All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


05 May 2014

To diminish or not to diminish -- thou must choose

There's been a little kerfuffle on the web lately about a phrase that's sometimes deployed on university campuses: "Check your privilege."  I've heard this phrase used, and I'm generally not terribly impressed either with its interpersonal tone (which is generally acrid), the way the phrase is used (which rings somewhat liturgical to my ear) or with the ideology typically informing its use (which strikes me as problematically grounded in notions of race that I find personally threatening as a minority in this country).

I also suspect that most of those who use the phrase are deliberately trading on the ambiguity in the word "check" -- really using the phrase in the peremptory and authoritarian fashion of "check your attitude at the door" but claiming, when pressed, that they are using the word "check" in the sense of "examine" or "interrogate".

The kerfuffle started with an indignant response to the use of the phrase by a Princeton student, a Mr. Tal Fortgang, who didn't appreciated being told to "check his privilege."  There's been a lot written about this piece on the web, so I won't add my voice to the chorus of praise and criticism.  (It is worthy of both, for very different reasons.)  But recently, two students at Columbia -- Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani -- have published their own response, in which they lament Mr. Fortgang's lack of awareness and sensibility.

 These two students make the argument one would expect: that "check your privilege" is a sort of interrogation of the power of whiteness in society.  The core of their response is the following:
His success, Fortgang argues, should not be diminished to a socially constructed narrative of white male privilege and ascribed to “some invisible patron saint of white maleness.” But what he fails to understand is that this “patron saint” of white maleness isn’t so invisible—historically, socially, and politically, institutions have protected and supported white men. Recognizing the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments. It’s meant to remind us that white men don’t have an inherent predilection for success—the odds have just been stacked in their favor.

Using the phrase "check your privilege", then, is supposed to be an invitation (or perhaps less charitably, a command) to "recognize the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built."

The purpose is, if we are to take Oduyemi and Guliani at their word, "to remind [Mr. Fortgang] that white men don't have an inherent predilection for success -- [that] the odds have just been stacked in their favor."  This position seems untenable to me.

First, it assumes that Mr. Fortgang needs reminding that white men don't have an inherent predilection for success.  But that hardly seems to be the case: it's fairly obvious that Mr. Fortgang is proud of his accomplishments (whatever they might be) on an individual level, and that if you asked him whether he was doing so well because he was white, he'd say no.  Indeed, the whole point of the phrase (again, if we take this position seriously) is to make Mr. Fortgang more aware of how his membership in a particular racial or ethnic group has influenced his accomplishments, and specifically to make him aware that it influenced it in a very particular way.  (One can imagine that Oduyemi and Guliani would be no less pleased were Mr. Fortgang to say that being white made his accomplishments more impressive.) 

Second, and more troubling, is the inherent tension between the claim that the phrase "is not meant to diminish his accomplishments" and the claim that the way in which Mr. Fortgang's membership in his particular racial or ethnic group has influenced his accomplishments is to have "stacked the odds in his favor".

You can't have it both ways.  You can either have the cake of good spirits and not diminish his accomplishments, or you can consume that cake and have the pleasure of reminding him that what he's done isn't really as good as he thinks it is, because the odds are stacked in his favor.

Because that's what it means to have the odds stacked in your favor: that the resulting endeavor is cheaper, easier, less impressive.  That's why so many people claim that a near-perfect SAT score from someone coming out of a prestigious institution like Lowell in San Francisco or Stuyvesant in New York is less impressive than the same score achieved by someone from a crime-ridden inner city school that no one has ever heard of.

Back in the day, before someone decided to abandon credibility, people who received extra time on the SAT had their scores marked as such.  The popular term for this was an "asterisk" though it's unlikely that it was actually an asterisk.  (Who knows, though?  Someone at the College Board knows.)   People say the same thing about sports records achieved under different conditions, whether the different conditions are different season lengths or the use of illicit performance-enhancing substances (indeed, the Maris asterisk is probably where the popular use of the phrase asterisk comes from).

It seems pretty clear to me that what the users of the phrase "check your privilege" really want to do is to append an asterisk to the accomplishments of those against whom the phrase is deployed.  But the argument against asterisks on SAT scores was that the asterisk really does diminish the accomplishment.  (Which, of course, is really the whole point of having it in the first place.)  Those who argued against the asterisk thought that those accomplishments didn't deserve to be diminished.

I don't mean to attack either Oduyemi or Guliani.  To riff on their theme, I don't really deserve any great credit for being able to philosophically assault an undergraduate newspaper column: the deck is "stacked in my favor".  But I think it's vitally important to make it perfectly clear that you cannot have it both ways: either you want Fortgang to feel less proud of his accomplishments, to understand that they have an asterisk next to them, or you don't want him to feel less proud of his accomplishments.

Thou must choose.

(As a side note, I use a prefix for Mr. Fortgang and not for the Columbia students simply because, while I'm not familiar with the typical association by sex of any of the three given names, Mr. Fortgang is the only one to have a picture included with his piece and so is the only one of whose sex I am certain.)

UPDATE: Apparently this got posted before it was finished, possibly under a different name.  I apologize for any confusion.