COMMENTARY | Race is back in the news cycle, as it is frequently, in the aftermath of Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy and the Supreme Court decision on Michigan’s referendum to ban the use of race in college admissions and our constant worrying about high school graduation rates and standardized test scores and “education gaps.” One bit of blog that has made it to the mainstream news cycle has been a feisty op-ed from a Princeton University freshman, who wrote in the student newspaper that he was tired of being told to “check his privilege.” According to TIME, the viral op-ed remains atop its list of most popular reads as of the morning of May 3, 2014.
Evidently unhappy with constantly being lumped in with the undoubted hordes of spoiled rich white young men of Princeton, the writer explained how he was far from a silver spoon scion. His grandparents had survived the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, immigrating to America with few resources and no knowledge of English, and his parents had toiled to exhaustion in unglamorous industries to chase down the elusive “American dream.” Many readers cheered the young man, exemplifying him as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” middle-class hero.
Others argued that the young man did not understand the concept of “privilege,” which meant that his mere status as a white man meant he was advantaged.
Who is correct? Both sides, obviously. Yes, the writer should be lauded for achieving success more through grit and gumption than gold-plated family connections. Yes, he does receive some “privilege” from his white skin and his male gender.
But his critics are guilty of lying by omission for refusing to acknowledge that other societal groups also have “privilege.” Many women and minorities have ample privilege, often eclipsing that of the average white male.
Many non-achievable statuses in society are privileged, ranging from height to physical attractiveness to family connections and history to statuses desired for the means of achieving diversity. A tall, handsome black man who has lots of well-to-do family in the surrounding area is quite privileged. Achievement will be easy for him. He is desirable to many friends, potential mates, and employers. Like the stereotypical privileged white man, he has done nothing to achieve these statuses: Fate and genetics have blessed him. The situation is the same for any racial, ethnic, or religious minority male – height, physical attractiveness, family connections, and society’s desire for diversity grant privilege.
For women, physical attractiveness and family connections also grant privilege. Instead of height, however, weight and body type are more prevalent in determining privilege. Obviously, a genetically-blessed woman who lives near lots of wealthy family members, regardless of her race or religion, is very advantaged. Again, due to society’s desire for diversity, her achievement will be easier.
Blindly assuming that all white men, regardless of height, physical attractiveness, closeness to family, or family history are sufficiently privileged is grossly misguided. It ignores the societal preference for diversity, which advantages many women and minorities, and assumes that all white men are a monolithic, unified group. Just as women and minorities would be offended to be considered uniform and perfectly substitutable entities, white men should not be expected to accept the notion that they are all sufficiently privileged.
Yes, many white men are exceptionally privileged. But many are not. And many individuals who sneer at white male privilege are likely quite privileged themselves by virtue of genetics, fate, and society’s politically-correct desire for diversity.
Perhaps we should all “check our privilege” before complaining about how others are advantaged.