What he thinks he's saying: "Being white hasn't given me a free ride in life, any more than it gave my ancestors relief from their struggles to make it in America."
What he's actually saying: "Everything in the world wasn't handed to me, so racism doesn't exist, except for the racism against white people like me."
Tal Fortgang couldn't have missed the point more if he tried. And he might have tried.
White privilege is not about attending white meetings with all the white people and standing in line to be handed all of the keys to America that whites deserve based on their white pedigrees. (Man, he is an Ivy Leaguer.) White privilege is much more subtle than that, and Fortgang absolutely is a beneficiary. For that matter, so am I.
Four years ago during a hike in rural Missouri, a friend took this picture of me:
I wasn’t mad; in fact, I was having a great time that day in the crisp fall air. We were taking lots of pictures, and in this particular one I decided to look as tough as possible. I figured flipping on my hood and making as mean a face as I could muster would do the trick. But as you can see, I don’t look so tough. I can’t look tough. If anything, I look like I’m about to burst into tears from having my toy truck stolen by the big, mean bully. I'm just a guy who likes hoodies and who even at his angriest wouldn't likely be a target of harassment while walking through the suburbs at night. Even if I wound up guilty of some crime, this picture wouldn't go viral as proof that I (and everyone like me) is a thug.
There's a store in my neighborhood that has a sign outside specifically banning hoodies. I suspect this is because of all the teenagers who shop there. I haven't walked in there with a hoodie, but if my past experience is any indicator, no one would say anything if I did.
I have been approached in dark parking lots in the middle of the night by young women asking me for directions. Police officers and security guards do not give me a hard time. No one ever thinks, "I won't hire anyone named Ian." No racist white person taunts me from across the street. In general, strangers aren't immediately suspicious of me. Even if I did give off a circumstantially bad impression, there would be at least an inkling of the benefit of the doubt. Basically, I have to earn any suspicion thrown my way — and even then, the threshold is higher than if it were someone with my same hoodie and my same baby face doing the same things, but with darker skin.
That is white privilege.
White privilege refers to all of the subtle ways that life is easier for a white person in America, often in ways that go unnoticed. But it's so important to notice them. Not just because that's the key to understanding and eradicating prejudice, but also because it's how we put an end to myopic rhetoric like Fortgang's. The biggest obstacle to understanding white privilege is ... white privilege.