Privilege Blog

To The Princeton “Privilege Guy,” From A Middle-Aged Princeton Mother And Alumna



Recently, you may have read an article or two about Tal Fortgang. He’s a Princeton freshman who wrote a piece for an on-campus publication (I’d never heard of) called “The Princeton Tory,” Tal questions the request to “Check your privilege.” Although he’s a white male, he points to his his family’s persecution in the Holocaust, and subsequent economic and professional success. He thinks, “It’s not privilege, it’s character.”

We’ll get back to him, but let me say here, Tal, I am very sorry for your family’s losses. The Holocaust should not be forgotten.

In the meantime, TIME magazine republished his piece (fanning the flames with a new title, “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My Privilege,”) various Huffingon Post contributors rebutted, and so Princeton’s name was yet again associated with a controversial diatribe. (See “Princeton Mom.” We had already suffered through Dr. Oz’s daughter’s The Dorm Room Diet,” let’s hope this is a trifecta and we’re done. But I digress.) More immediately, many of you emailed asking for my reaction.

In fact I was trying to ignore the whole thing. But you guys were right. A Princeton grad and parent who started a blog called “Privilege” should probably speak up. With full disclaimer that I am not an economist. Again, if you haven’t read the article, it’s here. I find a few points in the whole discussion, and only a few, incontrovertibly true.

1. Is Privilege All? Is Privilege Nothing?

Can we draw any absolute and logical conclusions? For example, if I am privileged, am I guaranteed success? Well, no. If I am privileged and successful, is my success due solely to my privilege? Unlikely. Conversely, if I am disadvantaged am I guaranteed failure? No. And, if I am disadvantaged and in trouble, is that trouble due solely to my disadvantage? Ah. Very, very, difficult to say. It’s the most painful crux of the argument, it depends on how broadly and over what span of time you assess  privilege or disadvantage, and I don’t find enough data yet in this world to answer definitively.

Besides, do we even want a world where political forces are all that matter? “Hey kid, don’t bother getting out of bed, it’s out of your hands anyway?” Alternatively, can we believe in the converse, where individual choice is all? Unless we’re Ayn Rand?

3. When Faced With Complex Unanswerables, What Do Reasonable People Do?

We reasonable and probably middle-aged sorts, when faced with complex problems, might jump straight to, “Let’s not focus so much on who is right about cause, effect, and politics. Instead, let’s think about how to behave.”

Because we all know a real discussion would be long. It might involve statements like, “Yes, I was born in material privilege but also emotional scarcity. Don’t tell me that means nothing.” Or, “Yes my parents had wealth, but ethnicity keeps me forever Other, in America.” Or, “Just because a few disadvantaged people raise up without help, doesn’t mean those who cannot are lazy, or morally bankrupt.” Or, “Your disadvantage is not my fault,” answered by, “Not yours, but your culture’s, and therefore your responsibility.” And, “Does it do any good for the privileged to shame all the disadvantaged, or for the disadvantaged to shame all the privileged?”

To me, it’s that last concept, shaming, that’s incontrovertible. Shaming and all the other ways people can act badly towards each other. The privileged and the disadvantaged have different paths to productive behavior – the privileged can become generous, the disadvantaged brave. We have different paths to destructive behavior too – if  we believe only our privilege, we’re entitled and disdainful, if only our disadvantages, blame-centric victims.

And here’s where it ought to be easier, and therefore more severely expected, for the Privileged to behave well. Good behavior almost always means you have to lift your head up from your immediate needs and feel for someone else. And the resources of privilege should mean we’ve got capacity to do exactly that.

Human nature makes it easy to be a jerk. Privilege ought to remediate. If privilege, over time, leads to better behavior, then self-interest, a biological force we can’t escape, becomes a force for good. If privilege leads somewhere else, well then we’re in trouble.

So Tal, yes, those kids who tell you to “check your privilege” all the time, are maybe being jerks. And maybe you are too. You’re young. I forgive you, and I appreciate that you have the guts to speak your mind. I too get tired of being told my privilege defines me, given how life feels to she who lives it. But with privilege, however acquired, comes responsibility.

You have to approach the conversation with a generous spirit.


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27 Responses

  1. If noblesse oblige applies here, and I think you’re suggesting it might, then I’d say you’ve met your obligation with grace. Having read the original article (prompted, I believe, by a link on your FB page), I rather cringed at the notion of a post on it — I’m not convinced that this is where social media shines — But you’ve hit precisely the right notes here. Much appreciated.

