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May 3, 2014 5:54 AM   Subscribe

In the past month since publishing his essay, "Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege," Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang has become a hero of many in right-wing politics for his refusal to believe that he enjoys privilege.

The Daily Princetonian: What "check your privilege" really means: 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.

Bustle: Either way, he is still a college freshman with much to learn about the way privilege and oppression actually work in the world. I was 25 years old before I even heard the word intersectionality, largely due to the fact that straight, white, cisgender men get the most attention in the history and philosophy books.

Columbia Spectator: The fact that family history and other factors that influence a person’s station in society are often ignored in favor of skin tone just speaks to how reductionist our understanding of identity can be.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (283 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
The fact that Tal or I benefit from being white men does not mean that we did not have to work hard to get where we are, or that we might have other circumstances which made that journey more difficult. It does mean that -- all other things being equal -- a woman or person of color is likely to have had to work harder to get to the same place.
posted by Slothrup at 6:11 AM on May 3 [56 favorites]


He seems to have some level of ability to be introspective and is obviously intelligent, I hope over the years he loses some of his blind spots.

. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.)

We pass the environment on to everyone, passing on to our own children specifically is not the same thing. Especially not in a country where people feel the estate tax is an awful, terrible thing. Worried about the national debt, you know?

t’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates “privilege.”


Connect the dots, and you realize negative values like racism and sexism are also passed along in our society. That perpetuates privilege at the expense of others.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:14 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


He does have the Onion's editorial style mastered.
posted by gimonca at 6:15 AM on May 3 [36 favorites]


Shit, this brings me back. I went to university at Oxford a couple of years ago and I was forever getting into (long, drawn-out and deeply unsatisfying) arguments about these issues. I'm not a fan of the phrase 'check your privilege' in itself - I think it's lazy and has a tendency to be used as a soundbite to shut people out if they're white and/or male. I do however think the underlying idea of society giving certain races, genders and sexualities a privileged position is something that needs to be fought, and at the very least acknowledged. Tal Fortgang seems to be ignoring this, and focusing instead on 'my family doesn't come from a long line of aristocrats so your criticisms are invalid'.

His article manages to press all of the buttons in my rant ignition sequence with such dexterity, I'm going to vent here: Everything else aside, being a white man with a good education is one hell of a hand to be dealt. I'm not asking you to be ashamed of that, I'm just asking you not to be a dick about.
posted by Ned G at 6:31 AM on May 3 [54 favorites]


Sigh. I come from a pretty similar background to his. It's different in the specifics but similar in the basic outlines. And I guess I'm not privileged enough to be free from an absolute sinking sense of dread when I read that piece. You are playing with fire, you repulsive little shit. You really want to tie your Jewishness quite that much to your racism, sexism, etc.? Your grandparents came from a country where their neighbors thought they were privileged and murdered their whole families. You think we're so safe that you can wave your Jewish flag around while announcing to oppressed people that you think their oppression is awesome? You're clearly more privileged than I am, because I want you to shut the fuck up and stop providing encouragement for people to hate us.

It is utterly clear that my family has not been privileged in some pretty profound ways. It is equally clear to me that in the US we have white privilege, and that has really, utterly mattered to my family's experience in this country. It mattered to my dad's family's experiences of opening and running a small business. It mattered hugely to my parents' and my educational experiences. That doesn't negate the horrible things that my family has overcome, and it certainly isn't meant to downplay my parents' and grandparents' extraordinary tenacity and hard work. But one would think that a Princeton student would be capable of holding more than one thought in his head at the same time, and it's possible both to be proud of your family's success and to realize that their success was facilitated partly by opportunities that other people have not had.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:32 AM on May 3 [80 favorites]


His argument seems to boil down to a weird conflation of "hard work and good virtues make you successful, so privilege doesn't exist" and "my ancestors are real victims, yours aren't." That these two strains are deeply contradictory -- one disclaims the very existence of differences in privilege, the other relies entirely on the idea of radical disparities in privilege -- seems beyond his ability to think (or , more accurately, well within his capacity to willfully ignore).

For that matter, it's pretty amazing for someone to mobilize a Holocaust narrative ands then blithely dismiss other instances of measurable social bias and people who can trace their ancestors' experiences back to victimization in historical atrocities as "conspiratorial imaginary institutions." Perhaps someone should assign him the collected works of David Irving, followed by a semester of, say, African-American studies, and let him get back to us on that one.

So I'm afraid I must disagree, DrinkyDie; I don't think he has much capacity "to be introspective." He seems to have spent a lot of time working damned hard to disarm whatever such capacity he ever had, and I think a lot of it's just gone at this point. Perhaps his parents should have raised him with better values.
posted by kewb at 6:33 AM on May 3 [15 favorites]


I was 25 years old before I even heard the word intersectionality

I was 34. I'm currently 34. It is, in fact, a concept that has entered conversation relatively recently. I'm still coming to terms with what it means, when set against historical class struggle, Internationalism, and so forth.

The best explanation of privilege I've seen, however, is the Mario Kart one.
posted by Jimbob at 6:33 AM on May 3 [67 favorites]


. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.)

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by dry white toast at 6:34 AM on May 3 [30 favorites]


If you value your self to the detriment of others, you're selfish. And if you value your race to the detriment of other races, you're racist. What is it called if you value your family to the detriment of other families? What do you call people who value their friends at the expense of strangers? Nepotism? Clannishness? What do you call people who value their political party to such an extreme that they are willing to harm other political parties? Do the terms 'chauvinism' or 'bias' cover all of the above?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:35 AM on May 3


He just sounds so young. I can remember those same conversations in college, people struggling with the idea of privilege and what it did and didn't mean for their lives. I'm not quite sure why his essay is getting so much traction, because it isn't new and it isn't all that great, but as soon as I saw the NY Times article yesterday I knew it would end up here.

When I was in college about twenty years ago, the term privilege was often used in fairly blunt and binary ways, whereas it's obviously a much more nuanced and complicated entity. Sometimes when people learn a new and powerful concept, it becomes the hammer and everything around them looks like a nail for a little while. That's normal and appropriate, but I can also vividly recall how galling it was to be lectured about my gender privilege by someone who was an heir to an actual fortune in the same week that I was hoping my student loan check would be processed before my rent was due.

And yet people's occasional tonedeafness around a complicated issue, and the reality that everyone (including the author of this piece) has more privilege in some ways and less in others, is no excuse for rejecting an entire concept that is descriptively accurate for the world we live in and can be tested quantitatively.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:36 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


This young man not understanding what privilege really means is one thing, but the conservative outlets taking his clueless arguments and running with them is another. It's disingenuous and manipulative and also unfortunately nothing new. This is trademark Fox News manufactured outrage to help themselves and others like them to make money selling advertising and whatever else. And it's disgraceful.
posted by pwally at 6:37 AM on May 3 [30 favorites]


Yes, "check your privilege", you pompous a**!
posted by noaccident at 6:37 AM on May 3


Do the terms 'chauvinism' or 'bias' cover all of the above?

Pretty much, yes.

The other forms of association you mention aren't distinct from race and class, but inextricably intertwined with them. There's a reason Republicans lose the minority vote in pretty much every national election, for example.
posted by kewb at 6:37 AM on May 3


I'm not quite sure why his essay is getting so much traction

IMHO, because the right wing media has responded to this guy in such a positive manner, even putting him live on Fox News to be interviewed. In light of so many stories saying that the Republicans are going in the wrong direction by refusing to do outreach to minorities, or articles saying that the younger generation leans far more liberal than their parents, this guy sticks out as a counterexample of that, and I think by putting an 18 year old (maybe 19?) child with these opinions on TV, the Conservatives hope to change the message.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:40 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


As a white immigrant to America I am acutely aware of the pernicious unwarranted and unwanted privilege I receive. Why are grown black and Hispanic men moving well out of my way on the street and calling me sir? It's fucking awkward because I have no script for how to handle this in a way that isn't privileged. I've never before had to deal with grown men being afraid of my power. It's just one little thing but there it is every single day.
posted by srboisvert at 6:42 AM on May 3 [16 favorites]


The only spot of 'trouble' in his life he can point to is that his dad worked hard at his own (very successful) business and had "limited family time". Really.

"Still, he said, after a year at Princeton, he hoped his views were starting to develop “some real nuance.”

Nothing like the harshness of ivy league college to show someone the 'real world'.
posted by anti social order at 6:44 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


I've never before had to deal with grown men being afraid of my power.

My main concern, then, is why the people who are acknowledged to have this power are so often excluded from both the conversation and the activism. There was a post earlier about people funding a PAC in order to reform campaign finance, and the conclusion of the majority was - well, they're working within the law and the system that exists - what's wrong with that?

So, why should wealthy, straight, cis, white males with privilege high scores on the pinball machine of life not apply the power privilege provides them to make some fucking changes? In the same thread it was pointed out that women got the vote because men voted for women to get the vote. On the other hand, I have seen intersectionality purists (here on Metafilter, in fact) argue that the struggle for womens' suffrage was "problematic" because it was driven mostly by wealthy, white women. If it requires privileged wealthy white women to achieve something positive, why not take advantage of that privilege and do something with it?
posted by Jimbob at 6:50 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


A tender ego is a helluva drug.
"Hi. I see that you were born on third base, and are criticizing people who weren't for not making it as far as you."

"NO I AM NOT A BAD PERSON! I HAVE PROBLEMS TOO! WHY ARE YOU SO RACIST?"
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:50 AM on May 3 [31 favorites]


If you're white and you don't admit that it's great, you're an asshole.

If I had a nickel for every conservative who said white privilege don't real, and then turned around and said they wouldn't hire blacks or Hispanics, well, I'd have a shitload of nickels.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:52 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Also, holy crap, the comments on Tal's original article are some high-test examples of unexamined privilege. They're un-parody-able.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:55 AM on May 3


This guy seems like a tool, but unthinking, reflexive utterance of "check your privilege" is actually a thing that happens, and it seems to have increased on university campuses in the past decade. When all you have is a hammer...
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:17 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


one would think that a Princeton student would be capable of holding more than one thought in his head at the same time

Counterpoint: Ted Cruz.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:21 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I know so many guys like Tal it isn't even funny. How sad for them, and for us.

My dad grew up privileged, in the "slaughter some cows, it's someone's birthday" way. The war took away much of that, and coming to America reduced it further. And yet growing up, I felt it keenly, in the way he assumed that his thoughts, wants, and needs were more valid than anyone else's. That his experiences were truer, and that what had been taken from him was "his" and not achieved through the oppression of those not like him.

I don't need, or want, Tal and those like him to be ashamed of their privilege. Not at all. All I'm asking for is awareness.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:22 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]


I think the "check your privilege" knee-jerk can be unproductive when employed in a flippant first-world-problems manner (e.g., "I'm stressed about finals" – "Go check your privilege") but yeah, this kid needs to stop reading Dinesh D'Souza.

Arguments like this are self-defeating. I don't quite understand why conservatives feel the need to undermine social justice politics in order to support their economic philosophy. The conservative movement in the U.S. would have a lot more supporters, especially in the present era of mass-scale fiscal irresponsibility, if it weren't equated with racist and homophobic sentiments.
posted by deathpanels at 7:24 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


This kid's looked at a teacup of seawater and concluded there's no such thing as a fish. His youth might excuse his error, except his opinion is being publicized by people who make their living fishing.
posted by Mooski at 7:25 AM on May 3 [78 favorites]


It seems typical of MetaFilter to me that this young man is being called nasty names for asking thoughtful questions. I'm not young or naive, and I come from a long history of feminist and lgbt activism, and I have some of the same questions. I am a white person who was raised very comfortably middle-class by parents who were raised in situations of poverty and abuse. My mother, alone of six siblings, changed her future by, among other things, living as a single woman for eight years after leaving home, refusing to get married until she met a man with a coherent plan for the future. That was my dad, abandoned by his father and raised by an alcoholic mother, but freshly home from the Army and eager to use the GI Bill to get a degree in engineering rather than spend the rest of his life as an auto mechanic.

My parents had almost no privilege. They had no family support, and, without the GI Bill, would have had no institutional support, either. They were both so damaged by their upbringings that despite their economic success, they failed in other important areas like childrearing and maintaining healthy relationships. It's probably true that, had they been black rather than white, they would likely have had that much more difficulty, my dad perhaps facing additional challenges in completing school and finding a job. I think it can be persuasively argued, had my dad been black, his career trajectory would have topped out at "engineer" rather than "auto executive."

But I have often thought, in particular about my mother, that despite all her failings she must have had some extraordinary quality of character to become self-supporting at sixteen, and to spend the next eight years avoiding entanglements with men who she saw as on a path to living the same kind of directionless existence her parents and extended family did. She had no role models; she figured out for herself that, given her time and place, the worst thing that could happen to her was to end up pregnant and married to a man like her father, her uncles, and her brothers. And even as that's exactly what her friends and her sisters did, one after another, she held out.

I do think family stories like this complicate simple narratives of privilege. I have the privilege of white skin, certainly, and I also had the privilege, growing up, of always having enough to eat, clothes to wear, good dental care, a comfortable home (at least, physically comfortable) and the knowledge that college was not just an option for me, but an expectation, and that my parents would take responsibility for paying for it. These are powerful things that have shaped my life for the better, because I don't think I have whatever it was my mom had that let her hold onto a vision of the future that must have seemed nearly impossible from where she was.

But the thing is, as soon as a generation without some form of privilege does exactly what we hope they will find possible--achieve more financial stability; find satisfying work; create family relationships that are supporting and sustaining; support their children's healthy and appropriate development--well, then, those underprivileged people have created a generation of privileged people who are told that they must feel guilty about it. And if that younger generation refuses--if I say, yes, I do have privilege, and I recognize it, but I'm not going to pretend that I'm sorry my mother didn't follow her family tradition of marrying drunken abusers--well, we're assholes and chauvinists.

My brother and I have 15 cousins. Three of them are dead, one of them in a drunk-driving accident. Of the remaining 12, I lost track of 3 decades ago and have no idea where they are now. That leaves 9. Of those nine, 7 that I know of are or have been addicted to drugs or alcohol. That's what my mom chose to walk away from. That's how I got the privilege I have.

And you know what? I'm actively working to give my kids more. Not because my goal for them is that they have money and power. But because one kind of privilege my parents couldn't provide me and my brother was the privilege of growing up in a functional, loving family, and I am raising my kids in one. So my kids are getting all the things I had growing up: a warm home, food security, dental and health care, a decent education. But, god willing, they're also going to grow up and have the privilege of not spending the first decade of their adult lives trying to fix the psychological damage their parents have inflicted on them. In that way, I hope they do better than me.

Actually, maybe I do have a bit of what my mother had, because my brother has replicated our upbringing to a T, recreating the dysfunction and emotional abuse we grew up with. But I haven't. I got my shit together, mental-health wise, found a terrific partner, and didn't start having kids until I was 35, when I was able to raise them in a healthy way.

Do I love the system we live in? God knows, I do not. Educational inequality in this country hurts me so much I can barely stand up under it. My youngest kid attends school in a comfortable district, but we are a ten-minute drive from a city that, last year, fired all of its PE, music, and art teachers. I have read extensively on the subject of educational inequality, spoken to activists, been a teacher myself for more than a decade, and I feel powerless in this area. I am working within my school district for these issues; I'll be serving on the district superintendent's Cultural Diversity Advisory Committee for the next two years, and my particular concerns include supporting lower-income students in the district, because economic inequality is also a concern of mine. I support the nearby city school district in minor ways, by participating in programs like one that provides kids with a back-to-school backpack full of school supplies, for instance. But I do this work, wonder what more I could do, doubt that anything I could do would make a real difference. I am pessimistic about widespread change, so I do what I can to effect change within the narrow sphere of influence I have.

I'm a liberal. In many ways, I'm a radical. I am not a conspicuous consumer; despite having a six-figure income, our family of five lives in a 3-bedroom ranch house with one bath (confession: we do hope to move to a place with a bath and a half, and a bedroom for each kid, sometime in the next couple of years). And yet I am also tired of this idea that constantly pointing out people's privilege is a meaningful form of activism; on the contrary, I'm inclined to think it's more about shoring up the accuser's feelings of moral superiority. I despise the way that the narrative of privilege compresses complex lives and histories into simplified just-so stories that serve a certain kind of left-wing orthodoxy, and the way that "oh, this guy has privilege!" is a cheap way to avoid wrestling with complex issues or asking questions that the progressive narrative has no answers for.

Call me whatever names you want. I'm not a freshman at Princeton. I'm a middle-aged mom in flyover country who has been thinking deeply about these things both in and out of academia for decades, and I'm not afraid of you.
posted by not that girl at 7:28 AM on May 3 [93 favorites]


This kid just needs to know some more poor people. Probably not gonna happen.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:30 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I'm not quite sure why his essay is getting so much traction

Upper middle class bloke who is not immediately a boorish douchebag rejecting attempts to get to look at his privileges and writes an not entirely unreadable essay about it; sometimes the media really is fonder of dog bites man than of man bites dog stories.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:32 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I despise the way that the narrative of privilege compresses complex lives and histories into simplified just-so that serve a certain kind of left-wing orthodoxy

Compressing the idea of privilege into a "narrative" is also a gross oversimplification, and it generally serves a certain kind of orthodoxy as well.
posted by Etrigan at 7:32 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


My main concern, then, is why the people who are acknowledged to have this power are so often excluded from both the conversation and the activism.

Are they? I've been involved in progressive politics for almost two decades, and I can tell you there's no shortage of white people, men, straight people, or people from wealthy backgrounds. Given that, I'm not really sure what you're referring to, and it seems like a strawman argument.
posted by lunasol at 7:34 AM on May 3 [13 favorites]


It seems typical of MetaFilter to me that this young man is being called nasty names for asking thoughtful questions.

From the essay: "Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real."

That's not thoughtful, and it's a gross mischaracterization of what anyone talking about privilege is talking about.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:35 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


not that girl, no one is asking you to feel guilty, and no one here wants to call you names. Being aware of privilege is (or should be) more about treating those who have less privilege with kindness and understanding, and acting to dismantle the systems that create privilege, than self-flagellation.

I grew up in a very privileged environment. I don't feel guilt for that, because I wasn't the person who created that environment. What I do feel is a sense of responsibility to use my privilege to better the circumstances of those who weren't granted my blessings.

Privilege, as a concept, should not be used to make people feel bad about their fortunate lot in life. It should be used as a reminder that others are less fortunate, and a reminder that we are lucky, and a reminder that we should, where we can, use our advantages to aid those who were not lucky.

With great power comes great responsibility, right? Well, privilege is power. Powerful people don't need to feel bad about being powerful, but they sure as hell need to use their power to help, and not to harm.
posted by nonasuch at 7:38 AM on May 3 [50 favorites]


The reason I don't bother discussing privilege with people any more, especially with otherwise well-meaning liberals (the kind going for PhDs in superduper soft-science especially), is that nobody understands what the term means now and nobody is willing to accept that it has a deeper, more nuanced meaning than the one they grew up with. The last straw was when a white christian woman with rich parents insisted she was not in any way shape or form privileged because she was a woman who had been the victim of sexual violence.
Why don't people understand that the color of shit manifests in a such a profound rainbow of brown?
posted by GoingToShopping at 7:40 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


I don't quite understand why conservatives feel the need to undermine social justice politics in order to support their economic philosophy. The conservative movement in the U.S. would have a lot more supporters, especially in the present era of mass-scale fiscal irresponsibility, if it weren't equated with racist and homophobic sentiments.

You may as well wish for fish to stop needing water to survive.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:41 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I don't need, or want, Tal and those like him to be ashamed of their privilege. Not at all. All I'm asking for is awareness.

A few years ago I embarked on a serious study project on social class, including participating in workshops on the subject, reading widely, having discussions with people who knew more than me. I now have a profound knowledge and awareness of social class in the United States. Now I've left wondering what good that awareness does. It has been of good service in some of my interpersonal relationships; it has led me to be more accepting of behavior and language differences that may arise from differences in class background, to take responsibility for my own discomfort when someone speaks in a way that my background would call rude or incorrect. But in terms of meaningful systemic change? Not so much.

Awareness really isn't enough, whether you have it or you're wishing other people had more of it. I want less income inequality in the US; I want educational equity in the K-12 years; I want to most-at-risk kids to have the most resources and the best teachers. I want economically marginal families to have copious non-judgmental support. Yes, I want people with enormous privilege to be told that a disproportionate amount of social responsibility goes along with it. "Awareness" as an endpoint sows resentment and disunity, and traps us there.
posted by not that girl at 7:41 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]


I just wish people could separate out their emotional and personal responses from reality. There are people that will kindly and calmly point out your errors, there are people who will kindly and calmly spew bullshit. There are people who will angrily point out your errors and there are people who will angrily spew bullshit. If someone says "check your privilege" your only choices aren't guilt, self-abnegation or righteousness. Honestly, so you're a freshman college student at an Ivy, if you can't be wrong and still have a great day you should work on that.

FWIW, I haven't read the article. I found the discussion on metafilter interesting as usual. I find the idea of reading college newspaper opinion pieces bizarre.
posted by Wood at 7:43 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Awareness is not an endpoint, it's a starting point. Without initial awareness, no one even sees *why* income inequality is a bad thing, because they can assume that income is a pure and direct measure of work ethic or virtuous upbringing or whatever.
posted by kewb at 7:43 AM on May 3 [51 favorites]


One can be hardworking, face many obstacles, have outstanding character, and suffer greatly in life, and yet still have privilege that others lack due to your race, gender, orientation, etc.

Just like you can have an apple and an orange AT THE SAME TIME.

