The great minds of American academia have gotten together and have decided that their students are suffering from a lack of guilt. Not a lack of knowledge, not a lack of social skills, not an absence of hard work... no, American students, especially the white ones, do not feel sufficiently guilty.
As these students prepare to compete against their peers from the rest of the world, their teachers, especially their humanities teachers want them to understand that their advantages in life derive largely from the fact that they have white skin.
Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang provoked the most recent debate when he wrote about being told to check his privilege, that is, to recognize that he has gained so many advantages for being white that he cannot properly feel the pain of those whose skin color has consigned them to the ranks of the underprivileged.
Kat Stoeffel explains it in New York Magazine:
Privilege — a catchall term for the perks an individual enjoys in society because of his race, gender, or class — has been used to analyze social inequality for decades. It’s also enjoying something of a moment, thanks to social-justice bloggers and their critics, like Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang. In a viral article for the conservative Princeton Tory, Fortgang wrote that calls to “check his privilege” — that is, to consider how his good fortune might impair his ability to empathize with others in any given debate — “threaten to strike down opinions without regard for their merits” and “solely on the basis of the person that voiced them.” Being told to check his privilege is not overt reverse racism, Fortgang admitted, but it “toes the line.”
Mody has some sympathy for Fortgang and his ilk. “If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot,” she says. “Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity.”
Maybe they don’t deserve it… whatever does that mean? Is there an affirmative action program for white students, the ones who are not as talented as they think they are, but who keep getting promoted because of their race?
Does any of this make any sense at all?
For reasons that escape me the guilt trip seems especially to target white students. Better yet, it targets Jewish students like Fortgang.
What about the Asian students? What about the children of the Tiger Moms? When white students and Asian compete for college admissions, it turns out that the children of color, the Asian children, usually do much better.
Is that a function of privilege? Or is it about hard work? If these students do better at tests does that mean that they have enjoyed certain privileges that have accrued to them because they are Chinese or Korean? Or is it because their parents forced them to study all the time?
Ought they to feel overprivileged because they needed to have higher test scores and a higher GPA to get admitted to college? If Asian students outperform minority students, ought they to check their privilege, thus, to do worse on their exams because their success makes other students feel bad.
Should these students feel guilty for the success they have earned? Should they feel more empathy for those students who did not have Tiger Moms?
In a competition, feeling empathy for your competitor is guaranteed to undermine your performance. Should you be willing to pay this price in order to make other students feel good about themselves? If so, you will be saying that they cannot achieve on their own, that they cannot succeed through their own work, but that you are willing to condescend to them by feeling their pain.
If your parents worked hard to provide you with certain advantages, with certain privileges, and if people are even inclined to think well of you because they think well of them, do you not deserve the benefits that accrue to you. Not because of what you did but because of what your parents and grandparents earned, achieved and built.
Effectively, Tal Fortgang, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, explains that his grandparents and parents earned what they have. He refuses to feel guilty about it. They earned it because they wanted to give him certain advantages in life. Ought they not to be allowed to pass on the benefits that accrue from their hard work to their children? Or should they pass it on while guilt tripping their son for not having earned it himself?
Very few of the commentaries on Fortgang’s essay make mention of the fact that he is Jewish? And yet, if the white privilege guilt trip does not aim at Asians, does it aim at Jews and WASPs? Does it assume that Jews and WASPs exert undue influence on the world because they have cheated their way to the top?
Does checking your privilege mean repudiating your upbringing? Does it mean failing to appreciate the advantages that your parents, by their hard work provided for you and to feel guilty because their successes—in the zero-sum world of the guilt trippers—could only have occurred at the expense of someone else?
None of the guilt mongers in the white privilege movement seems to care about the fact that some people have privileges and advantages because they earn them or because their families or even communities built something. What does it mean to check your privilege in that context: to feel badly that others did not achieve the same success?
If you do, then you are diminishing yourself, disrespecting what your family provided for you and condescending to those whose families provided less.
Fortgang understands well the basis of the white privilege guilt trip:
Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
At a time when China is ascending, when the Western world, trapped in a self-defeating ideology seems to be floundering, the white privilege guilt trip can only accelerate the process.
Since this guilt trip has been running wild in America since the time of the Vietnam counterculture—I noted it in my book Saving Face-- it makes sense to say that it is the problem, not the solution.