My freshman year in high school, the administration's diversity czars lined my whole class across the gym and read a series of statements, each accompanied by a command to step forward or backward. “If you are white, take two steps forward.” “If your parents went to college, take one step forward.” “If you are gay, take two steps back.” Before long, we were sorted according to our supposed privilege—and I'm pretty sure all of us, from the children of real estate moguls up front to the mostly black financial aid students in the rear, felt awful about where we stood.
That was almost nine years ago, and the incident upset many students and parents. Today, the phrase “check your privilege”—that is, to acknowledge your relative advantage—is commonplace, as is the tallying of privilege. A recent Buzzfeed "How Privileged Are You?" quiz asks readers to check off a hundred statements—from "I am white" to "I consider myself to be physically attractive"—and spits out a score between 0 (“under-privileged”) and 100 (“the most privileged”). Last year, Gawker created "The Privilege Tournament," a March Madness–like bracket that included "race" and "gender" regions but also "allergies."
All this has prompted something of an anti-anti-privilege backlash. You'll find no better example of that than Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang's diatribe in The Princeton Tory last month, "Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege."
The essay, which caught The New York Times's attention last week, was Fortgang’s response to comments that he should check his privilege because he is a white man. “I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend,” Fortgang writes. He then recounts his grandparents' persecution during the Holocaust and their hard work in America. People who tell him to check his privilege, he says, are to be blamed 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.”
What Fortgang misses is that the concept of privilege isn't meant to be about history. It’s about the benefits accrued today by members of advantaged classes. When people call Fortgang privileged, they're not referring to his grandparents' escape from the Nazis. They're referring to his status as an affluent white American man who attends one of the top universities in the world. Fortgang may have worked hard to get to Princeton, and he should be proud of that accomplishment, but he did have a head start in the race.
That said, Fortgang’s frustration is justified. In liberal spheres of debate—spheres that, as a student at an elite college, Fortgang must be familiar with—privilege can be a sort of scarlet letter. Gawker's tournament may have been intended as comedy, but it was not without insight. “Privilege: so sweet to have,” Hamilton Nolan wrote in the introduction. “But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority.” The bracket makes explicit the competitive nature of the today's debate about privilege. Everyone is checking everyone else's privilege, competing to be the least privileged person present—and, thus, the most authoritative on the subject of privilege. Privilege is stigmatized; hardship—or assumed hardship—becomes a badge of honor.
Take, for example, the biographies of the students who run the popular tumblr “Check Your Privilege at the Door.” If the blog weren't so self-serious, I'd assume this was parody: “I am mixed race (white and Korean) and a lesbian. I also identify as fat and as an atheist. My privileges include white-passing privilege, cisgender privilege, class privilege and able-bodied privilege. I am an extrovert with low social skills.” Nothing about her personality, interests, or achievements—only where she stood in the Internet equivalent of my high school's sorting exercise. Mixed race: one step back. Fat: one step back. Cisgender: two steps forward.
The real problem with the phrase "check your privilege"—aside from the fact that it reduces people to the sum of their characteristics—is that it has become a handicapping device. White male? Then what could you possibly know about racism or sexism? Calling out privilege often isn't intended to make someone consider his advantages in life so much as to dismiss his perspective. But I want to be able to discuss sexism or feminism with men, and I think their opinions are no less worthy or relevant for the fact that they are male. Similarly, anyone should be able to participate in a conversation about racism without being discounted or silenced on account of race.
That’s why I find Fortgang’s reaction not wholly out of place. Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate. “Check your privilege” can come across as an expectation that a person be repentant for sins he has not committed. In its most generous usage, of course, “check your privilege” isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty—only to make them recognize their privileged position. But it has the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder. This is partly what outraged Fortgang, who refers to the phrase as a reprimand that "threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them." He concludes, "I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing."
This disconnect stems from confusion about what "check your privilege" really means, which results in accusations and defensiveness rather than a reasonable debate about—well, whatever subject the debate was originally about. Who can remember? But the problem isn't just the phrase “check your privilege,” or even the concept of privilege. It’s rooted in a basic disagreement over the weight of identity in determining a person’s role in social discourse. And that’s why Fortgang’s opponents and supporters will continue to talk past each other.