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, Yes, that’s exactly what I thought of (nobless oblige)!

      And I think that it’s on all of us, no matter how meagerly privileged because we are all in a position to help out someone worse off than us in some way.

      Don’t be a jerk is just a quicker way of saying ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, I think. Still good words to live by…

  2. I’m ignoring these articles – a “privilege” of age? However, my daughter has a needlepoint pillow that my mother made for her for a graduation gift from Brown. Who made yours?

    1. @kathy, My great-aunt Priscilla, back in 1976 or thereabouts. Is your daughter’s pillow also in school colors?

  3. Thank you Lisa, I was on the verge of mailing you to address this as I needed more lintel on the subject. Noblesse oblige indeed.

  4. The status of birth can be fleeting, so it’s better to have some substance beneath it all, whatever “so called status” we are born with. It’s another label, and it does mean something in the beginning, as status often determines one’s start in life, but in the middle and the end of it all (meaning life), there are other factors at play, so the best gifts of status are the status of one’s heart, mind, health, true love, courage, integrity, and our capacity for kindness. This is a very thought provoking post, Lisa.

  5. Lisa, you’ve addressed this with your usual intelligence and grace. As much as I believe in personal responsibility and the consequences of choices, I also recognize that choices aren’t made in a vacuum; not everyone has the same options. Privilege does exist and the playing field isn’t always level. To deny one’s one privileges is a particular form of egotism, I think.

    And yes, noblesse oblige indeed.

  6. My first reaction to the article was that Tal should have responded with, “Check your entitlement.” Probably not effective, but it seems that we have become a nation of victims. My father’s favorite response to complaints was, “Life is not fair.” Yes, I have had material advantages but life isn’t “fair” and we all pay our dues, one way or another. “Check your privilege” is rude and not conducive to a productive resolution. If we are going to bridge the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, those on both sides must be willing to contribute to the construction of that bridge. Unfortunately, it’s not like the leaders of our country are setting a good example for citizens. Their bickering hurts us all. We are a country divided on nearly everything that I can think of. It’s sad.

  7. I agree with your views here but have been quite fatigued on the topic but fully understand you feeling compelled to address.
    At least one of us is in gmails doghouse as your feeds continue to get fed into my spam file. Hey, your the Silicon Valley software gal; please advise!

    Loved your 2 weddings post over at A Practical Wedding which I only just became aware of due to the spam issue!

    1. @GSL, All my infrastructure is being switched over. Some time this week I hope to have good news for all who wish to read my blatherings.

  8. Your comment about the necessity of a generous spirit says it all. If everyone had a generous spirit, this world would be a better place.

    We can debate all day about what constitutes privilege. I feel that I was privileged because my father (who grew up on our rural farm in deep East Texas) expected me to go to college. Not every Texas farm boy born before 1920 would have had that expectation; therefore, I feel privileged indeed.

  9. I am so tired of this “privilege”/”disadvantaged” debate. Life is privilege…..humanity is privilege….Money and position don’t buy character and courage; and the lack of both doesn’t mean one is devoid of either. Forget what you have or don’t have and just start “living”! Angela Muller

  10. This resonates. I try to live my life with generosity. I suspect the privilege/advantaged debate is eternal, but it is vital if we are not to take our good fortune for granted.

  11. With age comes wisdom, but not necessarily comfort with this eternal debate about privilege and entitlement. An octogenarian Quaker lady once remarked (into the silence of a Friends meeting I attended): “Life isn’t fair. That upsets me, but what upsets me more is that at my age, this still upsets me!” As others have commented, it seems more productive to avoid the debate and be as generous as our circumstances permit.

  12. As a “high WASP” of the small town midwestern variety, my concepts of privilege sometimes diverge from yours, although our “credentials” are not wholly dissimilar. As a person of this background married to a Jewish man of Eastern European Jewish descent, I’ve paid perhaps a bit more attention to this debate.

    I was raised to believe that with privilege comes obligation: obligation to those with less… (fill in the blank here), obligation to be kind,to be respectful, to attempt fairness, to form my own life and not rely on the laurels of those who forged on before me.
    The phrase “check your privilege” seems weighted with all sorts of implications that seem out of place in an academic institution, and appears to abet a resentment among whatever group happens to feel less privileged. Tal’s “privilege” (and I understand it well) is no more of an entitlement than the privilege that allegedly adheres to having Puritan forefathers/mothers. We still all have the obligation to be fair, kind, respectful, generous in spirit, openminded, and polite.

