Tal Fortgang, a freshman at Princeton University, has ignited much of the blogosphere with an op-ed he wrote recently for the Princeton Tory, the school's conservative student publication. In it, Fortgang decries being told, "Check your privilege" and denies that he receives a significant benefit from his skin color and gender. He spends much of the piece outlining his Jewish family's tragic history at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Fortgang's column aggressively denies the existence of any "invisible patron saint of white maleness," which he considers an "invisible force" that diminishes the accomplishments of white men. As a fellow straight, white male, however, this argument falls flat. Even with my own personal history of childhood abuse and lack of financial resources, I am acutely aware of the ways I benefit from my skin color and gender every day. To argue anything else is essentially to claim that racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia no longer exist.
Fortgang is a white male. He is also straight and ostensibly cisgender (that is, born with the gender with which he identifies). He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., described by its police department in 2008 as the safest city in New York state and is among the top five safest cities of its size in the country. New Rochelle has an average household income of $108,355, more than twice the household median income in the U.S. Before matriculating in one of the most elite universities in the world, Fortgang attended SAR Academy & High School, a private institution in Riverdale, N.Y., that boasts a theater, a hockey rink, a new "iPad one-to-one curriculum" and a beautiful campus all at an annual tuition cost of only $30,800 ($45,800 for inclusion).
Like Fortgang, I am a white male. I am also straight and cisgender. Unlike him, I have blue eyes and blonde hair, which I've parted to the side since I was a child. I dress conservatively, and I have a generic accent that's difficult to place until I say "y'all" or a similar word or phrase picked up my from upbringing in Texas. As stereotypes go, I am as white as the day is long. I could easily be lost in the crowd at your local country club, which means that I don't "look threatening," that I'm labeled "safe" and a "nice guy" by people who barely know me.
Being a kid wasn't easy for me. I lived at or below the poverty line for most of childhood. My parents divorced when I was 3, and I didn't see my father on a regular basis until I was 12. For several years my mother shuffled my sister and I through a succession of trailer parks, interrupted for a time by a housing project.
My first stepfather was physically abusive, my second stepfather was a manic-depressive alcoholic who pawned or sold the few toys I had for beer money, and throughout all this, my mother sexually abused me over a period of 10 years in an effort to alleviate the longing she had for my father.
I couldn't afford education after high school beyond the first semester my father paid for — scraped together with U.S. savings bonds — at a community college. I was a smart kid. I was talented. I also had nothing, and I was overwhelmed by trying to pursue a dream of success unachievable with my lack of resources.
But this isn't a contest of oppression. I'm not keeping score on who has faced the most shit in life between the two of us. I don't begrudge Fortgang's own upbringing any more than I blame him for my obstacles in life. I outline my life experience here to emphasize the power of white male privilege. No matter how much I've gone through, no matter how many dollars I have in my pocket, I begin every morning with a shower and presentable clothing, and I walk into a world that has been conditioned to accept my appearance and speech as the default. I see white male faces on television and in Congress, white bodies in advertisements and films, white voices on the radio and white males in positions of power on issues that directly affect me.
I have never been harassed by the police or felt nervous around them, for that matter. I have never been followed around in stores, asked where I'm really from or informed that my skin color or gender limit my abilities. I have never been told my heterosexuality is a choice and a sin, never had my life threatened for being a Trayvon Martin in a suburban neighborhood, never specifically planned my route home to avoid being sexually harassed or assaulted or raped, as approximately 238,000 Americans are each year.
Yes, I do struggle with my past trauma and with overcoming that to reach my dreams, but at the end of the day, I can go to sleep without the fear that most of the world believes I was not born to succeed in it.
Fortgang is a child who has lived a privileged existence and has had the misfortune of his sheltered views being validated at every turn until being forced to confront a reality no longer optional for someone of his wealth, gender, race and sexuality. It's hard to be angry with someone who has been set up for disappointment by being told that everything he's achieved is a result of his hard work, and not partly due to the absence of challenges confronted by people who don't look like him.
I have been active in the feminist community for a few years now, and not once have I been asked to apologize for being a white, straight man, nor have I been asked to apologize for the actions of other white, straight men. On the rare occassion that I have been told to "check my privilege," it's always been in a manner that asks me to examine how my experience clouds my viewpoint on the oppression of others, to acknowledge there are experiences I can't understand because I haven't lived them and to stand beside people who don't look like me, especially when they're not present in white, straight male spaces.
Yet to read Fortgang's piece is to imagine that white, straight males are forced to run across a minefield of inevitable homophobic, transphobic, sexist and racist trangressions in today's society.
He's partially right: Because of our life experience, we will make mistakes. I certainly have. But what's not mentioned is that women and people of color and LGBT folks are the ones running across this minefield while we white, straight men — impervious to social shrapnel — have reached the other side, only to wonder aloud — mockingly, condescendingly — why the rest of these folks can't hurry the hell up because how awful could bigoted shrapnel be, really?
There's a mountain of statistics and studies I can cite, from the wage gap to the way professors respond to student inquiries, that exclusively benefit white men in our society. But this really hammers the point home: TIME magazine wound up publishing Fortgang's op-ed, in full, on its website, just a week after unveiling its predominately privileged "TIME 100," which excluded Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color and star of Orange Is the New Black who finished among the highest in their website's fan poll.
If Fortgang — unknown but white, straight and male — were a transgender woman of color, it's doubtful this story would have validated such a life experience or been published in TIME.
And you wouldn't know his name. Or mine.