MY STRUGGLE, OR: HOW I LEARNED THAT WHITE PRIVILEGE DOESN'T EXIST

Recently the media were collectively wise enough to republish a college freshman's op-ed in a student newspaper because history has proven that 19 year old white kids usually have the most important and interesting things to say. A monstrously ugly child named Tal Fortgang, which I pause to remind you I did not make up, went from the typical Princeton freshman to a guest on major news networks overnight. OK, so it helps if you're telling them what they want to hear. But say the right things and you too can go from masturbation enthusiast to Hannity guest in the blink of an eye, teens!

Fortgang has become the planet's leading authority on white privilege, which is remarkable given that he does not appear to have the slightest idea what the phrase means. His opus is basically the typical "Several generations ago my family was pretty poor, therefore I deserve what I have" argument that is second only to drunken copulation in popularity on college campuses.

Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended…Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?”

Tal, I think I finally get it. White privilege is a sham. Let me share a bit of my own story to drive home your point.

My grandfather was a humble turd miner, digging in the hard, feculent ground for 18 hours every day across the fertile turd deposits of eastern Poland. Every day he walked uphill several miles to work, and then because of the way the planet rotates he also had to walk uphill to get back home. He and his wife, who cleaned toilets with her tongue because she could not afford a brush, lived under a bridge and had nine children, none of whom survived. Every day they ate a single bean cut into quarters, half for breakfast and half for dinner. They also had a dog who was poor.

That was my father's family.

On my mother's side, my grandfather licked the mosses off of damp rocks for sustenance when he was forced off of his land by the Potato Famine and also by Hitler. Then he fought Hitler and his Nazis and beat them even though he was so poor that his rifle had no barrel because he had to pawn it for a potato. This brave man beat up Hitler with a rifle that, when you think about it, was really just a piece of wood. Then he met and married my grandmother who was dancing for pennies in the poorest part of Latvia. They realized that in Latvia there was no freedom because of Hitler and communism, so they came to the United States and humbly opened a very humble business making low-grade solid lubricants from rendered street children. It was arduous work since almost to a child, the children resisted being reduced to grease. While they slept they made extra money by doing the whole town's laundry. They never complained about what hard work it was.

All of my grandparents worked hard and sent their children to Harvard Yale State, where they studied hard and got degrees in American Values. They had two children while they were in college and never once asked for any help, which may partially explain why my sister disappeared from the yard one day in 1983. I grew up to be a strong, hard working, respectful lad who knows a few things about life such as when it is not worth it to chase after a van that has just kidnapped your sister.

Why should I have to apologize for anything? Isn't being poor and understanding the value of hard work transmitted genetically, after all? As long as I am the descendant of some people who were not rich assholes, it is impossible for me to be a rich, privileged asshole.

QED.

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41 Responses to “MY STRUGGLE, OR: HOW I LEARNED THAT WHITE PRIVILEGE DOESN'T EXIST”

  1. Giri Says:

    I haven't laughed this hard in a while. Thank you for that.

  2. Mo Says:

    Do you suppose the fat geese are getting nervous?

  3. eau Says:

    He never met his basket weaving grandfather, but is happy to quote him to justify his life of comfort and wealth. Imagine how much that hardworking old coot would despise this pampered little shit.

  4. Elle Says:

    Oh to be the age where sprinkling the word Weltanschauung over everything seems like a good idea. Ironically, it is, of course, his Weltanschauung that is actually being critiqued by all of those people telling him to check his privilege, and not his breeding.

    (I'm not a massive fan of 'check your privilege' because it seems to lead us to the cul-de-sac of identity politics, rather than to a more honest and nuanced solidarity, but I guess that is neither here nor there. There is definitely value in reflecting on the presuppositions and assumptions of your worldview, and that is clearly what Junior has been asked to do.)

    I'm sure there is data that could allow us to reflect on diversity at Princeton, and the ways that cohorts of migrants have, or have not, translated their can-do spirit and entrepreneurship into Ivy spots for the grandbairns. It almost seems like shooting fish in a barrel, though.

    I do hope this chap got into Princeton on some kind of community access programme, or is at least failing all of his classes. This kind of sloppy thinking does not speak well of his likely ability to churn out a decent essay.

  5. wetcasements Says:

    Homerun, Ed.

  6. Talisker Says:

    Tal Fortgang's insight is admirable. Nobody has privilege. There once was an immigrant who was a child of unmarried parents, but achieved success with nothing more than brains, hard work, a few friends and a pointy bit of metal. Therefore, his descendants clearly do not have privilege. It is irrelevant that the bastard was William the Conqueror and one of his descendants is the Queen of the United Kingdom.

