Opinion
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Keep checking your privilege

The accomplishments of wealthy Princeton men are real, but so are centuries of discrimination in America

May 7, 2014 1:15AM ET

Dear Tal,

Call me Benji. I’m a senior at Columbia University, and I just read your piece about the agonies of being asked by your Ivy League classmates to “check your privilege.” In your eyes, such a dismissive retort obscures the fact that “behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.”

You claim that “check your privilege” is meant as an insult — that it implies “nothing you have accomplished is real.” I’m writing this response because I think you’ve overreacted.

In your essay, you speak for a significant minority of Americans, to which I belong as well. Our stories are rather similar in that they involve struggle and subsequent triumph. Your grandparents escaped the Holocaust, came to this country and started, in your words, “a humble wicker basket business.” Your father graduated from City College, got into grad school and for 25 years woke up “at the crack of dawn” to provide for your family.

My grandfather was poor too. He grew up in a tiny town in Chile. In order to attend fourth grade, he would have had to take the bus every morning to the next town over, but he didn’t have the money for the fare, so he repeated third grade, then dropped out. He spent his life as a leatherworker. He was a proud man but always wanted better for his children. My mother came to this country to attend graduate school, where she met my father, who was born to a wealthier family in Peru. For the past two decades, she has worked as an economist for the Pan-American Health Organization in Washington, D.C. After a difficult divorce shortly after my birth (some 15 years after my parents’ marriage), she raised my two older siblings and me as a single mother. 

Worth and achievements

Like you, Tal, I want to succeed in life in large part because I don’t want to squander the hard work of my forebears. So I can understand why it might offend you when someone says, “Hey, check your privilege.” That phrase has a bite to it. It ascribes to you a narrative that you don’t think quite fits. You take “privilege” as a sort of slur; by assigning you membership in a disdained social group, the word obscures your individual worth and achievements. I totally get it.

Still, you should know that in this country, people with darker complexions than yours have had far more abusive and misleading labels pinned on them for centuries. Fifty years ago, any black man could have been called “boy” (or worse) multiple times a day — no matter how old or wise or talented or accomplished he might have been. And he would have no other option than to simply shut up and take it. Day in and day out, such names were used to put people of color in their place, to constantly remind them that the supposed meritocracy was not interested in witnessing their efforts to advance. When name-calling didn’t do the trick, the option of lynching provided a rather reliable backup plan.

I do not imagine that upon arriving in America, your grandparents had to put up with this level of social domination and personal emasculation. The mid–20th century American melting pot was more welcoming to them than it was to more than 12 million of its native sons and daughters. Your grandfather’s fair skin probably let him blend in fairly quickly. He kept his head down, worked hard, made money and passed it along to his children. Your grandfather may have escaped Hitler and found safety and prosperity here, and I’m glad for it, but consider that less than two generations ago, no person of color in the United States could even hope to escape the horrors of Jim Crow while remaining on home soil. For these people, the American Dream was a joke, and a terrible one at that. 

The equal protection clause might be safely inscribed in books, but on the streets, in boardrooms, in banks and locker rooms and classrooms all over the country, millions of Americans face the challenge of breathing life into the 14th Amendment.

You write that ours is “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.” This is true — in theory. But if it were the case in practice, your position on your privilege might be more coherent. The equal protection clause might be safely inscribed in books, but on the streets, in boardrooms, in banks and locker rooms and classrooms all over the country, millions of Americans every day face the challenge of breathing life into the lofty language of the 14th amendment. And all too often, we fail to accomplish this task.

W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote in 1903 that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. You probably learned in AP U.S. history that racism ended the moment Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s simply not true. The Second Reconstruction may have done much to erase the color line from judicially sanctioned social practices. But that line continues to linger right under our noses every day, from job interviews and loan applications down to the most mundane interactions in my neighborhood. And yes, in college admissions too. Face it, Tal, other things being equal, it is generally easier to make a positive impression on someone in a position of power when your skin isn’t so dark.

