Radhe Patel

NYC Urban Fellow: Policy, engineering, economics, & dance.

What does privilege mean to you?

Recently, Princeton Freshman Tal Fortgang wrote this piece for the Princeton Tory.

Tal is a student sick of being told to “check your privilege.” He seems to believe that doing so calls for guilt based on his white, heterosexual male characteristics, or that it suggests he did not have to work hard to be where he is. He explains “they can’t be telling me that everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me into Princeton,” and follows it with the story of the hardships his family has faced in the past few generations. He emphasizes the hard work it takes to be successful, even as a white male.

The problem is, a person’s privilege is not marked by riding on an identity alone to get places. It’s the advantage provided to someone as a result of that identity: racial, gender-based, ethnic, sexual orientation, cultural or otherwise. We see wage gaps for women and achievement gaps for minorities. This is a consequence of systemically favored traits.

Tal’s mistake was making a systemic issue personal, and seeing it as an attack on his character. I started to think about how an institutional issue like privilege actually manifests itself on a personal level- because it’s definitely not through invalidating the hardships of his family, or questioning his work ethic to be where he is. I think one way we can understand privilege personally is through the idea of ‘double consciousness.’

This is an idea that WEB Du Bois, a child of the Reconstruction, used to describe African American sentiment in the US. It’s a sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Du Bois recognized carrying an awareness of how others evaluated him differently, and how this required that he work harder or otherwise exert himself to prove against these stereotypes, preconceived notions, or vestigial bias. Personally, I feel this today when I consider myself as ‘less privileged’ in a situation. I become hyperconscious of how society may be perceiving me because of certain traits — being ethnically Indian, being a child of immigrant, or being a woman.

In this context, to tell someone to check their privilege is a request for them to consider how others may view them, and how this affects (positively or negatively) their chances at success and progress, so that we can begin to build shared understanding of the problem. To me, it feels productive to ask someone who might not experience this to take on this feeling.

I talked to students on campus and reached out to people who’d responded online to understand how privilege affected them on a personal level. I realized many people said they’d felt a double consciousness at one point, or even regularly. Some said they hadn’t, and others said they hadn’t but were aware of that luxury — they’d checked their privilege. Some thought that doing so was useful, others believed the concept of checking your privilege was actually harmful to the discourse. Others simply provided an anecdote to me understand privilege’s affect, concluding they didn’t know what the best step forward for progress actually was.

Here are excerpts from these conversations. What does it mean to you?

Grace

“Because I am white, no matter what I have or what my grandparent’s had, people make certain assumptions about me based on the fact that my race is considered neutral, if not out rightly favored over others.

We are a nation of bootstrap-pullers who believe in meritocracy who believe that after a few generations of sacrifice, we have earned our place in the sun. It’s for that reason I think that the white grandchildren of immigrants find concept of “white privilege” so difficult. Arguments like Tal’s boil down to a question of “we made it, so why can’t they?” And that is why we need to be told to check our privilege, because there is some force at play other than bootstraps. There are deeply engrained personal and institutional preferences that mean that the same sacrifices, taken by great grandparents of another race, have gotten their grandchildren half as far.

That’s what people who don’t like to “check their privilege” appear to not understand. This privilege isn’t about them or how hard they worked, it’s about that split second between when the interviewer shakes your hand and when he looks at your resume. In that split second, he establishes certain assumptions and expectations that have to do with an inherent cultural bias. This bias is not anyone’s fault in particular and when we “check our privilege” we are not accepting blame or guilt about it. We are merely taking a moment to recognize that we benefit from it, and that others don’t.”

— Grace, 22</site>

Bernardo

“Privilege for me is precisely the opposite of a double consciousness. It is when, because of your hegemonic status as say a white male, you don’t think of gender and race as important categories. I don’t walk into a job interview aware of my maleness because it’s not an oppressed category.”

— Bernardo, 22


Farsai

“I would say something comes up almost every day — sometimes it’s little things like how I pronounce a word […] I would say unless those things come up, I don’t have to be as aware though, and I think it’s because I don’t have an accent so it’s not as obvious of an identity”

— Farsai, 22


Mary

“For the most part, I am fortunate to be in a fairly accepting community. I pride myself on my resiliency, rationality and strength of character. Comments about women being emotional […] make me doubly conscious that I’m being perceived differently than how I actually behave. Knowing these stereotypes about my gender is something that I prepare for when going on job interviews.”

— Mary, 21

“I have a Latino friend who tells a story about an experience at Sigma Delta Tau. He was coming back from teaching an SAT class, clean and dressed in business attire, and stopped by the SDT house to pick up cookies he purchased for their fundraiser. The girl that let him in at the door said to him: ‘Oh, are you here to steal our laptops?”

