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Why I Check My Privilege, and Why You Need to Check Yours: A Response to Tal Fortgang



The following are excerpts from anonymous submissions on a Facebook page titled UCSB Microaggressions : 

“I saw a group of guys I recognized … They were a group of dark-skinned Hispanics, South Asians, and Middle Easterns all huddle in front of a gate. Behind that gate, a bunch of white guys held the gate shut and were yelling, ‘WHY DON’T YOU JUMP THE FENCE, MEXICANS?!’ over and over again at the group of guys I knew.”

“After coming out of the closet, I keep hearing people tell me, ‘I like how you act manly like an actual guy, I fucking hate it when gay people act gay around me.’”

“One quarter, I had a TA who told me that if I had cystic fibrosis, I shouldn’t even be enrolled in school, and that I should just drop out because I missed a single lab, and emailed her to explain why.”

“I was pulled over by a police officer, and when he reached my window, his first question was not ‘Can I see your license and registration?’ Instead, his first question was, ‘Do you speak English?’ I was really taken back by this. The only reason that he asked me is because I fit his stereotype of what a Mexican person ‘looks like.’ Sorry not sorry I don’t fit your definition of what an English Speaker ‘looks like.’”

“I hate going to parties mainly because white males approach me assuming I will instantly say yes. This dude once came up to me and said, “I don’t usually do this, but I think you’re really good looking even though you’re Latina.”…Later that night I heard him talk to his friend about that ‘Mexican, fat-assed bitch’ he would bang that night.”

“NO YOU CAN’T TOUCH MY HAIR!”

I have never experienced anything like the above. I am also white, heterosexual, cisgendered and able-bodied. Those two facts are not mutually exclusive.

A UCSB campus climate survey concluded that “white respondents, men, heterosexual respondents, and respondents without disabilities were more likely than their underrepresented peers to feel ‘very comfortable’ with the overall climate.” The results  to me and to anyone who does not fall under that category of white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied seem obvious. Others, though, apparently cannot comprehend how historical power structures relate to comfort level. One white man was quick to blame the discomfort on “fear mongering” within minority communities, rather than suggest any way in which the school could work to make those communities feel safer. Similarly, UCSB’s Take Back the Night organization posted sexual assault statistics on Facebook, and a different white man (wrongly) accused the group of posting misleading statistics in order to scare women. Um, no, actually, TBTN is trying to help women and change those statistics.

When a horrible gang rape occurred on campus in February, police reports identified the perpetrators as “Asian males” and distributed sketches of two “Asian males” based on limited identification information. As a result, an alarming number of people on campus channeled their anger into racism, which one API girl addressed in an op-ed in the Nexus. In her article, she discussed the intersections between racism and sexual assault, and brought up historic police disregard for minority communities. One commenter, rather than asking for more information or even considering that any of her thoughts may be legitimate, instead jumped to assert her wrongness, and claimed police brutality or negligence isn’t a problem at UCSB. The commenter was, you guessed it, a white man — someone who does not belong to any group that has ever received unfair targeting by police and is therefore in no position to contradict the real experiences of underrepresented students on campus.

Time and time again in class discussion sections, in talking with groups of friends or on virtual conversations over social media, white men question the experiences of others and insist that they have authority on the matter, when in reality they have no experience or facts to back up their opinions. Time and time again I see white people (I would say white men because they are the worst perpetrators, but white women are by no means exempt) taking up space where they shouldn’t, speaking on matters that do not affect them and expecting to be taken as seriously or more seriously than the people who are forced to face those issues on a daily basis. 

I follow the UCSB Microaggressions page because I believe in the importance of reminding oneself of the ways in which one is privileged, so that one does not remain complicit in the systematic oppression of the underrepresented. 

So, here is what I have to say to Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman who does not share this belief of mine:

Tal, your family’s story is beautiful. Your grandparents’ struggle to survive and forge a new life and a better future for their grandchildren — for you — inspires me, it really does. I hope that I never face anything like the struggle they faced, and I hope that if I do I will have the strength they had.

However, your family’s incredible story doesn’t change the fact that you are a white man. As much as you will try to deny it, your complexion and your gender give you advantages — privileges, if you will — that others just don’t have. 

You have already written off the people of color who have told you to check your privilege, even insinuating that they are racist in doing so. They are generalizing you because you are white, and generalizations are ALWAYS wrong, right? So you write them off. Well, I, too, benefit from white privilege, and I can promise you that it is real.

