Dear Mr. Fortgang,
I wanted to offer a piece of tempered input, as I'm sure you're receiving a lion's share of invectives counterbalanced by some people who are deeply and passionately supportive of your article.
As this is an open letter, and I want to make sure I am not in any way misconstruing your sentiments, I want to summarize your piece. As I read it, you are frustrated with people telling you to "check your privilege," without realizing that your family background involved great suffering. You are frustrated with the assertion that meritocracy is not possible and alive in this country, and that people fail to judge one another based on the content of their character. You feel that you are suffering from a form of reverse racism in which people signal you out for alienation based on the color of your skin.
I feel like the parallels in our lives offer me a unique ability to speak to you, and hope you'll take the time to read what I have written.
You are from Westchester and I am from Santa Monica, a close West Coast equivalent in terms of the kinds of houses, landscapers, restaurants, and neighborhood patrols there. We are about the same age. I, too, am the son of poor, Rabbinical stock dispersed by pogrom and Holocaust, that raised itself out of penury. I, too, attended an Ivy institution (Yale), thanks to my family's effort, erudition, and -- I would like to think -- some modicum of talent on my own part.
But during college I was exposed to the struggles endured by my peers who looked physically different from me. Simply put, it doesn't compare. You and I may very well be different from a white Protestant man in this country, we may very well have come from suffering, but we are camouflaged in a way people of a different skin tone or gender are not.
Day to day, we are the default option -- we are the ones seen in commercials, we are the ones who shop-keeps are accustomed to attending to, we are the ones who teachers are accustomed to calling "confident" as opposed to "aggressive," and "inquisitive" as opposed to "obnoxious," and "in need of help," as opposed to "a lost cause." I know this might seem trivial to you, but I assure you it isn't. Your sense of self-esteem changes when you are an "other." Your sense of personhood changes when the majority of authors you read are of a different race, and are of a different gender. Others have to live in our world. You can imagine what it would be like being told every day of your life, as a young girl, that your deity wasn't your gender. That the thing meant to represent ALL of you, the sum total of your existence, has different genitals and hormones than you do, has different social and religious expectations placed upon him. As you seem to be of a literary ilk from the quality of your article, I urge you to read James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Lydia Davis, Tony Kushner -- some people who faced or are facing a daily crisis because they are judged not upon the content of their character, but for very different reasons.
Your notion of your background as unprivileged can't easily be dismissed, in part, because the U.S. Jewry wasn't always completely homogenized into the mainstream identity. But at some point, neither were the Irish, nor were the Italians. At some point, neither were the Scots. I'm happy to discuss the rationale and timeline of our assimilation, but this isn't the main point of why I am writing to you. My point is this: the homogenization has happened -- when you go out on the street, you are indistinguishable from any other white man. The evidence of this is presented in your article itself; people have asked you to check your privilege. Perhaps you have never categorized yourself as a privileged person, but that's because you have never had to categorize yourself as anything at all. The thing is, as white straight men -- we never do.
So what exactly is your privilege? You may feel I have not satisfactorily addressed this by saying that you and I get to be "the regular people" in commercials, and pray to a god who is just like us. I want to take things a step further, and illustrate the most basic and dangerous way we are privileged. There are words people use every day like "soul" or "love" or "death" or "friendship" without thinking of their meaning. They are considered apolitical words -- universals. But they are fraught with consequence; their very meaning gets upended, or disintegrates under the lens of a different cultural, socioeconomic, gender, sexuality, religious, etc., background. In Russian, for example, there are two distinct color words for what we would refer to as "light blue" and "dark blue."
In some cultures, there are no linguistic color distinctions other than red, black, and white. You can imagine how different the world is for these cultures as a result. Words shape the world. A word like "love" has a very different meaning for every human being on the planet. But in our country, you will find that it is threaded through with an understanding of a monogamous, heterosexual couple with a dominant man and a submissive woman. That's why, if you're a gay couple, it's "better" to be monogamous. That's why, if you're a straight couple you might have an "independent woman," but a man who wants to stay at home and be a primary parent is seen as an aberration.
