So the internet is abuzz once again with the musing of another knucklehead that has misunderstood the workings of race, racism, and privilege—surprise, surprise.
Time Magazine recently published Tal Fortgang’s op-ed entitled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” In it he explains that at Princeton, where he attends school, he has often been prompted to “check his privilege” and that he wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. So, he figured he would take a look at his family’s history to see where this so called privilege came from. He found that his ancestors experienced oppression and persecution even to the extent of surviving Nazi Germany. He continues to detail the struggles his ancestors undertook in-order to build their lives here in America. Fortgang ends his tirade by making the argument that if he has any privilege it is American privilege and it is a good thing because it “cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character” and proudly proclaiming he has checked his privilege and apologizes for nothing.
Like so many folks today, Tal is focused on the claim that whiteness and maleness has provided some sort of unearned privilege and takes offense at this implication. I am not interested in proving to Tal Fortgang that he has privilege or what actions he should take now (this essay and this essay already do that). I am more interested in expanding on what Mychal Denzel Smith eluded to in his article in the Nation: whiteness.
Much of Tal’s case that he is not privileged centers on the experiences of his ancestors. Tal is right that this experience is largely informative, but not in the way Tal thinks. Tal leaves out of his historical narrative the fluidity of whiteness, and that for much of this country’s history whiteness was not a simple extrapolation of melanin level. In fact, Jew’s at one point in time were not considered white in this country. This is not an insignificant omission and serves as the fatal flaw of not just Tal’s but many many European American’s logic. They do not understand it is in the assimilation of whiteness that privilege was bestowed. It was in an acquiescing to American culture i.e white supremacy and investing in being “normal” i.e white that privilege becomes a crucial aspect of your story.
This is the cost of America and of whiteness for us Europeans. It was the cost of admission our ancestors paid and it is one that we must work to rectify. America is set up to benefit Whites, a category that was created after Anglo-Saxons realized how tenuous their grasp on power was. They divided and conquered and if we don’t center this understanding in our analysis they will continue to divide and conquer us. Part of that strategy comes in the form of white privilege. That is just a fact. It is not something we can opt in or out of. However, what we can do is understand it as a historical tool and do our best to abolish the systems that gives birth to it: whiteness.
So, Tal don’t apologize for your privilege, instead remember your Jewishness and think about how America has stripped that culture. So much so that you have taken up for whiteness, an ideology that once marginalized and excluded your people. It is not worthy of your defense. When you remember that it will become easier for you to “check your privilege!”