I was fortunate enough to graduate college in 2011 from one of the most prestigious schools in the world–Princeton University. While my experience there was fairly hit-or-miss, I’ve never regretted my choice, and I still don’t. Unfortunately, when Princeton’s not in the news for groundbreaking research, it’s often in the news because some people associated with the school have aggressively loud and reactionary political and social views. Susan Patton and Ted Cruz come immediately to mind, and this week Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang, whose article in a conservative campus publication has gotten national attention, joined them in the news.
In his article, Fortgang rails against some fellow Princeton students who have told him that he needs to “check his privilege.” Asking him to do this, he says, has the effect of “diminishing everything I have personally accomplished,” and “casting the equal protection clause as a myth” and “declaring…that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.” Fortgang then goes on to talk about the struggles that his Jewish grandparents went through in Europe and in America, and about how his parents worked extremely hard to build their lives here.
Of course, Fortgang’s family has been the beneficiary of privilege ever since getting here. Most of us have, really, in one way or another, whether it’s white privilege, male privilege, coming from a stable home life or financial situation, or any of a number of other personal ways. Being reminded of this isn’t a dismissal of everything we’ve actually done. It’s just a way for us to recognize that ours is not the only American experience, and that there are others who, through no fault of their own, have not been so fortunate. Other people have run into external hurdles or boundaries, whether it’s from individual put-downs and reminders in daily life or from huge systemic issues. By rejecting the concept of privilege, Fortgang assumes that these differences in our personal experiences shouldn’t be taken into account when crafting policy.
But Fortgang’s privileges DO matter. It matters that his parents and grandparents are Jewish, as opposed to black or Hispanic, Asian or Native American. It matters that he is a man. It matters that he had a relatively stable financial situation while growing up. Fortgang dismisses these and other social constructs as either irrelevant or deserved. While at Princeton, Fortgang will have the opportunity to learn from some of the best sociologists in the world about the way our country, historically and today, stacks the deck against women, minorities, and the poor. I hope he takes full advantage of the opportunity.
I think most students attending Princeton would come away with the impression that “privilege” is a huge part of student life. The ease with which some students spent money was surprising and humbling for me, and I come from a solidly-middle-class background. Racial and sexual tensions still exist as well, just as they do anywhere else. Most students seem at least somewhat aware that these tensions and discrepancies exist, and on a personal level try not to excerbate or exploit them (although the larger system of privilege remains in place, due in part to a lack of effort on behalf of the wider student body to conscientiously do away with it). Fortgang, and the paper that published his essay, are part of the vocal campus conservative minority who make it their mission to oppose liberal ideas like “checking your privilege”
Of course, there’s hope for Fortgang yet. He’s young, and there’s so much that he hasn’t seen or experienced. There’s a lot that I haven’t experienced, and I hope that people don’t judge me too harshly for it if I show a willingness to learn and to understand. At the same time, if his article is any indication, he may not be showing that willingness. While being told to “check your privilege” might be annoying for Fortgang, it’s also an opportunity to understand the world from someone else’s perspective. And for all of the advantages and privileges that Fortgang’s parents were able to give him, being able to do that is clearly not one of them.