  7. Major Kong Says:

    Every conservative I meet seems to think that they personally invented the concept of work, or in this case their grandparents did.

  8. Sarah Says:

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  9. anotherbozo Says:

    Sarah is right.

    I left a note on Tal's Facebook page giving this URL. It intrigues me that a Princeton student could be so devoid of intellectual honesty. Whatever education took him there has failed him miserably.

  10. Deggjr Says:

    Isn't being poor and understanding the value of hard work transmitted genetically, after all? This is why Tea Party members dress up in wigs, tri-corner hats and stockings because they too were in formation on Lexington Green.

  11. Mal Rootkit Says:

    OK, traditional 3-bubble Venn diagram: one circle says
    'conservative Repub.', one bubble says 'MRA', the 3rd
    one is labeled 'male college students'. In the intersection
    we find 'Tal Fortgang'. To quote the philosopher D. Barry:
    "With all due respect, screw them."

  12. democommie Says:

    "Check your privilege" is an admonition that will be used, as all such admonitions are, by people who don't even know wtf they're saying. I cringe when I hear the students at the local SUNY (a lot of them are from affluent backgrounds) goin' gangsta and talkin' bout their homies hookin' 'em up with some serious gange or whatever. It's highly unlikely that the majority of them have the slighttest notion of what it's like to live in an inner city ghetto.

    Similarly I have been in discussions (okay, they were really shouting matches) with people who are OBVIOUSLY white, privileged males who have NO fucking clue what the problem is. Jesus, I've known about white male privilege since the first time I was picked ahead of someone else or given better treatment (like getting to ride in the front seat of the cruiser, instead of handcuffed in the back after a dwi arrest 30+ years ago) simply because of my skin color, familial connections or inability to menstruate.

    Tal Fortang is an idiot AND he's a Scalia fanboi, he will no doubt be running for political office in a few years on the GOP ticket.

  13. Major Kong Says:

    Isn't being poor and understanding the value of hard work transmitted genetically, after all?

    Well, if he wants to play the "My ancestors were poor and worked really hard" game:

    Slaves owned nothing so you can't get much poorer than that.

    And they worked like, well you know, slaves.

    Nobody ever "slaved away" more than a slave.

  14. Sarah Says:

    Similarly I have been in discussions (okay, they were really shouting matches) with people who are OBVIOUSLY white, privileged males who have NO fucking clue what the problem is. Jesus, I've known about white male privilege since the first time I was picked ahead of someone else or given better treatment (like getting to ride in the front seat of the cruiser, instead of handcuffed in the back after a dwi arrest 30+ years ago) simply because of my skin color, familial connections or inability to menstruate.

    A big part of the problem is the inability of those who have privilege to conceive of the notion that their privilege manifests in ways that are invisible to themselves. The rest of us notice, though, because we don't have that privilege, and we experience that privilege as racism and misogyny, among other -isms. There was a picture of a homeless white dude going around the conservative blogs and twitters a while back alongside the statistic that in recent years, women have been earning the majority of newly-awarded bachelor's degrees. That's an unfair comparison. Homeless women have a higher rate of being subject to rape than homeless men, and homeless black men are suffering with tuberculosis at a higher rate than homeless white men. On the other hand, male college graduates are earning more than female college graduates only a year after graduating, even when they have the same degrees and are doing the same jobs. The phenomenon of women earning less than men can be viewed on a macro level as well; I believe I recall reading that wages in the accounting field, previously dominated by men, are being depressed as more women become accountants. I'd love to do the research into the teaching profession and compare wages from when most men were teachers to recent decades, when it became dominated by women.

    Even things that might seem like privileges are really not when certain other aspects are considered. Women live longer, on average, than men, which might be considered an obvious benefit until one considers the fact that it is hella expensive to be old and a woman won't earn as much, on average, as her male counterpart during her lifetime. (Also, I seem to recall that Barbara Ehrenreich compared women's cost of living to men's in a book called "Women Pay More"?) She has a better chance of running out of money before her death than he does.

  15. Sarah Says:

    I'd love to do the research into the teaching profession and compare wages from when most men were teachers to recent decades, when it became dominated by women.

    Ack. That should read "when most teachers were men."

    Must drink more coffee.

  16. Middle Seaman Says:

    Tal and I belong to same tribe and have similar histories. My parent went through the horrors of Hitler too.

    My family, parent, kids and grandkids are all hard workers and never thought that they deserve anything more than anyone else. Hell, it didn't even occur to us.

