Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Politics Of: Checking Your Privilege

Tal Fortgang
Depending on where you live in the online world, you may well have already heard of this guy, Tal Fortgang, and his brave one-man-stand against political correctness where he lays out  "Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege". Here's how it starts.
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
Fortgang then goes on, at length, about his favorite topic: himself (well, by way of his virtuous ancestors who passed that virtue on to him). On being told to 'Check his privilege' he goes and learns his family history--the trials of his Jewish grandparents, the work ethic of his father, and his luck that that ethic was taught to him. So take that, Social Justice Warriors: he's got nothing to apologize for.

This was first printed in the Princeton Tory (the campus conservative newspaper) and then republished by Time Magazine. It's all the rage (literally)--being both applauded by conservative outlets (he took a brave stand) and excoriated by everyone else.

What should you know about it?

Wait! First: What Does 'Privilege' Actually Mean?

There Are Many Different Kinds of Privilege. Gawker Makes a Joke of Playing Them Off Against Each Other
In 1998 Peggy McIntosh wrote Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege. The piece distinguishes between advantages (Privilege) in life you've earned called Strength (hard work) and unearned advantages called Power (white? male? able-bodied? etc.). The idea is that a lot of people go through life blind to their innate advantages, instead conferring the reasons for their success on their hard work and merit.

The term 'Check your privilege' (Know Your Meme puts it at 2006--it may well have been used off the Internet before that) means that the subject ought to self-reflect on what unearned power and place in society may have led them to say [ whatever prompted the 'Check Your Privilege' comment ].

What Am I Supposed To Do If Told To 'Check My Privilege?'

There are handy online guides to that! There are also several online web-enabled privilege checkers that can give you a literal, numeric, privilege score. That's a good way to start. Here's one The Omnivore took:
The Omnivore's Score of 145 Was Classified 'SHITLORD.' That's A Technical Term.
But what do you do with your self-assessed privilege score? Well, let's check some links:

So--This Tal, Guy ... Doesn't Sound Like He Did That

No. In fact, he did kind of did the opposite. When asked told to go and self-reflect, maybe shut up, whatever, instead, he went and wrote a 1510 word essay that, on technical grounds, pretty much completely got 'Checking Your Privilege' completely wrong. For that, he got published in a major magazine, interviewed on TV, and now he's the hero of the moment  for the conservative blogosphere.

Is There A Lesson Here?


The Politics of Privilege Checking

First and foremost, if you go and read Tal's piece, there are a few things you need to realize. These are:

The Piece Is 'Machine Tooled' To Do Exactly What It Did

This is as artificial a piece of writing as they come. The original piece was published in the Princeton Tory which is run by ISI (the Pakistani Intelligence Agency!?--no, not that that ISI)--the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. It has a literal 50-year mission to spread conservative ideas on campuses (it's right there in their mission statement linked). There is a huge list of conservative media stars who got started writing at ISI funded papers. You can read all about this here

The piece, in the Tory, was designed as a rallying call for potential Republican voters (white, male, etc.) who felt bullied on campus when expressing themselves. In Time, the piece was designed to generate left-wing outrage and clicks (read the comments). It has gone super-viral and, therefore, has done its job.

It Gets 'Privilege' Wrong In A Meaningful Way

If you read Tal's piece and went "But ... but ... :: sputter ::" consider yourself had. Yes, Tal got privilege wrong. Tal's focus on the trials and tribulations (and values) of his parents completely misses the point: Privilege allows for earned Strength (their work ethic, his work ethic, etc.). What he misses is the key part about unearned Power

When you "add up" his folk's virtue and his hard work to get to his 'social clout' (he's attending one of the most prestigious colleges in the country) you also get to add in: white, able-bodied, male, straight/cis-gendered, etc. If you change him to be black, disabled, female, and gay/trans/etc. You get a much different power-score.

Just ask Gawker.

But the point isn't just that Fortgang gets privilege wrong--it's that he gets privilege wrong in a very specific way. That way is that he is allowed to answer the order to self-reflect on his innate (unearned) advantages in life by, instead, showing a "full house" of historical trials (and, uh, kind of claiming credit for them) In other words, his piece is this: If someone challenges your privilege you get to use your personal story of hardship to refute them.

This is an answer a lot of people want to hear.

Salon, nailing it, points out that Tal Fortgang speaks for like 99% of white America. In fact, the hope is that the whole 'Check Your Privilege' movement is about to collapse!

It Gets 'Check Your Privilege' Right In A Meaningful Way

In case you weren't paying close attention above, 'Check Your Privilege' is another way of telling someone to shut up. In fact, it's a way to tell people who usually have more power than you to shut up. Tal wasn't wrong about that--and what he concluded was "I'm proud of who I am--I ain't shutting up! I'm going to say what I've got to say!"

