Recently, a Princeton Freshman wrote in a conservative newspaper that he was sick of "checking his privilege." What is privilege? Why do we have to check it? Privilege is the advantage we get from our circumstances that end up giving us a leg-up in the mosh pit that is this world.
Race, class, gender -- these are vital parts of privilege but they are not the alpha and omega. You can have a fabulously symmetrical face that fits into the standards of magazine beauty and live your life as a runway model in Paris and Milan. This is privilege. Or you can be blessed to have all five fingers and therefore be gifted with the ability to write editorials. This too can be privilege, of a sort.
Of course, the student in question -- Tal Fortgang -- felt victimized because he felt that folks were making presumptions about his background, that they were diminishing his own individual accomplishment, that they were accusing him for being part of a great conspiracy of fat cats in thousand dollar suits. As a white male, he felt like a big target was painted on his back; his metaphor was actually that of drone planes, sent by Barrack Hussein Obama to hunt him down as if he were a Taliban with a price on his head.
The response was quick. Several fellow Princetonians -- many black -- pointed out that he thoroughly misunderstood the concept of privilege, that we all enjoy privilege in varying instances and various moments. If we don't check our privilege, we run rough-shod over others less fortunate. If we don't check our privilege, we suffer the fate of remaining shallow and incapable of empathy.
Some were polite (always the better tactic). Some were confrontational (and thereby proved Fortgang's assertion that he was indeed a victim of policing). All performed the pro forma task of cataloguing their own privileges, just as the original writer of the incendiary post had done. And these rejoinders found their place on the Huffington Post, Ebony Magazine, TIME -- to name just a few venerable organs that are now the staging ground of national debate.
Of course, in listing their privileges, none of them on either side list the fact that they are Princeton undergrads... and that their ability to engage this debate at major venues on a national scale is a function of that extreme privilege. Indeed, the only folks who got that point were the proletariat snipers in the Comments Section who recognized the absurdity of playing oppression bingo when you are at the most elite institution in the most elite superpower of the world.
I will not throw in my lot with the snipers of the comments section -- those Taliban -- who are truly aiming at the drone planes that fly above them, specks, in the sky. But I do want to say that their observations tell us something very important.
The problem with privilege is that it can be difficult to check. Privilege is an endless nesting box. Privilege is not fixed but can change in an instant, too. It is not an easy exercise. And with all such exercises, like learning to type or learning to think or learning to speak, engaging in the task will make you feel stupid. Put on the spot. Inept.
And you also won't ever catch all your privileges, either. You won't realize just how inopportune your utterances are until too late. The late great theorist Eve Sedgwick who was herself a professor at numerous institutions as privileged and mighty as Princeton once told me that one of the problems of teaching feminism to young women at Duke University is that they quickly latch onto the language of disempowerment and claim it for themselves, even though they come from the most privileged segments of American society.
This is a long way of saying that privilege is a tricky business. And so if a freshman kid who doesn't understand such a difficult concept -- one that must be lived in the laboratory of experience just as much as it is to be learned in the halls of the ivory tower--than we should not throw rotten tomatoes at him. Rather, we should pity him and gently help him. We should recognize this one lesson of human dignity: there but for the grace of God go I.