BERNSTEIN: Check your argument

A person can still have privilege even if his or her family struggled to surmount obstacles

This April, Tal Fortgang, a student at Princeton, wrote an article in which he expressed frustration with the fact that people around him assume he is necessarily privileged simply because he is a white man. But the premise of his essay — which was essentially that because of his family’s Holocaust story, he is not privileged — completely misses the meaning of “white privilege.”

I want to preface my response by stating that I, too, come from a family that includes Holocaust victims, immigrants and rags-to-riches stories. No one could posit that my ancestors did not work hard — and some of them overcame insurmountable odds.

But though my family worked hard to overcome adversity, that does not mean I do not benefit today from white privilege. Fortgang is right that we should not necessarily assume privilege, but he fails to acknowledge that even though his ancestors suffered, he still currently benefits from being white. Fortgang says those who accuse him of benefitting from white privilege believe “we are all governed by invisible forces” that perpetuate racism and sexism. But these forces exist: a recent study from the Wharton School found that professors are 25 percent more likely to respond to white male students than minority or female students. Moreover, responses to minority or female students were more likely to be negative than responses to white men. At the institution Fortgang now attends, a place that theoretically demonstrates the meritocracy he believes exists, he is likely receiving better treatment than his non-white and female peers.

This is not to mention the larger, non-academic biases minorities and women must overcome. The pay gap is very real: not only do working women make less than men (currently 77 cents to the dollar), but the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 40 percent of that pay gap is directly due to pay discrimination alone. This issue is just as visible between minorities and whites, though perhaps not as often discussed. As recently as 2010, black men in America were earning 74.5 cents to every dollar white men earned. While it is unknown how much of this is pure discrimination and how much of it is barriers to higher-paid positions, these numbers don’t reflect equal opportunity in our country.

And privilege extends beyond these data. As a white person, I am privileged in that I have never been called a racial slur; that I don’t fear random questioning and assertions that I’m “up to no good” from the police or figures of authority; that I have never walked into a room and been the only member of my race; that people do not cross the street out of fear when they see me approaching; and that people don’t question whether or not I got into college on my merits, among many other reasons. As a man, Fortgang likely does not fear catcalls or violence when walking down the street alone, or being called a “slut” because of sexual promiscuity. And privileges do not only stem from race and gender but also able-bodiedness, sexuality, religion and class as well.

I do not want to unfairly peg Fortgang as a perpetuator of these problems: he has been born into an unequal system. But though he might not perpetuate it, he indirectly excels because of it. The history of slavery, segregation and other oppressive institutions in America necessarily put oppressed groups on an unequal footing, and we have not yet been able to counteract these institutions in order to give oppressed groups equal opportunity. This means there are fewer non-white competitors against Fortgang and myself, making it easier for us to achieve — to complete our educations and later begin successful careers. No, my family never owned slaves, nor did it support segregation or any other evils, but just because we did not contribute to those horrors does not mean we don’t benefit from them now. The Holocaust was undeniably a tragedy, but it is irrelevant to equal opportunity within America; because Fortgang’s family was able to move to America and receive the opportunity they did, which Fortgang rightly acknowledges, they could succeed. But the institution of slavery and its lingering effects inhibited that same opportunity for black Americans at the time his family was able to excel, which is in part why my circumstances and Fortgang’s are so dramatically different from those of non-whites.

Perhaps the point Fortgang wishes to make is that it is unfair to assume that because he is a white male he has not earned his place at an institution like Princeton, because he has not had to work hard to succeed when he already comes from a position of privilege. And this is unfair: his and any individual’s personal accomplishments should not be undervalued. But it is undeniable that as a white man he has had more opportunity to achieve and to showcase those achievements. When someone tells him to “check his privilege,” it is not to say that his entire life has been carefree or that he is undeserving of his successes. It means that, no matter one’s personal history, being white or male or any other normative characteristic is inherently advantageous.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

Published May 6, 2014 in Opinion

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