    Why are we making a big deal of an asshole?

  17. c u n d gulag Says:

    Tal is his nickname.

    His real first name, is "Mental."

  18. c u n d gulag Says:

    Middle Seaman,
    I also have a fairly similar family background, as MenTAL.

    As for your question – "Why are we making a big deal of an asshole?"

    SATSQ:
    Because, IT'S FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. Gz Says:

    Ed, it sounds like your grandparents might also be the ancestors of Marine Todd!

  20. JohnR Says:

    I'm looking forward to your ascendance to the position of Leader in our new Mashonal Boshalist state of Amerika. I assume that we, your semi-loyal band of White-shorted thugs, will be awarded prominent positions in the ruling hierarchy, where we will proceed to back-stab and sabotage each other with glee and gin when we're not undertaking the overthrow of our neighboring Traditional Enemies, like Alaska.

  21. Xynzee Says:

    Just bear in mind that when they were handing out grandfathers Tal *chose* these ones rather than the grandfathers who made the "choice" to be black and then gamble away the family fortune and drank themselves to death.

    So you gotta hand it the kid for making the right choice on this one.

  22. blahedo Says:

    A few years ago, I was teaching the freshman seminar at a small liberal arts college and I had them read "Unpacking the invisible knapsack", a foundational essay/list on the topic of privilege (go google it and read it if you never have). It just happened that I had no black students in the class that year (unusual; there were usually at least one or two), and I made the mistake of linking them a copy that gave the year it was written (1989).

    The ensuing discussion was a little loopy, because the common student reaction was this: "Wow, yeah, I totally get what white privilege is now. _Good thing we solved that problem_." I had been prepared to talk about how privilege existed, but I was not as prepared as I should have been with examples of why this isn't even close to a solved problem. To the extent that I did have examples, most of them didn't believe me that it was still a problem (e.g. that getting stopped on the road for Driving While Black was still an issue). They _thought_ they understood privilege, but were still missing the key point that a core aspect of privilege is that, without specific effort and attention, your own privilege is invisible to you.

    In a turn for the bizarre, the angle that finally got it to click for a lot of people—thanks to my TA for coming up with this!—was the idea of Righty Privilege. Being left-handed, she was able to come up with an unending list of things that make life just a little more difficult for lefties, which righties totally take for granted. The two or three other lefties in the room joined in and added their own examples. We all acknowledged that this stuff was not nearly as serious as things like white, or male, or straight privilege (among others) (although there are a few things, like power tool ergonomics, that can have some serious, even fatal, consequences for unlucky lefties!), but in a strange way the fact that it _was_ so unthreatening made it easier to acknowledge for most of the students in the room… and that gave them a stepping stone to make them thoughtfully reconsider their ideas of larger forms of privilege.

  23. Steve in the ATL Says:

    I received a very clear lesson in white privilege when I was in college. I was driving through Mississippi (yeah, I know, but I lived in Memphis) and blew through a speed trap. The cop pulled out and turned on his lights. I slowed down and started to pull over. Just then, a car full of black people (with Pennsylvania tags!) passed by and the cop left me and pulled them over instead. White privilege? Non-yankee privilege? Either way, it was obvious why I went free and they didn't.

  24. SomeLoser Says:

    I'd like to share my personal story.

    My grandfather came to this country an alcoholic, found work as a carpenter, and was hit and killed by a train after leaving a bar one night roughly 60 years ago. To paraphrase the man I never met: "I'll tell you when I've had enough."

  25. What Have the Romans Ever Done for US? Says:

    Shorter Tal: My gradparents were so awesome I earned everything I got.

  26. Matt Says:

    "ay the right things and you too can go from masturbation enthusiast to Hannity guest in the blink of an eye"

    This statement seems to imply there's a negligible overlap between the two groups. That's likely to be false. ;)

  27. Robert Says:

    The part about this that somewhat reassures me is the extent to which criticism of this individual is being more widely heard than would have been the case until recently. I am dead certain that the scions of the ruling class have felt this way for generations. Now, they're getting some pushback, and the squealing has begun.

  28. J. Dryden Says:

    It's posts like this that make me want to pick up writing my old blog, because I have SO MUCH to say about this…person, and if I really cleared everything out onto the showroom, it would take over the message board like the Blob. (To mix metaphors ever so slightly.)

    But really, all you need to know about this…person is contained in the title of his screed: A defiant refusal to offer an apology that NO ONE HAS ASKED FOR.

