White Privilege: Looks Like Princeton Needs to Strengthen Their History Curriculum

It perplexes the hell out of me that educated people have such a problem grasping the concept of privilege. I think it’s because when we think of the word “privilege,” many of us tend to think of rewards. A gold star, a sum of money, a medal. Especially money. We tend to think of ease and comfort.

And while there is certainly an element of ease involved in white privilege, what it’s really about is opportunity.

I hate to give publicity to anyone who seems like a douchebag (and this guy really, really does), but what got me thinking about this was an article I saw today. It was shared by Guerrilla Feminism on Facebook, and it concerned the writing of a Jewish Princeton student who was denouncing the idea of white privilege. After telling readers of his ancestors’ struggles (and deaths) during the Holocaust, he goes on to say this:

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. 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. You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still conquering them now.

The truth is, though, that I have been exceptionally privileged in my life, albeit not in the way any detractors would have it.
It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America. First, that there was a place at all that would take them from the ruins of Europe. And second, that such a place was one where they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.

It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

Now, let me just take a moment to say that I don’t in any way mean to diminish someone else’s struggle. The experiences of his family in the Holocaust, the experiences of any Jewish person in America, those are experiences I’ve never had and will never know. The Holocaust was horrifying, devastating, and any person that went through that deserves respect and more.

That said…what this guy says after that isn’t quite accurate. If you read the entire article, he describes the hard work of his grandparents and father, earning money, getting into great schools, running a successful (but, he points out, not very influential) business. His place in life, he says, is owed to the hard work of those who came before him, not to the color of his skin, and as you can read in the excerpt I posted, America doesn’t care about religion or race.

Wait, what?

This is where we can see a dude who, while he is obviously well-written and well-educated concerning his personal family history, seems to have missed a great deal in terms of American history, not to mention religious studies. Which is weird, because he’s obviously familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. (“the content of your character”). So why doesn’t he care to acknowledge the Civil Rights movement?

What if your hard-working grandfather and father had come to America….and not had access to the job opportunities available only to white people? To the same lunch counters that white businessmen had access to? The same neighborhoods? The same water fountains?

Maybe their hard work would have been a little bit different, and maybe even a little more divided- between family, work, and fighting to be accepted as a full human being.

This guy seems to already know that context is extremely important- he points out that you never know another person’s struggles, another person’s background, their history, their context. And yet, he’s content to focus on one big part of history while ignoring another ENORMOUS part of it.

That’s not to undermine the accomplishments of his family, or even of the man himself. But if you’ve gotten into Princeton, you must’ve had to take some sort of social science? Some kind of history? How could you have forgotten Civil Rights (not to mention, oh I don’t know, slavery)?

Having white privilege doesn’t mean that all white people have lives that are, to quote this article, “a cake walk.” (And I wonder if Kyle Becker of Independent Journal Review even know what a cakewalk is or where it came from?) It doesn’t mean you’ve never had to work hard, that you are rich, or that your achievements are not worthwhile. What it means is that you (and those in the generations before you in America) had access to opportunities that not all people do; that you’ve never had to wonder if MAYBE you weren’t hired at a job because of the color of you skin; that you’ve generally seen people that look similar to you in most facets of popular media; and that you’ve never felt that you had to make drastic changes to your vernacular in order to be perceived as intelligent, let alone fully human.

Tal Fortgang, from whitey to whitey: I understand that you’ve worked hard, that your family has worked hard, and I’m very happy that because of that, the American Dream is coming true for you.

But let me remind you that the American Dream was originally a white dream. Allow me to assure you that if you and your family hadn’t been white? That hard work would have been doubled by displacement, by an uncertain history, by discrimination, and by segregation.

The fact that you can simply ignore the Civil Rights movement and use Martin Luther King’s words out of context in order to deny your privilege, I think, says it all.

(Oh, and America doesn’t care about race or religion? You could stand to do some reading up on your current events as well.)