But back to the issue of checking your privilege. My main question for you is this: What did you say to provoke this statement? To be charged with privilege is, typically, to be accused of closed-mindedness, of an inability to transcend the safety of one’s advantageously conditioned point of view. And by subsequently announcing to the world your ironclad unwillingness to ever, ever apologize for the statements you make, I’m afraid you are not the sort of citizen that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in his famous speech to which your piece alludes. You might be articulate, but, frankly, you sound petulant. Your level of intellectual sophistication is barely adolescent. Next time someone tells you to check your privilege, don’t take it so personally. Deal with it. Let those words prompt some introspection. Try to better understand your position in American society, and try to be a more empathetic human being. 

Character building

You also say in your essay that your parents instilled in you certain key values that you hold dear. The same goes for me. Among these are humility, empathy, gratitude and forgiveness. From reading your essay, it appears to me that we have different values. Sorry to break it to you, but getting into Princeton says relatively little about the “content of your character,” as you put it. Same goes for my getting into Columbia. The college application process may have led you to believe that admissions officers really are the greatest judges of character in our society. But that’s not necessarily true. Your achievements — all 19 years’ worth — don’t say as much about your personal qualities as you’d like to believe. If the goal of your education is to appear as if you’ve made it, then I’m afraid your parents’ investment is a lousy one. You’ve blindly fallen into an enticing and immoral trap: the quintessentially American games of money making and status hoarding.   

Let me reiterate that I understand where you’re coming from. Believe it or not, behind my brown features and hippie-length hair is a truly privileged upbringing. Like you, I was fortunate to attend a small private high school. I am a graduate of the Washington International School in D.C., where I earned a bilingual international baccalaureate degree. For a graduating class of 65 students, my school had two full-time college counselors. Every single student in my grade went to a four-year college after graduation. Almost all my classmates are about to graduate again this year. If that’s not a sign of my privilege, I don’t know what is. 

Like your grandfather, I’ve tried to master the art of blending in. Whereas your grandfather’s white skin enabled him to assimilate, my flexible persona has entirely been made possible by the resources provided to me by my family and my school.

Meanwhile, according to Facebook, you attended SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. Similar to my school, SAR charges tuition of $30,000 to $45,000 a year, and the average class size is 20. So it seems to me that you and I have had similarly rarefied and personalized educational experiences. For that we should be grateful. Most kids in this country — let alone any country — simply don’t get that chance. In the U.S., the great majority of these kids are black and brown.

Play it down

I will admit here that my appearance makes it easy for me to hide my privilege, to play it up or down at will, depending on the situation in which I find myself. For this I am also grateful. Like you, I can impress tenured professors by using fancy words like “Weltanschauung” in formal academic settings. But unlike you, I can also walk down to 125th St. and get my hair cut in a black barbershop without receiving a second look.

If you read a little Ralph Ellison or James Weldon Johnson, you’ll realize that American life has always been about wearing masks. Like your grandfather, I’ve tried to master the art of blending in. Whereas your grandfather’s white skin enabled him to assimilate, my flexible persona has entirely been made possible by the resources provided to me by my family and my school and the fact that almost never in my childhood did I feel myself the victim of explicit racism. I humbly take this fact as a sign of the slightest progress of Western civilization in the 21st century. Knowing how unusual my story is, however, I also take it as unassailable evidence of my privilege.

Tal, I’m sorry that in this day and age, white has gone a little out of style. The color of your skin makes it more difficult for you to publicly display your  narrative of struggle and perseverance, and I’m sure that must be tough. But please do your best to understand what your capricious complaints reveal about the deeply entrenched racism and classism that we live with today. Aside from the occasional “check your privilege,” you’ll hardly have to suffer for it, so long as the color line continues to stain our social fabric. A lot of people would love to have privilege to check; after all, privilege is a circumstance, not a sin. Let this knowledge guide your interactions with others, and I guarantee you’ll have less to check in the future.

Sincerely,

Benji

Benjamin de la Piedra is a proud native of Washington, D.C. He will graduate from Columbia University with a B.A. in American studies in May 2014. In the fall he will be back at Columbia, working toward an M.A. in oral history. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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