What he had to say was 1.5k words of drivel--but darn it, he said it.

Let's look at what's implied by the above: when does "STFU" work on people who aren't used to shutting up? What has to be true for that to happen? Well, it's either:
  1. The social environment grants more power to the generally less powerful party. This is the case, for example, in some college classes.
  2. The target seeks inclusion in the group they are speaking to. This is sometimes called being an ally (where a person in the not-oppressed group wants, sincerely, to help with the oppression). In this case they will have to put up with being told to shut up by the people they are seeking community with.
In other words, it's either how you tell people who think they want to be your friends to stuff it--or it's how you exercise your temporary privilege in an artificial environment (the REQUIRED CLASS 101 Lecture Hall). We don't know where Tal was when he heard this--he doesn't say. Probably on the Internet.

Uhm, Wait A Minute: 'Check Your Privilege' Is A Suggestion To Introspection, Not An Order To Shut-The-Fuck-Up

You sly dog--you got me mansplaining again. Firstly, maybe at one point it was just a friendly suggestion. Perhaps in sociologist circles or very specific areas of the Internet where the parties in conversation were all operating in good faith and already had a functional community with rhetorical give-and-take established the term could work like that. Maybe.

But today? The Omnivore has to put up with a rating of 'SHITLORD' for his answers to the privilege checker quiz. Are his fee-fees hurt? No--but does it not kind of make his point? When you read the links above (all high ranking on Google) about checking one's privilege you see recurrent themes: it's hard. You feel guilty. You get dog-piled, have to suck it up, and even thank the person. They don't even have to explain themselves educate you! It's completely okay if they're rude about it.

If you still think this is a friendly suggestion, ask yourself this: what do you make of the person if they just don't take it ("Check your privilege." "I prefer not to.").

This is the problem with the "It's someone telling you that your fly is down*" analogy: if your fly is down, the assumption is that you just took a whizz and were a little forgetful. The discomfort others feel is little social anxiety because you're slightly improperly attired (unless you are 'going commando' all they might see is your underwear). In other words, they're embarrassed for you.

In the case of the privilege check, you are told you have transgressed against them because of something in your character. They, thus wronged, are entitled to tell you to check yourself. That's why they're allowed to be rude forceful.

Oh--and that bit where it only works on allies (if you don't have a teacher handy)? Let's put it this way: Do you tell White Nationalists to check their privilege? No. They aren't trying to be in community with you. They already think they're the superior race.

Don't take The Omnivore's word for it. Ask The New Republic:
That’s why I find Fortgang’s reaction not wholly out of place. Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate. “Check your privilege” can come across as an expectation that a person be repentant for sins he has not committed. In its most generous usage, of course, “check your privilege” isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty—only to make them recognize their privileged position. But it has the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder. This is partly what outraged Fortgang, who refers to the phrase as a reprimand that "threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them." He concludes, "I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing."
The Omnivore notes that by some of the blogs / tumblrs linked, despite what the writer says, feeling guilty is an expected part of the process.

So What ARE The Politics of Privilege Checking?

Well, firstly: let's not lose sight of the fact that privilege is a real thing (if you don't subscribe to that, The Omnivore can't help you). There certainly are cases where people, oblivious to their privilege, go wading into situations trying to self-aggrandize help and aren't entitled to a whole lot of sympathy (The Omnivore thinks specifically of the XOJane submission where a well-off white girl cries thinking about the poor African American woman who came to her yoga studio)--but these aren't the politics of Privilege Checking.

The Politics of Privilege Checking are the politics of collateral damage.

See, Tal told us all a lie. It's right there near the start of his giant essay--did you catch it? The lie is this: He waded into college with his hard workin' blue-collar sensibilities (he was probably  keeping it real--but not keepin' it real, you know) and he got smacked upside the head by a leftist.

And THEN--then--he went home, chastened, and for the first time ever he asked mom and dad about his family history. See, he wanted to know if he was entitled to his entitlement. He had no idea what his grandparents went through. That's the literal story he tells us and it's an obvious lie. Anyone over the age of 12 will know that (a) he might not have known every specific but, trust The Omnivore, he knew his family's basic story and (b) he didn't "go and check" to see if his detractors were right before deciding to be outraged. He was outraged instantly.

So why lie? The reason to make it sound like he went and did a lot of research is because to him the 'Check Your Privilege' is an accusation of racism. Huh? Yep.