— Christopher, 22

“I was making a presentation at a conference, the largest national one in my field. I’d been selected to be on a panel. Most graduate students never get that opportunity. Even tenured professors have trouble getting presentation slots. So it’s a big honor.

Anyway, the conference was being held at a big hotel. The morning of the presentation, I walked up to the room I was presenting in there. There were already a lot of people in there. I got in behind a group of people that were walking in the door. Then, the security guard at the door stopped me, and asked me for my ID. My badge that showed that I had paid to attend the conference. He didn’t ask anyone else.

For a moment, I wondered if I was at fault. I was wearing very professional attire, but thought: maybe if my suit were a more neutral color, maybe if I didn’t have this haircut, maybe if I’d been wearing my glasses, he wouldn’t have looked at me as an intruder. He might have assumed that I was there for the presentation — maybe not as a presenter, but at least as a spectator that belonged.”

— D

“In theory, saying “check your privilege” should be a call to think and reflect on the difference between our experiences and those of other’s — a call for reflection, empathy, etc. In practice, I have only every seen it used as a way to silence and even demean others — a rejection of other’s opinions on the basis of who they are rather than what they have said. This is usually justified on the basis of some facile analysis about how a certain group has faced systematic discrimination but another has or does not.

People use appeals to privilege largely to discount or rebut the views of those who come from dominant races, genders, classes (in terms of $) religions and sexual orientations. There may be a secondary emphasis on (dis)ability, attractiveness, etc but it’s largely something that comes up in relation to the first group of characteristics”

When online arguments spring up (usually on facebook)[…] a white cis male friend of mine will post something and be attacked for it-usually personally. I will step into the discussion and those who attacked my friend will treat my very similar or even less well thought out points with much more respect and consideration. I have on 3 occasions even asked my “privileged” friends to write their thoughts, send them to me, and have me post them. The difference in the tone and aggression those posts elicit is staggering and incredibly sad to me.

If privilege is a lack of double consciousness in how we experience the world, yes I’ve felt it when asking a professor to by advisor and wondering whether they question my motives in writing about catholicism as a Muslim — but I’ve also felt it every time I have to downplay how little work I put into an assignment when talking to a friend [as a black student]. Every time a fact I throw out is accepted without question feels like an instance of unacknowledged privilege on my part and I have to wonder what it is about me that makes people trust what I say. Every time I have felt frustrated because I can’t say what I will think because it makes me seem like I lack empathy seems like a much greater imposition than being stopped and frisked, followed at a department store, or called a terrorist. The inability of those who speak in the language of privilege to comprehend or accept this — that sometimes systematic factors don’t matter nearly as much as they think — makes the discourse of privilege unpalatable to me in its current form.”

— H, 21

“Asking someone to ‘check their privilege’ and live these experiences for a moment fosters an awareness on the effect of these issues on other people. I don’t think this is the final step in reaching a fruitful solution. At this stage in our nation’s progress though, this tool seems necessary.”

— S, 19

Anjali

“During my last semester at Columbia, I made it to the final round interview for my dream job at a solar company. The interview spanned a dinner followed by 4 hours of interview the next day. At the dinner I met my fellow candidates — there were 13 of us, and I quickly counted, only 4 of us were female. What’s more, none of the 10 company employees who were joining us for dinner were women. Not used to being so vastly outnumbered after spending 4 years on a campus with an associated women’s college, I was surprised to find myself taking note of such a thing, and becoming extremely aware of both the potential burden and unique opportunity I had as being a scarce female face. The burden fell on the possibility of my skills being doubted in the face of my male counterparts; the opportunity arose because being female was clearly a defining difference that would ensure the employees would remember me.

After accepting a full-time offer from the solar company, I met the other 8 candidates who had also gone through. With some surprise, I found out that most of of us had come from extremely prestigious private universities: MIT, Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie-Mellon. When I was initially accepted Columbia as my university, I was aware of the respect it garnered among employers and general society. But during my college years, I came to realize that my placement at an Ivy League was largely by luck; smart kids existed everywhere, and it was a large part by chance that I was given a spot while another was denied. With that mindset — that the university you went to didn’t define your abilities, your determination and intellectual curiosity were what counted — it stunned me to realize that my employer still held a bias towards us Ivy-league students — that though I had realized the truth, to so many others, their denial from an Ivy League could mean the different between having their resume passed through versus being placed in the rejection pile. My privilege of education was real.”

— Anjali, 23

If you’d like to comment or respond, I’m eager to continue the conversation and expand this project. Contact info is below!