Dear Mr. Fortang,
I am writing you today because of your column that was posted in the Princeton Tory titled, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.” Your article has drawn a lot of attention across the internet, and I am sure that it has sparked quite a bit of discussion at Princeton. I am an American. I appreciate every person’s right to freedom of speech, and I believe that your article sparks much needed conversation. However, I do not believe that much of what you had to say was constructive, helpful or correct.
Before I go into the reasons why I believe your article is incorrect and misguided, I would like to tell you about myself. I am a cisgender, straight, white male from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I, too, am Jewish. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side escaped the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Tsarist government was overthrown. Both sides of my mother’s family immigrated to America from foreign countries, one side from Russia, the other from Israel. I, too, had ancestors in the Holocaust. My mother, born in a Jewish community in Detroit, Michigan, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where she faced anti-semitism at a tender age. Friends she made during school hours suddenly considered her an evil alien once the bell rang. Parents would not let her come over for sleepovers, she wasn’t allowed in their houses. This, on top of being Jewish in a town considered the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” was enough to shape her conceptions of herself.
My father immigrated to America from Ireland in the first decade of his life, around the age of six. The very first thing he saw in America was the Statue of Liberty. He moved to Oklahoma after his father, my grandfather, was offered a position to run the newly founded Eastern Oklahoma Psychiatric Hospital. My grandfather was the first foreign-born doctor to practice medicine in the state of Oklahoma, my grandmother was the second; both were psychiatrists. My grandfather was raised on dirt floors in the boggy mud of Ireland, England’s original colony. He survived parochial schools, Nazi prisoner of war camps, and medical school – twice. My great grandparents bet the farm on my grandfather, doing whatever it took to pay his tuition at boarding school, which came as a great sacrifice to his other siblings, one even dying of starvation. My father, an off-the-boat immigrant himself, quickly realized the anti-Irish sentiment that Okies held. Children made fun of his accent, and now he has a deep Okie drawl, no trace of his ancestry to be found.
Since you so kindly shared your story, I thought it was important to share mine. Here’s the thing though, this isn’t my story. This is my mother’s story, my father’s story, my grandparent’s story. I had no part in my great grandfather’s pluck in escaping a communist overthrow, nor did I share my grandmother’s ambition to be a doctor during a time when females were expected to be in the home. I contributed no effort, no sacrifice, no sweat, but I profit from all of the tears my ancestor’s shed. You do too.
And since my ancestors worked so hard, they were all able to assimilate into a society that privileged people of their skin color. See, I don’t wear my grandfather’s oppression on my skin. When people see me, they do not assume that my ancestors struggled so much, nor do they project anti-semitic or anti-Irish stereotypes onto me. I am only a very large, well-spoken, straight white man. You have claimed to have “checked your privilege” but all you have really done is relay other people’s life stories as a rationalization to deny that you benefit from their effort, having dealt with no oppression of their scale. You have, and will continue, to benefit from a society that respects your voice, your people, and your heritage. Yes, there are anti-semites left in the world, but you will probably not face any real oppression due to your Jewish lineage (Trust me, I was Jewish in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The home of Oral Roberts, and hundreds of thousands of Christians. I was never, ever, not once, discriminated against in TULSA, OKLAHOMA for my Judaism.) And since you will be able to assimilate and benefit, you have privilege.
Let me explain further. When we walk into a convenience store, the store clerk makes no assumptions about us, so he doesn’t follow us around the store thinking we might steal something. When we go into a real estate office, we are shown all of the properties available. When I go to the bank, managers are more inclined to grant me a loan. When we raise our hand in class, professors are more likely to pick on us, and more likely to listen to what we have to say. When we send something into an editor, we are more likely to be published. When we talk to other white people, white men specifically, we are treated with the same respect they would give themselves. This is what privilege is.
You see, privilege is benefitting from things that you had no part in. You benefit from your father’s work ethic, but you yourself did not have to struggle. Because of your father and my mother, Jews have assimilated into American society, mostly due to our perceived whiteness. Though Irish stereotypes exist, no one yells “Go back to Ireland!” at me when they see my last name. If anything, being Irish is trendy, everyone wants to be Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day. But I don’t see white people lining up to claim 1/128th blackness during the month of February.
The most unfortunate thing about this entire conversation is that you will be more likely to listen to me, rather than a person of color, immigrant, or even a white cis woman. You have been programmed by society to see white males, like you and me, as the ultimate leaders of society. This is what people mean when they say, “White Male Patriarchy.” Cis straight white males have the most power in our society, so in turn, they are granted the biggest platforms, and the most ears. You and I benefit from this, being white males ourselves. Throughout our lives our platforms will be larger, our voices deemed “stronger,” and our audiences labeled “more important,” than those of people of different heritages and backgrounds. This is privilege.
It is a sad truth when my minority friends tell me that I should talk to white people about privilege, because they are more inclined to listen to me more than people who have actually experienced oppression in their young lifetimes. You will probably make it through more paragraphs of this article because my name is “O’Carroll” and not “Martinez,” or “Wang,” or “Depal.” That is institutional, programmed racism. It’s insidious, and you don’t even know you’re doing it, because you have been told by everyone in your life that you are right, and that your voice matters. That is privilege.
So how does one check their privilege? It’s definitely not by listing the oppression of your grandparents. Making an argument that your ancestors worked harder than other people’s ancestors and that your ancestors’ skin color offered them no opportunity to assimilate themselves, thus creating success for you, is not a very good start. “Apologizing for nothing” is probably five solid leaps in the wrong direction.
Here’s what we can do. When someone tries to tell us to “check our privilege” we listen to them. We examine how we are taking up space, how we might be triggering something inside someone, how we might not be seeing the entire picture. When people tell us to “check our privilege” you shouldn’t take it as an offense, nor use it as an opportunity to enter the oppression olympics by stating that your great grandmother went through a traumatic experience that has little to do with all that you benefit from now. You did not come on a boat, go through a long walk, or deal with oppression to get to Princeton, you took the SAT just like me, and countless of other kids. Rather, you see it as a chance to empathize. Like Atticus Finch said, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” (Always quote Atticus Finch to white people, white people love Atticus Finch). You should see it as an opportunity to learn how people like us (cis straight white dude bros) created an environment that benefits us while being detrimental to others. You don’t speak in these conversations, you listen. And if, after listening to how systematic, institutionalized, insidious racism still exists, you still want to believe that you are not a part of the problem I don’t know how you are going to get the message. But you, and your way of thought, will be left behind.
White people like you and I need to look at ourselves in the mirror and have an honest conversation about how we got to where we are. It’s not an easy conversation to have. The thing about privilege is that you do not know you are benefitting from it, until someone tells you that you are. When they tell you, listen. Learn from it.
We can begin to be a part of the solution when we listen to others and act to improve life on Earth for all of us. We can be quiet, and not in a way that silences our voice, but in a way that makes it calm enough for everyone to be heard. We should not be so sensitive and defensive. There is no defending—this is not a zero-sum game. Checking privilege isn’t a personal attack, it’s a reminder that you may not realize what you are saying or doing might only be allowed because of your race, ethnicity, gender identification, sex, or ability. “Checking our privilege” is a good thing: it makes you think, it makes you empathize, it helps in a small way to destroy privilege.
So, Mr. Fortgang, I offer you another chance by asking you to check your privilege.
You will only be better for it.
Richard Dillon O’Carroll
Brown University Class of 2015