Privilege is the sum of the benefits you receive automatically, whether you like it or not, from the implicit and explicit structures and patterns of government and society due to the accident of your birth.

Privilege is not a way of saying you or your wonderful ancestors didn't work hard.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:44 AM on May 3 [42 favorites]


Also, the fact that it's this much of a fight just to get to the *starting point* is rather instructive.
posted by kewb at 7:45 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


This essay does get at something I think is more or less true, viz.: Whatever positive effect being white and male has had on my life is dwarfed by other, narrower winning lottery tickets I've drawn, like being born to the right parents, at the right time, in the right place. There are plenty of white males who are significantly worse off than I am, through no fault of theirs or merit of mine. Recognizing my white male privilege is fine but is -- to me -- less interesting and relevant and actionable than thinking about other more proximate ways in which I've been fortunate, and giving credit where it's demonstrably due -- to the people and places and circumstances that have made me what I am. Being white and male is part of that mix, sure, but I've never really considered it the most relevant thing.

Also, are people really arguing that it's somehow per se wrong to personally value one's family and friends more than the rest of the world? Yikes.
posted by eugenen at 7:45 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone

Finally, someone with the balls to criticize what's really wrong with Obama's drone program: Its callous disregard for safe and responsible glide slopes.
posted by compartment at 7:46 AM on May 3 [46 favorites]


One of the problems with directly telling someone to "check their privilege", and the primary reason it provokes outrage, is that switching from a systemic context to an individual context is belittling. Power tends to beget power, and the powerful in U.S. society at large are so overwhelming white and male that anyone matching that profile automatically gets a +2 to their rolls in the game of life. That's a systemic problem. An individual is more than their position in the system, however, and unless you're the scion to J.P. Morgan, success in almost any career pursuit requires more than riding the coattails of your family's privilege-gained wealth – particularly if, like the author, your ancestors were actually dirt poor members of some former oppressed minority group that have now been lumped in with "white". The nugget of truth to this post, and I think there is one, is that sometimes the privilege-checking game is used as a bludgeon against anyone with a +2 bonus, as an ad hominem tactic to win arguments. I read this whole post as a retrospective on an argument the author had with some other similarly intelligent-yet-misguided freshman. "Stop pointing out my +2 bonus! My parents were minorities back in the 19th century!" etc. etc.

Man, I'm glad college is over.
posted by deathpanels at 7:48 AM on May 3 [18 favorites]


Also, are people really arguing that it's somehow per se wrong to personally value one's family and friends more than the rest of the world? Yikes.

I don't know about "personally value;" it depends what you mean by "value." I don't think anyone's demanding that you have to *like* other people as much as your family, or even prioritize them emotionally.

However, if you assume that family and friends have some kind of innately higher value on an absolute scale, and you want them to have institutional advantages at the expense of others, then yeah, there's probably an ethical problem with that.

A few years back, when I was still a lurker, there was a poster who jumped into debates on race-conscious college enrollments and said that she/he opposed them because he/she was white, as were the kids, even while acknowledging that some minorities have an unfair starting point in admissions otherwise. The poster opined that every enrollment program aimed at nonwhites was one less slot her/his kids could compete for, and therefore she/he could not support such programs at all. That strikes me as a good example of how "personally valu[ing] one's family and friends more than the rest of the world" can shade over into support for institutional racism, or at least opposition to any remedies to it.
posted by kewb at 7:51 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


I think part of the problem with the phrase "check your privilege" is that it encourages people to look at the issue in a way that predisposes them to reject it. Like, most people are pretty unhappy even with relatively privileged lives; "check your privilege" is like saying "actually, your life is pretty great". If your life doesn't feel great, you're not going to accept that. You'll think about all of your and your family's struggles and problems and get defensive.

This is magnified by the fact that people do sometimes use the idea of privilege just to shut up and belittle people - not just extremely privileged people.

I think encouraging people to think about privilege in terms of their own experience can't be that convincing: accepting your own privilege means, emotionally, minimizing your own struggles and cheapening your own successes. (perhaps the reason this is the preferred tactic is that for those who have suffered discrimination, I imagine reevaluating their own experiences in light of these new ideas can be empowering.) I'm someone who checks basically all the privilege boxes; the way I came to accept the idea was by learning about the present-day and historical realities of discrimination. Making it personal just made me want to stick my head in the sand.

I'm guessing most of the discussion around privilege (at least during freshman orientation) at Princeton is of the "personal reflection" mode. As Tal went through this year and faced more competition and self-doubt than he probably ever has in his life, I'm not surprised he doesn't feel very privileged and has a hard time accepting that he is.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:55 AM on May 3 [16 favorites]


I think part of the problem with the phrase "check your privilege" is that it encourages people to look at the issue in a way that predisposes them to reject it.

I wonder if this thread can avoid becoming a forum on how discussions of privilege can check their tone.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:57 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]


My parents had almost no privilege.

One of the things that it's taken me a long time to realize is that privilege is not personal; it's structural. It is about how institutions and cultural biases serve to make life easier or harder for you. I have no doubt that you and your mom are extraordinary people. The question is whether someone without your whiteness but with the same personal characteristics would be as successful.

I grew up poor in a largely black community. My family of 6 lived in a 2BR apartment, and we got free lunch and food stamps. My parents spoke no English, and I wore boys' clothes because those were what we got from our church. We faced hostility from people who blamed Toyota for Ford's ineptness. And yet I was privileged, because unlike my black classmates, no one was afraid of me. It was assumed that if I worked hard enough, I would go to college. When I read my books instead of paying in attention, it was because I was advanced and needed more of a challenge. When my classmates doodled because they were bored, they were being disrespectful. When I cried in class because I'd been up all night worrying about my family being evicted, I was asked if I was ok and sent to the counselor. When my neighbor cried for similar reasons she was being attention-seeking and disruptive.

I had a long road to travel to get where I am. But there were far fewer roadblocks to keep me from going down that road.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:58 AM on May 3 [115 favorites]


Privilege doesn't mean you don't work hard or haven't struggled.

Notice here we're actually talking about what he says and the ideas behind it, instead of nit-picking a sentence here or there, or assuming his family history can't have happened the way he says it did, or talking about his appearance.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 7:59 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70


This article does a great job of laying out many of the different challenges and responses to white privilege (some of which have shown up in this thread). I can't remember the source - it may have been posted here before.
posted by srboisvert at 7:59 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


There's privilege and there's privilege. As per Louis C.K.'s shtick: yeah, check the box labeled White Male and you'll have an easier time in life. Any American who denies that is being willfully blind.

But, then, this Princeton dude makes it personal: his family was hounded by the Nazis. So he comes from a suffering hard-working family.

Then there is a high school friend of mine (who I remember as an insufferable asshole, but, then, we were both outcasts, so we were kind of friends) who I just heard has not worked a day in his life, having inherited quite a fortune.

Then there are those born into the top 10% - that would be me, although I've slipped downward a little - who had parents wealthy enough to send them to college (of course, that was a cheaper option in the 1970's). That meant I had a chance at a better job out of college/grad school. And no debt. And no going to Vietnam.

But, while the Princeton student's argument is clearly wrong, if I'd been told to "Check your privilege" more than a few times, I might be a little pissed, too. But I wouldn't write an article in the Princeton Tory about it. The "Tory?" Seriously?
posted by kozad at 8:01 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


i acknowledge the privilege of being born in america, and in particular, a nice part of america.

privilege based on race is more problematic. does it mean i owe you something more than the black guy over there, something more than the standard minimal courtesy due everyone? i am not consciously aware of such a debt.
posted by bruce at 8:12 AM on May 3


He's also taking his ancestors' experiences as his own. He didn't personally suffer any of what they did yet he's waving around their travails as if he's gone through their struggle. This is equally problematic when people act like their ancestor's triumphs are their own. You can feel proud of it, for whatever its worth, but I wanna know what you did personally, not your forebears. He's actually inherited the privilege of saying my people went through struggles to get here without having to do any of the heavy lifting himself. And he's a white Jewish person which means he can more or less move on from that, which is a pretty big difference compared to those who're descended from American Civil Rights activists, who are still working to shake off the burden of their inheritance.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:14 AM on May 3 [17 favorites]


I wonder if this thread can avoid becoming a forum on how discussions of privilege can check their tone.

I probably should have made this clearer, but when I wrote that I was thinking very specifically about the discussions that occur on college campuses (especially during orientation); they're often promoted by the institutions and have university employees as facilitators. The goal is explicitly to educate students about privilege (I would say "propaganda" except it has a negative connotation), and they don't work very well on a lot of people like Tal. I was trying to reflect on why that might be, and what might have led him to write this letter.

Obviously I'm not saying that every discussion should be this way. But for these discussions in particular, the goal is education and persuasion; tone and content are both really important, the universities have the power to set them, and I think it's worth considering whether something about either of those makes it easier for students to ignore their own privilege.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:14 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


privilege based on race is more problematic. does it mean i owe you something more than the black guy over there, something more than the standard minimal courtesy due everyone? i am not consciously aware of such a debt.

No, it means you have probably benefited without even realizing it, just because of the color of your skin. You don't owe anyone anything more but the acknowledgement that hard work and virtue are not the sole things that benefit people. If they were this would be a very different world.
posted by rtha at 8:16 AM on May 3 [28 favorites]


does it mean i owe you something more than the black guy over there, something more than the standard minimal courtesy due everyone?
Privilege means that there is a structure that advantages some people and disadvantages others, and you are on the advantaged side of that structure. It doesn't mean that you're more obligated than anyone else to try to destroy that structure, but it does mean that you have the luxury of ignoring it, because it's not hurting you. If you were being hurt by it, you wouldn't see working to destroy it as a hardship, because you would be benefiting from destroying it. The reason that you feel resentment is not that something more is being asked of you, but that you're being asked to get rid of something that is giving you an advantage. That may feel unfair, but it's not. What's unfair is that you're benefiting in the first place.

And it's worth saying that most people are privileged in some ways and not in others. You can have racial privilege but not class privilege, for instance.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:19 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


IMHO, one of the things that people with privilege can do that's helpful is to be extremely aware of it, and to correct in situations where we see others abusing it. A Trip to the Grocery Store.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:23 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


bruce said: privilege based on race is more problematic. does it mean i owe you something more than the black guy over there, something more than the standard minimal courtesy due everyone?

No, it's more like being aware that, say, there are studies proving that people with stereotypically African-American names face measurable employment discrimination regardless of qualifications, that they are more likely to be stopped on the street by the police regardless of personal criminal history, are less likely to be listened to when speaking in diverse groups, tend to have their behaviors labeled "disruptive" or "threatening" when others' similar or identical behaviors are not, and that these and many other instances of demonstrable disadvantage are and have always been facts of everyday life for that guy down the street in ways they never will be for people born into different ethnic groups.

vogon_poet said: [I]n particular, the goal is education and persuasion; tone and content are both really important, the universities have the power to set them, and I think it's worth considering whether something about either of those makes it easier for students to ignore their own privilege.

I think this assumes that the sole or even primary point of such discussions is to show the privileged person what's going on, when it's as much and as often about telling the underprivileged or disadvantaged that *here* things will be different. If we focus entirely on educating the privileged about privilege, we're still making about *them* and disproportionately awarding them empathy, attention, and status. The intention and mechanism are different, but the result is that they stay at the center of all conversations, which is sort of already the problem. It's a variant of the old "feminists should prioritize educating men" canard.
posted by kewb at 8:23 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


"yes, I do have privilege, and I recognize it, but I'm not going to pretend that I'm sorry my mother didn't follow her family tradition of marrying drunken abusers"

And this already places you diametrically in opposition with the linked article. Nobody ever asked this guy to feel ashamed of his dad for working hard. But somebody asked him to recognize that he has some privilege -- in other words, to do what you already do. And he refused. And not just refused, but took to the campus newspaper to complain that someone had even dared to ask.
posted by escabeche at 8:24 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


One of the things that it's taken me a long time to realize is that privilege is not personal; it's structural. It is about how institutions and cultural biases serve to make life easier or harder for you. I have no doubt that you and your mom are extraordinary people. The question is whether someone without your whiteness but with the same personal characteristics would be as successful.
That's not how it's employed, though. Privilege-checking is targeted at individuals. If someone told me, in so many words, "Some portion of your success is unearned because of your race, gender, or sexuality", I don't think I would respond very well either (though I wouldn't write an op-ed about it).
posted by deathpanels at 8:26 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Fortgang needs to go read Michael Lewis's 2012 Baccalaureate speech.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:28 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


"Privilege", like "racism" and "sexism", is a simple concept on the surface with a lot of nuance when you dig further. My problem with their frequent (over)use is that they effectively shut down conversations. They are used as a shortcut to win arguments and get people to shut up. Most often they lead to bitterness and resentment, and possibly embarrassment, feelings rarely found on the path to understanding.
posted by cman at 8:28 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


I remember being 18 and self-righteous, too. How cute.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:29 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


And by the way, I taught at Princeton for seven years, so I find this piece particularly vexing, in that "checking your privilege" is part of the fundamental value system of Princeton. Almost everyone who goes there is pretty rich. It's always been that way. And the point is that the institution is not supposed to be a place where rich people from powerful families figure out how to increase their advantages yet further; it's supposed to be a place where people recognize how fortunate they are, are grateful for the advantages they have, are humble about their own role in accruing those advantages, and pledge to use those advantages to help everyone. "Princeton in the nation's service": it's the motto of the university.
posted by escabeche at 8:30 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


Jimbob: "I have seen intersectionality purists (here on Metafilter, in fact) argue that the struggle for womens' suffrage was "problematic" because it was driven mostly by wealthy, white women."

The use and propagation of racist rhetoric by wealthy white women in service of suffrage is fairly well-documented. If suffrage was problematic it's not because of some imagined ideological purity, it's because the ability of the women involved to ignore the effects of racism contributed to real problems.

That's the danger of relatively high-privileged folks dictating the direction and nature of activism; people tend to only be aware of the issues relevant to their own lives, as white, as male, as cisgender, as straight, whatever, while the very social power that makes them potentially useful allies lets them speak over the actual needs and experiences of people they claim to be representing and fighting for, who are then expected to be grateful and uncritical or be branded 'divisive'. It's a recurring theme in white and in cis feminism, for example, and the harms done and issues ignored are easy to see.

I suspect that where you're seeing multiple-axis-privileged people feeling unwelcome in certain activist circles, it's because there's a history of similar allies being unwilling to accept the experience of the people they claim to speak for, as a consequence of their privilege, and using the much higher platform they're afforded to broadcast a message that's at best incomplete and at worst actively counterproductive. If the positive value of having privileged allies able to use their social power is too often outweighed by the misrepresentation and damage they can cause, I think it can easily be the rational choice to employ voices with less volume but more accuracy.
posted by emmtee at 8:33 AM on May 3 [24 favorites]


"Privilege", like "racism" and "sexism", is a simple concept on the surface with a lot of nuance when you dig further. My problem with their frequent (over)use is that they effectively shut down conversations. They are used as a shortcut to win arguments and get people to shut up. Most often they lead to bitterness and resentment, and possibly embarrassment, feelings rarely found on the path to understanding.

To me, this sounds like "when you expose the situation for what it really is, it shuts down the conversation, because I can no longer defend my incorrect assumptions." I don't think that's a problem with using words like "privilege", "racism", and "sexism".

Oh, you, using that "reality" shortcut again.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:35 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


Every time the right wing picks another hero, you know there's some serious idiocy and cognitive dissonance on display.
posted by Catblack at 8:40 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


If someone told me, in so many words, "Some portion of your success is unearned because of your race, gender, or sexuality", I don't think I would respond very well either

Even if it is true? Obviously it sucks if people say these things meanly or intending to hurt, but most of us benefit from various structural advantages. I benefitted because my parents and grandparents were given access to highly subsidized educations at (mostly) public universities, plus other assorted programs that helped them to accumulate a middle class level of wealth and stability. Yes, they worked hard, but millions of equally hardworking Americans (of other races, genders, and sexualities) were denied access to those same programs and their descendants don't have access to that accumulated social and economic capital. My own success (such as it is) has benefitted enormously from that.

That's just one example; I could go through my life and name plenty of others. And at the same time, compared to, say, a Clinton or Bush scion, my accumulated privilege looks pretty paltry -- it's not a binary situation, but rather all gradations and contradictions. And on top of it all, we're just talking about the structural advantages or disadvantages, which can be dwarfed by luck and/or hard work.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:44 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]


Privilege also isn't binary. It isn't on-off and it isn't exclusive to white men. It operates on a number of axes and you can't always tell by looking who had it when and in what ways.

It's complex and layered and nuanced and yeah, that can make for difficult discussions.
posted by rtha at 8:47 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


"Almost everyone who goes there is pretty rich. It's always been that way."

Which is why I don't understand why he doesn't understand this concept. It's not like he's a regular plebe who just happens to be a white guy. He's so blind to his class privilege, he didn't even mention it, possibly because it detracts from his relatability in a way that being white and male does not to people who would sympathize with him.
posted by Selena777 at 8:48 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


For the privileged, privilege consists mainly of negatives. Problems they don't have. That's the reason for the "invisible knapsack" metaphor.

It is difficult to call attention to stuff that isn't there, so privilege is hard to talk about. Talking about how to talk about privilege is surely a discussion of rhetoric, but not necessarily about tone. It's a topic that's unusually easy to miscommunicate about, however polite you may be about it.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:51 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]


Fortgang (in the NYT link): “I am sure there are some really racist white supremacists who point to me as a hero on the college campus,” he said. “That is not me. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

When you are not racist, but #1 with racists - consider why exactly that might be, and consider reexamining your views.
posted by windbox at 8:58 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]


I suspect that where you're seeing multiple-axis-privileged people feeling unwelcome in certain activist circles, it's because there's a history of similar allies being unwilling to accept the experience of the people they claim to speak for, as a consequence of their privilege, and using the much higher platform they're afforded to broadcast a message that's at best incomplete and at worst actively counterproductive. If the positive value of having privileged allies able to use their social power is too often outweighed by the misrepresentation and damage they can cause, I think it can easily be the rational choice to employ voices with less volume but more accuracy.

Telling people to check their privilege is unavoidably an othering that at the very least impedes acceptance of narratives outside of direct conflict. The problem with this approach is that well-meaning people who come from multiple axes of privilege who would like to be allies are now being told to essentially fuck off and die - what is being heard is that there is no place for them in your world. When you reflexively question someone's intent based on their background, you are both disrupting progress towards universal acceptance and adopting precisely the same behavior that lead to this terrible imbalance in the first place.
posted by Ryvar at 9:11 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]


The 1% loves it when the rest of us get in this argument.
posted by mygoditsbob at 9:11 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]


I think separating the useless concept of privilege into character, wealth and respect is a good idea. They're all things that make life easier, but they're quite different and most people don't have all three.
posted by michaelh at 9:13 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Call me whatever names you want. I'm not a freshman at Princeton. I'm a middle-aged mom in flyover country who has been thinking deeply about these things both in and out of academia for decades, and I'm not afraid of you.

What I'll call you is: injudicious about where you choose to discuss this issue...

But I'm with you.

In fact, I think "privilege" is a somewhat confused and not-terribly-useful concept. The useful, time-tested concept that's relevent here is discrimination. Certain parts of the left, however, want to put the emphasis on criticizing certain groups they like to criticize rather than on helping groups that need help.

It's not that "privilege" as it's currently fashionable to use it, is a hopeless nor completely useless concept, actually. It's just that it's not that useful, and it's commonly deployed for less-than-completely-laudable reasons (see above). Nobody denies that, say, whites in the U.S. on average have more advantages/fewer disadvantages with respect to their race as compared to, say, blacks. But "privilege" is, of course, a term specifically chosen for its condemnatory connotations. I have had a lot of advantages and a lot of disadvantages. With respect to race and sex, the advantages have far, far outweighed the disadvantages. I've never had any doubts about that, and would never raise an eyebrow at this being pointed out. "Privilege," however, is intended to annoy and spin all this in a way that is, however, intended to distort, annoy, and irk.

I can imagine the term being used usefully, but it's not better--in fact, it's worse, largely in virtue of being less accurate--than lots of other terms in which the relevant problems can be cast.

Furthermore, it's pretty hard to abstract the term from its context of use, which is, largely, as another shibboleth/terminological mantra of a certain segment of the left--the Tumblrific left, as one might put it. As with "problematic," the laughable "check your privilege," and all the rest, when people start using "privilege," I can make a good guess about their political orientations. Even if there are ways of interpreting what they say that make it largely true, it's part of a package that is, overall, largely mistaken in my opinion. Or, at least, less accurate than other available packages. (And I say this as someone who's largely liberal).

Anyway, I do think there are issues here that are pretty interesting and I do think that there are places they can be discussed in an atmosphere conducive to arriving at the truth, and at agreement...but...well...they can't be discussed in that way everywhere...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:14 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


It's interesting how all the people explaining why "privilege" isn't real or is irredeemably politicized (and hence implicitly illegitimate) seem so incredibly comfortable telling everyone else what words and concepts they can and can't use if they want to be taken seriously (by a conveniently unnamed entity or entities).
posted by kewb at 9:18 AM on May 3 [16 favorites]


"Child born on Third, thinks he hit a homerun" is not exactly news. What would be news is if the right-wing political media didn't immediately hoist him to their collective shoulders like a new Dauphin.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:20 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


The problem with this approach is that well-meaning people who come from multiple axes of privilege who would like to be allies are now being told to essentially fuck off and die - what is being heard is that there is no place for them in your world.

