Becoming White in the U.S.

by Sinthujan Varatharajah

Tal Fortgang’s essay, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege”, published in the conservative Princeton Tory and later picked up by TIME, Fox News, NYT, CBS News and various other media outfits caused a real online stir. In his piece, the 19-year-old decries the usage of the phrase “check your privilege” as a means to acknowledge the structural inequalities which come about as a result of white supremacy. Fortgang argues that he holds no privilege by being a white male due to his Ashkenazi Jewish heritage which links him over two generations to the Holocaust. Fortgang was later invited to appear on Fox News to share his views and reasons for writing this piece on live television. Some of his predominantly white conservative advocates describe the Princeton freshman as courageous or brave. Some even call him a hero. That’s bizarre some would say, and I agree. But is it really surprising?

‘Diversity is a wonderful thing’

Little more than a year ago, then Pittsburgh senior high school student, Suzy Lee Weiss, had her op-ed, “To (All) the Colleges that rejected me”1, published in the conservative Wall Street Journal. Weiss, who despite a high SAT score had failed to gain admission to Ivy League colleges, argued that she would have gained admission to her preferential schools had she been a member of a racial minority. Weiss effectively criticized diversity regulations in place in college admission processes. Both Fortgang and Weiss assume that meritocracy is undermined in practice and discourse by both  institutional and rhetoric devices which seek to challenge institutional inequalities with regards to race and gender. Similar to Fortgang, Weiss was, following the publication of her open letter in the WSJ, called brave and dubbed a hero by a predominantly white audience spanning both younger and older generations. The letter was also widely shared and cited by mainstream and alternative print and social media, causing a polarising uproar that endured several days. The author was later invited to appear on NBC’s USA Today show where she described her writing as satirical (read: non-racist) adding, ‘Diversity, I think, is a wonderful thing.’ In other words, I’m not a racist.

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Unlike Fortgang, Weiss didn’t gain admission to Princeton University and was forced to pursue other colleges. Fortgang, on the other hand, is today a freshman at the elite Ivy League school and stepped, willingly or not, into the footsteps of Weiss’ questionable legacy with his recent article on (his lack of) white male privilege. In the essay, Fortgang clearly misunderstands what white male privilege means and how structural racism and sexism operate in the everyday. He frames himself, despite his economic, social (and racial) capital, as an underdog. TIME even republished the piece under the sensationalist title “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege”. Though the title may be an unflattering editorial pick, even this betrays an important misunderstanding of the concepts being discussed. By asking someone to check her/his privilege, no one is asking that person to apologize for their privilege – no one is responsible for the circumstance of their birth – rather the phrase seeks to bring reflective awareness by asking the individual to acknowledge how race, ethnicity, class, caste, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness can impact opportunity and welfare within a society. Fortgang, however, feels, as many other privileged groups, under attack when he is asked to check his privilege. The phrase appears to him, as to others, as a knock-out argument. It’s thus unsurprising that his essay reads as a defence which didn’t render him to check his own privilege but his family’s tragic past. This of course evokes sympathy, but how relevant is this history in order to understanding Fortgang’s own privilege as a white male?

Fortgang’s article clearly indicates a failure to understand whiteness and white supremacy. Maybe the real question that needs to be asked is when and how did Ashkenazi Jews become white? And what does it mean to be a white Jew in the U.S?  

Becoming white in the U.S.

Although Ashkenazi Jews are today understood and categorized as either white or Caucasian they were, as were Irish, Italians and other Southern and Eastern Europeans, not always considered white in the U.S. Instead, they were racialized and considered an inferior race from the mid-nineteenth century up until the very end of World War II. They were therefore subject to racist legislation, acts of discrimination and exclusion, including restrictions on the immigration of Jews. As race is a social construct, racial positions and perceptions/prejudices towards groups can shift over time and space in accordance with shifts in power relations. ‘Whiteness’ is a rhetoric device and a system which perpetuates power hegemony including and ejecting groups over different historical periods and territories. Ashkenazi Jews became white when white supremacy renegotiated its boundaries vis-à-vis people of colour during World War II to include them in the plethora of ‘white peoples’. Upon arrival in the U.S., the majority of Jewish refugees had to face the many burdens produced by American anti-Semitism whilst trying to build a life from scratch and coping with the trauma of genocide. However with time, anti-Semitism began to gradually move from the centres of American life and power into its margins in light of the rapid success of American Jews as well as the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. It was later no more racial difference that was determinant for WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant)-Ashkenazi Jewish relations but ethnic difference. Over the decades, Ashkenazi Jewish presence and cultures have become further mainstreamed rendering them almost invisible in that they are, to a great extent, no longer racialized.

