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Is there a test for 'privilege' and do you care?

Tal Fortgang
Tal FortgangCourtesy Richard Perry, New York Times

I’m not sure how this escaped my attention for so long. It is a “privilege” test that was posted at BuzzFeed on April 10. It consists of 100 statements, the first five of which follow:

  1. I am white.
  2. I have never been discriminated against because of my skin color.
  3. I have never been the only person of my race in a room.
  4. I have never been mocked for my accent.
  5. I have never been told I am attractive “for my race.”

You check off the statements that apply to you, and your score is automatically computed.

I didn't bother to take the test, because, as a white male of the species, I am certain I would have flunked, at least according to the test maker's calculus. I did go to the bottom of the page to examine the score of someone who checked off none of the statements, which seems to lend credence to my assumption:

You’re underprivileged. The world is not a fair or ideal place and you know that because you grew up with several identities that the world is not kind to. You had a lot of challenges to overcome simply to get on a level playing field with most people in the world. It is not your job to educate the world about its injustices, but if you choose to, go ahead and send them this quiz. Hopefully it will help.

I was directed to the BuzzFeed link by an article at the New Republic, which advises that the phrase “check your privilege … has become a weapon rather than a reminder.” The article, by one Julia Fisher, begins thus:

My freshman year in high school, the administration's diversity czars lined my whole class across the gym and read a series of statements, each accompanied by a command to step forward or backward. “If you are white, take two steps forward.” “If your parents went to college, take one step forward.” “If you are gay, take two steps back.” Before long, we were sorted according to our supposed privilege—and I'm pretty sure all of us, from the children of real estate moguls up front to the mostly black financial aid students in the rear, felt awful about where we stood.

Julia is 9 years older, she reveals, but clearly no wiser. The damage inflicted on her by this noxious and misguided experiment in “social justice” has apparently stayed with her and assumed an unwarranted importance for her. As an example of how important it has become, she trains her critical faculties on a careful analysis of the opposing view. Its author, Tal Fortgang, a student at Princeton (class of 2017), penned an article titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” in The Princeton Tory, a conservative publication. He writes:

The phrase [check your privilege], handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But 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….

Written like a true freshman! I am referring to the diction and style. The content, and level of introspection it reveals, are admirable for someone of Fortgang’s tender years.

Julia Fisher was not the first commentator to notice Fortgang’s article. It caught the attention of the New York Times, as she tells us, whose writers, Marc Santora and Gabriel Fisher, observed that the piece “touched a nerve”:

[Fortgang] 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.

Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but here is where the privilege shibboleth falls apart. Tal Fortgang told the Times, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” And though Julia Fisher accepts the possibility he might be making a truthful, informed self-assessment (“anyone,” she writes, “should be able to participate in a conversation about racism without being discounted or silenced on account of race”), she spends so much of her lengthy post tiptoeing around this “sensitive” topic that you’re not really sure where she stands.

She acknowledges at the end that there “a basic disagreement over the weight of identity in determining a person’s role in social discourse.” What she doesn’t articulate is who gets to make that decision and on what basis? Wherein lies the whole problem with privilege. It is a liberal invention, used by adherents to the cause — especially those who are white and guilty — for purposes of self-flagellation. Why they would imagine conservatives would want to play along is hard to fathom.

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