As a person born with two hands, you have a privileged ease with which you may use the word "clap." It just "makes sense" to you, in the way someone missing a hand wouldn't be able to understand. You get it. Your ease with words like "love" is likewise enhanced by being a white straight male. Imagine not getting... well... everything. It is our definition of love and friendship and soul and death that the world we live in conforms to. It is the way we use these words that has accreted meaning and value over centuries of poetry, political speech, and the "regular" kind of speaking that occurs on the television. You will discover that you have inherited, as your privilege, an ease with these words that has gotten you your SAT score, your debating trophies, your poetry prizes, the smile from the cashier, the adulation of your peers and teachers. In short, you have stepped into the world with all the secret handshakes that prepare you for success. It is up to others to understand you, and it is not your responsibility to understand them. This is your ultimate privilege -- to be given automatic fluency in our norms and language.
When a person who has had their gender changed is interviewed about a book they wrote, the questions directed to them run along the lines of "What was it like to be born in a body that felt unlike yours?" "What was it like to go through puberty and feel breasts grow when you always felt you should have a penis?" Can you imagine if before Fox News interviewed you about your Time piece, or anything else imaginable, you first had to answer questions like "What was it like to be born into a body that felt just like your mental representation of it?" "What was it like to continue having a penis after anticipating that you would continue to have a penis?" You'd never get to talk about anything you wanted to speak about other than your identity as an outsider, or other. (Which you would probably want to talk about, given how hard it is.) You would never get to say anything else that matters to you, or meaningfully integrate your experience into a broader self-definition. You'd be reduced to just whatever makes you different. Janet Mock gave a great interview about this, if you're interested.
The point is, when you are not the default option in the world, the world only wants to hear from you about how you're different, but not really how you're different, just that you're different, over and over again. You aren't given time to think about "apolitical" things. When the word "I" is used, one imagines a straight white male unless there is other specification. It is impossible for other people to have identities without an "as a" appended to them. We get to say "I love you." Whenever Sappho says "I love you" we hear "I love you, as a woman." When Baldwin says "I love you" we hear "I love you, as a black man." The writers we read who aren't white men, we read to hear about what it's like not to be a white man -- even the very ones I mentioned earlier as sources you should look at.
Mr. Fortgang, the best thing we have as human beings is empathy. If there is one truly apolitical act -- even if we can't rely on "God" or "love" to carry over meaning from culture to culture and race to race and person to person -- it might be to empathize. I urge you to stretch your empathy to its absolute limit. Spend time, lots of time, asking questions to people with whom you disagree and who are very upset with the way the world is. It's also not anyone-in-particular's responsibility to educate you. There are lots of good books to pick up and empathize with. As I understand my loved ones who don't have my privilege, it often is not any cataclysmic display of violent racism, homophobia, or sexism, but the subtle ways they are degraded daily that hurt them. It is in the way people don't make as much eye contact with them. It is in the way people predict how they will behave or think as a result of their appearance. It is in the ways they are taken for granted. I don't have to worry about walking home alone at night. I don't have to watch people walk on the other side of the street to avoid me.
I appreciate your time and attention to this, and welcome an open dialogue with you.
P.S. I have neglected to mention, until this moment, that I have a terminal cancer. This disenfranchises me from the majority, and gives me a window into how people with disabilities face prejudice. But, excepting the periods in which I am eyebrowless from chemotherapy, I, too, am camouflaged. I withheld this information because, funnily, I thought it might make you think me biased. Take me as a straight white man, riddled with privilege, capable of going toe to toe with you. But know that sometimes I lose this privilege, become one of the disabled, and have experienced the difference in the way people speak to me and treat me. My illness has offered me the perspective of what it means to not be privileged in certain capacities, at certain times. That insight has been a great gift -- the only gift associated with the experience and riven from the pain I've had to endure -- and I hope to share it with you.
Max Ritvo is a poet and comedian living in NYC.
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