Ashkenazi Jews, or white Jews, are today disproportionately present and represented in American culture and politics. This appears as particularly striking when compared to the country’s Native American, Black and Latino populations, which make up more than one third of the overall population but remain largely under-represented or completely missing in media and politics. Their marginality responds to the overall discrimination they continue to face with regards to social, cultural, economic and political arrangements. This doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in the U.S. any more. It clearly continues to exist in some quarters (even powerful ones) and Jewish communities of all streams, particularly Haredi (orthodox Jews), Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, continue to be affected by it. Secular Jews (especially Ashkenazi Jews), who compose the majority of America’s Jewish population (62% in 2013), however, remain, similar as to WASPS, for most parts of their lives racially invisible. They are neither targets of racial profiling or police violence nor are they over-represented in the U.S.’s prison industrial complex. They don’t experience structural inequalities and acts of racialization as do Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos and other minorities. They are furthermore positively represented, seen and heard in almost all social, cultural, economic and political spheres, which is instrumental in the production or erosion of stereotypes and prejudices.

Although Fortgang’s family were clearly excluded from whiteness in Nazi Europe and became the victims of Hilter’s white supremacist aspirations, the very same boundaries of whiteness in the U.S. have evolved to include the descendants of this persecuted group. Despite being part of a white minority in the U.S., Fortgang benefits, willingly or not, from the structures of white supremacy which positions groups identified as white against those considered non-white. Although Jews undertake different negotiations to WASPs, they still hold more privilege relative to, for instance, Latinos and this needs to be brought into reflective awareness. Whilst the tragic history of the Holocaust will have of course informed Fortgang and his family over generations and impacted questions of social and economic capital, the question we must ask is whether this heritage has had a detrimental effect on how institutions respond to Tal Fortgang in the U.S.? I would doubt that. His grandparent’s struggles as Jewish refugees in the U.S. need to be acknowledged. They are, however, not Fortgang’s struggles and accomplishments.

Missing voices in the media landscape

It’s not surprising that privileged groups often remain unaware of how they benefit from certain social arrangements; reacting angrily and aggressively when being made aware of these by third parties. Whiteness and maleness hardly ever come into question because the norm is created to fit them. And when they are challenged, they create awkward moments as presented by this essay. Fortgang fails to understand that checking one’s privilege is to create self-awareness of the privileges we all hold and how those continue to alter and shape our lives. The aim is not to make more privileged groups feel guilty for being white or to reinforce the ‘white man’s burden’. It is rather to render us aware that we live in an unequal world in which we need to be conscious of the advantages we carry around with us. Fortgang, however, reacted in defence with little reflection. And so did the U.S. media.

Neither Fortgang or Weiss seem to be cognizant of how their privilege is best exemplified by being published, cited, shared and invited to TV shows across the States. In an age where editorial boards of mainstream print, online and broadcast media remain largely male and white, the issue is heightened by the institutional absence and silence of voices of people of colour, especially women of colour. Would the issue have been picked up was it written from a different perspective, for instance, one that would critique white supremacy and had the discussion been initiated by a woman of colour? I’m sure it wouldn’t have. It would have been found in anti-racist and feminist blogs or ‘alternative’ online media. As recently revealed in the Gawker, Fortgang’s piece was made possible by a conservative group that “bankrolls and grooms college kids for right-wing leadership” whereas Weiss’s sister was an intern at the WJS at the time of the publication of her open letter in the paper. Both benefited from institutional support and networks, which have traditionally been the domain of white men. Neither seems to understand that their privilege is, and unfortunately remains to be, the privilege to find mainstream spaces of articulation and representation. To be listened to without being patronized and questioned on their intelligence or intentions – as was writer and activist Suey Park most recently on HuffPost Live (non-mainstream, non-cable television) when publicly critiquing white supremacy in the form of liberal racism wrapped as satire in the Colbert Show. Unfortunately, diversity is only a wonderful thing as long as it doesn’t critique the pillars of white supremacy.

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Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD student in Political Geography at UCL, University of London, and holds a Masters degree in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the LSE. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Roots of Diaspora, a narrative project on refugeehood and migration of Tamils from Sri Lanka. Follow him on Twitter at @varathas and Roots of Diaspora at @rootsofdiaspora as well as on Facebook  or their forthcoming website: www.rootsofdiaspora.com

This piece was copy-edited by Henna Butt

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3 replies

  1. “Would the issue have been picked up was it written from a different perspective, for instance, one that would critique white supremacy and had the discussion been initiated by a woman of colour?”

    Possibly, but in the unlikely even that it attracted the same amount of attention, it was would not have been characterized as critique, but as “whining”, “moaning”, “bitching”, “political correctness gone mad”, “playing the race card”, “looking for victim status”, “unnecessary and divisive”, ad nauseam…

    Because as we all know, it’s never ever about race. Unless it’s a white girl who can’t get into Princeton. Then it’s totally about race.

    And as we all know, all this furor over race is just hyper-sensitive people looking for reasons to get offended. Unless it’s a white man who thinks the phrase “check your privilege” is super mean. Then it’s heroic.

    Like

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