Princeton Student's Essay on White Male Privilege Stirs Controversy

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang has kicked up a politically charged hornet’s nest by writing and publishing an essay about white male privilege in which he condemns those who have accused him of leaning on that privilege during his time at the Ivy League school.

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“There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them,” Fortgang writes in the essay, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” which appeared in the university’s conservative Princeton Tory journal in April. He continues: “‘Check your privilege,’ the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year.”

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The 20-year-old from New Rochelle, New York, who plans to major in history or politics and is a self-described “Scalia groupie,” adds, “I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.” The indignant missive to his “moral superiors” then launches into a proud history of his Jewish family: His grandfather fled Poland as a teen when the Nazis invaded, doing years of hard labor in Siberia before landing in America, starting a business, and meeting Fortgang’s grandmother, who survived both a death march and concentration camp in Poland before emigrating. His father, meanwhile, worked hard and made sacrifices for years so that his young son could have a chance in the world.

“That’s the problem with calling someone out for the ‘privilege’ which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are,” he writes. “Assuming they’ve benefitted from ‘power systems’ or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they’ve done, things of which you may not even conceive.”

Fortgang’s essay is quickly turning him into a hero of the Right, with tweets of praise flowing in from a number of people, including GOP pundit Shoshana Weissmann, Commentary editor and New York Post columnist John Podhoretz and RedState.com editor Dan McLaughlin. Other self-identified conservative Twitter users have called his words “eloquent” and “bold.” The student-reported College Fix, meanwhile, dubbed Fortgang’s story “powerful” in its article, “Meet the Poster Child for ‘White Privilege’ — Then Have Your Mind Blown.”

Others, though, were not as impressed. Some tweets noted that the student did not seem to understand the concept of privilege. In an opinion piece published in the Columbia Spectator, of Columbia University, students Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani wrote that Fortgang’s piece inspired a “collective Eye roll.” They continue, “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.” In addition, they note, “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.”

Debby Irving, author of "Waking Up White," tells Yahoo Shine, "Especially in light of the news this week [regarding comments on race by Clippers owner Donald Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy], I'm always grateful when someone explains how they understand — or in this case don't fully understand — privilege. So I'm grateful he put himself out there."

Jacqueline Battalora, a Saint Xavier University sociology professor and author of the new “Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today,” agrees that Fortgang doesn’t seem to understand the concept of privilege. She elaborates on the Spectator essay’s point:

“Legal fact: In 1790, the first United States Congress determined that to be a naturalized citizen of this country you have to be white — and that was valid until 1952,” she says. “So [Fortgang] doesn’t even understand that laws allowed his family to come here and become citizens, and that the fact that they were seen as white conferred upon them an unearned advantage, by virtue of law.” And that doesn’t mean that they “didn’t work their butts off and that there weren't terrible things,” stresses Battalora, who spoke on these issues at the 15th annual White Privilege Conference in March, which founder Eddie Moore Jr. tells Yahoo Shine is "a space where we can have exactly this kind of conversation."

“The unfortunate part is that folks are trying to use these pithy statements (‘check your privilege’), but if you haven’t laid the groundwork, then it breeds this kind of anger, and the taking of things in a personal way,” Battalora notes. “It’s the wrong thing to demonize this gentleman, though. [His essay] just reveals how much work there is to be done.”

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