[full text of the article in question]
Intro paragraph: Unnecessary cheap shot at Obama…pointless reference most of your audience won’t get that you threw in there just to sound ‘Princetonian’…oh lawd, we haven’t even finished the first paragraph and you’re equating checking one’s privilege to being apologetic. I’m not sure I can get all the way through this.
…And the second paragraph starts right off with a casual reference to reverse racism, as if that were a thing.
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
*Hint: racism is a system of power, and as such marginalized persons cannot, by definition, be racists.* Lol none of your accomplishments are purely personal. Literally no one’s accomplishments are purely personal. “The seeds you sow” are planted in a field your family has been cultivating for years, and I’m guessing they had some help somewhere along the way, if from nothing else than an economic system that wasn’t built upon their unpaid labor and a social system that wasn’t built upon their fundamental exclusion from public spaces and public assistance. But of course you won’t recognize those things, because you’re laughing off the “very idea” that “our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.”
…I can’t tell if this 3rd paragraph is a glimmer of hope or if the sarcasm just isn’t coming through as well as it could on paper. *continues reading with extremely cautious optimism*
…I put too much faith in strangers on the internet.
Because I am in a hotel room in Stony Creek, Virginia and have literally nothing else to be doing right now, I’m going to take the time to break this down for this person, because these are the things I spent my time at our shared University learning to understand.
The word “privileged” does not mean that no hardships have ever befallen you or your kin. It doesn’t mean that you’ve never been the victim of violence for some inherent characteristic about you, be it your race, your religion, your sexual orientation, or whatever. Privileges exist along literally every social characteristic that a person possesses, so the vast majority of human beings in this world are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. Being told to “check your privilege” in regards to a certain statement you’ve made does not entail that the person who told you to do so thinks that you and all your ancestors have floated down on a fluffy cloud of privilege through history. Rather, being told to “check your privilege” is simply today’s shorthand for telling you that there are alternative perspectives than your own that your previous statement(s) or action(s) suggest an unjust level of disregard concerning.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I would like to take a moment to recognize the significance of the atrocities your grandparents faced during the Holocaust, as well as the struggle they endured after emigrating to the United States. Those are real and valid and should not be glossed over…
…but they don’t erase your privilege. See, the thing about privilege is it’s rooted in those “invisible forces” you called “stigmas” and “societal norms” complete with the scare quotes. You are certainly correct in saying that coming from a family whose history includes physically and psychologically violent religious persecution is not a privilege. But that’s about the last place I can agree with you, because your personal history then continues:
“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…”
Pause. My Spidey sense is tingling. Fun fact: emigrating to the United states and being able to obtain US citizenship—and then exercise your rights as a US citizen—were, in fact, privileges that only people of certain racial categories had access to in the 1930s.
“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.”
A more radical version of me might call “Jewish day school” a privilege in and of itself in the same country that literally beat my ancestors’ ethnic heritage out of their systems, but I digress on that point. Rather, I will note that emigrating to the United States guaranteed your grandparents the safety and protection of the US government after the atrocities in Nazi Germany, while the grandparents of people who look like me were being purposefully injected with syphilis courtesy of the US Public Health Service’s experiments at the Tuskegee Institute. Also, I’m glad you mentioned that your father and aunts and uncles were all able to attend City College, a university that didn’t have an open admissions policy aimed at racial and ethnic integration until 1970; while your father and his siblings were able to attend City College, my father would have been turned away simply due to the color of his skin. That is the definition of systemic privilege—an ability one person has over another person due to some inherent and unalterable characteristic around which society as a whole or some particular social institution, such as higher education, is constructed.
Having privilege doesn’t mean no one in your family worked a day in his life. It doesn’t mean that you’ve never had to make sacrifices. It doesn’t mean that your achievements “aren’t real.” It means that those little invisible social forces gave you and yours a helping hand somewhere along the way, sometimes in really obvious ways like racially discriminatory admissions policies. Sometimes, though, this helping hand is more covert: for instance, I assume that this wicker-basket making business that your grandfather ran was run out of some sort of storefront, no? In that case, I would call it a privilege that he didn’t have to fight to hold that space in something like Harlem’s Real Estate Race War, and that it wasn’t looted and burned down because a man like him had more wealth and prestige than the men who were used to being in power, like happened to Black entrepreneurs in Greenwood, a neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The means of successful entrepreneurship in this country have always been linked to having been born on the right side of a racist society. For a second example, check out Princeton professor Devah Pager’s book Marked, which details how business owners, who are overwhelmingly white males due to the history we just discussed, are more likely to hire whites with a criminal record than people of other races with a clean background; chances are, the color of your father’s skin helped him get that good job he’s been working hard at for the past 25 years.
Thus, I find your summarizing argument that
“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. Assuming [the people you call privileged have] benefitted from “power systems” or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they’ve done, things of which you may not even conceive. You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still conquering them now.”
to be fundamentally flawed. One should never assume one understand the details of another’s narrative, true, but I think you’re missing the point of the multifaceted structure that is social privilege. I don’t need to know your whole family history to know that there are ways in which the social institutions that determine quality of life in this country have favored people whose identity categories align with many of yours. And when I, or anyone else, asks you to check your privilege, we aren’t asking for an apology. The simplest way I can explain this to you is that we’re asking you to recognize that everything that happens in your life is influenced by what happened in the lives of your parents, your parents’ parents, and your peers’ parents, and their parents’ parents, which means that, historically speaking, the ability to work hard and have that hard work turn into sustainable capital gains that increase your family’s quality of life and educational opportunity is, in and of itself, a privilege.