    This. This is the neocon play–not playbook, because it's only one page: Play the victim. Play the marginalized. Play the outsider. Do vile, hateful, ugly, selfish, cruel, greedy, vicious things and then, when you are called on them, blame the accuser for everything you've been accused of. And if you are not called on them–and you won't be, since investigative journalism is dead, along with its audience–then MAKE UP AN ACCUSER, and attack him/her.

    That's it. That's all they've got. It's stupid and it's transparent and it's easily disprovable and we let them get away with it.

    This…person will in no way suffer for his expressions of stealth racism, misogyny and "eat the poor" disdain for the disenfranchized. He is the sort of person who thinks that anecdotes are more factual than numbers. That the common sense of the aristocracy is more valid than the experience of the poor. That earning money is the same thing as being right. He will find his way into his world of those who stroke it to Ayn Rand and don't bother to look over their shoulders to see who's within earshot before they tell racist jokes.

    We really shouldn't be wasting our time on him, in one sense, because he is a tiny part of a system that is much, much more than his juvenile apologia. But we should be spending our time on him because he is so utterly common–so utterly conventional–a spokesman for the attitude that fuels Norquist and the Koch Brothers and Delay and Abramoff. (And if you think he won't be on the payroll of an institution that one or more of them have a seat in, think again.)

  29. Sarah Says:

    I love that before Time got hold of it, the original piece was printed in something called The Princeton Tory.

    So righties really are royalists. Wow.

  30. Anon Says:

    I am reminded of one of my students, who tried to push the "equality of OPPORTUNITY, not equality of RESULT" line in class.

    I asked her if she believed in a free college education for all, based purely on merit. She roller her eyes at me like I was an idiot, so I asked what, exactly, she meant by "equality of opportunity," if not everyone had the chance to pay for college.

    She then quite literally said (and just imagine the snotty, pedantic tone in which she said it,) "Everybody has the same opportunity to pick good, responsible parents who will save up their money in a trust fund for college."

    At some point that day I finally had to explain to my class that, believe it or not, NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM was an undergraduate at an ivy league school. Therefore, in the perfect meritocracy that is America, not a single one of them was as smart as Jenna Bush.

    Recently I got a (white) student in my office saying, "I'm not like *those other students*. I went to a good high school. Could you please make the class go faster?" I then pointed out that she had, in fact, failed every exam to date, so no, maybe that wasn't a good idea.

  31. David Loehmann Says:

    At times, commenters seem to be trying to outdo the post they are commenting on by writing long-winded responses. displaying to one and all how smart they are. Not me, not this time. Quite simply, this was one of the most fucking brilliant pieces of writing I've ever had the pleasure to read! I cannot remember anything recently that has caused me to laugh so hard I had to wipe my eyes!

  32. democommie Says:

    "At times, commenters seem to be trying to outdo the post they are commenting on by writing long-winded responses. displaying to one and all how smart they are. Not me, not this time."

    Quite. You're writing a short-winded response displaying to one and all how smart you are.

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  34. Nunya Says:

    When denying white priveledge and claiming familial escape from the Nazis, please refrain from using obscure German words or phrases. It does very little to help your argument.

    P.S: Fuck that kid.

  35. freeportguy Says:

    If conservatives sooooooooo believe that the success and privileges they get come from nothing but THEIR hard work, then they should have exactly NO problem whatsoever with the implementation of a huge ESTATE TAX…

  36. E* Says:

    You had me at humble turd miner.

  37. Two Below Says:

    There was a time I wished I had been born tall rather than sarcastic, but Ed just showed me the error of that thinking.

  38. Peggy Says:

    http://youtu.be/-t271itvSGQ

    Just wanted to leave this here…

  39. Don Says:

    you know what my favorite part is? That black people are moral failures for constantly bringing up "historical racism" as if some little unpleasant shit that happened in the past ever mattered any more, so really the fact that your black American forbear was, right here on this ground, denied the vote and burned out of his community and subjected to criminal medical experimentation and unjustly imprisoned and ordered out of the city limits by sundown and denied a wage or representation and barred from the front door and.. umm, something else, oh yeah, enslaved and murdered, could possibly cast any lingering shadows now…. but this little fella gets to cash in his grandparents suffering under a foreign dictator for full credit today.

  40. moderateindy Says:

    Also, too, my ancestors never owned slaves, so how could I possibly be a racist?

  41. Ursula Says:

    And how much sympathy and privilege helped his ancestors in post-WWII America get where they are now? Sympathy and privilege never afforded to former slaves or their descendants.

    I wonder if this kid is a legacy student.