If I was running an organized campaign against inequality of one form or another, I'd take on offers of assistance from as many privileged, connected people as possible. But at college, maybe it just feels good to rail against someone. It's not like either Fortgang or the parties who told him to check his privilege (who are also at Princeton, for that matter) are going to change the world for the better from that kind of exchange.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:24 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


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.
This was the most eye-rolling part of the piece. As has already been pointed it, being told to "check your privilege" is not an invalidation of personal or familial struggles and achievements. It's a recognition that those struggles could have been compounded, and those achievements even more difficult to achieve, had you not been born as a "normal" person.

I think it's great his grandparents managed to survive the Holocaust, immigrate to America, take part in the enormous post-War economic expansion, and ultimately have a grandson attending an Ivy League school. That's a terrific story of overcoming adversity and seizing opportunity.

But, he should keep in mind that the only reason his grandparents were even able to immigrate to the U.S. was because of a special amendment to the national origins quotas of the time. Of course, they might have been able to immigrate to the U.S. under the previous system, since several thousand Poles annually could immigrate to the U.S. Had his parents been refugees from war torn U.S. WWII ally, China, they would not have been so lucky, as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, when a grand total of 105 Chinese nationals were allowed to enter the U.S. per year. That number was upheld in 1952, in a law that "continued the practice of not including countries in the Western Hemisphere in the quota system."

Then when his grandparents did arrive, they did not have to contend with legal segregation. They were not set upon with dogs and firehoses for the protesting against that segregation. His grandparents did not have to endure physical and verbal abuse to be able to order a sandwich. They did were not beaten and bombed for daring to ride integrated buses. His grandparents were privileged to not have to endure those things on top of their tragic past.

"Checking your privilege" isn't about deny an individual had it rough, it's about reminding us that -- no matter how painful our past -- it could have been worse. It's about being gracious and humble for the things we did not have to endure, not using our personal or familial histories as a bludgeon to show how great you are. This kid needs to check his privilege.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:26 AM on May 3 [37 favorites]


I'm not quite sure why his essay is getting so much traction

I think you need to check the author's privilege.
posted by one_bean at 9:31 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


From TFA: 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.

I'm a white man from a middle-class background, currently comfortable-ish, and I actually do feel kind of personally apologetic because white males do pull most of the strings in the world.

When I'm walking down some road in Guatemala, I assume that locals look at me like I'm one lucky bastard, and that they're at least a little resentful that, they assume, I can jet around the continent and freely enjoy their country like it's Disneyland, while some of them are stuck with relative poverty, rampant corruption, the everpresent threat of violence, sometimes malnutrition, and that they have to work like dogs to have that existence without dying. I mean, that's what I would be thinking if I were them. I assume people think that of me here in the U.S., too, and they're all correct. I don't "deserve" my privilege any more than people of color, women, queer folk, etc "deserve" their relative lack of privilege. It's not fair, and I feel bad about it. I think that not being okay with my relative privilege is a healthy, compassionate response.

If I were to complain about people saying mean things to me about my privilege on top of enjoying that privilege, christ, what an asshole I would be.

Jimbob: My main concern, then, is why the people who are acknowledged to have this power are so often excluded from both the conversation and the activism...
...why not take advantage of that privilege and do something with it?


Who is excluded from activism? What are you even talking about?

lunasol: I've been involved in progressive politics for almost two decades, and I can tell you there's no shortage of white people, men, straight people, or people from wealthy backgrounds. Given that, I'm not really sure what you're referring to, and it seems like a strawman argument.

That's exactly right. I have a little less that lunasol's experience in progressive politics/organizing/etc, and it's a pretty diverse group that includes plenty of straight, white men. Go to a Sierra Club chapter meeting if you have any doubt.

So to the other priveleged, middle class, white, whatevers: I think any issue you have with being called "privileged" or being admonished to "check your privilege" is a more general, and more personal, issue with having your feelings hurt by what others, and in I assume most cases, strangers, say about you.

One poster in this thread took this young gentleman's essay very personally, which I thought was a bit odd. Why did they assume it was about them? Why did they care?

So, while I think privilege is a very real phenomenon, and it is not a good thing, I don't really see how a discussion of it fits in with activism.

For example, say there's a community effort to stop energy companies from fracking in someone's neighborhood. Activism would include organizing a committee of like-minded community members, identifying possible coalition partners, assigning organizers to recruit from the various constituencies, pick a specific goal and plan step by step how to achieve it, plan for contingencies and opposition, develop a communications and messaging strategy, schedule the next meetings, and so on and so on. I don't see where a discussion of privilege fits in.

I don't see how a discussion of privilege is interesting.

If you have a plan to *do something* about privilege, then that's interesting. And I'd like to hear about that.

Actually, as I get my rant going here, it occurs to me that the whole discussion of privilege is kind of upside-down. Is the point that some people should not have the comforts and opportunities that they do, or that more people should have those same comforts and opportunities? How does criticising a privileged asshole get us closer to changing this dynamic? I think there are a couple of basic principles in organizing:

1. Don't waste time trying to convince your steadfast opponents - work on people in the middle.

2. Don't engage in protest as a form of self-expression. It's impotent. Protest, discussion, complaining in all its forms, should be targeted to a specific audience for the purpose of moving them to take a specific action that moves the cause forward.

This whole discussion, I think, violates these principles.

But I could be wrong and I'm interested in what others have to say.
posted by univac at 9:32 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


Of course, they might have been able to immigrate to the U.S. under that system, since several thousand Poles annually could immigrate to the U.S. Had his parents been refugees from war torn U.S. WWII ally, China, they would not have been so lucky
Wow. No. This is just really, really misleading. It is true that several thousand Poles were allowed to come to America every year under the quota system, whereas Chinese immigration was totally excluded. It is also true that this was a tiny quota relative to the Polish population and that the quotas were explicitly set up in the 1920s to exclude Southern and Eastern European immigrants. It is further true that a lot of the justification for the shape of the quota system was explicitly antisemitic. Finally, the quotas were administered in an antisemitic way, and it was particularly hard for Jews to get in to the US in the 1930s, even within the rigged quota system. During the war, the US government set up a program to allow British children fleeing the Blitz to come to the US but refused to set up a similar program for Jewish children fleeing persecution. There is ample evidence that antisemitism influenced American immigration policy, and it is frankly a little obscene that anyone would refer to European Jews in the lead-up to the Holocaust as "lucky" in any way.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:38 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


And yet I am also tired of this idea that constantly pointing out people's privilege is a meaningful form of activism; on the contrary, I'm inclined to think it's more about shoring up the accuser's feelings of moral superiority. I despise the way that the narrative of privilege compresses complex lives and histories into simplified just-so stories that serve a certain kind of left-wing orthodoxy, and the way that "oh, this guy has privilege!" is a cheap way to avoid wrestling with complex issues or asking questions that the progressive narrative has no answers for.

I was recently privileged enough to have too much time on my hands and checked out one of those BuzzFeed questionnaires on the topic of how privileged I was. I can't recall the specific questions, but they're what you'd expect. What's your gender, what color's your skin, what sort of house did you grow up in, who paid for your education? And so on.

I didn't finish it.

Because at some point, I had to ask myself. Who the f*** puts themselves in the position that they can, with a straight face, construct such a questionnaire, and then sit in judgment as to its conclusions?

Privilege exists, no question, but when you reach the point that folks are applying metrics to it, you've entered the realm of the absurd.
posted by philip-random at 9:45 AM on May 3


So, why should wealthy, straight, cis, white males with privilege high scores on the pinball machine of life not apply the power privilege provides them to make some fucking changes?

They do. This comment makes me think you haven't been involved in any kind of activist groups in a long time or maybe ever? Literally every single issue I've been involved with over the last 30 years from divestment to AIDS to anti-racism and -sexism and -homophobia and economic justice and criminal justice reform has had educated, wealthy(ish) white people deeply involved as well. They are not hard to find.
posted by rtha at 9:48 AM on May 3 [15 favorites]


I don't quite understand why conservatives feel the need to undermine social justice politics in order to support their economic philosophy. The conservative movement in the U.S. would have a lot more supporters, especially in the present era of mass-scale fiscal irresponsibility, if it weren't equated with racist and homophobic sentiments.

If you look at racial disparity in the US and still think we live in a meritocracy, I feel like the inevitable result is racism, conscious or otherwise. This is one of the many things that drove me away from libertarianism.
posted by brundlefly at 9:50 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Privilege exists, no question, but when you reach the point that folks are applying metrics to it, you've entered the realm of the absurd.

If you've reached the point where you (general you, also specific you) are taking buzzfeed quizzes seriously, then I don't know what to tell you. The people who put that quiz together didn't put any more thought into it than they did into the ones about what character from GoT you are or what kind of dog you are or what city you should live in.
posted by rtha at 9:50 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


rtha, kewb, thank you for your responses. if all you want is for me to acknowledge that blacks still suffer employment discrimination and have more difficulty during police encounters, you got it.

what i will not acknowledge is any benefit flowing to me from these practices. i would end them if i could, but i'm just one retired guy in the countryside, and my responsibility is limited by my lack of power to change things, in light of which, "check your privilege" is just annoying. is there anything else i owe you?
posted by bruce at 9:51 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


what i will not acknowledge is any benefit flowing to me from these practices. i would end them if i could, but i'm just one retired guy in the countryside

Wait, so you are financially stable enough to be retired and you don't acknowledge that privilege got you there?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:52 AM on May 3 [12 favorites]


what i will not acknowledge is any benefit flowing to me from these practices

*shrugs*

You don't want to acknowledge the automatic benefit of the doubt you get because of your skin color, gender, and even age, well, okay. You don't have to acknowledge the oxygen in air either, but it's still there.
posted by rtha at 9:54 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


You don't think, as an example, that systematically excluding millions of able-bodied men and women from the labor force benefited you at all?
posted by mrbigmuscles at 9:56 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


To me, this sounds like "when you expose the situation for what it really is, it shuts down the conversation, because I can no longer defend my incorrect assumptions." I don't think that's a problem with using words like "privilege", "racism", and "sexism".

this is ignorant of how the concept is so often misused in conversation. as i've seen it practiced, it's more often a get-out-of-logic-free card that has the same debate-killing effect as when a fundamentalist christian tries to invoke the bible in a scientific discussion. you can condemn the disagreement as a right-winger thing, but i abandoned queer studies when i saw my fellow queers being indoctrinated into defending poorly understood bullshit theory by reflexively invoking privilege, using others' identities (entirely ignorant as to how they experience them) to effectively invalidate their arguments; they viewed this as empowering, but i found it embarrassing.

i think at this point any useful elements of the term are gained by understanding ethnocentrism, and what exists beyond that is divisive and accusatory.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 10:00 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]


Urgh. I find it completely impossible to think about this topic without twisting my brain into knots. Privilege exists in so many different forms, many of which are not really clearly defined, that I'm not sure it's a useful concept. Don't get me wrong, it absolutely exists, I'm just not sure that telling people to "check their privilege" is any better than telling them "don't judge others who may or may not have had the same lucky breaks in life that you have had," and I'm not sure that either one of those accomplishes the theoretical end goal of making he world a better place. I'm Jewish and have been both severely discriminated against and given a completely unfair leg up for being Jewish (was recently offered a job for having a very similar, and very Jewish, name to the company's CEO!) so I do understand where the author is coming from although I don't agree with him.
posted by miyabo at 10:01 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


no, mrbigmuscles, i don't believe it benefited my career in law. i am not going to apologize for being retired. if you cannot demonstrate a specific, cause and effect line of benefit, then privilege will have to remain an article of faith instead of science.
posted by bruce at 10:04 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


You are entitled to believe crazy and irrational things, but that the field of law systematically excluded women and minorities for many decades is simple fact. Of course that materially benefited the white dudes allowed into the profession -- they didn't have to compete with nearly as many qualified candidates for jobs, advancement, and other opportunities.

There's no individual fault here -- you are no more culpable than anyone else -- but it is honestly kind of bizarre to see the repeated denials of getting any benefits.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:10 AM on May 3 [35 favorites]


When people get defensive about how they "haven't been handed anything" because of their privilege, I get the impression they're imagining that SNL skit where Eddie Murphy goes under cover as a white guy. Yes, in the sense that nobody has literally pushed a pile of cash across a desk toward you, you haven't been handed anything.
posted by brundlefly at 10:11 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


When I see the phrases "check your privilege" and "cis scum," more than 99% of the time they're coming out of the mouth of some white cishet dude complaining about them than any kind of sincere activist. I think at this point there's kind of a perpetual motion machine of ignorant assholes hearing other ignorant assholes whining about the words and then going on to whine about them themselves.

And then everybody reacting to these people of course accepts their first principles unquestioningly, so eventually everybody is convinced there's some epidemic of sincere "check your privilege"-ing that needs to be Talked About (because anything that makes white cishet dudes upset needs to be addressed, even if they can't remember they made it up themselves). When in fact, what's happening is these right-wing goofballs are working themselves up not just over phrases they've mostly never heard used earnestly but instead over the very idea of privilege, and using pull-string straw-intersectional-feminists to rope more dopes in.
posted by Corinth at 10:13 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


when i got my j.d. in 1980, there were numerous women and minorities on the stage with me. i don't think the situation would have been more competitive, or that i would have suffered any, had there been even more.

what do you want me to do? 90% of my influence on society comes from my vote, i have only one and it usually goes to the democrat. if you want a national day of racial penance once a year, i might be open to that, the president (voted for him both times) could establish it by executive order, and it would be by no means the craziest or most offensive thing he ever did. i am not interested in doing penance every single day.
posted by bruce at 10:21 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Acknowledging that you have privilege on some axes is not the same as doing penance.
posted by jeather at 10:24 AM on May 3 [33 favorites]


Bruce, do you accept the idea that the actions of human beings might reflect unconscious prejudices?

Do you accept the idea that it is possible for hard-working, good people — good people who wish to see and in fact have even worked to promote racial equality — that these good people might still exercise those unconscious prejudices?

I understand that even if these ideas are true, it does not prove the cause-and-effect relationship that you asked us to demonstrate above. But until one of us can prove that relationship (or prove that there is no causality), I think the conversation would be more productive if we can talk about what we do or do not believe.

The American Bar Association produced a report titled Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession. You can find a summary of the findings here. I apologize for being unable to find the full report.

The title of the report hints at its findings. Minorities are underrepresented in your profession. No doubt some of the commenters in this thread believe that white privilege is at least part of the reason. I think you believe otherwise.

What do you think are some of the reasons responsible for this underrepresentation? You mentioned above that blacks still suffer from employment discrimination; do you think this is true in the legal profession?
posted by compartment at 10:39 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I find it completely boggling that an article from the Princeton Tory would get this kind of wider press. The intellectual wing of the right must be incredibly desperate if they're ready to anoint and elevate a 19-year-old college freshman over this.

Then again, something very similar happened with Ross Douthat - it really seems kind of like basically any time an Ivy League student says something conservatives really want to hear, they end up getting a book deal out of it.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:39 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


[A few comments deleted; this thread needs to not become a fight about a different inflammatory essay. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 AM on May 3


no, mrbigmuscles, i don't believe it benefited my career in law. i am not going to apologize for being retired. if you cannot demonstrate a specific, cause and effect line of benefit, then privilege will have to remain an article of faith instead of science.

bruce, you might be interested in this link, which I mentioned in a different thread recently: Partners in study gave legal memo a lower rating when told author wasn’t white.
posted by rtha at 10:48 AM on May 3 [12 favorites]


if you cannot demonstrate a specific, cause and effect line of benefit, then privilege will have to remain an article of faith instead of science.

And this, bruce, is how institutional racism/sexism/other isms are maintained. "I never saw it and you can't mathematically prove it, ergo, there's nothing wrong with a system that I personally benefit from if only by the fact that other people don't benefit from it."
posted by Etrigan at 10:49 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


what do you want me to do?

Well, you are retired now, so it's a little late. Actively mentoring women and/or persons of color, lobbying for your firm to pay attention to hiring and retention rates, those are things that sadly still need doing. I graduated from law school a full 17 years behind you, and at my first firm I encountered multiple partners who simply refused to work with female associates. You understand that billable hours is a huge factor in how successful an associate is and heavily impacts partner track potential, so having work preferentially given to male associates is a real problem. There was a partner in my firm who was infamous for holding meetings in the men's room to shake off women who had been assigned to his clients.

I'm not asking for penance. I'm asking for awareness, for paying attention and noticing that some people are hitting more speedbumps on the road of life than other people.
posted by ambrosia at 10:53 AM on May 3 [18 favorites]


I will put this issue to rest once and for all ( for me)--The concept of privilege can be, and is, useful is discussing/describing classes/groups of people vis a vis other classes/groups of people. It is almost useless in discussing/describing one individual unless it is in relation to another specific individual. When applied as a pejorative when discussing an individual with out reference to another specific individual and with out putting it in the context of the persons unique history, social characteristics and innate characteristics it is lazy thinking and will lead to endless disagreements, confusion and possible conflict. I am privileged by being a white male raised by working middle class parents compared to a black male raised by working middle class parents. I am privileged as an individual white male in relation to another individual only when life experiences, innate characteristics, other socio/economic variables etc are integrated into the comparison.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:55 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


I suppose it wil be dismissed as a "tone argument," or "concern trolling," but I've always found that "check your privilege" dismisses and alienates the person it's addressed to in a way that "not everyone has had your advantages" does not. Which is fine: I get it that someone who is being oppressed does not need to put "stop stepping on my neck" in polite terms. But it does mean that "check your privilege" is closer in meaning to "STFU" than it is an honest invitation for someone to consider starting points in life.
posted by tyllwin at 10:59 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]


At first I see this kid, his essay, and the fact that there is a publication called the Princeton Tory and my eyes roll so hard they might get stuck. Then I read "something very similar happened with Ross Douthat" and it makes me sad considering the odds rising that this kid ends up with a column in the New York Times due to his ability to hold a convenient ideology and string sentences together coherently at the same time.
posted by ndfine at 10:59 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


LOL, a college freshman had some deep thoughts.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:03 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I mean, it's just surreal that people in the media are taking a publication seriously that publishes articles like Reflections on Manliness, which begins "The first thing I noticed when I returned to Princeton from my hometown of Pittsburgh after Thanksgiving – and perhaps it is a strange thing to notice – is that there are a lot more effeminate men in Princeton than in southwestern Pennsylvania." But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:05 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


yes compartment, i acknowledge all that. unconscious prejudices can influence actions, and because they're unconscious, none of us can deny having them with full knowledge. i acknowledge that minorities are still underrepresented in the legal profession and that conscious and unconscious prejudice is part of that, along with the failure of the educational system to prepare them for law school, and other factors.

ambrosia, i'm aware of that too.
posted by bruce at 11:07 AM on May 3


If you're white and male in this world, you have fewer hurdles. If you came from a family that wasn't in poverty. If you're educated. If you're straight, Christian, young, not disabled. If you were born in North America or Western Europe. So, yes, you should check your privilege. That doesn't mean you can't have your nice things. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be proud of your achievements. It means you should acknowledge that privilege exists, and that it helped you get where you are. And you should try to eliminate the barriers that keep other people from achieving those very things you hold dear. You could have a little less scorn for those who are unable to have your life.
posted by theora55 at 11:13 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]


I dislike the concept of privilege, as it's used in this essay, for the same reason I dislike evolutionary psychology. They are both things that are obviously true, but don't really get the argument anywhere are easily abused intellectually.

It's obviously true that our evolution has molded how our thought processes work. After all, evolution has molded our brains which gives rise to our thought processes. But in practice actually getting anything useful out of that understanding is incredibly difficult. Instead the area seems to be infested by people with a pet theory that is a convenient "Just So" story to rationalize a belief they have anyway.

Want to believe that women shouldn't work outside the house...jump to men being hunters and women staying at the camp. Ignore the fact that you have to stray pretty far to gather a bunch of food. Yay! Evolutionary Psychology "proves" that women should stay at home.

Want to believe that men shouldn't raise kids and thus it's fine that family courts give custody to the mothers by a huge margin? Back to the imaginary tribes! Men went out hunting and women stayed at camp. Thus "showing" that women are innately the care givers and that men have no problem abandoning children.

Why, there's something in the bullshit for everyone! Well, everyone except someone who actually wants to find out what type effect evolution has really had on psychology, which is such a tricky delicate thing to work on that you have to really, really hope that "natural experiments" happen to pop up and that you can cleverly control for other, strong effects.

Privilege seems similar. It's become used to mean such a wide variety of things that it leads to similar "just so" stories. Race, sex, historical advantages between cultures, legal disadvantages, historical artifacts of prior legal disadvantages, and many other types of discrimination all rolled up into one thing we've reified into a single word.

And, because people being what they are, they've abused the concept and use it to create whatever "just so" story fits them at the moment.

Don't like that someone disagrees with you? They're blinded by their privilege. Don't want to admit that women have some advantages in society? Well, Male privilege. Want to shut someone up? Privilege. Privilege's all purposefulness seems to to let people, at least those already disposed to, ignore the hard process of actually rigorously stating their arguments and to, therefore, ignore counter arguments.

I fail to see what "privilege" lets you describe that can't be more accurately described with more can be used, but isn't I get the impression that the people using the more general language are trying to obfuscate something. So "privilege", not a fan.
posted by bswinburn at 11:18 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


On the bright side, "privilege"-speak is a fad that will pass away in a few years, along with "problematic" and all that, as the PC battlecry "that's offensive!" passed away eventually.

It may echo around for awhile, but eventually we'll return to more accurate ways of describing the relevant phenomena.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:20 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


If you're white and male in this world, you have fewer hurdles. If you came from a family that wasn't in poverty. If you're educated. If you're straight, Christian, young, not disabled. If you were born in North America or Western Europe.