I am privileged because growing up, the majority of my teachers looked like me. Not a single one ever made the assumption that I would not do well based on subconscious presuppositions about success rates of different ethnicities. Not only were my teachers white, but so were the politicians I saw in office, the police I saw on the streets and the faces I saw on my favorite television shows and in my favorite magazines. In school, the majority of the historical figures I studied, the authors I read, the scientists and mathematicians my teachers heralded, were white. Now the majority of my professors and administrators are still white. I am privileged because I have never walked into a store and found myself under constant surveillance by managers who suspect I might steal. I am privileged because I have never been “randomly selected” at an airport, despite having spent a much greater than average percentage of my life on airplanes (I am also privileged enough to be able to travel). I am privileged because when I was 12 years old, I walked past a cluster of police officers with a black friend and could not for the life of me understand why he got scared. He hadn’t even done anything! Now, in Isla Vista, I am privileged because I know that I can look to the police as a source of protection, rather than a source of fear and unfair criminalization. I have privilege because as an undergraduate at UCSB, white students are an overwhelming majority and therefore I never feel alone in my identity. I don’t have to create new spaces on campus in order to find solidarity and support. I am privileged because if I wanted to, I could (like you) go about my life ignoring my white privilege, when people of color must confront prejudice and discrimination on both a personal and an institutional level every single day. 

Look at me, Tal. Look me in the eyes and tell me that none of the above examples of white privilege apply to you. What’s that? A couple of them seem familiar? Exactly.

White privilege is not the only kind of privilege. This seems to be a concept that confuses you. Because of my family history, there are many ways in which I have privileges that you do not. My ancestors did not flee persecution. I come from an financially affluent background. All of my grandparents spoke English as a first language and went to college.

There are ways in which you have privileges that I do not, as well. I do not have the privilege of walking alone, or even with other girl friends, at night in my college town and feeling safe, because I am female. Even during the day, I do not have the privilege of walking down the street alone without being harassed, evaluated based on my appearance and propositioned. I will spend my life being called a “bitch” or a “prude” when I turn down sexual propositions and a “slut” or “easy” when I don’t. As a woman in college, I face a one in four chance of being raped, and if that were ever to happen to me, I would not receive institutional support (look at all of the cases at colleges across the country right now), and my peers and the media would make me question whether my actions made me at fault.

You lay out the privileges that your family didn’t have in their struggle for survival, and that’s all very real, but that doesn’t excuse you from the benefits you get in this society because of your appearance and your identity. I’m sorry.  

When someone alerts you to your privilege, they are not attacking your character. They are not calling you a bad person or reproaching your attributes. I know that I am hardworking, determined, smart and passionate, and when someone tells me to check my privilege it doesn’t undermine everything I have accomplished. It means that the reality of our society and our history gives me a leg up, and people who do not have my same privileges have to overcome more to attain the same level of success. 

You are not the first white man to make the argument against white male privilege, Tal Fortgang. You are not the hundredth, and hundreds more will no doubt follow in your blundering footsteps. My college campus, as I have illustrated, is absolutely swarming with your ilk. (And by your ilk, I do not mean white men, but arrogant, ignorant, entitled white men who refuse to check their goddamn privilege.) I can only hope that the continued efforts of underrepresented communities and their allies to fight against white male supremacy will eventually ensure that your arrogance becomes irrelevant, rather than a threat to their struggle for liberation. And, if a white man reads this (or the many accounts of what life without white male privilege feels like written by people less privileged than I) and decides to check himself, all the better.

Tiana Miller-Leonard’s creed is “check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”

Views expressed on the opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB and are primarily submitted by students.
This is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.
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11 Responses to Why I Check My Privilege, and Why You Need to Check Yours: A Response to Tal Fortgang

  1. Anon Reply

    May 18, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    This article is the most ridiculous nonsense I have read on the Daily Nexus website in quite some time. I would recommend that Tiana-Miller Leonard attend many more hours per week of therapy than she is undoubtedly already engaged in. Changing psychiatrists would probably be a very good idea as well if they encourage this type of insane thinking. I feel very bad for you Tiana, if this is the way your mind works you are going to have a very difficult time living in a world full of mostly logical people.

    • Anon Reply

      May 21, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      An ad hominem attack rather than pointing out what was wrong with her argument, classy. Very ‘logical’ would you not say? Seems like she isn’t the only one who is going to have a difficult time living in ‘a world full of mostly logical people,’ a statement which is can not be proved nor disproved at all.

  2. Lee Reply

    May 15, 2014 at 2:42 am

    You just conflated her arguments @Jason. She said that if someone tells you to check your privilege, it doesn’t mean that that he/she is trying to undermine your character and imply that you’re a bad person. Possibly in the same way that teachers might remind students to check if their opinions expressed in their papers are biased. But if you are given that constructive criticism, and you still refuse to check it, then you ARE arrogant, ignorant and entitled.

