Check Your Privilege: The White Male Discussion?



Check Your Privilege: The White Male Discussion

How Universal Human Experiences of Victimhood and Guilt Lie Behind Seemingly Opposing Points of View

I was disappointed by that Time article by a Jewish college Freshman named Tal Fortgang who didn’t like being told to “check his privilege,” but I was just as disappointed by the way the black graduate student, Dexter Thomas, responded on Medium.

I was disappointed because I think they both have valid points that are being missed by each other. I want a deeper discussion that includes more perspectives, for greater truth. I want to discuss the universal feelings of victimhood and guilt that unite both of them—and all of us—in suffering as human beings.

I feel a responsibility to elevate the conversation, despite my uncertainty as to whether or not my response will be eloquent, readable, or popular enough to be heard in the crowd. I trust the nervous tickle I feel in my belly writing this, and I believe that great advancements of evolution come from discomfort—creativity emerging where the old advances into the unknown.

My privilege: I am an educated white male. I am also an American of the 21st century. I can sit at a computer, read, write, drink coffee with clean water, eat enough calories, take medicine for a cold (instead of being killed by it), and stop to take a break at a toilet with running water. These luxuries never existed for most humans, and even now only a fraction of the planet enjoys them.

When I contemplate the incredibly opportunities I inherited, I feel an intense pressure to help all people experience the same comfort, opportunity and pursuit of peace I have been gifted. [1] And I like this desire, even though some of it stems from guilt. I believe this is a good place to find common ground for myself, Fortgang, Thomas, and their relative supporters.

First let me tease out the variety of perspectives I see in their arguments; what nuggets of relative truth they missed in their feelings of being victimized by the other’s point of view. Because not everyone who says “check your privilege” does so for the same reasons. I imagine there are at least two common motivations. [2]

  1. The Postmodern Motivation: Culture biases do generate inequality (and ignoring this perpetuates injustice)

Certain cultural and psychological biases have created real, physical, measurable systems that help certain people more than others, even when all other factors are equal.

So for example, let us say a light skin color Jew and a dark skin color Jew both escaped horrors of the Holocaust and came to the United States of America. They work equally hard, equally long, and are equally intelligent and friendly. The light skinned Jew will be branded as “white” and treated differently, even if only by a few people, than the “black,” one. Their skin color and the corresponding cultural and systemic biases will make success and upward mobility easier for the white Jew. (The same would be true for male and female.)

This is the point Fortgang, the author of the Time article, was missing. He falsely attributesall of his success to personal merits and does not giving enough credit for the unique benefits he receives as a result of these systemic factors outside of his control. Therefore he also does nothing to address these systems and unconsciously perpetuates unfairness. (Please note that I am not promoting a political agenda: agreeing to this idea that racial privilege exists does not tell us what to do with it).

It is also the point I wish the Medium author, Thomas, explained in a less condescending way. Instead he mostly put down the author’s character, style, and intelligence (turns out he regrets that technique too, and I admire him for both acknowledging the effect of that and encouraging people to think for themselves).

  1. The Shaming Motivation: You Didn’t Earn What You Have So Don’t Brag About It

The second motivation is more insidious. Annoyed at a person’s success and/or bragging, people say “check your privilege” to diminish their own feelings of insecurity for not having achieved similar or greater success. If they guilt the braggart into shutting up, they will not have to face their pain. If his success is a result of inequality, it is not their fault that they have not achieved what they want to.

Yet assuming all white people are one way or another is the same problematic heuristic used to oppress colored people and assume they are all the same. [3] Ironically, the same thing the “check your privilege” people are trying to get Fortnang to see is happening to the unprivileged.

He is justifiably annoyed at being stereotyped. He is frustrated at being told that he did not earn his achievements, and he feels unfairly judged. It is a bit unfair. In effect, Fortgang should act a certain way just because he is white.

Yet, to reiterate the postmodern motivation, he does not recognize that the very thing he rebels against (stereotyping) is what creates the systems of oppression he fails to recognize. And as a result he misses the common ground: people saying “check your privilege” to diminish insecurity are suffering the same feelings of being victimized that he lashes out against.

[Author’s note: If “check your privilege” is intended to induce guilt, I decry it. I do not think that guilt is very useful in affecting change. I believe our energy is much better directed at building justice and equality than making people feel bad about themselves, especially when they inherited the inequalities without any choice of their own.]

If this is all getting a bit confusing and complex, I am accomplishing my goal. These are complex topics and they deserve contemplation and thoughtful discussion. These are paradoxical truths to hold, and deep human psychological patterns at play.

We see the authors, including this one, feeling like victims. Deep beneath this feeling is the perennial question of theodicy: why is there evil in the world? Why is there unfairness? And what can we do about it?

In the discussion of privilege, we see the dynamics of projection—when it seems easier to outsource the intensity of feelings and responsibilities than to deal with them ourselves. Perhaps I would get more page views, shares and retweets if I simply attacked both authors instead of  exploring my own insecurities, fears, and guilt; instead of wondering what my reactions to these writings say about me, as if both authors were simply dream characters in my own dream, reflecting my own unconscious battles.

When I do check my reactions, I see that I have work to do—until I can respond to each of these points of view with the legendary Love of God, like the Dalai Llama or Nelson Mandela or a historical Saint, I can continue to grow and peel away layers of my ego, undoing attachment and habituation.

Yet I also see cause to celebrate. I could have gotten caught up in either point of view and responded to other with righteous indignation, asserting the absolute truth of one position and the absolute idiocy of the other. Yet I choose to see that they are both somewhat right and somewhat partial, and I think this is a marker of progress. I could have stayed silent, or kept my thoughts just to a few close friends. I may receive a lot of flak, or I may receive silence, but I can celebrate my own willingness to speak out in a way which I value.

And I imagine that this idea of having work to do and celebrating what is could be extended to the world at large. These articles show us all that we certainly have work to do, in our actions, our mindsets, the way we converse and especially the systems which unconsciously reward certain types of people more than others in ways that do not serve the whole.

Yet they also give us a reason to celebrate. We are having these discussions, and while I want them to go deeper, they are a hell of a lot deeper than the discussions we were having fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago. We have a long way to go, and we have to keep moving, yet we deserve to work with a smile and a sense of pride at how far we have come.


[1] While still questioning the origin of this desire to “make a better world,” and its often secret hedge against mortality and the ego’s meaninglessness.

[2] In Integral terminology, the first is the green / pluralist thinker who astutely recognizes the collective quadrants (LL and LR), which the orange / achiever Time author seems to ignore. The second utilizes the phrase “check your privilege” in an amber / conformist way to shame the braggart, place them in a particular group which they may or may not belong to in reality, and generally fails to acknowledge the true merits of their individual character.

[3] In Integral philosophy you can see this as reducing the individual interior (UL) to the collective (LL) instead of honoring their mutual arising.

Image: Some rights reserved by Richard Gillin

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About Jordan
Jordan Myska Allen is a lover of life, entrepreneur, Course in Miracles student, happy person, deep thinker, friend, Integral aficionado and constantly questioning everything he identifies with—and might put into a biography. He acts as a psychological, spiritual, and professional consultant, writes about how to be happy for, and practices applied integral thinking.

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