Princeton Essay Check Your Privilege

To the Editor:

Re “At Princeton, Privilege Is: (a) Commonplace, (b) Misunderstood or (c) Frowned Upon” (news article, May 3), about a phrase used on college campuses to suggest elite attitudes:

Most disturbing about the “check your privilege” comment to people making arguments at Princeton University is its utility in changing the subject away from their ideas, conservative or liberal. This kind of dismissive labeling needs to be called out for the ad hominem attack that it is. Recognizing it for what it is could undermine what it does, which is to sabotage debate.

Winter Park, Fla., May 3, 2014

To the Editor:

Amid all the discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article in The Princeton Tory about the phrase “check your privilege,” most commentators have focused on how its use as “conversational kryptonite” is inimical to productive public discourse on important issues.

While this no doubt is true, another aspect of the issue merits equal (if not more) attention. At the end of his essay, Tal writes: “It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates ‘privilege.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The great insight of Tal’s essay is that a complete understanding of privilege accounts for strong moral upbringing and character formation, the values that strong families and communities instill in subsequent generations. Liberals often err in refracting privilege solely through the lenses of race, class and gender.

While it is important to recognize and step outside of one’s race-class-gender privilege in thinking about important societal issues, the privilege of a strong moral foundation is properly integral to one’s manner of thinking and not something to be put at a distance.

Princeton, N.J., May 3, 2014

The writer, a junior at Princeton, is publisher of The Princeton Tory, a conservative journal.

To the Editor:

The young man profiled in your article is too quick to dismiss the point about privilege. I am 75 and like him grew up in Westchester County, New York. My teachers reminded us frequently of the privileged life we were leading. We had the best teachers, involved parents, and many field trips to museums, concert halls and theaters in New York City. We were a very fortunate cohort.

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His essay touched a nerve.

He was hailed on the right, his piece used as evidence that America’s universities are hopelessly liberal. Conservative bloggers and national publications picked up his cause.

He appeared on Fox News this week, in a segment labeled “Student Takes Down Liberals Over ‘White Privilege’ Debate.”

The reaction on the left was equally strident, with other students challenging his position and saying his own words were evidence that he had failed to understand the phrase.

Josh Moskovits, also a freshman at Princeton, said the phrase was not commonly used and argued that Mr. Fortgang did not even understand what privilege meant.

“In my opinion, it’s sort of a manufactured right-wing idea that people are running around left wing colleges saying ‘Check your privilege,’ ” he said. “He would have to say, in my opinion, something incredibly outrageous to get someone to say ‘Check your privilege.’ ”

Mr. Fortgang, 20, said he often saw the phrase used on Facebook after he has voiced conservative opinions.

In his essay, Mr. Fortgang, who is from New Rochelle, N.Y., uses his own family’s powerful story as evidence that his “privilege” should not be assumed. He tells how his grandfather fled the Nazis and was forced into exile in Siberia and how his grandmother was sent to a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. “Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown,” he wrote. “Maybe that’s my privilege.”

His grandfather and father built up a wicker basket business, he wrote, and emphasized education in the home.

“While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life,” he wrote. “But that is a legacy I am proud of. I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

All the attention he has received since then has been somewhat surprising, Mr. Fortgang said, adding that he was not always happy with the kind of people who have rallied around him.

“I am sure there are some really racist white supremacists who point to me as a hero on the college campus,” he said. “That is not me. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

His father, Stanley, said he was proud of his son and was moved by the essay but had urged him to be wary.

“I told him it is very important that you unequivocally disassociate yourself with things you don’t believe,” he said.

On campus and beyond, a common criticism of Mr. Fortgang’s essay was that it missed the point of how privilege affects one’s worldview.

“I was in shock because it said ‘checking my privilege,’ and I concluded after reading that he had been ultimately unsuccessful in examining his own privilege,” said Briana Payton, a freshman from Detroit and the project manager for the college’s Black Student Union.

While his family’s story was moving, she said, and not something to be trivialized, it was not something that affected his daily experience.

“He doesn’t know what it feels like to be judged by his race,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve met an African-American who believes that they are judged solely by their character.”

In defense of Mr. Fortgang, Zach Horton, a junior from Dallas and former editor in chief and now publisher of The Tory, said that “check your privilege” was the kind of dismissive phrase that sticks in the mind of freshmen, who are new to the school and new to the politics on campus.

“He has some very interesting thoughts,” Mr. Horton said. “He will stir the pot and get people thinking and get people talking.”

Mr. Fortgang said he had read and heard from many critics but stood by what he had written.

“I know a lot of the criticism centers around the idea that meritocracy is a myth,” he said.

“I don’t mean to minimize the impact privilege can have on the outlook one has, but there are many other factors that should not just be written off.”

Still, he said, after a year at Princeton, he hoped his views were starting to develop “some real nuance.”

“I am learning how to learn,” he said.

Correction: May 6, 2014
An article on Saturday about the reaction at Princeton University to a freshman’s essay criticizing the use of the phrase “check your privilege” misidentified the hometown of Zach Horton, a junior who spoke in defense of the writer. He is from Dallas, not Houston.

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