneak by the Waffen-SS to survive, but at least they didn't have to sneak by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement officials interested in convict leasing once they got here.
To recap, Tal Fortgang makes several critical mistakes in his piece:
- Assuming that everyone wants him to prostrate himself in apology over white privilege as opposed to simply recognizing that it's there and being conscious of it.
- Assuming that people want him to apologize for being white, period.
- Co-opting the struggles of his grandparents as his own in an attempt to deflect accusations of enjoying white privilege.
- Ignoring his own privilege of being in a highly selective university, especially one where a broad range of doors tend to effortlessly open for its graduates. Being a Princeton student and a future Princeton grad already gives him a tremendous leg up. As mentioned earlier, it's a different level of privilege that recognizes money, lineage and of course, where you went to college.