  3. Jason G Reply

    May 13, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    By the way, you might find this article interesting:

    http://owningyourshit.blogspot.com/2011/05/female-privilege-checklist.html

    • Tiana Miller-Leonard Reply

      May 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      I actually did find that interesting, and parts of it did really make me think. With the exception of some of his points that I think are blatantly wrong, I agree that many of the things he lists are legitimate issues facing men that should be addressed (I don’t want to comment on his section about religion and circumcision because I am not religious and pretty uninformed about the issue and therefore have no context to judge that situation, so just assume I am leaving that part out of my reaction). I suppose it is fair to say that in certain domains of society women have advantages or even privileges. However, I have a couple of problems with the concept “female privilege.” First, this list completely ignores the fact that many of these issues men face are the negative backlash of setting up a society that keeps men in power. What I mean is, designing gender roles so that men are the ones primarily in control and in the public sphere hurts men because it denies them the benefits that accompany the domestic sphere and attributes that are considered feminine. I don’t like the fact that men are expected to pay for dates (and I don’t expect men to pay for me and often ask that they don’t), because that comes from the assumption that men make more money and are responsible for women–that women are dependent on men. The fact that men are restricted from showing emotion or are the victims of suspicion around children comes from the idea that women should be the primary homemakers and parents while men are the breadwinners and the policy-makers and the workers, etc. I don’t like that either and I think men lose out, but it does not derive from a system that is biased in favor of women. Second, when considering the idea of gender privilege it is important to look at the greater structure of society. When women are overrepresented in the elite–in politics, business, entertainment, etc–come talk to me about female privilege. We still live in a place where men are overwhelmingly in control (just like we still live in a place where white people are overwhelmingly in control), and that negates the idea that women have privilege over men. If I grow up and have sons I definitely don’t want them to have to face these issues, but I think that many of them come from the same root cause that I fight against as a feminist.

      I apologize for not making a more thorough, line-by-line response to that article. It’s just really long and that would take forever.

      Also, regarding your other comment: my entire point was that his “ilk” does not refer to all white men, but specifically the entitled, arrogant, ignorant white men that I especially can’t stand. The white men who are aggressively white.

    • J Reply

      May 15, 2014 at 10:08 am

      This is a really interesting article. Thanks! I think her list is spot on and nicely reflects the concept of privilege.

      So, since you agree with this, you must also agree that white and male privilege exist and that they benefit everyone who is white or male, correct?

  4. Susan Reply

    May 11, 2014 at 1:08 am

    I like this article, I agree with it, and I think it’s well written. I wish the author had given more information about Tal Fortgang and who he is and what he said. I am no longer a UCSB student and maybe if I had been at campus I would understand the reference to this guy, but as a reader living in LA I have no idea who he is or what your interaction with him was like to have inspired this article. If any other readers have more questions about white privilege I would recommend reading essays by Tim Wise.

    • Brian Reply

      May 11, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Susan, Tal is a student at Princeton who recently wrote a piece for a campus paper on why he would not apologize for his privilege. The piece was subsequently picked up by TIME and sparked a fairly large national discussion.

  5. J Reply

    May 10, 2014 at 12:27 am

    Maybe Tal would have an easier time understanding privilege if social justice warriors would do a better job of explaining it rather than repeating obnoxious catchphrases like “check your privilege.” You’re taking an accusing tone with someone who has the power to ignore you and suffer no consequences. Do you really think that’s the best way to make things better?

  6. Miguel Reply

    May 9, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    I think the author confuses white privilege with white guilt.

    We all face obstacles in life. We will all face real or perceived injustices in life. And we will do so in varying degrees whether through genetics, family situations, financial status, place of birth, bad luck, etc. Most people try to do the right thing and do right by others, especially as they grow older and learn from their experiences while overcoming their own obstacles as well as from learning how others overcame theirs. Rather than lecturing and admonishing individuals for their point of view, especially if you feel the individual is good in their heart but perhaps a bit misguided, I suggest using reasoned influence. Foisting societal ills on someone just because they are of a certain race (white or perhaps Asian) or gender won’t win you over many people. Unfortunately, you seem to feel guilt that you are dealing with by projecting it upon people who don’t share that same guilt. You’re only accomplishing to breed resentment rather than the understanding that you claim as your goal.

  7. Jason G Reply

    May 9, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Wow, I’m a white man and this article totally won me over! I’m going to check my privilege every day for the rest of my life. I love being told I’m not a bad person only a few sentences before being called arrogant, ignorant, and entitled. Thank you, Tiana. You really inspired me to become a NEW ME.

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