My favourite thing about this comment is your own utter ignorance of your own privilege. It sounds very much written from the perspective of a white, well educated, North American, completely oblivious to the dynamics of other countries, particularly those that are majority non-white.
posted by modernnomad at 11:26 AM on May 3


My favourite thing about this comment is your own utter ignorance of your own privilege. It sounds very much written from the perspective of a white, well educated, North American, completely oblivious to the dynamics of other countries, particularly those that are majority non-white.

But that's not what we're remotely talking about.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:28 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Oh ok.
posted by modernnomad at 11:31 AM on May 3


If whiteness carries no advantages in any majority non-white country, how come having mixed white/Asian heritage, or having round eyes with double eyelids, is considered so beautiful in China these days?
posted by en forme de poire at 11:32 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


There's over a billion people in China. Just because you can find some anecdotes of westerners/whites finding marriage partners in China doesn't exactly prove that being "white in China" is an example of privilege.

I think sticking to societies you know is a good idea. Privilege is a valuable concept. Just because "x" is a privileged group in the USA doesn't mean it has to be a privileged group in China for the concept as a whole to remain valid.
posted by modernnomad at 11:37 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


great piece, i applaud this young man. he does, indeed, have a shitload of good character, especially for someone so young.

the human mind is very badly adapted for modern life. it's extremely difficult to distinguish between properties that apply to groups and properties that apply to individuals. we want so badly to believe that the feelings we have correspond to reality in some sense, but we're terrible as switching between reasoning practices that work for personal relationships and reasoning practices that work for collectivities or aggregates. they've really almost nothing in common, but our minds can't see that.

of course this young man is right - his particular family got him into a position to succeed by dint of hard work and character. but of course he's completely wrong, in that there are literally billions of people with identical or similar characters who are eating mud for dinner tonight.
posted by facetious at 11:40 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Just because you can find some anecdotes of westerners/whites finding marriage partners in China doesn't exactly prove that being "white in China" is an example of privilege.

lol, try actually reading what I wrote next time. I'm talking about beauty standards, not about white people getting laid.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:43 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


lol, try actually reading what I wrote next time. I'm talking about beauty standards, not about white people getting laid.


lol ok
posted by modernnomad at 11:45 AM on May 3


What was that you just accused someone else of? "Your own utter ignorance of your own privilege"?
posted by en forme de poire at 11:47 AM on May 3


just to clarify en forme de poire, have you spent a lot of time in china? Because the beauty standards here - surprisingly, for a billion people -- are not all entirely focused on white people.
posted by modernnomad at 11:48 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


There's over a billion people in China. Just because you can find some anecdotes of westerners/whites finding marriage partners in China doesn't exactly prove that being "white in China" is an example of privilege.

I think sticking to societies you know is a good idea. Privilege is a valuable concept. Just because "x" is a privileged group in the USA doesn't mean it has to be a privileged group in China for the concept as a whole to remain valid.


How about the fact that being white is an actual career in China?
posted by kafziel at 11:57 AM on May 3


I am kind of flabbergasted by all these accounts of debates being "shut down" by calls to check one's privilege. Is this actually happening anywhere but college coffeehouses and Tumblr?

My fellow white people, are you really feeling so oppressed, really? I mean, there are millions of white voices in the media/literature/politics, speaking free and unfettered, even when they speak nonsense or hatred. What is being "shut down"?

So I told this story elsewhere online yesterday. I was in a doctor's waiting room, and heard behind me a man loudly complaining that young black guys could say the n-word with impunity, but he couldn't. He went on, for quite a while, expressing a depth of indignant hurt that was truly astonishing. He was injured, this was unjust, this must not stand, freedom of speech!

Then I turned around, and saw he was talking to a black man. Who was looking at him expressionlessly, probably because this is Texas and he has seen enough shit go down that he was choosing the lesser evil of letting this fool run his mouth until he was tired. No telling what he had heard in his life, he was old enough to have white hair; I bet he had been through worse.

Then the nurse called my name and I had to go. I wish I had said something, but I was and am so aghast that I'm not sure what I could do, except apologize to the black man on behalf of non-asshole white people.

That is what this reminds me of. Privilege has made the skin of some people so thin that the merest hint that their views, their experiences, their needs are not the most important in the entire world that they raise a howling indignant wail of protest. Oh dark day, when a white person was asked to please let someone else talk for a change! Oh, the suffering and injustice of it!
posted by emjaybee at 11:58 AM on May 3 [58 favorites]


"Entirely focused on white people" is not what I wrote, and I don't know why you're so determined to misread me. All I'm saying is that a specifically white/Asian biracial background (and not, say, black/Asian) increasingly carries a particular cachet in industries like advertising and modeling in China. Is this something you dispute?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:04 PM on May 3


kafziel, that's pretty good; no argument that there's some weird shit that goes on here. It's somewhat similar to the minstrel acts in the US (until recently) but with more of a passive "stand here and smile" vibe.

But much like minstrels were a career, that doesn't make them privileged.

Anyway, my whole point was merely that "privileged" is not a universal phrase as interpreted in the mefi/tumblr/american internet space. It references mostly american social dynamics and as such is entirely valid - straight, white, men in north american space are assuredly 'privileged' as a systemic structure if not on an individual basis.

I was only trying to say that taking that statement and transforming it into a 'global statement' exhibited somewhat lack of self-awareness.
posted by modernnomad at 12:07 PM on May 3


All I'm saying is that a specifically white/Asian biracial background (and not, say, black/Asian) increasingly carries a particular cachet in industries like advertising and modeling in China. Is this something you dispute?

Yes, it is something I dispute, as someone married to a biracial person living in China.

Do you have statistics to back up your claim?
posted by modernnomad at 12:09 PM on May 3


Privilege has made the skin of some people so thin that the merest hint that their views, their experiences, their needs are not the most important in the entire world that they raise a howling indignant wail of protest.

And, of course, in the US we're all Bootstraps, so no one is willing to admit that they are standing on the shoulders of others when they do have some success. It's this insistence on being "self-made" (even though they had enormous advantages) that leads to dismantling the infrastructure that helped get them there.

It's "fuck you, got mine" but the latter two words are entirely unexamined. "Got mine," to them, means that despite all the "givens" they may have enjoyed, they had no more chance of success than a poor child of color born in poverty to a single mother--they just worked harder.
posted by maxwelton at 12:14 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


I find it odd that this, uh, essay was written by a young man who did not at all seem to understand the historical exclusion of Jews from higher education, either through quotas or more overt maneuvers such as rules around fraternity membership, etc. He could perhaps acknowledge the numerous lawsuits and anti-discrimination legislation in the 60s and 70s which made his entry into Princeton a bit easier.

Privilege is a nuanced thing; it's not monolithic. It's where you end up in a web of supporting connections and where you started in that web. I have privilege in some areas: white, cis, relatively able-bodied, a family culture that valued education. But I grew up "poor" in a rich part of town, was dealing with untreated depression for years, lived through family turmoil and divorce and my father's alcoholism and years-long unemployment; I was a teenager and then a young woman when the world of popular culture was an even more toxic stew of female representation than it is today (I locate the difference in the lack of models--what I wouldn't have given for Riotgrrl in 1973). And so on, and so on. There are constant inflections in one's privilege, which is why it's useful to try and lift the discussion away from individuals and into the structural underpinnings-- the web where we find ourselves or where we make our way, what our supports are, what forces are pushing back. This young man has made the mistake of thinking that he is central to the discussion, which is again a simple display of privilege. Fortunately he's young, and may grow to understand that many things are bigger than he is, and that the social power he's wielding through this essay may be a temporary thing or a permanent thing-- but it's a marker of privilege in its rawest form.
posted by jokeefe at 12:21 PM on May 3 [16 favorites]


Nope, I don't have statistics either, just personal anecdotes from mono- and biracial friends who have spent time in China. I do think that the difference in how someone like Lou Jing was treated, with people calling her skin tone "disgusting," vs. how common white/Asian ancestry is in advertising, is pretty telling and is in line with whiteness generally being a more favored class over blackness even outside of the USA.

I also think it's weird that you're rejecting out of hand the notion that privilege can mean anything in a global context. A lot of postcolonialist thought looks at how, for example, standards of beauty, class, and respectability are imported from colonial (or economic) powers. This isn't an idea that was invented on Tumblr in the last three years.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:35 PM on May 3


And I mean, to get back to specifics, there's also things like the rise of double-eyelid plastic surgery, as well as rhinoplasty to make noses more aquiline (as opposed to smaller), over the last several years.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:51 PM on May 3


> if you cannot demonstrate a specific, cause and effect line of benefit, then privilege will have to remain an article of faith instead of science.

Legal theories are neither science nor faith, but it's very important to get them right.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:04 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


not that girl's thoughtful comment illustrates why I think this

It does mean that -- all other things being equal -- a woman or person of color is likely to have had to work harder to get to the same place.

is not useful. Or rather it is useful so far as it goes but too many people don't actually internalize that "all other things being equal" properly, because all other things are very rarely equal. Which is not to say that privilege isn't an important concept. It clearly is. But it's like BMI; a societal measure useful across a population which can fail in important ways when looking at an individual. I've expanded on that point before and nothing here made me change my mind one way or the other given that college freshman very rarely offer brilliant insights into life experiences that no-one else has thought of before. What with being, you know, college freshman.

and the primary reason it provokes outrage, is that switching from a systemic context to an individual context is belittling.

I'm not sure I'd say belittling but it is certainly problematically reductive.
posted by Justinian at 1:34 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.)

If his goal is to pass along his valuables to future generations in the same way environmentalism does, then his goal is called socialism.

But I guess maybe his idea of environmentalism stops at his property line.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:37 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Finally, someone with the balls to criticize what's really wrong with Obama's drone program: Its callous disregard for safe and responsible glide slopes.

Yeah - someone should probably tell this guy to check his adverbs.
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:06 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Ugh, similar background; I read his name and thought "this better not be another fucking Ashkenazi boy hiding his racism behind the Holocaust." Can we just start kicking them out of the tribe?
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:25 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


I really want to get "PRIVILEGE IS NOT PERSONAL; IT'S STRUCTURAL" tattooed across my chest for future discussions.
posted by naju at 2:27 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


My only experience of this "check your privilege" thing is reading about it online. I've never actually heard or even read anyone using it to tell someone off in real life.

My understanding of it was just the common human decency of "not judging a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes" and also of acknowledging all the things that went into helping you get ahead. I never thought it meant you were supposed to be ashamed of yourself for being born on third or even second base, or that your accomplishments are nullified.

It just means you can't say things like "a lot of poor people are born lazy"
posted by maggiemaggie at 2:28 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


Even if it is true? Obviously it sucks if people say these things meanly or intending to hurt, but most of us benefit from various structural advantages. I benefitted because my parents and grandparents were given access to highly subsidized educations at (mostly) public universities, plus other assorted programs that helped them to accumulate a middle class level of wealth and stability. Yes, they worked hard, but millions of equally hardworking Americans (of other races, genders, and sexualities) were denied access to those same programs and their descendants don't have access to that accumulated social and economic capital. My own success (such as it is) has benefitted enormously from that.
As a white, male, heterosexual American in possession of a working knowledge of history, I am well aware of the ways in which I have benefited from winning the cultural lottery, so to speak. Pointing this out to me is a fairly cheap, intellectually lazy move unless we are having a conversation specifically about privilege or it comes up for some other reason, or I'm being a bigoted twat.

But there's a difference between privilege and comparing whose ancestors were more badly mistreated. I come from a family of Irish Catholics, a group that historically wasn't treated very well during the 19th century in the U.S., and endured countless other abuses prior to emigrating around the beginning of that century. It's likely that every one of my ancestors prior to my own father endured some discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic identity, and it's possible that if it hadn't been for the restrictions placed on them, my family would own a bunch of mills or coal plants, or whatever. Unless you're descended from a line of people who were exclusively upper-class members of the dominant culture in which they happened to reside, there's probably some discrimination handicap placed upon your line of descent, somewhere through the centuries. Surely there are groups more historically oppressed than others, but this becomes a bit of a ludicrous moral exercise, trying to decide who deserve and who does not deserve success in whatever socioeconomic form, by applying that formula retroactively to determine who, among those living today, has had the most advantages in aggregate. That isn't what I think of when I think of privilege.

Privilege is the +2 bonus. I get a +2 bonus on every thing I do, just because I look white, I am a man, and I possess the cultural capital of an American in 2014. It is easier for me to get a job, find an apartment, or start a business, for absolutely no reason other than who I am to society. I have had advantages in my life due to my parents' education level, what schools I went to, etc., but those are factors that vary for everyone. Privilege, and its opposite, are imposed regardless of any other factor, not for any rational reason but because our society is still filled with people in positions of power and institutions that discriminate.

You get into very strange territory when you begin equating advantages rendered by family, upbringing, etc. with systemic privilege; if we conflate these two categories, everybody who succeeds socioeconomically can be suspected of being undeserving of it. The obvious example is a WASPy Mitt Romney type, inheriting vast family wealth and vacationing in the Hamptons, but there are also a lot of rags-to-riches WASPy folk who don't fit that narrative. This is, I think, the primary reason why privilege-checking tends to piss people off. It usually ends up with somebody telling somebody else that their accomplishments are illegitimate, or that their family didn't earn whatever success they have achieved, or some variation on that theme.

On preview, this works pretty well as a tl;dr:
I really want to get "PRIVILEGE IS NOT PERSONAL; IT'S STRUCTURAL" tattooed across my chest for future discussions.
posted by deathpanels at 2:30 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


The times I have heard "Check your privilege" used seriously, it was not in any way an ad hominem attack but a reminder that whatever the person just said was racist/sexist/classist/etc. in addition to being stupid. I've seen it used mainly as a response to someone making some sort of "Why don't they just...?" statement. (Why don't poor people just get jobs? Why don't women just punch guys who harass them? Why don't fat people just go to the gym?) It's always been, in my experience, a way of pointing out that someone is ignoring huge structural inequalities and realities as they condescendingly judge other people.
posted by jaguar at 2:47 PM on May 3 [17 favorites]


"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."

Did I stumble into the Lyttle Lytton thread?
posted by JackFlash at 3:00 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


"Check your privilege," I believe, came into usage fairly recently as a sort of internet shorthand for people who were already familiar with the Peggy McIntosh essay and a good portion of the dialogue around that. I first heard it on MetaFilter a few years ago, I'm pretty sure. It doesn't surprise me that some young people familiar with internet conversations about this stuff have migrated it into in-person discussions. But yeah, it's shorthand. "Check" = you're on board with the baseline understanding of privilege, now check yourself because you seem to be ignoring that with your arguments. "Your" = check how the arguments YOU'RE making are informed by the privilege you've inherited. So that works in some conversations. But with people like Tal Fortgang you meet outside of your savvy cloistered bubble, who aren't on board with the baseline stuff about privilege, using that phrase can be unproductive. This is a person who believes that the existence of power structures, and the idea of institutions supporting power structures, is "imaginary" and "conspiratorial." Forget checking privilege, this person needs a much more remedial discussion, assuming absolutely no agreement or even understanding of daily "mainstream consensus" reality. You're not going to get anywhere with that angle.

So I guess my point here is - know your audience when you're having discussions about this stuff. Because the web of structural privilege is an incredibly important, powerful concept. It's one that radically shifted the way I thought about things. But if the person you're speaking to is not primed to accept some pretty key underpinnings of that, then you should either have a much longer conversation, or you should expect it to feel like an ad hominem attack when it's not intended that way.
posted by naju at 3:03 PM on May 3 [9 favorites]


This young man has made the mistake of thinking that he is central to the discussion, which is again a simple display of privilege.

If it's a mistake, it's one that's actively encouraged by the phrasing "check your privilege," which very much inserts the person it's addressed to in the middle of the discussion.

I'm not sure it is a mistake, though. Everyone wants to be part of the story, and the camera focus tends toward the first-person for everyone's movie by dint of human nature.

I think the problem is less that the privileged want to participate as human beings tend to, and more that we don't always easily find a good part to play. In crude and shorthand form, the part that is often offered is the semi-oblivious standard of relative ease, and even where it may be well type-cast it's uncomfortably reductive.

The understanding I eventually found my way to was this: the important bit of the concept of privilege is to be able to imagine how some things that are easy for some people can be difficult for others, for reasons that have little to do with character -- and worse, reasons that can be socially artificial.

There are probably merits to other formulations and deeper looks, but this one gives me something to do: exercise my imagination, my empathy, and where I have opportunities, try to ease the struggle, particularly the artificial ones.

This is, of course, probably what many saying "check your privilege" are trying to orient people to do. But it's not hard for me to imagine why that approach doesn't make it easy for some to find their way there. Perhaps we should make it easier.
posted by weston at 3:08 PM on May 3


I am pleased this discussion of privilege has occurred. I swear not a day goes by on MetaFilter that some comment is not made, with scorn or derision, re: the privileged and the evil, unfairness, stupidity, pain or anguish they have brought forth. Seldom is this complemented by the fact that in most cases it is also the privileged that have supported and/or brought forth many of the scientific advances, humanitarian initiatives, artistic institutions, civil rights progress that we have experienced. Let's be clear--privilege (and it is a very real thing) is a privilege, a responsibility, an obligation and best worn with humility. But it is just a thing, neither intrinsically evil nor good, just a status. I personally hope that in future discussions the phrase is used with caution and in the spirit that classes of people are usually neither saints nor sinners.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:27 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Being aware of privilege is (or should be) more about treating those who have less privilege with kindness and understanding, and acting to dismantle the systems that create privilege, than self-flagellation

Here's the problem. I agree that some people start with a better deck of cards and are thus dealt much better hands. And if you talk about wanting to eliminate the racism that gave some people shitty decks? I'm on board. But when you say you want to eliminate all privilege everywhere? Fuck no, I'm not on board, because you're talking about trying to eliminate something that has been the focus of my adult existence for many years.

I sacrifice to give my child as many advantages as I can. I want to put as many good cards in her deck as possible so she can't fall too far. I want to acquire a sack full of money and give it to her when I die. And I'll kill myself working if I have to in order to make sure the sack is big enough. And if I find out the other kids are getting bigger sacks, I'll go out and work more.

I want her to have educational privilege, and socio-economic privilege. I want her to have as much of a boost as I can give her. So yes, I see privilege, I see the "born on third and thinks they hit a home run." The difference is I hope they are born on third. It means I've done my job.
posted by corb at 3:33 PM on May 3


I sacrifice to give my child as many advantages as I can. I want to put as many good cards in her deck as possible so she can't fall too far. I want to acquire a sack full of money and give it to her when I die. And I'll kill myself working if I have to in order to make sure the sack is big enough. And if I find out the other kids are getting bigger sacks, I'll go out and work more.

That's all well and good, but your child is no better, no smarter, and no more important than a child whose parents cannot do for them what you want to do for yours.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:35 PM on May 3 [11 favorites]


The difference is I hope they are born on third. It means I've done my job.

That's awesome, but in this instance you're not the problem. The problem is when your children come to the conclusion that the position they've lucked into by being born your children isn't luck of the draw, but due to some inherent merit in themselves. Or worse, that people who aren't as lucky have an inherent flaw.
posted by Mooski at 3:37 PM on May 3 [18 favorites]


I really want to get "PRIVILEGE IS NOT PERSONAL; IT'S STRUCTURAL" tattooed across my chest

Sounds like a personal approach rather than a structural one.
posted by weston at 3:39 PM on May 3


Right, the problem would be if your child then grew up and went to Princeton and wrote a condescending editorial in the Princeton Tory about how the fact that her mother struggled and sacrificed meant that the concept of "privilege" did not apply to her and then was promptly given a column in the WSJ and a book deal probably. (And even then that wouldn't be your fault.)
posted by en forme de poire at 3:42 PM on May 3 [8 favorites]


Seldom is this complemented by the fact that in most cases it is also the privileged that have supported and/or brought forth many of the scientific advances, humanitarian initiatives, artistic institutions, civil rights progress that we have experienced.

I'm so glad someone's finally standing up for the privileged! God knows their voices have been silenced too long!
posted by asterix at 3:46 PM on May 3 [10 favorites]


Sounds like a personal approach rather than a structural one.

If that's a joke, cool! If it's a criticism then I'm curious what you're on about.
posted by naju at 3:56 PM on May 3


Asterisk--I sure see your comment as a petty and unnecessarily snarky response to the post. You excerpted the one phrase that somehow annoyed you--or maybe there was more. Nothing about responsibility, obligation humility duty etc. My post was hardly a celebration of privilege but it was a modest reproach to class based thinking. Oh well, part of life on the Metafilter.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:58 PM on May 3


roomthreeseventeen: "That's all well and good, but your child is no better, no smarter, and no more important than a child whose parents cannot do for them what you want to do for yours" I'm not sure how that is even related to his post. You are right but how is this a response to the post. I do agree that priviege does not confer importance or being better but it may convey a less stressful fulfilling life.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:04 PM on May 3


I'm not sure how that is even related to his post. You are right but how is this a response to the post

corb was talking about reasons we shouldn't try to dismantle the way privilege works right now. What I'm saying is that if we did try to dismantle it, somehow, all kids would start off on a more level playing field.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:12 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I sure see your comment as a petty and unnecessarily snarky response to the post. You just had to excerpt the one phrase that somehow annoyed you.

Yes, I posted in a more sarcastic tone than I usually try to adopt in conversations like this. My apologies. I stand behind the sentiment 100%, though; I found your reminder patronizing and, worse, redundant. We are constantly being reminded that the privileged have done good in the world. Entire media organizations are devoted to little else.

