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Check Your Privilege, Princeton Tory

Scot Nakagawa: The fact that many struggled to win the privileges we enjoy doesn’t make those privileges just and right. Privileges never are just and right in a truly democratic society.

Twitter was abuzz with banter yesterday concerning Time magazine’s re-post of a Princeton Tory diatribe by student Tal Fortgang, entitled Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.

I checked it out and quickly understood why. Tal begins,

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

After this less than promising start – something along the lines of starting a speech with the phrase, “let me tell you something else I know about the Negro…” – Fortgang shares the story of his Jewish grandparents who (just barely) survived the Holocaust before seeking refuge in the U.S. where they sacrificed greatly in order to provide a better life for future generations. And then Tal drops the bomb, adding,

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living…

That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are…

Yup. That’s what he said.

I know many probably think that Tal’s seeming failure to understand the obvious distortion of the dynamics of privilege he committed here should be chalked up to the fact that he’s just twenty. However, The Princeton Tory is a paper that means to cultivate right wing voices in political media, and this isn’t Tal’s first time at bat for them. The guy has an agenda.

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So, I’m going there. Here’s where you failed, Tal. I get that your grandparents made great sacrifices in their lives. Mine did, too. I won’t get into the details, but they suffered and sacrificed, believe me. My grandmother immigrated under difficult circumstances only to find that she would spend most of her adult life working under a man carrying a whip. And that’s just when she was in the fields cutting cane. She also had seven children who needed to be clothed and fed, and a husband who expected dinner on the table on time, no excuses (which, by the way, she might tell you was a powerful, life-defining exercise of male privilege on the part of someone who spent his entire adult life in a labor camp).

But our families made those sacrifices to provide opportunity for us. Those opportunities were privileges they passed on to us that not everyone else has (if you check out the dictionary, you will find that the fact that some are excluded is part of what makes them privileges), and for reasons your story tries to obscure, I believe, intentionally.

The fact that many struggled to win the privileges we enjoy doesn’t make those privileges just and right. Privileges never are just and right in a truly democratic society. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’ve got on our hands, now, is it?

Others struggled as well, and against great odds, including the Middle Passage, peonage, slavery, a plague of lynching, Jim Crow, a horror of medical experimentation, and ordinary racism and discrimination, without yielding so much of a scant chance for their children. The difference in the yield on our grandparents’ investment in America that we’ve benefited by, compared with the benefit to African Americans of their grandparents’ labors three generations after slavery (which, by the way, went on for more than three generations) is like the difference between immigration and abduction, and let’s not forget that slaves and contract laborers like my grandmother worked land that was taken from others through genocidal conquest.

Our grandparents labored, but under a different set of circumstances and a different code of law than those of African Americans. But then, you know that. You also know that the worst experiences of mass persecution Jews and East Asians faced in the last century started to dissipate in the U.S. right about the time your grandparents immigrated here, and in no small part as a result of the war against fascism in Europe that ended the holocaust your grandparents survived. That’s not to suggest that anti-Asian racism and antisemitism aren’t a continuing part of our contemporary reality, but we’re not being targeted for state sanctioned persecution in the U.S. today. Check out some history classes at Princeton when you get a chance, Tal. You might learn something.

But state imposed persecution and discrimination persisted for African Americans via Jim Crow and continues under an unjust tough on crime regime and myriad other federal and state policies. And for Native Americans, whose posterity, for many, is dependent on the chances they can create on what started out as concentration camps, mass persecution is also a continuing reality. But you’re hoping the story of your grandparents’ noble sacrifice will obscure all of that.

I’ve worked very hard to create the opportunities I’ve had. Along the way, I had to sacrifice a lot – living in warehouse squats, skipping meals, forgoing dental care for almost 20 years, and winging it without medical insurance or the benefit of being able to see a doctor when I was sick for about ten – but the benefit associated with every sacrifice I’ve made was amplified by the privileges my elders won for me. That’s why I acknowledge those privileges. My family struggled on my behalf. They didn’t come cheap.

scot nakagawa

Given all that your family went through, I’d think you would want to do that, too. But what you’ve done here does nothing to honor the price our immigrant grandparents paid. In fact, it belittles it by turning it into a political weapon.

Nice try, but we aren’t buying it. Good luck with your future in political punditry.

Scot Nakagawa
Race Files