Checking Privilege Checking

Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang was right that "privilege" is a problem, but not about why.
Students stroll across Princeton University's campus. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Poor Tal Fortgang. (Well, perhaps “poor” isn’t the right word.) Not long ago, the Princeton freshman’s white male privilege was known only to those in his life. Then he published an essay about this privilege in a conservative student publication, arguing that because his ancestors had struggled, he personally doesn’t benefit from unearned advantage. If he’s not privileged, no one should be asking him to check his privilege, right? After all, some of his advantage was earned; he just doesn’t happen to be the one who earned it.

Because “privilege” is clickbait, Fortgang’s piece made the rounds, culminating in the New York Times interviewing his classmates about his privilege and whether he had, in fact, checked it. The consensus is that he did not. Fortgang’s privilege has now been checked not only by his classmates and Facebook friends but by the entire Internet.

While privilege is nothing new, the term “privilege” is everywhere in post-recession America, not just on college campuses. The ideas of Peggy “Invisible Knapsack” McIntosh and Pierre “Cultural Capital” Bourdieu have trickled into the culture. Whatever “privilege” consists of in a given conversation—wealth and whiteness? Familiarity with kale?—no one wants to own theirs. And for good reason: “Privilege” isn't merely unearned advantage—it implies entitlement. To say that someone “comes across as privileged” is to call that person clueless and insensitive. It may not even be logically possible to admit to privilege, if we’re defining “privilege” as advantage about which one is unaware.

Fortgang’s is only the latest in a string of “privilege” controversies. Some, like his, have involved young adults with no prior notoriety writing tone-deaf items that ended up reaching the large audiences social media makes possible. Others, meanwhile, have dealt with the more famous: Advice columnist Dan Savage, with his “cisgender, able-bodied, thin privileged, class privileged, white male body,” comes to mind, as does fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson, whose middle-class Midwestern childhood wasn’t scrappy enough for some Jezebel commenters. But the prime example has to be Lena Dunham who, though not all that privileged by show-business standards, has become our cultural stand-in for the phenomenon.

Even President Obama had his moment in the privilege limelight, when Rick Perry announced that Obama “grew up in a privileged way.” As this suggests, to stand accused of privilege, one need not actually possess the form of privilege in question. To call someone “privileged” is to say that his or her successes are undeserved. It’s a personal insult posing as social critique.

Fortgang, then, was right that “privilege” is a problem, but wrong about why. (He was also wrong about it being an argument specific to the left—see Charles Murray and the “bubble” quiz, or Ross Douthat's recent column about college debauchery.) Yes, Fortgang comes across as oblivious, as college freshman used to do more discreetly, before student op-eds went viral. And yes, privilege theory—that is, the term as applied to society, not individuals—is quite useful. All things equal, the rich, white, male, and so forth have it easier than others, and do well to remember this. But has “check your privilege” educated Fortgang, or anyone else? 

Use of the term “privilege” has, I’d argue, actually set back the cultural conversation about privilege. It's not just that “privilege,” when used as an accusation, silences. It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room. Thus we've arrived at “blessed,” but also the “first-world problems” disclaimer. The goal of both is to appear self-aware and grateful, rather than to challenge the unfairness that led to whichever unearned advantage.

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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