(I could also really have done without the strong hint of "don't speak ill of your betters" in your comment.)
posted by asterix at 4:12 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I thought you were being (hilariously) snarky until the very serious "let's be clear," rmhsinc. I kind of wanted to riff off that myself, but I probably would have taken the tack of naievely wondering why the privileged had created all the wonderful stuff you listed while the underprivileged hadn't managed to (a: because they're lazy!).

It was being pointed out how corb's kids are going to have a leg up on other kids, and that it's important to try to help those other kids with things like school lunches and preschool and tutoring and scholarships and so on, so they aren't weighed down by the lack of parental resources.

(Also corb is a woman, just so you know!)
posted by Corinth at 4:12 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Let's be clear--privilege (and it is a very real thing) is a privilege, a responsibility, an obligation and best worn with humility

So... what you're saying is that it's a burden? A burden that is felt most by... the white man?

Guys. Guys. I have an amazing idea for a rebrand!
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:13 PM on May 3 [14 favorites]


But when you say you want to eliminate all privilege everywhere? Fuck no, I'm not on board

No one is saying "eliminate all privilege" because that's a near-incoherent stance for anyone to take. Again, it's about awareness of the way society invisibly confers benefits to you through inequity. If anything it's ultimately about eliminating inequity; the privilege is just often a symptom of that inequity. So the question is whether you selfishly want your child to benefit from inequity at the expense of others. For example, you working hard to give your child a more comfortable life? That's perfectly normal and reasonable. You advocating policies that benefit your daughter while causing harm to her black classmates? That's another matter. (And awareness of privilege can help you tell the difference between the former and latter.)
posted by naju at 4:17 PM on May 3 [12 favorites]


I think I said a privilege, responsibility and obligation--not a burden.
The phrase "so what you are saying " is quite often an attempt to insert your thoughts regardless of what is said. OK, if you feel better knowing what i said feel free to say it--but I said privilege not burden.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:21 PM on May 3


I am well aware of the ways in which I have benefited from winning the cultural lottery, so to speak. Pointing this out to me is a fairly cheap, intellectually lazy move unless we are having a conversation specifically about privilege or it comes up for some other reason, or I'm being a bigoted twat.

My guess is that the circumstances under which the author of the linked article is typically asked to "check his privilege" fall under your "unless" clause.
posted by escabeche at 4:28 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


"I could also really have done without the strong hint of "don't speak ill of your betters" in your comment"--is that what i said? "strong hint". I just don't see the point of speaking ill of others as a group (privileged, underprivileged, poor, wealthy, black, white) period.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:29 PM on May 3


I want to acquire a sack full of money and give it to her when I die.

I'm planning the same. We want our kids to have life easier than most people do. But I'm not going train my kids to pretend that they don't have it easier than most people do. And I'm sure as hell not going to tell him that, because my grandfather, like Tal Fortgang's grandfather, worked hard in a factory, or because lots of my ancestors, like lots Tal Fortgang's ancestors, were murdered by their non-Jewish neighbors, they have it just as hard as a poor kid does. They won't. I'm seeing to it. And I'm seeing to it that they know it.
posted by escabeche at 4:35 PM on May 3 [20 favorites]


Back on the OP, Fortgang's new-found celebrity is not without a few complications - people have looked back through his twitstream and found support for Otzma, the radical rightwing Israeli political party, in the context of a call to "end the Muslim occupation of Israel", and unfavorable comparisons of the Palestinians to Hitler. Also, tweets advising black people to stop glorifying "gangster culture" and thus giving others reason to "suspect" them, shortly after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

None of this is likely to do other than endear him to the American right, of course, and it probably locks in that Fox News internship, but it does make me thankful, and not for the first time, that Twitter didn't exist when I was a teenager.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:52 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


I just want to say that while privilege may be used recklessly or ineptly to shut down entire conversations, using it to shut down individual people isn't always a bad thing, because a lot of people of privilege (men especially) are basically societally trained to pontificate and bullshit as if they know what they're on about and their opinion matters all the time and other people can't get a goddamn word in edgewise. (Look at timed studies of university classes if you need proof that is is really hard to get dudes to shut up so women can get a word in edgewise.)
posted by NoraReed at 4:53 PM on May 3 [24 favorites]


running order squabble fest, now I'm totally reading through his Twitter where he describes himself as a Scalia groupie.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:11 PM on May 3


You advocating policies that benefit your daughter while causing harm to her black classmates? That's another matter.

Here's the problem - it is not that simple.

If there was a school that said "We only want to accept the children of Hispanic parents, no black kids allowed," I would agree that was unearned (and bullshit, bad) privilege,and fight against it tooth and nail. But that's a bit of a strawman, because that's not how stuff works these days. That's not how privilege manifests.

But let's suppose there's a school that says "We will only accept children who score above the 90th percentile on standardized tests." That school is probably a good school for my kid to be in. The teachers don't have to start with remedial or even mediocre math and English - they can jump right to more advanced material. The children will all learn better speech and do better, by being around each other, because children are imitative as hell. They will rise to higher heights than the children who do not go to that school. It could be argued that the children who remain behind are harmed in some way - they don't have those higher achieving classmates to learn from, for example, and they don't have the benefit of that advanced teaching.

There's nothing preventing children from any particular race from scoring highly on those tests. But some of my daughter's peers might have had parents from a lower socioeconomic bracket. They might have spoken fewer words, with poorer grammar, in the home. They may have had less books in the home. And that's even before we get to the issue of who can afford to hire a tutor. My daughter is privileged to live in the home of two people who have relatively extensive vocabularies and own over 2000 books. She routinely scores above those percentiles as a matter of course. So any schools that have those gates will benefit my daughter while potentially "harming" some of her classmates.

But that doesn't mean that kind of privilege is wrong and bad. Nor is that kind of privilege correctable. So much of what children are comes from environmental factors that are beyond the reach of government to control even if they did want to.

And those privileges - the privileges of education - those were earned privileges. I come from illiterate farmer stock. They crawled their way up to literacy and education. I didn't earn them - but my forefathers did. To say that these benefits I have that I am passing along are unearned is bullshit. I am what I am because I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants deserve their due.

And the problem? The real problem? I really do think that most privilege along racial lines is based on socioeconomic or perceived socioeconomic status. And so tell me - am I required to hamstring myself, my child, just because other people have been wrongfully hamstrung in the past?
posted by corb at 5:37 PM on May 3


To say that these benefits I have that I am passing along are unearned is bullshit.

Why? Seriously, what of those benefits were earned by the person who is benefiting? That. Is. Privilege.
posted by Etrigan at 5:48 PM on May 3 [12 favorites]


As a white, male, heterosexual American in possession of a working knowledge of history, I am well aware of the ways in which I have benefited from winning the cultural lottery

You almost surely aren't—that's the thing. Privilege goes deeper than socioeconomic advantage.

You can't really be aware of all the ways, day to day, this privilege has affected you, has affected the way you think the world works, the thoughts that you allow yourself to have, the way you have been taught even how to imagine yourself, your feeling of place and membership, what futures are open to you, the way you assume you are normative or still have an inside track on universal human experience, the way you think you won't ever have to change your worldview to make yourself less central, the degree to which your worldview has ever been challenged instead of reinforced, the way that if you were ever excluded from something, what you had instead was plenty, enough, or better. A lot of what privilege is about is the luxury of ignorance.

(Also, "it's not personal; it's structural" sounds like a caption for a New Yorker cartoon depicting a socialite walking blithely past a hobo. Advise against the tattoo.)
posted by bleep-blop at 5:48 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


And now, a song for Tal Fortang...

"If you give into them every time they cry, they will become little tyrants, and they won't remember why. Then when they are thwarted by people in later life, they will become psychotic, and won't make an ideal husband or wife..."

As a white male, all I can say is that I am very glad this snotnosed spewer of poisonous, self-justified privilege is going to grow up to find himself a permanent minority... that gives me hope. Unless, of course, he chooses to leave America and illegally settle in Palestine. (He's got the right mindset for it.)
posted by markkraft at 5:55 PM on May 3


And so tell me - am I required to hamstring myself, my child, just because other people have been wrongfully hamstrung in the past?

You and your child live in the same country that these "other" people live in. So, yes, you are required to care about what happens to them.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:03 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


I realize it's complicated, but I'm really not clear on why trying to give a leg up to those who have less privilege / racial and socioeconomic benefits than you necessarily requires sacrificing your child, or whatever. It's not a zero sum game. She can succeed in all the ways you'd like and at the same time, both of you can work to make things better for those around you. You can use the benefits you've been afforded to help the situation and neither of you needs to suffer. (Unless you believe that capitalism necessarily forces all players against each other, but that's a separate discussion.)
posted by naju at 6:12 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


There's nothing preventing children from any particular race from scoring highly on those tests.

Some children? True. Children of a particular race in general? False to fact.

But some of my daughter's peers might have had parents from a lower socioeconomic bracket. They might have spoken fewer words, with poorer grammar, in the home.

If you're going to make a big deal about home environment being important for academic achievement, you might want to acquaint yourself with basic sociolinguistics. (There's no such thing as "poorer grammar". There are different dialects with different grammatical rules, some of which are higher status.)

So much of what children are comes from environmental factors that are beyond the reach of government to control even if they did want to.

This is an article of faith.
posted by asterix at 6:19 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Corb's use of the phrase "poorer grammar" is especially telling, because there is an idea that there is one single "correct" grammar and that is the one that is approved by whichever group of white dudes write the dictionary. Most groups of folks from different racial or economic backgrounds who speak English in a way that is coded as "improper" are using a completely legitimate grammar with rules for speaking it correctly, it's just that knowing how to use it isn't valued at all by society because it's what poor folks and POC use. So a lot of people end up having to learn a second vernacular-- the "proper vernacular"-- and instead of getting the credit they deserve for being able to switch between totally different speaking styles, (which we're totally happy to grant to, say, novelists who create cants for their books, or scholars who easily read Victorian English and understand its subtleties), we give them shit for speaking "bad english".

You can see the same thing develop in txt message/IM shorthand, except it's generally coded in ageism instead of the straight-up racism (and occasional classism) that you get from people talking about "good English".
posted by NoraReed at 6:23 PM on May 3 [10 favorites]


So you learn to code-switch like a lot of people (more than you appear to think) do.

Speaking a vernacular that isn't widely understood is incredibly confusing to non-native speakers.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:31 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


"that doesn't mean that kind of privilege is wrong and bad. Nor is that kind of privilege correctable . . . those were earned privileges.. . . I didn't earn them - but my forefathers did. To say that these benefits I have that I am passing along are unearned is bullshit. I am what I am because I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants deserve their due."

That can be a particularly dangerous argument to play with, methinks.
posted by markkraft at 6:35 PM on May 3


Speaking a vernacular that isn't widely understood is incredibly confusing to non-native speakers.

Bug? Or feature?
posted by asterix at 6:41 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


This privilege literally is the privilege not to have to listen, to decide what tone people must take before you will consider their point, to choose to ignore what they say because you have decided its a lecture, or jargon, or dogma.

If you're really an ally, you don't make the other person do the work. You may not like what they say or how they say it, but you don't respond to it by falling back on the privilege of deciding it therefore is not your problem.

If someone tells you to check your pivilege, it's worth starting by asking if they may be right, rather than dogmatic lecturers who can safely be ignored.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:10 PM on May 3 [8 favorites]


[Deleted some comments. Neither high-handed "I don't care about this" statements nor the ensuing snark barrage improve the discussion. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 7:13 PM on May 3


Bunny, if some one says "check your privilege" it seems to me a reasonable response, before all that much self examination, is to say "please be specific about what i said/did" that lead you to say that. If that leads to something like "if I have to tell you there is no point" or "you won't see it any way because the privileged are blind to their own privilege" then it is time to take a walk. If it is a set of facts or relatively objective observations then one might listen and evaluate.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:22 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.
This is from the essay linked to by naju above that is supposed to have started the whole "check your privilege" idea.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:38 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Sorry, but which one is it? "Check your privilege" as in "here's the coat check, and here's the privilege check, you can leave it there and go in and have a nice discussion" or "check OUT your privilege, pay attention to it"? I haven't heard the phrase before now. I assume it's the latter?
posted by bluebelle at 8:50 PM on May 3


It's the latter. I mean, I suppose you could use it as the former, but to me, "check your privilege" has always meant "yo, pay attention to the fact that you're a straight, white, cisgender straight guy."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:03 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


If someone tells you to check your pivilege,

They're using slogan-y academic jargon, which ironically indicates privilege.
posted by spaltavian at 9:31 PM on May 3 [6 favorites]


I can assure you the term "privilege," and the phrase "check your privilege," has moved beyond academia, but by all means refute a complicated discussion with a sick burn.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:13 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]




Back on the OP, Fortgang's new-found celebrity is not without a few complications - people have looked back through his twitstream and found support for Otzma, the radical rightwing Israeli political party, in the context of a call to "end the Muslim occupation of Israel", and unfavorable comparisons of the Palestinians to Hitler. Also, tweets advising black people to stop glorifying "gangster culture" and thus giving others reason to "suspect" them, shortly after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

"Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!"
posted by homunculus at 10:19 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


"Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!"

That means @PastramiOnWry deleted his account. It existed. I saw it and I saw people this morning making fun of the tweets posted on it. Just in case anyone thinks people are making it up for laffs or something.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:25 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Back on the OP, Fortgang's new-found celebrity is not without a few complications - people have looked back through his twitstream and found support for Otzma, the radical rightwing Israeli political party, in the context of a call to "end the Muslim occupation of Israel", and unfavorable comparisons of the Palestinians to Hitler. Also, tweets advising black people to stop glorifying "gangster culture" and thus giving others reason to "suspect" them, shortly after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Hahaha, wow. Of course he does.
posted by kafziel at 11:01 PM on May 3


Academics and material success are not the only metrics to measure a school by. The intellectual fulfillment of your child has to be balanced with social needs. It is good for kids to be in mixed socioeconomic and ability classes in the outcome of adults who can work and play and learn with a wide range of other people.

I find it easiest to be around highly educated bookish English-speakers with liberal values (metafilter in RL) But what a tiny insulated world that is.

Your kids are better off as human beings in a school where resources go to flexible individualized teaching of a diverse group, not schools carefully streamed by academic ability only.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:25 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


There's not really any need to make up ignorant, racist 19-year-old conservatives for laffs because America is so chock full of Fortgangs.
posted by Corinth at 1:26 AM on May 4


Comrades, we must make the kulaks come to the struggle session of their own volition, no?
posted by TSOL at 1:57 AM on May 4


[Mcintosh, 1990] gives privilege a more precise meaning, i.e. a state of having unearned advantage and/or conferred dominance.

The choice of these four words make the meaning so much clearer and is my own go-to explanation of it when trying to communicate these issues. I wonder if there's a reason if it's not used more often?

Similarly, "Privilege" may be the more virulent meme, but I wonder (?) that it's main problem is just that it triggers too many strongly held preconceptions around what was and remains a technical sociological concept.

Which results in frustratingly intellectually sophomoric essays like this one.
posted by polymodus at 2:23 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


Comrades, we must make the kulaks come to the struggle session of their own volition, no?

No one's trying to tell you what to think. They're just suggesting that you give thinking a try once in a while and look at actual evidence.

Here, try this example:

"Obama isn't wrong per se, he's just misapprehending the problem. Stop glorifying gangster culture and giving people reason to suspect you."-- Tal Fortgang's Twitter, since deleted.

And I didn't even have to make something up out of whole cloth and Bircher paranoia to make him look bad.
posted by kewb at 5:27 AM on May 4


I realize it's complicated, but I'm really not clear on why trying to give a leg up to those who have less privilege / racial and socioeconomic benefits than you necessarily requires sacrificing your child, or whatever. It's not a zero sum game.

in an economy that's not expanding fast enough to accommodate all the people entering the workforce, in a country where there's only x amount of spots for admissions to the top tier of schools or certain occupations such as doctors and in a society where taxes have often been capped to a level that's insufficient for everything that needs to be done, it is in fact a zero sum game

in our current situation, there is no way you can expand opportunities or income for someone without it costing someone else something

perhaps we can make a pretty good case for the justice of that happening, but one must look at the reactions of those opposed - they clearly feel they're going to lose something if certain policies go through and they're probably correct - we are asking people to make sacrifices that they don't want to make

this is why there's so much blowback over privilege and other related issues and we need to understand that
posted by pyramid termite at 5:31 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


There's not really any need to make up ignorant, racist 19-year-old conservatives for laffs because America is so chock full of Fortgangs.

Agreed. Just that some people may be unfamiliar with what it looks like when someone deletes their Twitter account. kewb's link to Matt Binder's blog has most of the worst stuff, anyhow.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:15 AM on May 4


unconscious prejudices can influence actions, and because they're unconscious, none of us can deny having them with full knowledge. i acknowledge that minorities are still underrepresented in the legal profession and that conscious and unconscious prejudice is part of that, along with the failure of the educational system to prepare them for law school, and other factors.

Bruce, thank you for the answer. Setting aside the issue of privilege, it looks like we agree about some cause-and-effect relationships. More broadly speaking — beyond just the legal profession — I think another effect of unconscious prejudice is that it tends to make class mobility more difficult for black Americans on the whole. This gets back to the original point you made, which began by hinting at class privilege:

i acknowledge the privilege of being born in america, and in particular, a nice part of america.

privilege based on race is more problematic. does it mean i owe you something more than the black guy over there, something more than the standard minimal courtesy due everyone? i am not consciously aware of such a debt.


The question reminds me of Scalia's statement in Adarand Constructors v. Peña that, "Under our Constitution there can be no such thing as either a creditor or a debtor race. That concept is alien to the Constitution's focus upon the individual."

I wish someone other than Scalia had said this, because I don't like Scalia. (For some reason I thought it was O'Connor, but I was wrong). But I think there are contexts in which his assertion is helpful, and there are contexts in which it is extraordinarily unhelpful.

E.g., as you suggest above, everyone is due the same common courtesy regardless of race.

But as ambrosia suggests, it can be a good idea for someone to actively seek out and mentor minority workers in their profession.

The reason I think this assertion is helpful here is because I do not think the question of white privilege is a question of debtor and creditor races. It is a question of what we owe ourselves, and how we owe it to ourselves to behave. Bear with me here.

I think that different people are going to have different beliefs about what exactly constitutes a morally just response to privilege. I think it is possible to have a morally just response based primarily on what a person owes oneself. And what is owed is an honest acknowledgment of the privileges that have been afforded.

Acknowledging that privilege informs how a person understands certain issues, and it requires that person to act in certain ways in order to remain true to his or her own values.

I agree that it is a privilege to have been born in America, especially a nice part of America. And you also acknowledged that in a straightforward way.

Rtha did us a favor by linking to research demonstrating how a study group — partners in law firms — subjected identical work to different standards of scrutiny depending on the race of the worker. It is a concrete, specific example of a wide set of subconscious, racially biased behaviors. I think we both agree that it is a privilege to be judged by a more forgiving set of standards than your peers.

It is difficult to say that any one specific white person is has benefitted from such privilege, but, on the whole, I think we can say with a high degree of confidence that white people, in general, tend to benefit from privilege like this.

No one is asking you to apologize for being professionally judged by a fair standard, just as no reasonable person is asking the essay writer to apologize for being born into affluence. In general, I think that people who talk about white privilege are asking other people to simply acknowledge and keep in mind that other people do not benefit from this privilege. This is true even of people who make odious, racist statements.

For example, no one is asking Cliven Bundy to apologize for being born a wealthy, white rancher, who inherited a successful family business that affords him a comfortable living. But when he criticizes black people on porches with no jobs, he does so without any obvious regard for the lack of privilege afforded to others.

Our understanding of privilege should inform the way we discuss and respond to the issues that we collectively and individually confront. Poverty, joblessness, class mobility, health care, crime and punishment — each of these issues disproportionately affects Americans who don't get to take white privilege for granted.

When I imagine someone being asked to "check their privilege" — a phrase I have never, ever heard in real life — I imagine that the person being asked is using Cliven Bundy's argument, minus the part about being better off as slaves. I imagine someone making the arguments that the essayist is reported to have made, criticizing black people for "glorifying" gangster culture, thus giving people (presumably including George Zimmerman) a reason to treat them with suspicion.

Acknowledging privilege means imagining, for just a moment, not having to go to a school where literally every other member of the student body is in a gang, even the geeks and outcasts, because not doing so is a far more dangerous alternative. Acknowledging white privilege means imagining a scenario where it is grossly impractical to do what you believe is right.

what i will not acknowledge is any benefit flowing to me from these practices. i would end them if i could, but i'm just one retired guy in the countryside, and my responsibility is limited by my lack of power to change things, in light of which, "check your privilege" is just annoying.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines benefit as "an advantage or profit gained from something". I think both of us would admit that being born in America was, on the whole, a great advantage over those who were not.

Does our race afford us an advantage over those who are non-white? I think so. I cannot prove that you, specifically, have benefited. But I take it for granted that I will be safe from harm if I am pulled over by the police. I am not subject to unconscious bias against non-whites in the workplace. If I am seen on a porch during normal business hours, people like Cliven Bundy are unlikely to claim that supposedly intractable problems affect my race. In the unlikely event that I am shot by an armed vigilante, no one will say that I was suspicious because my race "glorifies" gangsters.

All of these things are benefits to some degree or another. So, what can we, as individuals do? Like you, I live out in the middle of nowhere. I am in Northern Arizona. I have listened to friends of mine bash on Native American culture. The arguments are reminiscent of Cliven Bundy's "on the porch with nothing to do" line of reasoning, minus the outright racist statements that he concluded with. When friends of mine do this, I try to provide context. I don't say "check your privilege" — I'm not an Ivy League freshman — but I do try to provide context. I try to communicate my belief that "we" have spent hundreds of years fucking with Native American culture, and it takes more than a single generation to un-fuck a problem. I don't talk explicitly about white privilege, but my perspective is informed by my understanding of it.

