As a former college Republican myself, I had great sympathy for Tal Fortgang, Princeton student conservative, Fox News guest, and author of Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White, Male Privilege. I could hear myself saying some of those same things. And I ached with embarrassment. And so for his good and for mine, I’m posting
An open letter to Tal Fortgang and to my 19-year-old self:
Dear privileged white dudes,
You’re angry. I can tell. You’re frustrated that the world won’t hear you like you think it should. Your sincere and rational arguments aren’t reverenced as they should be. And I know where you’re coming from. I remember hearing exposition of social inequality as a indictment of myself and a devaluation of my talent and effort. Right now, in your darker moments, you think sometimes the brown kids get all the breaks. They get all the scholarships, right? You feel under-appreciated and unfairly passed over for accolades and criticized for oppression to which you’re not party.
I’m here to tell you I’ve been there and that there’s a third way to approach race, class and gender from your perspective.
First, it’s important to establish some facts.
Number 1. You’re a lucky guy. Miraculously lucky. Much of your luck is actually the result of the sweat of people who love you. Your grandfathers and grandmothers fought and worked and were beaten and went hungry and without medical care, to build your life. Your parents saved with admirable gusto, then mortgaged their future to pay for your place at the table. They worked nights and weekends for bosses that abused them to feed brats (you!) that sassed them then borrowed the car and wrecked it. Their gift to you could be measured in literal years taken off of their lives. And they did it all with pleasure because they loved you. And before there was you, they loved the vision of you. But all of those things, you didn’t earn.
Number 2. You’re a hard worker yourself. No one should devalue the fact that you studied and worked and practiced and prayed while others of your high school friends partied and slacked off. It would have been nice to spend some time in home economics or consumer math. Instead, you dragged your feet to Mr. McCarthy’s calculus class where you’d surely get a solid hour’s worth of homework. But you went every day (except that one day you skipped school to go to Wild Waves). Well done.
Number 3. You’re (temporarily) stupid. It’s not your fault. What makes you stupid is all the things you haven’t seen. In particular, some of the things you haven’t seen are the things your grandparents have. Like people assuming you’re lazy or irresponsible or criminal because you’re poor or speak with an accent. Or being judged first by the shape of your body. Or having no idea how to fill out a FAFSA.
But you won’t always be stupid. You’re quite close right now to a lot of wisdom. Expressing gratitude to your parents is an important foundation. Right now, you still feel like an extension of your parents’ family. Your successes are their successes and their efforts feel a little like your efforts. Denying yourself the advantages they worked to give you would be denying it to them as well. But as you get older you’ll meet very deserving, talented and hard-working people who weren’t given the things you were given. And soon, God willing, it will occur to you that, while someone certainly earned your privilege, it wasn’t you, or at least not primarily you.
And at that moment, you may even realize that while your effort was significant, doors have opened for you your whole life because people expect to be led by someone your color and gender. Principals, professors and bosses see in you an echo of themselves. When you assert yourself, it’s interpreted as a young man growing into the leader he was meant to be. It’s not that way for everyone. And that’s before even considering what your parents gave you individually. Is a minority scholarship any different than the tuition grant you got from the Get Tal To Move Out of the Basement Foundation?
So, as someone who’s been where you’re standing, here’s my unsolicited advice to you:
Listen more. That doesn’t mean you stop expressing your thoughts. But your instinct is to speak a little too often. Maybe only speak the cleverest half of the things you instinctively would. Spend the rest of the time listening to other perspectives and trying to imagine what it would be like living someone else’s life.
Do speak. But as you do so remember that the perspective of privilege has been heard. It’s been heard and codified–canonized even–in laws and textbooks and even in scriptures. That perspective is as valuable as any other but, in particular when the topic is social inequality, you may be the one speaking from a position of ignorance. Asking sincere questions is almost always welcome.
Stop hearing personal criticism. Living as a white man in a system that advantages white men does not make you bad. Refusing to acknowledge it does…a little. Often when we discuss social justice, we’re talking about things that happen at institutional levels. You don’t have to be a misogynist, or even a man, to be a part of a system (a company, a university) that disadvantages women. So, instead of assuming you’re forever relegated to play the villain in this narrative, hear an invitation to be part of the solution.
The next time you hear “Check your privilege,” hear it in your grandfather’s voice. Are there times when he might reprimand you for ingratitude? Would he relate better to you or to the person on the opposite end of your argument? Would he give you less credit than you give yourself? When you refuse to acknowledge what he’s given you, you disrespect him.
You’re a good person.You don’t harbor ill will toward others. Once you gain a little knowledge, you’ll be a great help to the world and a happier person yourself.
Your sincere ally,