Inside the social justice sphere--when 'Check Your Privilege' is used on allies (people who want to work with / help oppressed groups but have more privilege than they do)--it allows the less privileged person to establish power that comes with social justice goals (that is: social justice is specifically about correcting power imbalances). For someone who cares what the group thinks and, at least ostensibly, cares how they come off to the group, it's effective. In this case 'Check Your Privilege' is reasonable since the 'ally' (whoever) is over there trying to help and, again, at least ostensibly, wants to be told when they are screwing up (especially since privilege is largely invisible to those who hold it--so screw ups are likely).

The problem is that Tal isn't an ally to the social justice cause in question here (whatever it was--he doesn't say--but this is an educated guess). He's a conservative and to him--and to most white guys--'Check Your Privilege' doesn't sound like it's about introspection or even recognizing a sense of entitlement.

No--it sounds different: it sounds to them. To Tal--it sounds like he's being called a racist. It sounds like he's being asked to apologize for being white--to own up to some justly felt White Guilt. You may think this is absurd--but if you do, you are ignoring the massive disconnect in the language, the use of the language, and the context a good-faith speaker of 'Check Your Privilege' is expecting the 20 year old Tal to have. Even at the Wikipedia Wisdom level of understanding he's never going to 'get it.'

That's why he lies: he has to have a narrative that he did go and do the homework--that he did take the 'suggestion' seriously--so that he can come back from his journey of discovery with "Oh, hey! I'm Jewish** and did you know? My people suffered!" If he just blows it off, he has legitimate concerns it'll look to everyone like he's confirming that he's a bigot. If he says he took it to heart then he thinks he appears sincere--or, well, at least he can claim he was sincere.

This is why Tal is collateral damage: he wasn't being called a racist but The Omnivore is pretty sure that's how it sounded to him--and, as noted above, to a lot of other people. This is coming at a time when the divide between Republicans and Democrats (with white guys falling very heavily on the R side of the line) is huge.

The Omnivore has previously wondered where all these "everyone is calling me racist" claims were coming from--were these conversations happening somewhere The Omnivore wasn't able to see them? Surely some of them are--but some of them are 'happening' out in the open and they just look quite different depending on where you stand (and, of course, sometimes the person is a racist, let's not forget--no one hates being called a racist more than a racist who thinks their beliefs are factually justified and fair-minded).

The politics of  'Check Your Privilege' are the cluster-munitions of Social Justice dialog when used outside the oppressed-group / ally relationship and that's how it shows up on the political scene.

* Consider the analogy in the first place? Who's it for? Clearly guys (obviously).

** Note: Fortgang (wisely) doesn't get into his religious / ethnic identity (and he took down his Twitter account where he did)--but if he'd had a bit more savvy he might have have played it differently. Jews being seen "as white" is actually a relatively recent thing and it's quite possible the person telling him to check his privilege would have had trouble with the complexities of anti-Jewish sentiment and privilege.

Notably, however, Fontgang NEVER tells us what he said or what the circumstances were. It's possible he did this to save space but The Omnivore kind of doubts it. The Omnivore suspects whatever he said that got him Checked just wouldn't play well so it has gone the way of his Twitter account (which also didn't play well ... apparently).


  1. (Veronica here)

    For me the whole privilege conversation is a good indicator of how much a person is worth my time, so a “privilege check” (although I avoid that precise language as it has become cliché) can be a good tool to filter out the jerks.

    Funny thing is, back years ago I would have been more on this dude’s side, before I figured stuff out, but as soon as I lost a fuck-ton of my own privilege — like maybe the first time someone called me a “faggot” — I started seeing this far differently. So now when someone privilege-checks me, I really do stop and listen. It’s actually pretty easy once you start doing it.

    I might still disagree, but I *back away*.

    And that last part is important. This is about discourse dynamics. Privileged people, by which I mean some combination of white/male/cis/het/middle-classed/etc., are accustomed to having their voices heard (this takes a particularly stark role when men are communicating with women — that shit runs deep) and speaking from a place of command. At least to some degree. Such people simply *don’t notice* the degree to which they speak over others. Nor are they aware of how long this has been going on and how this conversation fits in context.

    So when less-privileged people actually speak in a commanding way — OMG the sparks fly.

    And believe me, there are topics where a poor black woman has something to say and where *you* (yes I mean you) don’t know shit. These things matter.

    At this point the more clever privileged person starts getting all kum-bai-ah about how everyone should listen to each other and learn from each other, as if we are each a special snowflake. But then they don’t hear the less-privileged person point out how it *never works that way*.

    Regarding the shitbird in that article. Whatevs. He’s young. The world’s gonna kick his ass.

    His family says they are now getting death threats. So, thanks Internet for taking the high road.

  2. Hey Marco....I am reading your stuff and you say it well! Will add some of my comments in the future!