Any headline that includes the phrase, “then have your mind blown” is probably unworthy of being opened. So when we heard that The College Fix had just published an op-ed by Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang titled “Meet the Poster Child for ‘White Privilege’—Then have your Mind Blown,” our reaction was a collective Eye roll. By “have your mind blown,” The College Fix must have meant “spend the rest of your night clenching your fists and fuming over the sad irony that those who don’t understand the meaning of white male privilege are the ones who benefit most from it.”
We decided that we had to respond to this op-ed, which completely misses the point and grossly misinterprets the meaning of privilege and the way it functions.
Tired of feeling like he has to apologize for being a white male, Fortgang is frustrated that his family history is rendered irrelevant by discussions which link skin color with privilege. But nobody is asking for personal apologies for historical injustices—that’s literally not the point.
To be clear, nobody wants, or needs, more nuanced understandings of race than people of color. The fact that family history and other factors that influence a person’s station in society are often ignored in favor of skin tone just speaks to how reductionist our understanding of identity can be.
Fortgang accuses those who tell him he’s privileged of toeing the line of racism. (Let’s forget for a minute the inherent contradiction in the idea of “racism against white people.”) His success, Fortgang argues, should not be diminished to a socially constructed narrative of white male privilege and ascribed to “some invisible patron saint of white maleness.” But what he fails to understand is that this “patron saint” of white maleness isn’t so invisible—historically, socially, and politically, institutions have protected and supported white men. Recognizing the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments. It’s meant to remind us that white men don’t have an inherent predilection for success—the odds have just been stacked in their favor.
Fortgang continues to criticize those who ask him to check his privilege, saying, “Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them ‘stigmas’ or ‘societal norms’), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.”
First of all, meritocracy is a myth. We are not all born with the same opportunities to succeed—and that is not a conspiracy.
But perhaps the most infuriating and telling part of Fortgang’s op-ed is its ending: “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.” Except, he clearly hasn’t checked his privilege—because he doesn’t even understand what it is. The very act of writing a defense of white privilege (and a condemnation of those who point to it) is in itself an exercise of the very entitlement he refuses to acknowledge.