Why I’ll Always Apologize for My Privilege


Twitter was abuzz with banter yesterday concerning Time magazine’s re-post of a Princeton Tory diatribe by student Tal Fortgang, entitled Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.

I checked it out and quickly understood why. Tal begins,

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

After this less than promising start – something along the lines of starting a speech with the phrase, “let me tell you something else I know about the Negro…” – Fortgang shares the story of his Jewish grandparents who (just barely) survived the Holocaust before seeking refuge in the U.S. where they sacrificed greatly in order to provide a better life for future generations. And then Tal drops the bomb, adding,

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living…

That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are…

Yup. That’s what he said.

I know many probably think that Tal’s seeming failure to understand the obvious distortion of the dynamics of privilege he committed here should be chalked up to the fact that he’s just twenty. However, The Princeton Tory is a paper that means to cultivate right wing voices in political media, and this isn’t Tal’s first time at bat for them. The guy has an agenda.

So, I’m going there. Here’s where you failed, Tal. I get that your grandparents made great sacrifices in their lives. Mine did, too. I won’t get into the details, but they suffered and sacrificed, believe me. My grandmother immigrated under difficult circumstances only to find that she would spend most of her adult life working under a man carrying a whip. And that’s just when she was in the fields cutting cane. She also had seven children who needed to be clothed and fed, and a husband who expected dinner on the table on time, no excuses (which, by the way, she might tell you was a powerful, life-defining exercise of male privilege on the part of someone who spent his entire adult life in a labor camp).

But our families made those sacrifices to provide opportunity for us. Those opportunities were privileges they passed on to us that not everyone else has (if you check out the dictionary, you will find that the fact that some are excluded is part of what makes them privileges), and for reasons your story tries to obscure, I believe, intentionally.

The fact that many struggled to win the privileges we enjoy doesn’t make those privileges just and right. Privileges never are just and right in a truly democratic society. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’ve got on our hands, now, is it?

Others struggled as well, and against great odds, including the Middle Passage, peonage, slavery, a plague of lynching, Jim Crow, a horror of medical experimentation, and ordinary racism and discrimination, without yielding so much of a scant chance for their children. The difference in the yield on our grandparents’ investment in America that we’ve benefited by, compared with the benefit to African Americans of their grandparents’ labors three generations after slavery (which, by the way, went on for more than three generations) is like the difference between immigration and abduction, and let’s not forget that slaves and contract laborers like my grandmother worked land that was taken from others through genocidal conquest.

Our grandparents labored, but under a different set of circumstances and a different code of law than those of African Americans. But then, you know that. You also know that the worst experiences of mass persecution Jews and East Asians faced in the last century started to dissipate in the U.S. right about the time your grandparents immigrated here, and in no small part as a result of the war against fascism in Europe that ended the holocaust your grandparents survived. That’s not to suggest that anti-Asian racism and antisemitism aren’t a continuing part of our contemporary reality, but we’re not being targeted for state sanctioned persecution in the U.S. today. Check out some history classes at Princeton when  you get a chance, Tal. You might learn something.

But state imposed persecution and discrimination persisted for African Americans via Jim Crow and continues under  an unjust tough on crime regime and myriad other federal and state policies. And for Native Americans, whose posterity, for many, is dependent on the chances they can create on what started out as concentration camps, mass persecution is also a continuing reality. But you’re hoping the story of your grandparents’ noble sacrifice will obscure all of that.

I’ve worked very hard to create the opportunities I’ve had. Along the way, I had to sacrifice a lot – living in warehouse squats, skipping meals, forgoing dental care for almost 20 years, and winging it without medical insurance or the benefit of being able to see a doctor when I was sick for about ten – but the benefit associated with every sacrifice I’ve made was amplified by the privileges my elders won for me. That’s why I acknowledge those privileges. My family struggled on my behalf. They didn’t come cheap.

Given all that your family went through, I’d think you would want to do that, too. But what you’ve done here does nothing to honor the price our immigrant grandparents paid. In fact, it belittles it by turning it into a political weapon.

Nice try, but we aren’t buying it. Good luck with your future in political punditry.



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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

10 replies on “Why I’ll Always Apologize for My Privilege”

OMG OMG OMG! And I haven’t read the entire article yet; literally waiting for the wave of nausea that hit me when I read “came to America” to ease up a bit first; for, that split second “how it must feel to have ones family/ancestors suffer such gross atrocities, inhumane treatment at the hands of another only to be told by some arrogant, ignorant, spoilt, privileged kid that ‘you’ got the better part of the deal”; but that was a split second before reality hit home… That kid is white. I am white. That nausea, that nausea is disgust. Sick to the stomach, ashamed, disgusted… White people… We are never going to learn.

