05/07/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Reflections on Privilege: An Open Letter to Tal Fortgang

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Dear Tal,

Like many others, I read your piece this week "Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege" -- a retort to the motto "check your privilege" which, you argue, aims to devalue your opinion as a white male and make you feel guilty for your privilege. I was moved to respond because of the similarities we share. Although we do not know each other, we both come from families of Holocaust survivors, grew up in Jewish-American homes, and studied at Princeton. Indeed, our families lived through many of the same horrors and transformations. And I agree -- we do not need to apologize for our origins. Nothing about this notion, however, justifies blindness to inequality.

My maternal grandfather grew up in Nuremberg, Germany. After barely escaping a Hitler Youth attempt to drive a nail through his head, he fled with his family in 1938 for the United States. Though he arrived as a poor immigrant who barely spoke English, he managed to receive an education at City College, like your father. He later became chief psychologist at the Northampton State Hospital in Western MA.

My paternal grandfather was not so lucky. Born to an orthodox Jewish family in Sosnowiec, Poland, he witnessed at age 13 the annihilation of everything and everyone he held dear under Nazi rule. He describes in his memoir, My Father's Testament, the brutality he faced over three years in the concentration camps, the horrors of the death march, the grief of witnessing his dying cousin tossed alive into a mass grave. Through incredible fortitude and luck, he managed to survive. And although the nightmares plague him to this day, he eventually became a successful businessman in the United States, providing a young family with a better life.

Two generations later, I am free from the violence that tormented my grandfathers and have so far enjoyed a life of remarkable opportunity. Like you, I am fiercely proud of how my family came to be where we are today.

One could take a number of different perspectives on how our family histories relate to the notion of privilege. Yours is understandable: Your ancestors fought relentlessly, and against all odds, to build a new life for your family. This is a legacy to be celebrated, and you should not feel guilty for their resilience or success.

But I find another angle more compelling. I grew up with a set of privileges of which my grandfather could only have dreamed. The injustices he faced -- and the senseless lottery of birth that condemned him to such suffering -- make me inclined to seek out inequality and injustice in whatever forms they take. Included among these are many of the structures that the phrase "check your privilege" means to challenge. While I agree this expression should not be used to silence anyone's opinion, I believe it can make us more cognizant of the privilege that comes with our social position, how that privilege shapes our perspective, and the manifold obstacles that burden so many others which we never need face. Yes, it is possible to achieve prosperity in the face of such inequalities and worse, as our grandparents so remarkably did. This does not mean we should tolerate them.

You vehemently defend the American meritocracy. Indeed, there is something marvelous about a country in which immigrants as extraordinarily disadvantaged as our grandparents could build a new life for themselves and their children. You also write, "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.'" I wish this were the entire story.

What your piece misses is a recognition that, despite the successes of families like our own, harmful structural inequalities persist on the basis of class, race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the U.S. Children growing up in poor areas often attend public schools with significantly less funding than those born in affluent areas (a disparity that does not exist in most developed countries); almost one in five American women are survivors of completed or attempted rape; individuals with non-conforming sexual and gender identities face high rates of workplace discrimination and violent crime; blacks are given harsher prison sentences for the same offenses than whites; resumes with black-sounding names are 50 percent less likely to get called back than equivalent ones with white-sounding names, and emails to University professors with minority or female names are 25 percent less likely to get responses than those with white male names; the list goes on.

Being aware of these issues -- and of the fact that we, by nature of our race and gender, are shielded from many of them -- is the first step towards rectifying them. And while I share your enthusiasm for the meritocratic elements of American society that allowed our families to flourish, I find deeply troubling the fact that income mobility is lower in the U.S. than in the vast majority of developed countries; 70 percent of people born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution in America never reach the middle.

Like you, I strive to carry on the spirit of my grandparents' hard work. But I also know I have unfairly benefited from a society that favors affluent, white, heterosexual men. While this privilege is not the entire story of why I am where I am today, it does exist, as do the damaging inequalities that continue to fuel it. My family's painful history does not nullify these injustices; on the contrary, it highlights the imperative to expose and erase them.

Several years ago, my paternal grandfather brought our extended family on a trip to Poland. He took us to the village where he grew up, the ghetto his family was forced into, and finally, to Auschwitz. Shaking with tears, he implored us: "Whenever you see evil in the world, you must cry out, you must act! Never be silent in the face of injustice."

The first step to address injustice is to acknowledge the way it manifests in the world. I am privileged -- in part due to the opportunities my grandparents provided me, but also in part due to my social position in American society. And in honor of my grandparents' legacy, I refuse to be content with a society where equality of opportunity is still not extended to all, and where racism, sexism, and prejudice continue to exist -- in any form.


Daniel Gastfriend