 

 

Racism in the Family

My last post ended with a harsh statement, and I feel I’d better elaborate. Calling someone a racist is often thought of as the end, an accusation of a terrible crime bringing to mind the KKK, nooses and lynchmobs. But the cold hard truth is that we’ve all internalized racism in some way or another. This doesn’t make it okay, but it should at least make it easier to recognize. Often (particularly for white people) we enact racism in a way that we can’t even see, and because we can’t see it, we are immediately offended when it is pointed out to us. A person of color, however, doesn’t need to have racism pointed out to them: they experience it directly and perhaps on a day-to-day basis. Rather than write an essay on white privilege, let me take a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous book, “Americanah” to try and convey what I’m talking about:

When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed? 

When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?

Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own race?

(For more information, read the book. Or just hit up google. Go to the library. Even better, hop on tumblr and search tags like “racism” and “white privilege.” Hell, ask a black friend to be completely honest with you about their feelings on racism. The least you can do is listen without taking it so personally, because let’s face it— you’ve probably used them as a shield in some verbal “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”-type defense.)

More about all this social justice/racism/privilege stuff later.

What I’m saying is, it’s unfortunately normal to internalize a little bit of racism or sexism. Like useless and potentially toxic materials we take in when we eat, these things are there in most of the media we observe. Oftentimes, perhaps most times, carrying that shit with us is unintentional.

But my grandfather is not that type of racist.

To steal a quote from my boyfriend, my grandfather is probably the type of racist who might hear a statement like, “I’m not a racist, but I sure do wish all those black people would go back to Africa,” and nod in agreement. I get the feeling that, like Abraham Lincoln, my grandfather would have freed the slaves and then tried to get them the hell out of here. My grandfather is the type of racist who admires the way black people worship in church, the way black musicians have that extra rhythm, who once saw a black boy being made fun of in school and felt bad but did nothing, who thinks that intelligent black people are somehow the exception. He is the type of racist who has no problem talking and working with any person of color…he just doesn’t want them in his family.

I might be a little resentful.

Let me explain.

I’ve always been close to my grandparents— I’ve been very lucky when it comes to my family. My college graduation and my grandmother’s death weren’t far apart, and during that year I mentioned in my first blogpost, when I was working minimum wage jobs and trying to plan out my life, my grandfather and I sort of became anchors to each other. We had lunch weekly, we went to visit out-of-state family members together, we reminisced. I learned so much from him, about my family, about history, about his political views (always so very different from my own). Most importantly, I learned that people on very different planes of opinion can still love and respect each other, and maybe even find common ground. Our relationship reminded me of an India.Arie song: “If old people talked to young people, we’d be better people all around.”

My grandfather and I had done so much for each other’s perspectives. I hoped this situation, my relationship, would be something to widen his perspective on race. My grandfather loved and respected me, had always encouraged me in my studies and my travels, had scolded me for not becoming a doctor so that I could take care of him, and had never once remotely implied that I should just find a rich husband. There was also the fact that, as far as men go, my man is pretty great. Handsome, funny, smart, well-traveled. Not just good with people, but genuinely interested in them and what they have to say. My grandfather would need a pretty big wall of denial to think otherwise.

But what would drive it home, I thought, was that my boyfriend has the same hometown as my grandfather, the same name as my grandfather’s brother, and served in the military just as my grandfather and most of his family did.

So I told my grandfather about my boyfriend, his name and where he was from.

“He’s not black, is he?” my grandfather asked. I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t know if I like that,” he said. “I always thought a cardinal shouldn’t be with a bluejay.”

On a bird, differently colored feathers may denote different species. But that isn’t so on a human being. I’ve seen the insides of many different human bodies, and the ingredients are much the same— fat, blood, muscle. Bone if you go deep enough. I told this to my grandfather. It didn’t seem to drive the point home.

“You talked about bones?” my little brother said later. “You should have told him that we’re all white on the inside.”

My boyfriend and I laughed. But my grandpa’s thinking bothered me for multiple reasons. Some were based on principles. Others were purely selfish— didn’t he love me? Why couldn’t I change his mind?

I did end up bringing my man to Memorial Day. He and my grandfather shook hands, chatted, and were friendly.

This is awesome! I thought.

Weeks later, my grandfather took me aside and said, “You should be with a nice white businessman. Your friend should be with one of those beautiful dark girls from Ebony magazine.”

I’m not sure why a businessman, but otherwise, I followed my grandfather’s logic pretty well: my “friend” and I didn’t match, and so while he would never say an unkind word to my man’s face, he would always silently disapprove of his relationship with me.