Acknowledge the dangers of privilege

I recently stumbled across an article from The Princeton Tory (republished in Time Magazine) called “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” written by Princeton University freshman student Tal Fortgang. In it, Fortgang vehemently protests the idea that all of his success in life (including his admission to Princeton) can be credited to his race or sex, and offers instead that to call someone privileged “[assumes] they’ve benefitted from ‘power systems’ or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions [and] denies them credit for all they’ve done.”

Before going forward, it’s important to note that I am a white, heterosexual male. This, of course, means that I’m writing with a particular bias based on living with those dispositions.

That being said, I observed two assumptions Fortgang makes in his article. The first is that hard work yields success, which to Fortgang, seems to denote financial and political power. The second is that we live in a society that allows everyone to work hard, and thus be successful.

I agree, in part, with Fortgang’s first assumption. For many, if not most people, working hard is necessary to become successful. Fortgang’s grandparents, for instance, who escaped the Holocaust to start a “humble whicker basket” business in the United States, would not have been successful had they not worked hard.

However, I disagree with his second assumption. There are countless people who work hard, just as hard as any wealthy or influential person, and some even more, who are not successful. Fortgang concedes that “white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” but does not think this is significant. Mr. Fortgang, why do you suppose white males are in these powerful positions? Is it pure coincidence? Luck?

In Fortgang’s worldview, if we live in a society that “ultimately allowed [Fortgang’s grandparents] to flourish” because it “cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character,” what are we saying about the characters of everyone who is not white and not male? Are women earning 80 cents for every dollar that men earn because women routinely don’t work as hard or are not as competent? Are African-American men being excessively stopped by police because they’re routinely more dangerous?

Fortgang’s worldview, namely that we live in a meritocracy—an entirely just society—implies that those who are not successful are solely unsuccessful because of their own failings. The idea of a meritocracy is extremely convenient for those who are successful—who could condemn the hard work that a majority of wealthy and successful people exert? But this same idea promotes faulty assumptions and prejudice on the foundations of race, gender, sexuality or whatever else we can construct to divide ourselves.

Fortgang’s belief that our society is post-racial is also known as a racial color-blind attitude. That is to say that race should not and does not matter in our society. The first part of this statement seems admirable, but the second part, that we live in a society that is post-racial, is not only false, but also incredibly dangerous.

The popular television channel MTV worked with pollsters to generate a nationally representative sample of people ages 14 to 24 to measure how young people are “experiencing, affected by, and responding to issues associated with bias.” A majority of participants believe that we are post racial as a society, with 67 percent believing that Barack Obama being president proves that race is not a “barrier to achievements.” Seventy percent of participants believe that racial preferences (like race-based affirmative action) are unfair, regardless of historical inequities.

Another study run by Brendeshca M. Tynes, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a strong correlation between racial color-blind attitudes and racial discrimination on social media. In other words, those who believe we are post-racial tend to have less opposition toward stereotypical images online (i.e. “gangsta parties” that feature white actors in blackface).

Curious by these results, I ran my own small study on a sample of Brandeis’ student body. I had 64 students view two videos featured on the social platform Vine that had each been critiqued as racist in one study and two newspaper articles. Students then wrote a three word response to describe their reactions to the video and filled out a version of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale. The CoBRAS was designed by psychologists and social scientists to measure racial color-blind attitudes, with assertions such as “Racism is a major problem in the U.S.” with which participants rate their agreement.

I analyzed the three word responses using a composite analysis between what is described in Tynes’s study and what is described Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s, a Duke professor of sociology, study “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist.’” I found a statistically significant correlation between students’ CoBRAS scores and how “racist” their language was.

If racially color-blind attitudes can provoke prejudice, why do we harbor them? Fortgang fears that if we acknowledge that society is not just, and that it does indeed divide on race, then “everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand.”

But our efforts and success need not be completely diminished nor completely attributed to ourselves. We must acknowledge some edge, albeit not all-encompassing. Of course no such edge could be responsible for all, or even most of Fortgang’s achievements. But to deny that any bias exists is naïve and dangerous—it allows us to continue on comfortably without addressing and changing the prejudices we all still harbor.

Fortgang, you need not feel your achievements are undermined—I’m sure that if you or your family had not worked as hard as they did, you would not be where you are today, and that is something to be proud of. You need not apologize to anyone—no one is asking you to. But you simply do need to recognize that structural racism does exist in our society, and that its effects are far too important to be ignored.


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