The following piece on double-checking your privilege is a guest post by Augustana College sociologist Paul R. Croll.
Once again, a white man wants to deny white privilege because it makes him feel uncomfortable. Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, recently wrote an essay being widely distributed titled, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.” In denying white privilege, Fortgang actually makes a convincing case that it exists and that his family’s success is due in part to advantages received in our racialized society.
Fortgang resents feeling that he owes others an apology for his success and condemns those who want to deny him credit for all the hard work he has accomplished in his life. I don’t know who these “others” are. I certainly am not looking for an apology nor do I believe that all his successes are due to white privilege alone. Fortgang has constructed an inaccurate representation of white privilege that he then proceeds to dismantle in his essay. Awareness of white privilege does not require an apology and it does not deny individual hard work and effort. Rather, white privilege is acknowledging the possibility that some of the successes whites have experienced are due in part to systemic advantages. White privilege is benefiting from the absence of barriers that people of color face every day.Fortgang describes the atrocities his ancestors faced in Europe as Jews in Poland prior to immigrating to America. Their suffering is real, but it does not negate the possibility that his ancestors benefited from white privilege once they arrived in America. In fact, Fortgang’s story of his grandparents’ success in America is proof of white privilege. He recognizes that his grandparents found a place where they could “acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.” This is white privilege. As Fortgang’s grandparents and parents realized the American Dream, people of color in this country faced barriers and discrimination in housing, employment, and education that prevented them from reaching the same levels of success. In the mid-twentieth century, federal programs such as the G.I. Bill allowed white Americans to find jobs, buy houses, and get an education, but people of color were largely excluded from these programs. Certainly Fortgang’s ancestors worked hard, but that is not the question at hand. The more important question is whether or not his ancestors benefited from a society where their hard work allowed them to flourish, while others were denied the same opportunity.
People of color who grew up in the same era as Fortgang’s ancestors had to contend with Jim Crow laws, legally-segregated schools, racial violence, and bigotry. While we have made great strides in the post-civil rights era, we continue to see racial discrimination in employment, wealth, education, and the criminal justice system. In a recent audit study, researchers found that employers discriminated against African Americans and Latinos in job searches and “black job seekers fared no better than white men just released from prison.” The wealth gap between whites and people of color continues to grow. A study by the Pew Research Center found that “in 2009, the median wealth of white households was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.” A report from the United States Department of Education earlier this year found persistent racial disparities in access to preschool programs and AP courses and significant differences by race in disciplinary actions. Data from the criminal justice system show that young black men are being incarcerated at staggering rates.Hard work alone does not guarantee success. To say otherwise is to ignore our nation’s history. As a white male, I benefit from white privilege every day whether or not I choose that privilege. This does not diminish my own hard work and effort, but it does situate my success in a larger context that I have to consider. I grew up in a white suburb full of well-funded schools and countless opportunities. Today, banks want to lend me money. Police officers don’t stop and frisk me; they ask how they can help me. And, when I walk into a room to give a talk, no one questions my authority or credibility because of how I look. This is privilege, plain and simple.
White privilege exists whether we want to acknowledge it or not. White privilege is the chance to succeed in our society without facing barriers that affect our ability to succeed and thrive. It’s the same privilege our parents and grandparents received. We don’t need an apology. We need awareness.