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What "check your privilege" really means

Since every issue of The Tory, Princeton’s major conservative student publication, is pushed underneath my door, I tend to flip through it and scan anything that happens to catch my interest. In this particular issue, I was immediately drawn to “Checking My Privilege,” an article written by Tal Fortgang ’17. Once I got past the irrelevant, anti-liberal rhetoric — comparing the use of the phrase “check your privilege” to the descent of “an Obama-sanctioned drone” did little to help me understand Fortgang’s argument — I realized that Fortgang wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t get it.

The main umbrage Fortgang and others who share his opinion take with the phrase “check your privilege” is that they take the colloquialism personally. Fortgang’s article is reminiscent of the 2013 incident at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), where three white males criticized Professor Shannon Gibney for how she was discussing race issues in class. The students felt personally reprimanded for structural racism because of their identity as white men. However, Professor Gibney — and anyone involved in race, gender, sexuality and other identity discussions — is not directly criticizing every white male. Similarly, every white male’s accomplishments and personal family ancestry are not condemned or negated by the privilege debate. Instead, “checking” one’s privilege is meant to provide a more universal outlook and a heightened awareness of greater societal trends and stereotypes that we have each internalized.

What Fortgang does not realize is that privilege does not necessarily require being able to trace your lineage back to Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. Privilege can be independent of your family’s past, of your actual socioeconomic status, of real hardship you or your ancestors may have endured. What privilege means is being able to confidently enter any social sphere without fear of rejection. Privilege means never questioning the bias of the feedback and grading you receive from your professors or employers. Privilege means living your life free from consideration and hyper-awareness of your race, gender or sexuality.

Privilege does not, therefore, mean that you yourself have lived a life of complete affluence and comfortable apathy; it is instead possessing certain attributes or traits that are regarded as desirable — or being free from particular traits that are deemed undesirable — and that have typically allowed their possessor to live a relatively advantaged life. Whiteness and maleness are two such attributes. But even as a non-white, non-heterosexual, I am more than aware of my privilege. My family is upper-middle class, I am receiving an Ivy League education, I attended one of my state’s best public schools and I am a man. I know that although I may feel that my personal experience does not reflect it, I am in a position of privilege. Who am I to say that, had I been female, had my family lived below the poverty line,  I could have undoubtedly achieved the same standard of life with the same ease with which I did?  Unfortunately, structural discrimination does exist, and it is difficult to tease apart what aspects of my life have been affected by internalized stereotypes and circumstance.

The recognition of our privilege is critical for the achievement of the truly meritocratic system that Fortgang so idealistically alludes to in his article. Awareness of the historic disadvantages of others enlightens us to what advances are yet to be made and reminds us that institutions such as the LGBT Center, the Women’s Center and the Black Students’ Union are necessary as long as those for which they are meant to support believe them to be. We all need to “check” our privilege until the Equal Protection clause Fortgang mentions in his article truly does protect each citizen regardless of their identity.

Mitchell Hammer is a freshman from Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at mjhammer@princeton.edu.

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