And then we keep talking, and no one's feelings are hurt, and I probably don't do enough to enact actual positive change in the world, but you have to start somewhere. I completely agree that saying "check your privilege" is an annoying, shitty, unfriendly place to start. A better place to start is to acknowledge to your own self that privilege exists, and that it is an advantage to have it — that's what makes it a privilege.
posted by compartment at 10:19 AM on May 4 [8 favorites]


Why? Seriously, what of those benefits were earned by the person who is benefiting? That. Is. Privilege.

Something doesn't have to be earned by the person who is benefiting in order for it to have been earned at all. I don't disagree that it's privilege to be born into a fortuitous situation, but I think that people are being unnecessarily dismissive just so they can feel better about shitting on everyone with "privilege."

If I bust my balls to give my kid a better life, and then someone sneeringly says to my kid "Whatever, that wasn't earned," they are taking a direct potshot at me. They are saying that my work was not actually work, that the money and nice stuff my kid is benefiting from came from benevolent fairies creating it from thin air, not the sweat and labor of an actual real person. They may mean, "Whatever, you (child) didn't directly earn that," but they shortcut to saying "That was unearned." And that is the part that's bullshit. Inherited wealth is earned wealth - it's just earned by someone further up the chain. And one of the things those people earned was the ability to give things to successive generations.
posted by corb at 12:21 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


And one of the things those people earned was the ability to give things to successive generations.

...to the detriment of everyone else who wasn't born to rich parents.

Or, to put a spin on your logic: Just because your child's wealth wasn't the result of their own greed doesn't mean they're not greedy when they hoard it for themselves.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:34 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


So, when a libertarian or conservative tells someone on welfare, sneeringly, that the money they received wasn't earned...who is that potshot at the expense of?
posted by Drinky Die at 12:38 PM on May 4 [6 favorites]


Why? Seriously, what of those benefits were earned by the person who is benefiting? That. Is. Privilege.

Something doesn't have to be earned by the person who is benefiting in order for it to have been earned at all.


No one is arguing that. I specifically said, in the line that you quoted right there, "earned by the person who is benefiting...", with that same emphasis.

I don't disagree that it's privilege to be born into a fortuitous situation, but I think that people are being unnecessarily dismissive just so they can feel better about shitting on everyone with "privilege."

Some people may well be doing that. The vast majority of people in this discussion and in the wider world, however, bring up the idea of privilege primarily in a defensive manner, e.g., when people say things like, "Why don't poor people just..." or "There's no reason that poor people can't..." (swap out "poor" with some other disadvantaged group).

If I bust my balls to give my kid a better life, and then someone sneeringly says to my kid "Whatever, that wasn't earned," they are taking a direct potshot at me.

Yes, that straw person is taking a direct straw potshot at you when making that straw argument. If, however, your kid uses his or her better life as an example of how he or she earned it, then the person who says, "Whatever, that wasn't earned" pretty clearly means "Whatever, that wasn't earned by you."

They are saying that my work was not actually work, that the money and nice stuff my kid is benefiting from came from benevolent fairies creating it from thin air, not the sweat and labor of an actual real person.

Yes. That is literally what that straw person would mean in that conversation you are making up in your head.

They may mean, "Whatever, you (child) didn't directly earn that," but they shortcut to saying "That was unearned."

So you're saying that you understand what this person means, but you are actively choosing to misunderstand it, and that is the other person's fault. Tell me again who is being unnecessarily dismissive and shitting on other people.

Inherited wealth is earned wealth - it's just earned by someone further up the chain. And one of the things those people earned was the ability to give things to successive generations.

No one is particularly arguing that in this thread. What people are arguing is that the successive generations earned that wealth. Which you admit to at least three times by my count. But you're arguing against someone who isn't here and only barely exists -- this person who would just, like, walk up to your kid on a street corner and blurt into his poor unsuspecting face, "Whatever! That wasn't earned! And I don't mean earned by you, either! I mean that it was the result of magical fairies bequeathing wealth for no reason on your ancestors, who were doubtless assholes and will suffer major psychic damage by my sneering at them! Suck it, Richie Rich!"

In the absence of that person, what is your point?
posted by Etrigan at 1:01 PM on May 4 [13 favorites]


If I bust my balls to give my kid a better life, and then someone sneeringly says to my kid "Whatever, that wasn't earned," they are taking a direct potshot at me.

You understand that's a hypothetical, though, right, and is not actually ever going to happen? Nobody - not even Obama - argues that inherited wealth is not earned in any way by anyone. That would be silly.
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:20 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


(Ah. should have previewed.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:21 PM on May 4


Nobody - not even Obama - argues that inherited wealth is not earned in any way by anyone. That would be silly.

I'm honestly not so sure. The idea that inherited wealth isn't earned seems like a convenient way to diminish its importance, and try to take it away, or try to take away the benefits of having it. If the argument is merely "Your parents earned it and earned the right to make your life better", it wouldn't be nearly as powerful a word-weapon.

Earn and deserve also seem really linked in this kind of thing. The argument seems to be "You didn't earn it, thus, you didn't deserve it, thus, you shouldn't have it." But again - if someone did earn it, then they did deserve to use it how they wished, including passing it down to future generations. Otherwise, what's the point of saying "That was unearned" at all?

I don't think anyone on the planet, not even the most cartoonish right-wing mustache-twirling villain, genuinely thinks that someone from the poorest family and someone from the richest family are equally likely to be successful. The idea that there are all these people lurking in the wings who think it's easy to be poor is inaccurate. What people are saying is that it's possible to self-improve even in the poorest situations.

What people like Tal Fortung are saying is that no one has an unbroken line of successful, rich ancestors. That everyone's privilege and success can be traced back to an ancestor who had hard, difficult barriers, but who managed to overcome them, who valued caring for the next generation and sacrificed to do so. And he is absolutely right in that. And the implication that people take as offensive is that the things that his grandparents did - the way they struggled to rise above their challenges - can be done by others as well, regardless of how poor they are. That people's lives, and the legacies they leave, are at least partially the result of their choices and their values. That no one can or should be written off as not responsible for their own lives.
posted by corb at 1:39 PM on May 4


Actually, the whole inheritance thing is kind of a derail, but this thread is probably broken at this point...
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:56 PM on May 4


r.o.s.f. is right, and I'm curtailing my response to deal only with the parts that directly address privilege and the linked article.

What people like Tal Fortung are saying is that no one has an unbroken line of successful, rich ancestors.

That's not what he's saying at all. What's he's saying is that he personally should not be told to check his privilege because he had ancestors who were oppressed.

That no one can or should be written off as not responsible for their own lives.

No one is writing off Tal Fortung or anyone else. They're disagreeing with his opinions based on their being tin-eared and ignorant of what "privilege" means.
posted by Etrigan at 1:57 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


It's nice that you work hard, corb. It's not so nice that you imply that the poor are not working as hard as you, or aren't willing to be "responsible for their own lives." (Casting moral aspersions on those worse off than you is, in fact, one of the things people mean by "privilege".)

It would be great if the American Dream worked for everyone-- that working hard would always let you get ahead. It works for some people; we should try to make it work for everyone.

But it's just historical fact that it hasn't worked for everyone. Millions of people worked for nothing, or were prevented by society from advancing. And many of those who did succeed didn't do it by hard work, but by stealing other people's work, or being given things by the government, or by cheating.

Many of the worst excesses are from long ago, of course. But there seems to be a weird conservative fantasy that sometime, perhaps around 1970, all the old problems suddenly disappeared and the playing field was leveled and now we live in a meritocracy. That's just not the case, and in many areas we've spent the last thirty years going backwards, toward more inequality, more open racism, less mobility for the 90%, spectacularly less opportunity for the lowest 50%.
posted by zompist at 2:10 PM on May 4 [9 favorites]


The first thing that should be acknowledged by anyone discussing privilege is that it's complex. If you don't think it's complex, you're thinking about something other than privilege. What's more, the common meaning of privilege (like, travel-reimbursement privileges) is a world apart from what people refer to when they talk about White or heterosexual privilege, confusing matters semantically from the get-go. Here's how I think the "social justice" kind of privilege is complex.

It's complex in several ways: it's structural, historical-contextual, and intersectional. This means that it's hard to build consensus around what privilege actually is since, on the one hand, almost everyone experiences it differently, and at the same time, it tends to produce outcomes and characterize life chances in patterned ways. White men and white women don't experience White privilege the same way; wealthy Whites and wealthy Blacks don't experience class privilege the same way; 1st generation Chinese immigrants and 5th-generation Chinese Americans don't experience racial privilege the same way. To put it very simply, this leads to confusion because, with these complex differences, one person or group's interaction with privilege can be so different from another's that when they converse about it, having totally different points of reference, they may not be sure they're even talking about the same kind of social phenomenon.

Add to this fraught situation the fact that people tend to form their sense of how the world works with reference to how groups they belong to experience it, and the fact that people who benefit most from structural privilege tend not to see it while those who suffer from structural disadvantages are keenly aware of them, and you've got a recipe for fundamental misunderstanding.

That having been said, it seems to me that there's a lot of discomfort associated with acknowledging privilege amongst White folks, and I want to comment on some of that as it's evinced here.

not that girl >

It seems typical of MetaFilter to me that this young man is being called nasty names for asking thoughtful questions. I'm not young or naive, and I come from a long history of feminist and lgbt activism, and I have some of the same questions.

Perhaps some of his questions are thoughtful, but there's also an awful lot of self-righteous indignation in his essay which can come across as outrageously myopic to some people, including myself, though I don't think there's any benefit in calling him names.

My parents had almost no privilege. They had no family support, and, without the GI Bill, would have had no institutional support, either.

See, I think you might be discounting something very important, here. Being White meant that people in that time benefited from a sort of racial dividend which was simply not there for others. Black people didn't really get the chance to benefit from the GI Bill, which meant they didn't have that path to the middle class that poor Whites did after serving their country in WW2, for instance. So I think when you say that they had "almost no" privilege, I think you're eliding something pretty pivotal for their life chances.

And yet I am also tired of this idea that constantly pointing out people's privilege is a meaningful form of activism; on the contrary, I'm inclined to think it's more about shoring up the accuser's feelings of moral superiority. I despise the way that the narrative of privilege compresses complex lives and histories into simplified just-so stories that serve a certain kind of left-wing orthodoxy, and the way that "oh, this guy has privilege!" is a cheap way to avoid wrestling with complex issues or asking questions that the progressive narrative has no answers for.

I'm with you 100% about the small value of simply pointing one's finger and saying "PRIVILEGE!". However, and I think this point is equally valid for the linked article, who is thought to be characterized by that description? Fortung seems to be suggesting that anyone who would talk seriously about privilege is an angry and vacuous finger-pointer. I doubt very much that you, not that girl, feel or think the same way, and in any case I wouldn't presume to speak for you, but I do observe that a lot of people seem to deal with that complexity I was talking about by suggesting that the loudest and most strident voices, some of which may in any case be fictive, are characteristic of the core insights of that branch of critical and feminist theory which lead to the concept of privilege.

I think that kind of move is fatally reductive and transparently tendentious in the interest of rejecting the structural character of privilege, by saying things like "Well, my family earned it," a rhetorical move which seeks to break the connection between the structural and the individual; and when that crucial piece is taken out, of course the whole thing becomes incoherent.

tl;dr -- Privilege is complex, intersectional, and varies in important ways by history and context, locally and globally; perhaps most importantly, analytically, the structural character of privilege is inextricably connected with its personal outcomes. Denying the last part, directly or indirectly, doesn't refute anything so much as serve the interest of keeping the plain reality of privilege out of sight and out of mind.
posted by clockzero at 2:17 PM on May 4 [11 favorites]


Otherwise, what's the point of saying "That was unearned" at all?

When people like Tal Fortgang claim that their successes in life are due solely to their individual hard work and/or moral superiority and/or strength of character - which he is, by the way; to quote:
"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."
- it's entirely valid to point out that their analysis of the situation does not accurately reflect reality.

The idea that inherited wealth isn't earned seems like a convenient way to diminish its importance, and try to take it away, or try to take away the benefits of having it.

Inherited wealth is not necessarily an indicator of moral superiority or exemplary character, so I see no reason not to diminish its importance. But this is not a call to revolution, a cry to wrest the wealth with bloody hands from those who did earn it simply to prevent them from passing it on. "Diminish its importance" does not equal "take away."
posted by soundguy99 at 2:59 PM on May 4 [4 favorites]


The idea that inherited wealth isn't earned seems like a convenient way to diminish its importance, and try to take it away, or try to take away the benefits of having it.

The idea that inherited wealth is earned by the person inheriting it is nonsensical, and the idea that inherited wealth was earned by the person who earned it is tautological, so I'm not sure what the point is here.
posted by clockzero at 3:54 PM on May 4 [19 favorites]


America: chock full of Fortgangs.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:45 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


I'm not even a fan of the phrase "check your privilege" - it has become a bit of a liberal caricature, in my honest opinion, and is thrown around recklessly without people on either side really understanding what it means. I am not unreservedly a supporter of all "victim politics" either- there is definitely a line too far, a shade of ridiculousness that can be reached, to me. I also just really dislike the feeling I get sometimes of pulling everyone down to the lowest common denominator- I would rather pull everyone else up, and I think "check your privilege" - while perhaps useful as a way to get people to think or empathize, in and of itself is not really doing much to check anyone's privilege.

That said, this essay sucks. It was a passive aggressive screed whining about how hard this kid's ancestors had it. I mean, I am sure the person who told him to "check his privilege" might have pissed him off, and I can easily imagine them being kind of snarky and holier-than-thou and I think that's not helpful and agree that it can be legitimately annoying. But this is sooooo the wrong way to reply to that. He's basically like, "I want to be a victim too! Waaaah!"

I could write an essay about this issue or another way better than that kid. Ugh. I mean, he is 21, so I'll cut him some slack but ugh.

He did have one good point though- it was a privilege for his ancestors to come to America. I agree wholeheartedly there. One thing I really, really, can't stand about uber liberal circles is self-hating Americans. My brother-in-law was a penniless immigrant who grew up in the communist and post-communist Ukraine, and he says, "No country is perfect, but this country is a good country to raise your family. When people tell me America is corrupt I just laugh because I've seen much worse corruption." And he means it. When uber-liberal types, to his face, basically tell him, "No, you're wrong, America is literally the worst country ever to exist in every measure, by the way, capitalism is absolutely and irredeemably terrible" it kind of boils my blood, I won't lie.

Jeez, sometimes I just hate everyone on both sides in politics. Sometimes? Often.
posted by quincunx at 7:55 PM on May 4 [4 favorites]


It's nice that you work hard, corb. It's not so nice that you imply that the poor are not working as hard as you, or aren't willing to be "responsible for their own lives."

It's interesting that you assume that's what I'm saying - and I think those assumptions go towards a lot of the anger here. It's a convenient red flag. Yes, if I said everyone who is poor is not working as hard as I am, that would be completely assholish. But again, that's not what I - or anyone, ever - are saying. In fact, again, even the most conservative of conservatives have always seen a difference between the "deserving poor" and the underclass. (Or as some describe it, the lumpenproletariat).

Among the poor, there are workers who strive to better their condition, and there are lumpens, and it is just as much a mistake to say that lumpens are hardworking individuals taking responsibility for their lives as it is to equate all of the poor with lumpens rather than workers. I am probably working harder than some poor individuals and probably less hard than others, because "the poor" are not the monolithic class that some upper-middle-class academic liberals would like to portray them as.
posted by corb at 7:56 PM on May 4


In fact, again, even the most conservative of conservatives have always seen a difference between the "deserving poor" and the underclass. (Or as some describe it, the lumpenproletariat)

Ah, yes - that legendary conservative, Karl Marx.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:03 PM on May 4


My secondary point exactly.
posted by corb at 8:06 PM on May 4


There are so many other ways to talk about privilege, but "check your privilege" is the prevailing way to start that conversation. I'd prefer something more descriptive, like, "the advantages you've had are preventing you from developing the lens through which to see what is plainly obvious to those without those advantages," but that probably wouldn't help either.

Privilege is, by definition, a series of blind spots, and getting people to recognize and acknowledge things that they cannot see and run counter to their experience of the world is always going to be an uphill battle. All we can do, if we are compassionate people, is to commit to accepting that we all have blind spots, and we don't generally know what they are, so when someone tells us that their experience is different from ours in some meaningful way, we would do well to consider their perspective instead of just denying it. Just because we don't think the world works that way doesn't mean it doesn't.

Human beings aren't naturally empathetic. We have to work at it constantly and build up our skills to put ourselves into the shoes of someone who had a different life experience than we have. We seem to be really bad at it most of the time.

I think the most useful book I've ever read on this subject is Domination and the Arts of Resistance, which describes in exquisite detail how the more privilege a person has, the less complicated and multi-dimensional their view of the world is. No wonder we get articles like this one.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:00 PM on May 4 [5 favorites]


"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."


This is actually a fantastic metaphor for privilege. Yes, you sow the seeds and reap the harvest. But what soil are you sowing?

Rich fertile soil that has been sheltered and tended by laws and generations of work? Or soil that has been poisoned and dried out, reduced to drifts of sand that a few seeds manage to grow weakly in?
posted by viggorlijah at 9:11 PM on May 4 [13 favorites]


My secondary point exactly.

Not exactly - Marx included Napoleon III in the lumpenproletariat, albeit somewhat rhetorically. Lumpenproletariat means in Marxist terms people who will have no positive impact on the development of class consciousness or positive role in the class struggle. If conservatives are using it to mean the "undeserving poor", then they are taking a word with a specific meaning and using it instead of a perfectly good existing term, which has served Victorian moralizers perfectly well since the Victorian era.

However, this is kind of besides the point. The fact that some people might divide the poor into the deserving and undeserving, based I guess on their magic conservative worth-detecting powers, says very little about privilege - or rather, it says a lot about privilege, but not necessarily in the way they imagine.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:09 AM on May 5 [10 favorites]


Which brings us neatly back to the OP, now that I think about it. When he said in his now deleted/protected Twitter feed that it is not that white people are afraid of, and thus likely/permitted to shoot at, young black people (in the context of the acquittal of George Zimmerman), but rather that they were afraid of people who dressed like "thugs", and would be equally afraid of white people who were dressed like "thugs" - and that Obama was to blame for glorifying gangster culture - he was parroting an orthodoxy he had seen on TV, as many young people would.

But in doing so he was also parroting a dichotomy - thug and not-thug - that does not code clean precisely because of privilege.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:32 AM on May 5


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.

Maybe that was exactly his privilege--until 1976, City College was free. It would be interesting to know when Fortgang's father enrolled. Was it when he didn't have to pay tuition, or in the modern era, when the percentage of non-white students was increasing and the school began charging them for the privilege of getting a college education?
posted by layceepee at 5:11 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]


The story of City College looms fairly large in a certain conservative Jewish imagination, layceepee. (And it goes without saying that Jews are less likely to be conservative than other white Americans. But for those American Jews who are conservative, this story has great resonance.) The story, as they tell it, is that in the middle third of the 20th century, City College was selective and free and ruthlessly meritocratic. Because admission was based purely on high school grades and test scores, City College attracted high-achieving Jewish students who couldn't attend elite private schools, which at the time had admissions policies that discriminated against Jews. It also attracted high-achieving poor kids, Jewish and otherwise, who would have had trouble paying for other schools. City College was a really good school that produced a lot of successful people. In the late 60s, radicals looked at enrollment numbers, got angry that there weren't enough black and Latino students admitted under the test-and-grades-only system, and demanded open admissions. Open admissions, the story goes, ruined City College. It destroyed educational standards and forced the school to charge fees, because of expanded enrollment. It took something that was fair and meritocratic and high-achieving and made it into something that was open to everyone and kind of crappy. And that's a big metaphor for liberalism, if you subscribe to this point of view. It says it will make everyone equal, but it destroys meritocracy and makes everyone equally crappy. I suspect this is a story that Tal Fortgang grew up hearing from his father.

Anyway, a little googling reveals that Tal Fortgang's father was born in 1959 and attended CCNY in the open admissions, fee-paying era.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:23 AM on May 5 [10 favorites]


If I bust my balls to give my kid a better life, and then someone sneeringly says to my kid "Whatever, that wasn't earned," they are taking a direct potshot at me. They are saying that my work was not actually work, that the money and nice stuff my kid is benefiting from came from benevolent fairies creating it from thin air, not the sweat and labor of an actual real person.

No one has ever said this to you. No one has ever said your hard work was pretend. No one has ever intimated that the sacrifices you have made for your child are worthless. These are things that you have made up inside your head to cushion you from understanding your part in social inequities.
posted by elizardbits at 8:25 AM on May 5 [18 favorites]


Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded.

What exactly are you "sacrificing" when you care for the planet? Profit maximization? "If we dumped our waste right into this river beside our business, it would be faster and cost less than driving all the way to the landfill, but we care about the planet and stuff, so we don't do that." Great job, champ.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:28 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


The concept of privilege actually dovetails nicely with the discussion about inherited wealth. I inherited a white skin color from both of my parents. I did nothing to earn it, but it has surely benefited me. Some other people inherited a darker skin tone, but were born male, which has helped them. Others were born women with darker skin tone, but inherited some money from their parents. All of these things were unearned by the person, but help them succeed in this world. The idea that wealth being passed on is somehow different because someone upstream in the bloodline did in fact earn it is preposterous. Family ties bind us together, but deservedness can't be passed on to children. Anything they get from their parents -- whether it's their assigned gender, their skin color, or their social class -- was unearned by them.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:40 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


corb: They may mean, "Whatever, you (child) didn't directly earn that," but they shortcut to saying "That was unearned." And that is the part that's bullshit. Inherited wealth is earned wealth - it's just earned by someone further up the chain. And one of the things those people earned was the ability to give things to successive generations.

