A college student who doesn’t believe in the existence of structural racism or white supremacy wrote an essay about why he would “never apologize” for his white privilege, and Time magazine thought it would be a really cool idea to publish it. Probably because Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang speaks for many white Americans when he says that racism and white privilege aren’t real.
Tired of being told to “check his privilege” by others at his college, Fortgang goes through his family’s history and concludes that he deserves to go to an Ivy League school and live in a wealthy suburb of New York City and share his ridiculous baby tantrum thoughts on a national news site because his family made smarter and better choices than other families.
“I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents’ education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad,” Fortgang writes. “It’s been made clear to me that education begins in the home, and the importance of parents’ involvement with their kids’ education — from mathematics to morality — cannot be overstated. It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates ‘privilege.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
It goes on like this for a long time. Nothing in the essay is a new or shocking expression of white privilege or the astounding sense of entitlement and self-regard shared by white racists. (Yes, Fortgang’s ignorance is a manifestation of his racism. So is his glee over the deaths of Palestinians.)
A lot of people in the United States also believe that race-blind meritocracy is real and that discussions of privilege and institutional racism are just sore losers being sore, and many of the people who think this way also happen to make our policies or control most of the wealth in this country. (Or both.) Fortgang extolling the bootstrap ingenuity of his parents and attributing his spot at Princeton to little more than his family’s focus on education is the same kind of ignorance that fuels Paul Ryan’s belief that parents who use government programs to help feed their families don’t love their children or Rand Paul’s faith that his niece’s spot in a veterinary program means that sexism is dead. The only difference is that Fortgang is just some college jerk-off, but Ryan and Paul get to shape policies that force real people to go hungry or prevent women from seeking legal recourse when they’re discriminated against by their employers.
It’s likely that Fortgang will have the opportunity at Princeton to learn about the racial wealth gap, the legacy of red-lining, the unemployment rate among college educated men of color versus their white counterparts, the convergence of racism and sexism that leaves women of color disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, the gender pay gap experienced by black women, the deadly violence faced by black children and the myriad other manifestations of racism in the United States. Basically all of the things that he will never have to experience as an extraordinarily privileged white man. And it’s possible that a deeper engagement with these issues will do him some good, and maybe make him a little less of an ignorant shithead.
But far more likely is the fact that Fortgang will continue to believe that being asked to check his privilege (which really just means recognizing, identifying and challenging the insidious operations of racism) is just whining from jealous haters. Because – like many white people – he doesn’t want to confront racism and white privilege because those things have — and will continue to — really, really help him out in life. And the reality is that he doesn’t have to confront this stuff, either. Not in his daily life, not while trying to find a job and not in any of the other ridiculous essays that he writes for his college newspaper. That’s exactly how white privilege works.