COMMENTARY | Those political liberals who seek social justice are having a tough spring. First, the Supreme Court rules against overturning a Michigan referendum banning the use of race in college admissions. Just now, the Court also rules against keeping prayer out of public government assemblies. And the op-ed criticizing the concept of universal white male privilege by Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang went viral.
In the case of Tal Fortgang, the blogosphere has struck back. Briana Payton and Katie McDonough, appearing on TIME and Salon, respectively, attack Fortgang’s assertion that white male privilege is not a universal constant. McDonough, eloquently enough, goes further and calls Fortgang a “jerk.” Both women claim that Fortgang does not know what “privilege” means.
Both women are missing the point – though Fortgang may not have been correct in asserting that he is not privileged, both women are incorrect in attempting to stick to the premise that all white men are uniformly privileged…and simultaneously ignoring that groups other than white men can be privileged. While Fortgang may indeed need to “check his privilege,” the same could be said of both Payton and McDonough.
In fact, couldn’t affirmative action and “diversity initiatives” be considered privilege? Have Payton and McDonough been published in esteemed publications based entirely on their skill…or did their privilege play a role? Did both women come to this point entirely devoid of family connections, diversity initiatives, or affirmative action? Did either of these women have a female mentor in writing and publishing who wanted to help a young woman get her foot in the door?
Have either of these women been on a date where the man was expected to pay? Have either of these women be treated more leniently, particularly by law enforcement, on account of their gender? Have either of these women watched while a man did the “heavy lifting” without offering to pitch in?
Obviously, privilege is far more complex than the old “white men have all the connections” mantra. Like Fortgang, I chafe at the notion that all of us white men should “check our privilege.” Yes, I know I have been privileged in many instances. I have received many advantages in being a white male. I have also been disadvantaged due to other factors in my life. Telling me to “check my privilege” is rather offensive because it discounts these other factors and blindly assumes that my race and gender are the only two decisive factors in my achievement.
This is what Tal Fortgang is talking about. He is tired of people making assumptions based on his gender and race. He is tired of being stereotyped. Ironically, his detractors are perpetuating stereotyping, the cousin of racism and sexism, by trying to fight racism and sexism through the denunciation of universal white male privilege.
Payton and McDonough ignore their own privilege and gleefully pillory Fortgang as a whiny elitist, choosing to stereotype any white male who does not humbly accept the idea that their achievements were primarily due to institutionalized privilege. We white men are individuals, with unique struggles that involve greater or lesser amounts of privilege, and Tal Fortgang wants us to see that. Few would argue that white male privilege does not exist, but critics should think twice before insisting that it is uniform.