It's not bullshit, it's the truth. Your kids did nothing to earn their place in the world, as tonycpsu and others have noted. I'm also lucky in how my parents and grandparents planned for future generations. I was given money to pay for college, so tuition was never a concern for me, where it was for many of my friends. Some worked through college, others took out sizable loans. My privileges are wholly unearned by me, and I take none of that for granted.

I think the issue comes when kids, like Tal, think the sweat, blood and tears of past generations makes them special. It doesn't - it makes them lucky. Recognize that luck, and realize that many others are not as lucky.

Another thing that comes from earned wealth is the understanding of its worth. Kids born or raised with an inheritance to pad their futures may understand that it took a great effort to elevate their status, while others can be oblivious to the steps that lead to their current situation. This is what makes someone a spoiled brat.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]


Inherited wealth is earned wealth - it's just earned by someone further up the chain. And one of the things those people earned was the ability to give things to successive generations.

Whom are you arguing against? Who is arguing that a spectral "unearned" wealth, unattached to any specific person's work, is bad? Your idea of unearned and earned wealth suggests there's no such thing as unearned money, unless maybe it comes from the government, and not a family member.

If a specific person inherits wealth, then that specific person did nothing to earn that wealth aside from be alive when their benefactor died. That dead person, and not their heir, earned that wealth, if they earned it at all: The dead person, in turn, may have inherited a portion, or all, of their wealth. And so on.

That inherited wealth is earned wealth is a generalization, and not a good one.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:35 AM on May 5


Anything they get from their parents -- whether it's their assigned gender, their skin color, or their social class -- was unearned by them.

There seems enough of a gap here - both people talking, but unable to really understand each other - that I wonder if it's not just a gap in discussion but actually a cultural gap as well. I'm honestly not sure how broad this kind of discussion about "privilege" and family inheritance and "earning" is, but I certainly do seem to see it a lot louder from Americans - the country that at least pays lip service to the notion of complete individuality. The country that invented the "nuclear family", that hates dynasties unless they're particularly photogenic. (I'm looking at you, Kennedies) This sort of reliance on and fetishization of novi homines seems utterly strange to me, who grew up knowing utterly that it was important to increase the success of the family, that my duty was to increase the chances of the next generation so they could be better than me. Most people learn something of that once they have kids - I always knew that, even as a kid myself.

So this insistence on talking about how people didn't self-create their place in the world is genuinely incomprehensible to me. Of course they didn't. Few people truly do, and it's always a bit of a tragedy when they have to. In this way, everyone who had a parent who passed on anything to them - advice, a single dollar, one more level of education than they had - is privileged by not having to recreate the wheel themselves. Hopefully, my kids will also understand their duties and responsibilities and contribute to the family, increasing holdings and wealth and social connections until somewhere down the line they can rise in class again, but it's not something you expect on the front end. They earn it all by way of a promise, I suppose - the promise that they will continue the line, or be disinherited. But what does that all matter? Why, on God's green earth, is it important whether or not someone achieved every single bit of their positioning themselves?
posted by corb at 9:42 AM on May 5


In this way, everyone who had a parent who passed on anything to them - advice, a single dollar, one more level of education than they had - is privileged by not having to recreate the wheel themselves.

Yes. That is exactly correct. Now that we agree on that, can we agree that some people are more privileged than others by virtue of having more advice, dollars, education or other things passed on to them?

Why, on God's green earth, is it important whether or not someone achieved every single bit of their positioning themselves?

As I mentioned earlier, the concept of privilege is hardly ever raised in a vacuum. It's most often used to counter arguments from privilege, e.g. "Why don't poor people just..." or "Of course portrayals of straight white cis men dominate the media, because..." That's when it's important -- to show people that they are making these comments from a privileged position that they likely didn't earn.

And so, when Tal Fortgang says that his family immunizes him personally from accusations of being privileged, it's important to point out that other people did the things that he's talking about, and recognizing that is the whole point of raising the concept of privilege.
posted by Etrigan at 9:53 AM on May 5 [7 favorites]


Corb I think the gap you speak of is not cultural, but experiential. Most people have nothing, have never had anything, and the idea of accumulating and storing wealth isn't even something they think of, it's not on the agenda and likely never will be. An education is something people can strive for, but actual wealth remains out of reach for almost everyone.

is it important whether or not someone achieved every single bit of their positioning themselves?

Not on a day-to-day level, but if you're going to use that experience to dictate how the world is and should be? Yes, it is important because we all have to live together in this world, and if people who have it easier don't recognize that fact, their dealings won't be informed with essential knowledge of how things really work, and how they got where they are. One great thing to pass on to one's kids is an appreciation of how lucky they are to have whatever advantages the parents are able to bestow.
posted by cell divide at 9:55 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]


Call me whatever names you want.

This is a pretty awful piece of rhetoric. The mods will delete straight-up namecalling, so we actually can't call you whatever names we want. Even if we could, I doubt anyone would be particularly nasty to you. But we can't anyway, which makes this like shouting at the sun to burn you while standing under a parasol.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:18 AM on May 5 [17 favorites]


When people tell me I can call them whatever name I want, I am always tempted to call them Ida, because it was my grandmother's name, and I think it is a lovely name, even if it sounds a bit old fashioned now. I think it is due for a revival.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:21 AM on May 5 [9 favorites]


It's a lovely name, in part because it invites so many puns based on "I'd have". I would love to see it return for that reason alone!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:25 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


So this insistence on talking about how people didn't self-create their place in the world is genuinely incomprehensible to me. Of course they didn't. Few people truly do, and it's always a bit of a tragedy when they have to.

Do you not see the cognitive dissonance between that sentiment and your fuck you, got mine advocacy against economic equality?

Or do you simply not care about "a bit of a tragedy" as long as it only affects other people?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:30 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


Why, on God's green earth, is it important whether or not someone achieved every single bit of their positioning themselves?

It kind of isn't, particularly? I mean, in this discussion.

Basically, the whole inheritance thing is something of a derail - Fortgang touches on it for one sentence during one of his many odd misunderstandings of what the word "privilege" means. Specifically, it's a derail inspired by the specter of a liberal telling your child that none of her inherited wealth was earned. I guess this phantom is itself inspired by the regular go-rounds in the right-wing media about "death taxes" (with maybe a dash of "you didn't build that", which also crops up in his essay), which I imagine is behind:

The idea that inherited wealth isn't earned seems like a convenient way to diminish its importance, and try to take it away, or try to take away the benefits of having it.

In this case, the argument that his family's hardship and hard work does not justify his assertion that his own (unevidenced) hard work should innocculate him against requests that he check his privilege has apparently made you think that people are seeking to institute some sort of Harrison Bergeron dystopia, rather than looking askance at the phenomenon of a young man elevated into the public sphere by the need for a clean-cut, articulate, not-vocally-racist poster child for the right in the fallout from Cliven Bundy cratering.

Young people mouthing conservative nostrums is always kind of a thrill for conservatives, because it helps them to feel like their message is reaching a usually uninterested youth. You got the same sort of shivery conniptions in the British Tory party when William Haig, now Foreign Secretary but then a dewy lad of 16, crooned the greatest hits of Margaret Thatcher to Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference in 1977.

So, you're imagining a liberal telling your child that her achievements are unearned and interpreting that as taking a direct potshot at you (remember, this person does not exist), and as a real and present danger to your freedom to strive to give your child a better life (again, this person does not exist). It is, I guess, relevant in the sense that Tal Fortgang is having similar arguments with imaginary people who are making odd statements, but metastrawmen are not likely to take us very far...
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:47 AM on May 5 [6 favorites]


I think it's ridiculous that Talk thinks his (legitimately-suffering) grandparents didn't benefit from privilege because I have the same lineage.

All 4 sides of my family were Eastern European Jews who trudged out of Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, through Siberia winters, onto dirty overcrowded ships to America with nothing but the clothes on their back and, you know what? They anglicized their names and worked on their accents and their children were easily able to tap into a pre - existing white male power structure.

The first generation pickle-and-egg men and butchers and seamstresses faced no trouble with housing discrimination with renting and buying in Jewish neighborhoods and retired in the suburbs. They worked their asses off but even they, these malnourished immigrants with no formal education and PTSD, had a leg up on a lot of people currently living in America.

Introduce Tal to five American Haitian families- hell, introduce Tal to five Haitian families *with children in Princeton* - and see how many came to America with much more than his grandparents and how much their stories are real.
posted by elr at 12:16 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


one more dead town's last parade:So you learn to code-switch like a lot of people (more than you appear to think) do.

Speaking a vernacular that isn't widely understood is incredibly confusing to non-native speakers.


Which is why I say to all the minorities who live in the local ghetto, The Hill District: "Why can't you just learn to talk like a white man? Your dialect is confusing to some people, so it's clearly wrong!"
posted by IAmBroom at 12:43 PM on May 5


If you don't think privilege is an actual thing that needs to be pointed out when it gets in the way of understanding, perhaps you also think the poor in pre-revolutionary France really should have just eaten cake* when the price of bread reached an all-time high. I mean, sure, brioche is a little richer than bread, but it'll do, right?

*of course, Marie Antoinette never said this.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:37 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


I know this is a bit old, but I've been working so I got here late: "So, while I think privilege is a very real phenomenon, and it is not a good thing, I don't really see how a discussion of it fits in with activism.

For example, say there's a community effort to stop energy companies from fracking in someone's neighborhood. Activism would include organizing a committee of like-minded community members, identifying possible coalition partners, assigning organizers to recruit from the various constituencies, pick a specific goal and plan step by step how to achieve it, plan for contingencies and opposition, develop a communications and messaging strategy, schedule the next meetings, and so on and so on. I don't see where a discussion of privilege fits in.

I don't see how a discussion of privilege is interesting.

If you have a plan to *do something* about privilege, then that's interesting. And I'd like to hear about that.
"

This was an interesting comment to me because I'm also doing activism, and "privilege" fits in a lot in the work we do.

There are a couple ways it plays in, with the broadest being just generally aware of some of the ways that privilege affects discourse and access. For one example, one of the problems with privilege is that it can make activists less conscious of the need to include other voices or priorities in a given project. One of the big examples was the terrible outreach done to minority communities prior to the Prop. 8 vote — we found from doing work after the vote that many minority communities were very persuadable, especially relative to the white audiences. For your proposed fracking study, checking privilege can be making sure that other views about organizing tactics and outreach are included in the preliminary planning. When white environmentalists go into communities of color, there can be a very top-down, fiat style of organizing that emerges, which is often not appropriate for mobilizing that community.

It's also important when talking about tactics. I talk to a lot of very wealthy donors, and they often are blind to that in embarrassing ways, like asking about why if e.g. trans activists care so much about X, they "don't just" make a few calls to their state senator or whatever, without realizing that access and the ability to get people with power to take concerns seriously is a form of privilege.

Two regular areas where I see it play out are with issues of race or gender within the LGBT community — we get angry emails on the regular from our members wanting to know why we care about immigration reform. Well, there are a ton of LGBT immigrants, especially Latino here in California, and they have specific concerns about, say, immigration law and marriage that wider immigration organizations don't address. Likewise, when we do education work around transgender issues, privilege comes up a lot — both in overcoming the privilege of our members to have trans issues be ones they almost never face, so they don't see them as priorities, as well as making sure that transgender members of the community feel like they can be heard and have their concerns be given as much weight as those of cis members of the community.

I'll also mention that there are things like conversational dynamics — in the coalition work, it can be important to be aware of privilege when you notice that women, generally, get interrupted more and that their ideas are often not given the amount of credence that they would deserve. So being aware of that dynamic helps sometimes to actively reconsider ideas brought by people who aren't as comfortable dominating a conversation. It's one of those things where there are frequently great ideas from people who don't express themselves as forcefully, and if you treat these dynamics as normal, you miss out on those solutions.

The final way that it's really helpful is for personalizing issues. We do some pretty regular trainings on cisgender privilege, where cis participants talk about things that they rarely have to worry about, e.g. having their gender policed in a bathroom. By personalizing those advantages, it makes it clear that they're generally unfair and unrelated to the people as people, but rather social chits that gain advantage. I think something that's especially salient about that framing, and something that I see people misunderstand here pretty regularly, is that it shifts the conversation from "It's unfair that I get that" to "It's unfair that you don't get that." By recognizing those advantages, it really does help people be better allies.
posted by klangklangston at 6:17 PM on May 5 [18 favorites]


"Call me whatever names you want. I'm not a freshman at Princeton. I'm a middle-aged mom in flyover country who has been thinking deeply about these things both in and out of academia for decades, and I'm not afraid of you."

That was a pretty weird mini-treatise.

For me, my grounding frame for privilege is thinking about my friend Darius. I met him when I moved to Ann Arbor as a kid, where we lived about five doors away in the Section 8 neighborhood. I've talked about him a bit before; he was my best friend for a long time. I met him on the first day I lived in Ann Arbor, about two weeks before I turned seven; his birthday is four days after mine.

We both grew up poor; he's still poor. Knowing him now almost 30 years, I can remember things like both of us getting caught fucking off in class — he'd get treated like a threat, I'd get treated like a smart ass. I know that the police have treated us differently too, including a time when some other neighborhood assholes framed the two of us for some fight. I got a visit from the cops; he got 30 days in lockup (and neither of us were even there).

I had two parents, he had a single mom and a dad who was in and out of the picture. I had parents who encouraged me to do creative work and to find my own way; he had to steal art supplies to draw comics. My parents freaked out about sugar and raised me vegetarian; his mom fed her kids like the Corn Board was subsidizing. My parents got out of real poverty while I was still young; his mom didn't wrap up her masters and finally get a middle-class job until he had dropped out of high school.

My parents were very involved in my education, including getting me into magnet schools. Darius's mom just did not have the time to get involved on the same level.

I make a lot more money than he does now, but he works just as hard, if not harder. I have been lucky in a lot of ways, a lot of ways that seem really apparent.

I work hard, I accomplish things, but I've also got a huge amount of luck and opportunity in my life that's not available for everyone. Because of that, and because I've seen that my whole life, privilege is a very real thing for me. I don't feel particularly guilty about it, but I do feel a responsibility to people who are less fortunate than I am to make the opportunities that helped me succeed more available for everyone.
posted by klangklangston at 6:58 PM on May 5 [20 favorites]


can we agree that some people are more privileged than others by virtue of having more advice, dollars, education or other things passed on to them?

Absolutely, one hundred percent. We already agree on that. I'm sorry if I didn't state that clearly. But I think the point that we disagree on is where we go from there.

I work hard, I accomplish things, but I've also got a huge amount of luck and opportunity in my life that's not available for everyone.

I think this is the part I find really jarring. You refer to your situation as "luck," but it sounds like it actually took a lot of hard work on the part of your parents to make it happen. Your parents made good relationship choices and ensured that you were raised in a two parent household. (And lest anyone think I'm talking from a position of smugness, I'm on my second marriage, but will readily, readily admit it's because I made bad choices there.) Your parents spent the time to work on your diet and education and a ton of other things. Your parents taught you, either consciously or unconsciously, the way to interact with authority figures in order to have them think the best of you. Your parents worked hard. It wasn't "luck" so much as it was a series of tiny choices that accumulated to let them give you a better life.
posted by corb at 11:37 PM on May 5


corb, children and parents are not the same people.

If one's parents worked hard and achieved things, great! They worked hard and achieved things! If a child was born into a family in which the parents worked hard and achieved things, the child hasn't achieved anything! He can go on to achieve his own things, yes. But his parents' work and achievements are not his work and achievements. He can still be proud of his parents (I promise!), but he can't take credit for the work they did and things they achieved -- he can, and should, be GRATEFUL for that work and for those achievements, which is exactly the point everyone is making about being aware of one's privilege. Gratitude is an appropriate response to it; claiming full credit for someone else's work or for the advantages you were given because of things entirely outside your own control (like your skin color) is being a nitwit.
posted by jaguar at 11:42 PM on May 5 [10 favorites]


He probably means luck in the Rawlsian or related sense.
posted by polymodus at 2:21 AM on May 6


Corb, klang is saying that he is lucky. Not that the hard work/"good choices" his parents put in were luck (though some of them probably were, and they were probably lucky in turn with what their parents gave them...and I'd be careful about saying that this person's choices were good and that person's were bad. The whole point here is that privilege gives people unequal choices.).

No one is devaluing you or your accomplishments when they say your kids are lucky or privileged. They're just saying the accomplishment ends with you. There is no intrinsic moral value to work or good choices that exists independent of you. Benefits your kids receive from it are just good fortune.

Imagine a newborn baby. Imagine klang and his friend Darius as babies. Or remember your own kids as babies. They already have different sets of probabilities, challenges, and choices, right? Literally because of the situation they were born into. But have any of those babies accomplished anything? Or earned anything? Is what the babies' parents accomplished or earned the same as what the babies accomplished or earned? If the parents worked hard, does that also mean that's one hard-working baby, what a champ?

Jesus.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:12 AM on May 6 [7 favorites]


Also, of course, corb, by focusing so intently on parents' hard work and earned wealth, you're blowing right past the many possible other ways in which an individual can be privileged that are totally out of the control of anyone's parents, like race & gender.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:32 AM on May 6 [5 favorites]


"It wasn't "luck" so much as it was a series of tiny choices that accumulated to let them give you a better life."

I didn't make any of those choices. I did not choose my parents, I didn't have any real input on our move, I had no say in their wealth, education or race. I'm grateful for what my parents accomplished, but I'm not proud of it; I'm proud of what I've accomplished. But I'm also bright enough to realize that, right down to being born in 20th century America, there are a lot of things that I had nothing to do with that contributed to my success. And I'd be kind of a dolt if I didn't realize that out of the 30 or so kids within a grade or two from me while I was growing up, all of the ones who went to college were white except one, and all of the kids who went to prison were black except two. (The mixed kid who went to college is the highest achiever out of the bunch; he translated a Loyola basketball scholarship into a JD. He's also my go-to example of a neighborhood bully who turns his life around and became a pretty nice guy after years of kicking the shit out of me.) But there were tons of my neighbors who were failed by circumstance, and because everyone knows everyone out there, I've been pretty well kept appraised by my folks who still live there.

I mean, if I take credit for choices my parents made (even leaving aside the structural stuff like race/gender/etc.), then what, I'm responsible for my dad finally getting his BA the same time I went to college? I was just a kid, but I'm responsible for my mom getting her MFA? Going down that road, where you deny chance and luck, you end up holding kids responsible for their parents' divorces, for accidental injuries and deaths, for dropping out? That makes no sense either.
posted by klangklangston at 8:52 AM on May 6 [8 favorites]


He can still be proud of his parents (I promise!), but he can't take credit for the work they did and things they achieved -- he can, and should, be GRATEFUL for that work and for those achievements, which is exactly the point everyone is making about being aware of one's privilege.

The assumption that accomplishment is a single-wrapped serving, with no connection to what has gone before or will come after, is based on a uniquely modern Western - and more importantly, American - cultural understanding based in pure individualism and the idea of the nuclear family as a solitary, unattached, unit. It has no bearing on the collectivist familial values that many immigrants, including Tal Fortgang's family, brought to this country from other places, where the family is seen as a large group of interrelated individuals working towards a common goal. When you, and others, insist that there is no value in this cultural assumption, you are engaging in cultural imperialism, insisting that your own cultural value is superior to those other, lesser, cultures and values.

For many people of many non-American cultures, the identity is bound up in the family as a group unit. The accomplishments of one person are the accomplishments of the family - the failure or shame of one is the failure or shame of the whole family. What the family has earned is a collective matter, something that every member of the family is striving to add to. When you say that children should not be able to access this pride in family - that they should somehow be expected to make their own way, completely without support, or not be able to be proud of their accomplishments - whether you intend it or not, you are attempting to verbally separate them from their culture. You are saying that they don't get to belong to the culture in which they belong, and feel the feelings that belong to that culture - that they must belong to your culture, instead.

I'm not sure where the idea comes from that these people aren't grateful to their families for the advantages they received. Tal Fortgang certainly seems grateful - he goes on at length about the myriad things, particularly character and values, that he received from his parents and grandparents. If the end goal is to have him and others like him be grateful to their parents for their privilege, then go ahead and hang a banner, because the stated mission is accomplished. But I don't think that's where it stops. Because that's not why people say "Check your privilege." They use "Check your privilege" to say, "You're wrong, and it's clearly because you are coming from a privileged position." The implication is that if the person says the "right" thing, then they are, indeed, aware of their privilege, while if someone says the "wrong" thing, they are not. And that is an incredibly problematic assertion, because it positions awareness of circumstances as something that can only come with agreeing with a particular dogma - and a particular middle-class American academic dogma, to boot.
posted by corb at 9:14 AM on May 6


I'm grateful to my mom that she made choices that opened opportunities and advantages for me, but I'm not going to pretend like I actually did anything except exist when she did that.

Kids are no more responsible for their parents' choices that turn out well than they are for the choices that turn out badly. Unless one actually believes that being a child who is poor is that child's fault. Too bad there are a lot of people in charge of making policy who do seem to believe that.
posted by rtha at 9:27 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]


The assumption that accomplishment is a single-wrapped serving, with no connection to what has gone before or will come after, is based on a uniquely modern Western - and more importantly, American - cultural understanding based in pure individualism and the idea of the nuclear family as a solitary, unattached, unit.

