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What Fortgang missed and why he is wrong
What Fortgang missed and why he is wrong
I am white.
I am male.
I am heterosexual.
I am university educated.
I have a professional career.
English is my first language.
If there is a privilege to be had, I’ve probably already had it. But even so, what Fortgang is selling here is too difficult for me to swallow. In fact, I’d go as far as to say:
He’s being a dick.
The basic idea of his piece is that he feels stigmatised to some degree by the way others see the colour of his skin as an advantage that he himself does not appreciate. He wants to tell us that, yes, he is white; but that that doesn’t mean there is some government conspiracy out to aid him in life while putting others down. He writes about his own heritage, telling the reader how his own grandparents and relatives suffered under the rule of the Nazis and how the only privilege they had was being able to arrive in America penniless and make a life for themselves. He doesn’t want to have to apologise for what others perceive as his privilege.
I’m sure he feels as though he has a valid point; indeed, his story has flown around the web the last few days to a chorus of support. And yet, with only a few moments to think about it, it quickly becomes obvious that he has not only missed the point but has covered his message with a warm, gooey layer of unhealthy irony.
For starters, the main thrust of his argument is that he should be judged by what he has ‘personally accomplished’ rather than ‘because I belong to a certain ethnic group’. At first glance, this may seem perfectly reasonable — apart from the fact that he then goes on to write nothing about his own accomplishments, but rather those of his family and how their success contributed to the place he is in now. In other words, his advantages are inherited rather than discretely earned — which is exactly the kind of privilege he is supposedly denying he has or is denying is in any way significant.
In addition, the story he tells of his family fleeing to freedom to America after WWII was only possible because his family was part of an ethnic group that was allowed to assimilate into US culture at a time when most other non-white races faced persecution if not in law, then in social stigma and socio-economic disadvantage. He even quasi-quotes Martin Luther King Jr, little realising the anachronistic irony in doing so.
I could go on picking holes in what he says, but I don’t really feel I need to. Fortgang goes on to say that ‘behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin colour’ and to some degree he is right. But to deny that it has *any* significant influence is naive. To be clear, I’m not saying that Fortgang is a bad person for having that kind of privilege; nor am I asking him to apologise for what advantages he has. But there is certainly a challenge for those such as us to recognise what advantages we have had. To deny their existence not only does a discredit to those who have earned them for us, but also insults those who were born into different circumstances — as though they themselves were responsible for the situation into which they were born.
In addition, the white privilege I have is not limited to the financial. It also expands to near every area of my life. I have never had to cope with people shutting their windows out of fear or suspicion when I pass by their houses. I have never been stopped by police because my racial profile fits a particular criminal stereotype. I have never met anyone who has been suprised by my level of education despite my skin colour. I rarely experience that moment of awkwardness when someone has to describe my appearance.
That doesn’t make me a bad person. Privilege itself does not make someone wrong. But it is the self-righteous denial of one’s own privilege that is the insult, not necessarily the privilege itself. That’s Fortgang’s mistake. That’s what Fortgang needs to apologise for.