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On privilege

Around the time when sophomores were supposed to begin declaring their majors, I was talking to a female student at dinner about a friend of mine who was seriously considering Classics as his department of choice. He had taken classes in the department and excelled within this incredibly intellectual field of study. In consideration of the “white privilege” conversation that has been circulating, I will say that my friend is a white, heterosexual male from a fairly well off background — a legacy no less — but keep in mind that the student at dinner didn’t know that. Despite knowing nothing about my friend’s background except for his race and gender, as well as making false assumptions regarding the difficulty of certain humanities departments such as Classics, the girl at dinner said “it’s probably because he can afford to be a Classics major.” And I wondered what this meant.

Recently, Tal Fortgang ’17 wrote about his experience with “white privilege”  in The Princeton Tory, specifically elaborating on the phrase “check your privilege” when used in conversation. While I enjoyed the writing and felt my heartstrings pulled by the intimate stories of his family’s struggle in order to achieve what they now have, I didn’t feel particularly compelled by his argument, though I did feel sorry for the circumstances that led him to write this article.

Firstly, I agree with columnist Mitchell Hammer ’17 that “privilege can be independent of your family’s past … [or] of real hardship you or your ancestors may have endured.” Suppose I, too, believed Fortgang to have white privilege. I wouldn’t have been convinced by his recounting of his family’s narrative because he didn’t personally overcome those challenges; he heard about them, just as any of us would listen and internalize the stories our parents would tell us. Personally, my parents grappled with difficult financial states during their college years, taking on a variety of odd jobs and working ridiculous hours just to pay their college tuitions during a time when financial aid wasn’t so good for international students. However, their struggle just “to get by” never really fueled my understanding of what it means to have to count dollar by dollar how much I make during a part-time job. I nonetheless feel privileged in spite of and separate from my parents’ experience and I don’t believe that a retelling of their life stories would or should persuade a peer that I know anything about what it’s like to not be privileged.

However, I disagree with Hammer’s statement that privilege is “living your life free from consideration and hyper-awareness of your race, gender or sexuality.” “White privilege” in itself makes the target hyper-aware of his identity as a white, heterosexual male and in itself almost seems to try to make these characteristics shameful. In the case of my conversation with the girl at dinner, had I told her that I was planning to become a Classics major, I’m almost positive she wouldn’t have thought that “I could afford to do that,” as easily as she had thought that about my friend. She might have assumed many things, including that I might just be good at Classics and that this was a risk worth it for me to take. But why can’t my friend just be good at Classics? Why does the consideration of his race, gender and sexuality — and especially the supposed “safety net” of his family’s socioeconomic background — automatically overshadow his merit, abilities and choices as a student? Phrases such as “white privilege” force unfair baggage upon students of the identity in consideration, delegitimizing their experiences without regard for their actual narratives.

Frankly, I was surprised when Fortgang’s article came out and somewhat disappointed that our campus had made him feel the need to expose his family’s wounds in order to make a point. Could it be that discourse on campus has become so careless and judgmental that comments such as “check your privilege” manage to push a student such as Fortgang into a domain in which he feels the need to research his family’s misfortunes and present them to his peers in order for them to consider him in conversation? While qualifications of each speaker matter in a debate, sometimes certain characteristics of the speaker such as white, heterosexual or male shouldn’t have a weight in comparison with the strength and quality of his argument. After all, if they did, then this could hardly be the intellectual and open sphere of academic dialogue that most of us signed up for when we decided to come to Princeton.

Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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