What is privilege?
Privilege is any right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person or group beyond the advantages
of most. At TJLP, we think of privilege as an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over
marginalized groups. For example, since transgender people are not included in the dominant group,
non-transgender people often have many privileges – rights, benefits, immunities – that transgender
people don’t have including legal rights, social acceptance and understanding, gender-affirming
medical treatment, bathroom access, family support, etc. A key aspect of privilege is that, due to its
unearned nature, those who have privilege often do not realize they have it. In other words, they
don’t see the access and opportunity being a member of a dominant group affords them. This is why,
as organizers and activists fighting for liberation, it is essential that we learn how to recognize our
privileges and check how our unearned advantages play into the work we do.
Don’t we all remember our mothers telling us. “Don’t waste your food, there are people starving in Biafra. Eat those vegetables!” . To have all we needed was a blessing. Our mother, when growing up, often went hungry, but for us? All we could eat. We were privileged.
Somehow I don’t think that those saying “check your privilege” at colleges and universities have the same definition as I. After reading Tal Fortgang’s “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” and Julia Fisher’s ” Check Your Usage of “Check Your Privilege” :The phrase has become a weapon rather than a reminder” I am sure that those who use privilege as an admonition are not interested in people eating their vegetables. That is, of course, unless it prevents them from voicing an opinion.
When I was in university at Hebrew U, we didn’t have much of that. Maybe once, when in an economics class the conversation strayed to something actually connected to the real world and the topic of tuition arose. As a new immigrant who received a full tuition from the State, I was ruled as ineligible to voice my opinion. Didn’t help that I anticipated the issue arising three years previous to that when I was inducted to serve a full term in the IDF. When the time came I was speechless. I checked my privilege and found myself wanting. I was embarrassed for what I had and others did not.
The Tanach is full of examples of how the privileged can “even the playing field” through charity and other good acts. Moses, a privileged boy raised in Pharaoh’s house gave it all away to become the shepherd of Israel. Boaz , and no snickering here, redeemed Elimelech’s property, marrying Ruth to continue the line of Elimelech at the same time in the process. Examples of chesed or acts of kindness abound and mitzvot of caring for the disadvantaged and providing for the poor are an underlying basis of the Jewish faith. From modeh ani when we awake to the Shema before we go to sleep, Jews are constantly “checking” their “privilege, constantly being made to be aware that what we have is a gift and that we are commanded to share it with others.
Empathy and charity aside, there are times and places where privilege, or the lack there of have no weight. The Torah states: “Do not do injustice in judgement; do not show favor (lit. lift up the face of) the poor nor show honor to the face of the rich; you should judge your neighbor justly / righteously” (Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:15 ) . There is a real danger that a compassionate judge could , out of mercy or even populist intentions, favor the poor over the wealthy. Another place where privilege has no weight is in the Gemara where what the sages say is what matters and not who they are and what their backgrounds are. Think Rabbi Akiva, born destitute and ignorant, he began studying at the age of 40 and became a light to the Jewish People. Think of the sages , Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, and Rabbi Tarphon. Each had a different background, but what mattered was what they knew and not who they knew.
I would suggest then that when entering an university classroom that everyone check their privilege or lack of privilege at the door. Experiences are important and enrich any debate but what matters are the facts and the logic. If someone remonstrates a student and tells him to “check his privilege” chances are that it is in order to cover for poor logic, dogmatism and hypocrisy. It is a sign that someone is afraid that in the bidding of ideas that they are holding a weak hand. In that case, call their bluff and present your argument.
I have no idea who Tal Fortgang is, but I am sure that he will continue to learn, will continue to stand on his opinions, and will keep fighting for his right to say them . In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it is said that learning is not for the shy. To get to Princeton is indeed a privilege, to waste the opportunity you would have to be a turnip.