Tag Archives: privilege

The Privilege of Being Normal

You can’t explain “white privilege” without first acknowledging that “privilege” used to mean something else.

A little over a week ago, Kirsten Gillibrand was confronted on the campaign trail by a woman who challenged what “so-called white privilege” could possibly mean in a place like Youngstown, Ohio. Youngtown has lost its factories and is ground zero of the opioid crisis. White people there are suffering. So how can they be “privileged”?

Gillibrand’s answer got applause from the room, was described by Vox as “spot on”, and was widely shared on social media: She acknowledged the distress of Youngstown’s whites, clearly stated that it’s “not acceptable and not OK”, but then segued to institutional racism, which she characterized as “a different issue”.

While in general I agree with what Gillibrand said, I wonder if the woman who asked the question really heard her yes-but answer. Gillibrand allowed that “no one in that circumstance [i.e., unemployed in Youngstown] is privileged on any level”, but then went on to talk about their privilege anyway. I wonder how many struggling whites will dismiss her response as confusing double-talk.

I think a proper answer to the Youngstown woman’s question has to start by recognizing that we use the word privilege differently than we used to. When that woman was growing up (or when I was), privilege was a kind of abnormality: Being privileged meant that you didn’t have the same worries as ordinary people. Privileged teens didn’t have to sweat about their grades or test scores, because of course they’d get into the same Ivy League college Dad and Grandpa went to. If they had trouble finding a first job, an uncle would invite them into the family business. If they had an idea for a business of their own, start-up capital would be available. And if that business failed, there would be more capital for a second or third try.

Privilege in that sense — which the Youngstown woman has probably never had — was summed up in the Barry Switzer line that Ann Richards applied to George Bush: He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

But white privilege (like male privilege and straight privilege and all the other privileges we talk about these days) is fundamentally different: It’s the privilege of being seen* as normal. You still have to follow the rules, do the work, pay the bills, and so on, but whoever set the system up had people like you in mind. So the effort you put in has a chance to succeed. You weren’t born on third base; you had to hit the ball and run like all the other players. But nobody challenged your right to have a turn at bat.

Take me, for example. As the son of a factory worker and a secretary, I never got the kind of exceptional treatment a Bush or a Kennedy could expect. But all my life I have had the advantage of being classified as normal in a variety of beneficial ways: Police see me as a citizen to protect rather than a malefactor to control. Neither I nor anyone else ever had to wonder whether “people like me” can succeed in my chosen profession. Doctors take my complaints seriously. When I walk into a store, clerks think about what I might buy rather than what I might steal. The public has never debated whether people like me should be allowed to join the military or get married. No one stares when my wife and I walk down the street together. I can find a restaurant on Yelp and have confidence that the front door will be accessible to me, the staff will speak my language, the menu will include food I can eat, and no one will object if I use the bathroom.

None of that is anything like having a spot reserved at Harvard or a corner office waiting for me when I get out. But these days we call those things “privileges” in order to recognize that not everybody gets them. In some sense, my “privilege” has been to be treated the way everybody should be treated. But everybody isn’t treated that way in 21st-century America. And that’s the point we’re making when we talk about “white privilege” or any similar privileges.

* It’s important to understand something about normal: It’s not about what you are, it’s about how systems treat you. If some system works for you the way it’s supposed to, without anybody needing to step in and make some special exception, then for the purposes of that system you are normal. You may have purple skin and three heads, but if a bus picks you up and takes you where you’re going without incident, that bus has normalized you.

Privilege and the Bubble of Flattery

a response to that unapologetic Princeton freshman

Eighteeen-year-old Tal Fortgang became a national sensation this month when his essay “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” got published in Time. In the last week and a half it’s been linked and emailed and responded to all over the internet. (I first noticed it because of a bump in the hits on my essay “The Distress of the Privileged“. Privilege, I realized, must be hot for some reason.)

Let’s glide past the question of whether any 18-year-olds whose parents weren’t able to send them to Princeton might have written better, more thoughtful essays that haven’t gotten national attention, and instead dive into the content of Fortgang’s argument. He is tired of having his opinions and accomplishments diminished by people who tell him to “check his privilege”, so he does check his privilege and determines that it’s all quite justified: His Jewish great-grandfather was killed by the Nazis. His grandfather escaped Hitler and languished in displaced-persons camps before making it to America and starting a business. His father got a graduate degree and worked hard, and Tal himself has put considerable effort into making something of himself.

What he finds is not that he has been blessed by some “invisible patron saint of white maleness”, but that he benefits from a family legacy of values like self-sacrifice and entrepreneurialism and faith and resolve, and the habits that pass those values down from generation to generation. He is also privileged that his ancestors made it to America

a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

So, he concludes, “I apologize for nothing.”

How to respond to that? First, I don’t know who at Princeton has been telling Fortgang that there is a patron saint of white maleness handing out success like a Sicilian godfather, or that “nothing you have accomplished is real”, but I hope that sooner or later someone gives Tal a more accurate metaphor: Privilege is like a tailwind. You have to handle the sails, but if you handle them moderately well, you get further. The places you get to are quite real, but … you had a tailwind and a lot of other people had a headwind. Sometimes that’s the difference between arriving at your destination, being lost at sea, or never getting out of port.

In short: Lots of people studied in high school and have strong values and characters. Lots of people’s parents and grandparents were smart, long-suffering, plucky, and hard-working. Not all of them are where Tal is or have the prospects he presumably does.

Recognizing privilege shouldn’t make a person apologize — which wouldn’t do anybody any good anyway. But it should raise humility, as well as compassion for those born to less favorable winds.

Second, I hope Tal takes some courses in cultural history, and learns that in every era privileged youth grow up in a bubble of flattery. In ancient times, the poets would trace your ancestry back to the gods, philosophers and theologians would explain how your slaves had been born with a servile nature or bore the mark of some ancient curse, and historians would glorify the battles of the valorous warriors who conquered the lands to which you now fall heir. And all of them would emphasize that blood is thicker than water: Worthiness flows down the family bloodline in precisely the same way that property does.

Today, well-funded think tanks and endowed chairs and glossy magazines and news networks and at least one-and-a-half of our two political parties are devoted to extolling the virtues of the rich: They are on top because they deserve to be. They are smarter, harder-working, wiser, more entrepreneurial, and just generally better than everyone else. The rest of us should be grateful to them, because they create our jobs, and their inventiveness is the engine that powers our economy. Without them, the rains would fail, the Earth would refuse to produce its bounty, and the rest of us would forget how to provide goods and services to each other.

Rather than asking scions like Tal to check his privilege, our gratitude should flow down the genetic line just as it always has, crediting the virtues of the fathers to the sons to the third and fourth generations (and, conversely, letting those born in the gutter wallow in filth like the animals they are).

As of old, this is flattery. People say and write these things because powerful people want to hear and read them. (Or, as in your case, Tal, people in privileged classes say and write such things for their own justification, and then are rewarded. You are well on your way to a fine career flattering people even more privileged than you.)

I haven’t been in the room when people have asked Tal to “check his privilege”, but I doubt they were asking for an apology. I would guess they were asking him to grow up, to poke his head out of the bubble of flattery, and to stop repeating what his flatterers told him as if the rest of us should believe it.

We don’t believe it, and we never will … even though some of us will echo those ideas if we’re paid well enough.