    1. @Ellen, Very well put. And if at any point you’d be inclined to share the ways in which your experience/background has diverged from mine, I would be more than happy to discuss. Or, you know, have a guest post from you:).

  13. Oh dear, that article really raises my hackles, I think he gets it all so wrong. But then again he is young, and although I understand the original intent behind the phrase, I also understand that it too is misused and oft misunderstood. Sad.

    Your post however is gracious and well stated. All of us in the developed world have a certain degree of privilege, but we are not all privileged. I am struck by your penultimate sentence: “But with privilege, however acquired, comes responsibility.” It is a good reminder to us all and it reminds me of my father’s version of noblisse oblige: He believed, whether rightly or wrongly, that education was the greatest privilege, but at the same time he always told us “with knowledge comes responsibility”. We were trained never to forget this, and this I do believe was my father’s greatest gift to us, this understanding that education and knowledge although empowering were also incredibly humbling and filled with responsibility to others less privileged, no matter what our material background.

  14. Have you ever seen the “7 Up” documentaries? Over 50 years ago, a pair of Brits filmed a group of 7 year olds talking about their very different lives. The original idea was to highlight the English class system. Some are filmed at public school singing in Latin; others are making their beds in an orphanage. Every seven years since 1956, these same children have been filmed completing (or not) their educations, doing work, getting married and divorced, etc. As you might expect, things don’t always turn out like we think they will.

    The films offer flesh and blood examples of the very issues under discussion here. They are available on Netflix–I’d recommend seeing the original one “7 Up” and the most recent one “56 Up.” It’s spot on with the discussions surrounding this current article. And some of it is very funny, too.

  15. Privilege (by which is usually meant economic advantage in WSJ articles) is like a $1000 chip at a poker table. It gives you an immediate advantage but does not guarantee the game’s outcome.

    Amy mentions the “7 Up” series and I too thought of it: fascinating to see the effects of environment, genetics and random chance as life unfolds.

  16. I was intrigued that, despite going to Princeton, which I thought generally carried a degree of education in nuance, he seems to assume “privilege” strictly equals “family power and inherited affluence and connections and no ancestral suffering”, rather than also including the broader cultural privilege including things like “unlikely to be stop-and-frisked due to race”, or “according to research, likely to be offered more than a female with an identical CV if continuing in academia”. (obviously, other groups have different odd privilege aspects, but most people seem to tend towards concluding that visually-generally-white-male probably nets the most convenient combination of privileges)

    My limited interactions with various institutions as a reasonably educated white female incline me to believe that I’m very privileged despite not being good standard-WASP material (I wish I could have you over for tea and pick your brain so I could learn how to wear navy blue). If a government office, bank, customer service center, or whatever skips me to the head of the line or takes my requests more seriously than others in the room due to my apparent non-poverty/color/bearing/vocabulary compared to others, that isn’t fair; that’s privilege. I don’t have inherited silver spoons or family diamonds or things like networking connections that I was born into, but I’ve got a huge, fat pile of what appear to be permanent and continuing-to-snowball life advantages just from being born a) pasty white to b) parents who valued education and c) had enough money for food security and the ability to live in a reasonably safe neighborhood (ah, the unconsidered luxury of having police be the “good guys”).

    But yes; if you discover that you have gotten farther along than any others by whatever means or inextricable combinations of means, heads-up generosity is an excellent choice of response. And “check your privilege” is often annoying (although if one is hearing it a lot, it may be worth doing a bit of examination, just in case…), and they’re all young and we’re all learning, young or not.

    Separately, I was wondering where Point 2 of your post went, as I would love to see anything further you have to say on the subject. :-)

    1. @KC, So well said. And Point 2 so far has only lead me to Don’t Be A Jerk. I’m educating myself on what to do beyond that.

  17. I’ve read a few cringe-worthy rebuttals to the sometimes cringe-worthy article, so put off reading this for a few days. As I should have expected, your perspective is measured, intelligent, and refrains from beating down on a college freshman, which offering a useful piece of advice: You have to approach the conversation with a generous spirit. Thanks for adding a reasonable voice to the mix.

  18. What an amazing response! You don’t need any complimenting on this but we really need to study your grace and intelligence. Yes, you have really mastered the art how not to be a jerk even in the most delicate and daring posts. “Fools rush where Angels fear to tread” Lisa, you are certainly not a fool neither you fear to tread in cyber worlds. I hope my english do not fail me that abysmally, but I meant all this as a compliment.

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