The funny thing is that I was thinking about how to explain privilege the other day, and I wrote this without any particular incident in mind, figuring to myself: “Give it time; eventually SOMEONE is going to act like a jackass in public and make this piece topical.”
And lo, the universe gave me Tal Fortgang.
So, let’s talk about the nature of “privilege” in a social context, and how it works. I’m not here to talk about privilege in the literal sense, which is a set of “private laws” that some people get to be subject to instead of the regular laws (that’s a real thing, but it’s not what I’m getting into here), and it’s not what we typically mean in the metaphorical sense, “privilege” as in “a child of privilege” – “I grew up wealthy and isolated from harm, like Gautama Siddhartha before he encountered the Four Signs” kind of privilege. That’s ALSO a real thing, but when people say “white privilege” or “male privilege” or something like that, that’s not what they mean.
I am going to try and elaborate how this works in order to avoid confusion. If you run into a Tal Fortgang in your life – i.e., “Oh, I have privilege, huh? Well did you know I was POOR?” – please send them here, I am providing it as a public service announcement.
Here is how to understand privilege. You nerds like Dungeons and Dragons, right?
Imagine that in life you have a bunch of different attributes. You’ve got “race,” and the higher your “race” score the more closely you resemble whatever the dominant or ideal ethnotype in your culture is. Here in America, that is white. Did you grow up in America? Your race attribute scores basically how white you are.
Similarly, you’ve got a “class” attribute, this scores how rich you are. You’ve got a “sexuality” attribute, which scores how close you are to the preferred dominant sexuality (in America, straight), you’ve got a gender attribute which scores how closely you resemble the preferred dominant gender (in America, male/cis; debatably, the “cis” question could also be applied to sexuality, as you’ll see).
All of these attributes give you saving throws versus certain kinds of getting fucked. Not all kinds, obviously; in the human world, and America especially, there are a lot of ways that you can get fucked. And sometimes they are interchangeable and sometimes they aren’t – because some ways of getting fucked are more discriminate than others.
Anyway, each of these attributes gives you a bonus to certain saves. Your race score gives you a bonus to save versus “people thinking you’re some kind of barbarian.” Your sexuality score gives you a bonus to save versus “people thinking you are a pervert.” Your class score gives you a bonus to save versus “people thinking you are an untrustworthy parasite.”
Let’s say you get in a fight on the street, and the cops show up. You roll your save; are you white? Congratulations, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “the cops automatically assume you’re a criminal.” Are you black? Uh oh. Let’s say they arrest you and take you to court. Are you rich? Congratulations, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “being considered a lying sponge.”
Let’s say you have a job and you want to talk to your boss about something. Are you a dude? Congratulations, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “not being taken seriously.” Did everyone find out that you’re gay? Uh oh; you’re going to be missing your +5 to save versus “people feeling weird sitting next to you in the lunch room.”
A lot of times assholes will come around and say, “yeah, but what about POOR people?”, like that is supposed to obviate all questions of privilege, but you can see how that’s stupid. You come from a poor community, that sucks; none of you get the +5 bonus to save versus “having your rivers filled up with coal ash.” But if you’re white and your daughter gets kidnapped, guess what? When you roll to see if the media will publicize the story and maybe help get her back, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “nobody giving a shit.”
Can shitty things happen to you, even because you’re white? Sure. Let’s say you’re walking down the city street, and the Dungeon Master of your life rolls the 1% chance that you’re going to run into a group of Nation of Yahweh Black Supremacists, and they’re in a really bad mood. Their special power is that they SUBTRACT your racial saving through versus “getting the shit kicked out of you”, and as a white guy, you’re in trouble.
Good news, though; when the cops show up and you explain what happened, you get your +5 to save versus “just getting thrown in the clink with the rest of them” back. Of course, you can still fail the roll, and that’s a bad scene. Also, because you’re American and this is just how we do it, you typically get to use the LOWER of your two rolls – the cops show up after your fight with the Nation of Yahweh and sure, you’re white, but you’re also transgendered? Too bad, sucker – got to use whichever bonus is shittier, because the goal here is to see more people get fucked.
There’s also a lot of shitty things in life that these saves don’t help against. Let’s say your parents are abusive assholes. No save against that! Tough shit, guys. Except then you go to school and you’re clearly having a hard time. Are you white? Congratulations, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “the teacher assuming you’re just a criminal delinquent and throwing you in remedial English.” Are you upper middle class? Good news, you get a +5 bonus to save versus “not having access to sufficient mental health resources.”
Of course, privilege can be shitty even if you have it. Let’s say you’ve got abusive parents, and you’re having a hard time in school; are you a guy? Bad news; you’ve got a +5 bonus to save versus “people assuming you can’t handle your problems.” That’ll make it tough to get the help that you need, but don’t blame me, man, I think we should scrap the whole system, anyway.
The thing is, these saves aren’t exactly what privilege is. What privilege actually is is this: if you’re a character in the game, you don’t know that these rolls are happening. You only find out that you’re making a saving throw if you FAIL. If you keep making your saves, you might never realize that these are even problems.
That’s right – it’s possible to go through your entire life without even realizing that every time you talk to a cop, you’re actually making (and winning) a saving throw versus suspicion. I mean, it’s possible if you’re white; it’s harder to not find that out if you’re black.
Privilege is actually that lack of awareness – it is not the lack of facing challenges in your life, and it’s not even “never being subject to prejudice or discrimination.” Privilege is the basic lack of awareness that there are other, different challenges, faced by people who do not share your attributes, that you might not even have been aware of because you always successfully saved against them.
When someone tells you to “check your privilege” what they are NOT saying is: “You obviously grew up plump and wealthy and neither you nor your family has ever faced any kind of hardship in life.” What they are saying is: “You are not being cognizant of the different kinds of challenges faced by people who do not share your background, because the nature of systemic injustice is that you have successfully navigated these challenges without ever becoming aware of them.”
And that’s what makes Tal Fortgang such a perfect example of this kind of dunderheaded attitude. When people have challenged him to check his privilege, instead of trying to learn about what additional challenges a person might have encountered that he didn’t, he instead goes out to defend himself by listing all of his own failed saves, without even questioning the possibility that he might have made saves he wasn’t aware of.
“You need to be more aware of how the lives of other people are different from your own!”
“Oh yeah? Here’s a thousand words ABOUT MY OWN LIFE proving that I don’t!”
I don’t mean to sound racist or anything, but fucking white people, amirite?
(Incidentally, Dear Princeton University: If your goal as an institution is just to produce graduates who occupy relatively prestigious positions in society – doctors, lawyers, politicians, &c. – like some kind of trade school for wealthy shitheads, then Tal Fortgang was probably a great choice. If your goal was to produce human beings capable of a nuanced and complex understanding of the world around them, then you made a mistake with this guy, because he’s an idiot. It’s quite possible to be an idiot and a doctor or a lawyer or especially a politician, but the problem with being an idiot is that it makes you incapable of learning. You cannot come to comprehend the world if you’re convinced that you already understand it.)