I’ve been watching with exhaustion the saga of the privileged Princeton kid, grandson of Holocaust survivors, who has declared via a bratty op-ed echoing ‘round the web, that he will not apologize for his privilege. White, male, and proud. Take that, ye P.C. police, young Tal Fortgang declares.
Such a moment was inevitable, both as the term privilege and the phrase “check your privilege” gets more widely used by a millennial generation that loves social justice principles almost as much as they love listicles and snapchat. Soon enough, defensive people start to think that privilege means “evil” or “undeserving” rather than “a product of social or economic circumstances that have given you advantages.”
I think confronting the fact that we do have many advantages is complex for American Jews, particularly those whose parents or family were discriminated against. We often use our difficult past to advocate for social justice, but we are more hesitant to mine our less difficult, more recent history in this country to interrogate our present-day lives.
Many (not all) American Jews have inherited a narrative displacement. Look at what happened to us, very broadly. We were uprooted from our former homes, our culture, our language, often after genocide or ethnic cleansing, and we made our way over the ocean as refugees, huddled masses yearning to be free, until we arrived on the shores of a country where… we, for the most part, actually did pretty great! After some initial, often lingering discrimination we were grudgingly allowed to join the white establishment, and there we sit to this very day, by our admittance into said establishment unwittingly or wittingly benefiting from the oppression of others, mostly people of color and more recent immigrants. Yet we tremble in fear that we will suddenly be unwelcome, and feel understandable resentment and anger at the unimaginable losses our families suffered this century and the last. This creates a big disconnect that we still haven’t grappled with, but its inherent tension surfaces over and again with incidents like Fortgang’s lament and with the execrable racism of Donald Sterling, too. And of course, some of it is just ignorance.
I wish I could tell Fortgang that yes, his family’s history in the Holocaust has created residual trauma, echoing through the generations, that is deserving of sympathy and creates a disadvantage, for sure. And yes, the work that his family put into raising their own up is admirable. But at the same time, here he stands! He remains a white male Princeton student, which puts him pretty close to the top of the heap. And I say this as a former white Harvard student, who had to realize, by examining my privilege, that I hadn’t quite earned my spot there as purely as I thought. It was uncomfortable. I got over it.
Back to Tal, who is not exactly as privileged as his WASPy classmate, Biffy St. Snoot, but who’s up there. Now, no one is asking for him to get on his knees and apologize. What the people who have told him to “check his privilege” are asking for is likely is a lack of (perhaps unconsciously) domineering behavior combined with self-awareness, understanding, and most importantly the use of his privileged position to even out a very uneven playing field. It may be time to use that Princeton education and “close-read” the phrase. Think of the verb “check:” it means both halt mid-strike, and also examine, the latter of which Fortgang has yet to do.