You are making less and less sense. Recognizing privilege IS the idea that one needs to recognize one's own place among one's group. It has nothing to do with nuclear families or American individualism. It's pretty much the EXACT OPPOSITE of American individualism. American assumptions of individualism IS THE PROBLEM that the concept of privilege is trying to FIX.
posted by jaguar at 9:34 AM on May 6 [8 favorites]


When you say that children should not be able to access this pride in family - that they should somehow be expected to make their own way, completely without support, or not be able to be proud of their accomplishments - whether you intend it or not, you are attempting to verbally separate them from their culture. You are saying that they don't get to belong to the culture in which they belong, and feel the feelings that belong to that culture - that they must belong to your culture, instead.

And NO ONE, at all, is making this claim in this thread, or in real life or any other internet or in-person conversation I have ever had. Ever. No one. At all. Ever.
posted by jaguar at 9:36 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]


When you say that children should not be able to access this pride in family - that they should somehow be expected to make their own way, completely without support, or not be able to be proud of their accomplishments

who is saying this

who, corb

please point to someone saying a person can't be proud of what other people in their family have done

please point to someone saying that families should cast out their children to make their own way

the point is that holding individual persons responsible, to their credit or to their blame, for stuff other people did makes no sense
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:38 AM on May 6 [3 favorites]


The assumption that accomplishment is a single-wrapped serving, with no connection to what has gone before

And this is exactly what Fortgang is claiming. See my comment including a quote from the essay above.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:40 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]


*switches off this episode of The Corb Show, encourages others to do the same*
posted by Etrigan at 9:42 AM on May 6 [8 favorites]


It wasn't "luck" so much as it was a series of tiny choices that accumulated to let them give you a better life.

Making those choices: not luck.

That those choices turned out well: pure 100% dumb luck. Millions of people make choices-corb-would-approve-of and get royally fucked anyway, or as a result.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:42 AM on May 6 [2 favorites]


Fair point, Etrigan.

Time to go polish some frets. (NOT A EUPHEMISM FOR ANYTHING! I SWEARS!)
posted by soundguy99 at 9:46 AM on May 6


Yeah, I'm done. If corb the personal responsibility advocate wants to thoroughly misunderstand personal responsibility, so be it. There's no point engaging further.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:46 AM on May 6 [2 favorites]


When you say that children should not be able to access this pride in family - that they should somehow be expected to make their own way, completely without support, or not be able to be proud of their accomplishments - whether you intend it or not, you are attempting to verbally separate them from their culture. You are saying that they don't get to belong to the culture in which they belong, and feel the feelings that belong to that culture - that they must belong to your culture, instead.
No one is saying this oh my god.

I disagree with your comment. A person doesn't deserve anything good or bad because her grandmother is the Queen of England or because his dad's in jail. In suggesting that they do, you are upholding caste systems as a legitimate cultural quirk and it's so classist it hurts.

This is ridiculous and has almost nothing to do with the article anymore. Out.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:51 AM on May 6 [4 favorites]


An interesting response in Medium: You Don't Have to Apologize for Being White.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:03 AM on May 6 [15 favorites]


I feel dumb for feeling like I have to be this explicit, but:

I'm really proud of my mom for being able to overcome a lot of very difficult stuff that she did in order to give me (and herself!) access to better and more opportunities.

I personally did not do anything to overcome those particular difficulties because I was a child, and really didn't have ant ability to do or not do anything about them.

Just like I personally did not do anything to change laws that made it so my alma mater had to start admitting women. For example.
posted by rtha at 10:25 AM on May 6 [4 favorites]


Fortgang wrote his rant for the Princeton Tory, an independent campus publication that's just one of about 80 bankrolled by the Collegiate Network and its parent group, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. According to its website, ISI was founded in the McCarthy era as a "fifty-year plan" to advance conservative political causes "by implanting the idea in the minds of the coming generations."
posted by Corinth at 10:30 AM on May 6 [7 favorites]


That white guys like Hegseth and Continetti can publish critiques of privilege-checking in lavishly funded conservative outlets, earn praise from conservatives in the media mainstream, and reap the financial rewards of their advocacy, is a deep irony that's apparently lost on them.

Great article, Corinth.
posted by jaguar at 10:38 AM on May 6


You Don't Have to Apologize for Being White.

That's a brilliant article, Lutoslawski. Thanks.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:40 AM on May 6


Tal, have you ever had a gun pointed at you?

I have, but only by police. The most recent time was when I was driving home and my car broke down, so I walked up to a highway police station for help. As I knocked on the door, two officers came up from behind me out of the bushes, guns drawn, and shouted at me to freeze. It turns out they thought I was trying to rob them. That wouldn’t have happened if I was white.

I bet you worry about your grades, or how you’re going to finish that last paper before the deadline. All college students deal with that. But you’ve probably never had to worry about whether or not you might die at a routine traffic stop. White people don’t have to deal with that. Because you don’t fit the ‘profile’ of a criminal.

That’s part of what people mean when they talk about ‘privilege’.
Man, if "check your privilege" descends recklessly like an Obama-sanctioned drone, what the balls does that do?
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:43 AM on May 6 [5 favorites]


"The assumption that accomplishment is a single-wrapped serving, with no connection to what has gone before or will come after, is based on a uniquely modern Western - and more importantly, American - cultural understanding based in pure individualism and the idea of the nuclear family as a solitary, unattached, unit."

what

This is so weirdly inverted that I don't even… Especially from the putative libertarian, which only works from a hyper-individualist framework…

"It has no bearing on the collectivist familial values that many immigrants, including Tal Fortgang's family, brought to this country from other places, where the family is seen as a large group of interrelated individuals working towards a common goal. When you, and others, insist that there is no value in this cultural assumption, you are engaging in cultural imperialism, insisting that your own cultural value is superior to those other, lesser, cultures and values."

What? A child's accomplishments may reflect upon the parent, but the parent's accomplishments (or faults, which is an important corollary that you're ignoring) aren't the child's virtues. That's not cultural imperialism, which, again, is a weird charge from you. Tal Fortgang's family was lucky to escape the camps; there were plenty of people with equal virtue who didn't. That doesn't minimize their hard work, but it also recognizes that chance is endemic to pretty much any success, and chance is by definition unearned.

Not only that, but there's a tremendous amount of recognition of that more collective view of society in other cultures across the world — which is why there's often more work done to soften the vagaries of chance. If you really care about this, it's time to support socialist policies.

"Because that's not why people say "Check your privilege." They use "Check your privilege" to say, "You're wrong, and it's clearly because you are coming from a privileged position.""

No, it's not. When I say, "Check your privilege," well, honestly, most of the time I'm fucking around and using it sardonically with my coworkers. But when I'm being sincere, it's a reminder that someone's assertion of norms is based on a narrow experience that's not applicable outside of that set of experiences. It's most often in reaction to a "don't they just" statement, like, "Why don't they just get scholarships?" or "Why don't they just use the principal's bathroom?" While being wrong can be part of it, it's less that and more, "You're oblivious, and you're oblivious because you think the advantages you have are normal."
posted by klangklangston at 10:49 AM on May 6 [8 favorites]


there's a tremendous amount of recognition of that more collective view of society in other cultures across the world — which is why there's often more work done to soften the vagaries of chance. If you really care about this, it's time to support socialist policies.

There's a big difference between family collectivism and state-sponsored collectivism, which I think you may not be seeing. I don't say this as an insult - one thing I'm learning from this discussion is that it seems to be really, really hard for people who didn't grow up with these expectations to grok this kind of generational thinking. Sadly, however, socialism is more likely to destroy, rather than support, family collectivism, which is a major reason why I oppose it.

While being wrong can be part of it, it's less that and more, "You're oblivious, and you're oblivious because you think the advantages you have are normal."

The problem is that these positions do not require the bearer to be oblivious or to think that the advantages they have are normal, and when you say things like that, you're saying that their own thinking and reasoning is automatically invalid by reason of their privilege. It's as though if you just say the magic words, you can get them to agree with you. They may understand these situations, but still make policy choices based on other reasoning. To understand someone, even to empathize with them, does not automatically mean that you want to legislate for their advantage over your own.
posted by corb at 11:06 AM on May 6


Lutoslawski, that was a pretty sharp essay. Thanks for sharing.
posted by klangklangston at 11:09 AM on May 6


"There's a big difference between family collectivism and state-sponsored collectivism, which I think you may not be seeing."

Yeah, though there's a reason that immigrant families are more likely to support statist intervention in general (which gives conservatives the willies because immigrants are often more culturally conservative, but not economically).

The biggest difference is that family-based collectivism doesn't work nearly as well at remedying these problems. So I grasp the difference. (It's actually a pretty big topic within political science. This isn't my first time talking about it.)

I don't say this as an insult - one thing I'm learning from this discussion is that it seems to be really, really hard for people who didn't grow up with these expectations to grok this kind of generational thinking. Sadly, however, socialism is more likely to destroy, rather than support, family collectivism, which is a major reason why I oppose it.

Haha, nope. You oppose it because you don't know what you're talking about yet again, sorry. Play a little reason game where you think about the correlation between family-locus identity and state collective/social intervention, and recognize that in general, places that have more of one also have more of the other (e.g. most of Asia). If it was more likely to destroy that, instead of mitigating the flaws of clannishness that you'd have us return to, wouldn't you see lower levels in areas that had more social intervention? And yet, you don't. However, in more individualist countries, you see less social intervention.

God bless my state school education! And God bless my grandparents for getting suckered by a Great Books collection back in the '70s, which meant that I didn't have to buy my Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes or Plato! (And God bless the neighborhood assholes for ensuring I'd spend a lot of time inside, doing the friendless reading that has served me so well!)
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 AM on May 6 [5 favorites]


The problem is that these positions do not require the bearer to be oblivious or to think that the advantages they have are normal, and when you say things like that, you're saying that their own thinking and reasoning is automatically invalid by reason of their privilege.

Dude, the people living rent-free in your head are really rude to you. I would strongly suggest checking the terms of their lease.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:21 AM on May 6 [5 favorites]


"The problem is that these positions do not require the bearer to be oblivious or to think that the advantages they have are normal, and when you say things like that, you're saying that their own thinking and reasoning is automatically invalid by reason of their privilege. It's as though if you just say the magic words, you can get them to agree with you. They may understand these situations, but still make policy choices based on other reasoning. To understand someone, even to empathize with them, does not automatically mean that you want to legislate for their advantage over your own."

Sorry, missed this.

Yes, they kind of do require the bearer to be oblivious and to think their advantages are normal, otherwise they wouldn't be making normative statements that betray a lack of comprehension with regard to their advantages.

I mean, if they're not oblivious, but would rather continue their unearned advantages over ensuring that everyone has access to the same opportunities, then they're being selfish and irrational (because unless they're so wealthy as to be completely insulated from their opinions, these policies end up making everyone worse off, including them). They're positing a zero-sum social argument implicitly, and their willingness to endorse unfair advantage as worthy means that they're willing to contravene the social contract. Ergo, they've placed themselves in a war against their neighbors, outside of the bounds of justice, and it's fair to thereby work to either change their minds or remove their advantages or both. Something that the putative hard-nosed "realists" don't account for is that by valuing their privilege over their neighbors, they justify that neighbor to do the same. Which, when it devolves, is when you get firing squads and political violence which makes everyone worse off. (Though cf. Piketty, that destruction of property looks like it ends up making workers better off in the long run, so hey, that's a catch against neo-liberalism's assumptions underpinning arguments from stability.)

So, oblivious or asshole, pretty much. Oblivious is the better, more correctable answer. When people are telling you to check your privilege, they're saying that they don't think you're a selfish asshole, but rather someone who can be appraised of a situation, comprehend it with a bit of broader-picture thinking and change accordingly, rather than someone who has to be treated as a malicious actor or asshole. (Assuming, of course, that the person saying, "Check your privilege" isn't just doing it to be a dick, which happens, but not as often as the checkees would claim.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:39 AM on May 6 [4 favorites]


(Weird - must have accidentodeleted the rest of that before posting. Rough surmise:

Which is to say, out here in the world klang has specified exactly the context in which he uses "check your privilege", or variants thereof.

The situation you are stating as fact (in the passage which klang just addressed) presumes a) that klang's interlocutors are actually not oblivious - so, to begin, you're imagining that you understand them better than the person actually speaking to them. And, secondarily, you believe that you also understand klang's motivation, and what he is _really_ saying, better than he does. This is not helpful. It's like the imaginary liberal hissing at your child that her advantages are unearned.

It is not useful to make up people, or to imagine the qualities of people so that they fit a model better; it just means we end up, rather than having a set of things that can be discussed, having a bunch of discrete hypotheticals in which people behave like... well, like ridiculous caricatures, with noble, square-jawed people-like-me besieged by malicious, dishonest people-like-them. It's a comforting fantasy, and clearly one Tal Fortgang is LARPing hard in, but the facts don't really bear it out.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:51 AM on May 6 [3 favorites]


Perhaps "check your premises" is better.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:59 PM on May 6 [2 favorites]


I've really appreciated your contributions to this discussion, klang.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:19 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]


They're positing a zero-sum social argument implicitly, and their willingness to endorse unfair advantage as worthy means that they're willing to contravene the social contract.

You're arguing from an assumption that family-derived advantage is inherently unfair, and so everyone who endorses it is a monster incapable of buying into a social contract. But the notion of a social contract does not assume that everyone is coming from an equal starting place.

If it was more likely to destroy that, instead of mitigating the flaws of clannishness that you'd have us return to, wouldn't you see lower levels in areas that had more social intervention?

My impression is that you do - that in countries with larger social safety nets/social intervention, and particularly in countries that believe more in starting equalities, you have higher taxes and estate taxes that serve to break up and prevent the construction of large, continuous, family estates and wealth. Am I incorrect? Brazil, for example, has an 8% estate tax - Japan, a 40%.
posted by corb at 3:22 PM on May 6


"You're arguing from an assumption that family-derived advantage is inherently unfair,"

… can you support the notion that family-derived advantage is fair? I mean, perhaps someone hear "nepotism" and think, "That's a great way to run a society!" but I'd want them to support their contention with arguments rather than just some mushy bits about how they think their kids are great and special.

and so everyone who endorses it is a monster incapable of buying into a social contract.

Nope! What I said was that people who endorse it are either oblivious or [straw man monster argument].

But the notion of a social contract does not assume that everyone is coming from an equal starting place. "

No, however it does assume that everyone has equal interest in success, ergo those with an unequal, unearned starting place who endorse that as right or normal are acting against the common interest, ergo it's in the interest of any others to work against them. (It's pretty easy to demonstrate this with a "quick" game of Risk.)

"My impression is that you do - that in countries with larger social safety nets/social intervention, and particularly in countries that believe more in starting equalities, you have higher taxes and estate taxes that serve to break up and prevent the construction of large, continuous, family estates and wealth. Am I incorrect? Brazil, for example, has an 8% estate tax - Japan, a 40%."

Your impression is bizarre, given that you refute it within your paragraph. For actual data, you can see the Geert Hofstede surveys on various cultural metrics including individuality. And focusing on estate taxes alone is myopic; both Japan and Brazil have far more intersessionary states than the US does and that's evidenced in a variety of ways. (They both also have wildly different development profiles, and wildly different GINI scores… Trying to make a comparison like that is uselessly reductive for a lot of reasons.)
posted by klangklangston at 3:43 PM on May 6 [3 favorites]


Plus, that's the inheritance tax on the part of estates worth between 100-300 million yen, if memory serves - which is assessed after funeral expenses and other taxes. Tax on estates up to 10 million yen is 10%, and it increases progressively, topping out at 50%.

So, 40% is the rate of Japanese inheritance tax on the part on an estate between about $1 and 3 million - the sum below that is taxed at a lower rate, and the sum above that a higher rate.
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:58 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]


Am I incorrect? Brazil, for example, has an 8% estate tax - Japan, a 40%.

Well, you're certainly oversimplifying things, as 20 seconds of Google search will show; Japan's inheritance tax laws show that rosf is correct.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:06 PM on May 6


My mistake, 50% to 8% for maximum rates - I may have been looking at an outdated site.
posted by corb at 4:18 PM on May 6


Here in Austria, a country with relatively socialist policies, there is no estate tax, at all. Additionally, there are restrictions on the freedoms of an estate-holder on exactly how s/he can dispose of his/her estate, both while alive and after death, restrictions that are designed to ensure that a minimum portion of the estate (50%) is passed to the estate-holder's surviving family members. Inheritance rules for farms are even more restrictive, in an effort to keep large family farms from being split up too much over many generations of inheritance.

corb is simply making a religious argument - she is convinced of the correctness of her beliefs with the fervor of a religious devotee for whom neither fact nor reason are obstacles.

Carry on.
posted by syzygy at 12:24 AM on May 7 [1 favorite]


To be fair to corb, it's not a crazy hypothesis to advance - it makes a sort of intuitive sense that countries with more of a sense of social responsibility rather than celebrating the ruthless advancement of dynasties at the expense of a broader social contract will generally have higher taxes, and that these taxes will extend to estate or inheritance taxes.

It is just a hypothesis though, and a couple of data points (especially if not accurate, but the Japanese rates still support the idea that Japan has higher inheritance tax rates than Brazil) don't prove it. We'd need to get a lot more data, and adjust for all sorts of factors.

On the other hand, the idea that Japan "believes more in starting equalities", which would also have to be proven to make even a very limited case, is I think going to be very hard to demonstrate, because it's not culturally recognisable. You could look at the Nordic countries, maybe, but that hits a bump immediately - Norway has abolished its inheritance tax. Norway!

Admittedly, Norway currently has a right-wing government, by Nordic standards. But. Norway! And the Swedes, who invented Jante Law, have not had inheritance tax for nearly a decade.

So, it gets messy pretty quickly. And that's before one even gets onto the core arguments, like that Japan is not focused on family status, or indeed that the US does not like dynasties, which would maybe seem more convincing in a week when Maleficent wasn't premiering. But that would still leave the Bushes, the Waltons, the Smiths, the Koches, the Clintons...

So, yeah. I can see why from a certain angle this might be a tempting hypothesis, but I don't think it works unless you argue backwards - state the contention and then dismiss every contrary datum as a statistical anomaly.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:02 AM on May 7


The original article has been re-posted on/by Time Magazine (or at least TIME.com) under the catchy title "Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege." I applaud the re-titling of the piece, because it strips away the "character" bullshit and makes him sound like a cocky little snot from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, they tried to balance the linkbait title with a Readers Digest-suitable tagline: "Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color." Aww, now I feel like the kid might have more to say. Sorry, dear reader, that is not the case.

And I missed the "you didn't build that" potshot when I first read this. That line was paraded around in 2012, taking a soundbite out of context and making Obama sound like the all-mighty small businesses have done nothing. Did Tal even know where this came from, or did he pick it up like the viral bit of nonsense that it became? As a refresher, Obama was talking about all the people and systems that helped people achieve what they have now. Oh, the irony of the lazy intellectuals, repeating the same dumb mis-quoted line that was so quickly refuted two years ago, failing to grasp the importance of the context just as people did two years ago. -5 points for not checking your sources, kid.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:40 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


Did Tal even know where this came from, or did he pick it up like the viral bit of nonsense that it became?

If you mean "did he know Obama said it", yes. If you mean "did he know it was quoted out of context by the right-wing media", then he would deny that, and insist that this was rather Obama's mask slipping for a moment, revealing the small-business hating Marxist beneath.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:50 AM on May 8


You're arguing from an assumption that family-derived advantage is inherently unfair

This is false, it's not inherently unfair; it's unfair as a consequence of more general moral/ethical principles that various people hold to be true, for example but not limited to, the Veil of Ignorance. More than that, it's dangerous because there are social consequences of such value systems. Look at what happened to aristocracy "family-derived advantage" in various histories. This is historical evidence.
posted by polymodus at 12:18 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]




Thanks, homunculus, that's a fantastic interview. I especially like this bit:
And I found myself going back and forth in my mind over the question, Are these nice men, or are they oppressive? I thought I had to choose. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be both.
That's really well put, and could help people whose first thought when they learn about privilege is that they're being told that they're not nice people.
posted by zompist at 3:59 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


What White Privilege Looks Like When You're Poor
Inevitably, when you talk about white privilege someone will ask the question, "What about poor white people? What privilege do they have?"
...
This week, the House Appropriations Committe released a draft of the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill. In it, $27 million is budgeted for a pilot program aimed at reducing child hunger in rural areas. "Sounds innocuous enough," writes MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff, "except the $27 million program was actually the committee's substitute for a White House proposal which would have allocated $30 million to child hunger across urban and rural areas."

Resnikoff goes on to point out that this doesn't mean children in urban areas will be completely left out of hunger reducing programs, as the "federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals to low-income children when school is not in session and they don't have access to free or reduced school lunch," and that there are specific challenges that face rural areas with regards to food insecurity. However, "the House committee's proposal is likely to help fewer people of color than the White House proposal. And while rural areas may be unique in terms of the challenges they face, they're not where most of America's hungry are concentrated."
...
It's not that Kennedy or this current House subcommittee ever explicitly said "white hunger is more important than black hunger, white poverty is more important than black poverty." But the seeming indifference toward black poverty, played out in their actions as elected officials, reflects the privileging of whiteness. It is indecent that any person go hungry, particularly in a country of such abundance. It is indecent to determine that some of those people are more worthy of our investment in their being fed than others. It is indecent to then pretend as if that's not the case. All these indecencies add up to an injustice. We are a country that practices injustice as a way of life.

Yes, you can be poor and white and still benefit from white supremacy. That's what privilege is.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:38 AM on May 24 [8 favorites]


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