All that ‘back breaking hard labour’ endured by your grandfather did his family and you little good. Never been taught to or had to take responsibility for anything. Surprised you’re even able to walk upright, seeing as you lack any backbone. A perfect example of why reparations starting with “Land Reform” in SA, MUST be put in place. Either that or a program preventing stupidity from procreating.

Nice try, Samantha. You are no better than the kid in this article if you are promoting the idea that white people are ignorant. The myth of white ignorance is a dangerous concept to victims of racism (non-white people). I think you already know that and you are being deliberately deceptive. I don’t believe you one bit. Your comment doesn’t even sound sincere.

If anybody is hit with nausea it should be non-white people whenever someone suggests that white people are ignorant. You may be just as dangeerous as Tal.

Rashnu, that’s over the line. The kid in the article is a committed conservative publishing through a right wing communications organ that means to cultivate right wing voices in media by mining the student body of Princeton. There’s a big difference between that and someone who is promoting reparations, including land reform.

Anyway, while I appreciate your comments, we don’t like the comments queue used to make personal attacks. Not cool.

I was not seeking your approval Rashnu and quite frankly, your opinion would have proven more effective were it minus the temper tantrum; brought on by, I believe, my “promoting white ignorance”?
Are you suggesting that, that kid is anything but? That, that kid does not actually believe his ‘version of events’??? That he is fully aware of the nonsense he is spewing?

I started taking a moment to think about the privilege I’ve been given when I was in high school…. even as an immigrant to this country myself (Canadian by birth) being white, male, and descending from a long line middle class families gave me… well, privilege. It’s definitely something to acknowledge, preferably every day.

PS- I was just going back over my thoughts re the stop and check laws of immigrants in Arizona a few years back. Some people tried to convince me that it wasn’t aimed at any ethnic group in particular. At the time I was not American, and was fairly confident that I could (if I had wanted to) bluffed my way into the voting booth, let alone convince an officer that I was an American. I made the point, and we came to realize that the laws were NOT in fact “aimed” at any one group in particular, but at everyone besides white people.

ON TIME MAG– this isn’t the only racially biased piece from them. Interesting. Very interesting….

My two cents:

This feels like another sensationalist piece.

Almost all of this article is about his family background. Not to downplay the grave crimes against his family, but while his family may have gone through terrible times, it doesn’t mean Tal has personally experienced those types of events. The whole thing is overly-dramatized to gain sympathy (i.e. “all the hard work I have done in my life [due to] some invisible patron saint of white maleness”). It’s easy to say a comment like this. How would he know?

Much of what he’s written sounds defensive and ego-driven to justify his own discomfort at his perception of inequality (which is what the article SHOULD HAVE been about – not the inequality suffered by his FAMILY)

To Tal, inequality is a little phrase generated by teachers or some classroom “scorn” (which we have all faced, regardless of race). But to ethnic minorities, it’s another thing entirely. It’s how you’re treated by your boss, the store clerk, your peers, how much you pay for your car, if you’ll get that loan, etc, etc… You don’t need to look to history (which the article is doing) to understand the facts of NOW, present day America. But, like many people, he buries his head in the past, as if that could be a shield to justify the problems of inequality in today’s society. But it seems Tal might say these problems are imaginary (no, he uses the term “invisible”), in his world, there is no concrete proof of racial injustice or bias. (One of the weaker points here–he only mentions historical injustice without addressing current day injustice)

Until he’s actually had real-life experiences of persecution as a minority, it’s hard to fathom him actually understanding the psychological severity of current day experiences as a minority. It’s hard to ask someone to apologize for their ignorance. Perhaps what we need here, and in America at large, is a little more education on cultural/ethnic studies. That’s the only way any of us can move past seeing beyond our limited ego-biased views of the world.

That’s my two cents.

“If Youblame Native American communities for their poverty, remember that the entire continent was stolen from them.

If you blame Black American communities for their relative poverty, remember that Black Americans were stolen from a continent, trafficked, and enslaved for nearly 300 years.

Tell me again about how your family ‘started from nothing’ when they immigrated. Didn’t they start from whiteness? Seems like a pretty good start.

The American Dream required dual genocides, but tell me again about fairness and equal opportunity. Tell me about democracy, modeled after the Iroquois Confederacy. Tell me your proud heritage, and I will show you the violence that made it so.”

-Kim Katrin Crosby

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