Dear Privileged Princeton Kid,
Your angry op-ed has been been going around my Facebook for a few days now, and since I'm tired of unfriending those who have approvingly posted it, I'd like to address you directly here.
You claim you're tired of people telling you to "check your privilege", and in response, you have written a long diatribe about how because your ancestors dealt with some shit it means you're not privileged like all these people think you are. Then, you go on to explain all of the ways in which you think you are privileged, throw in some solid nonsense about reverse racism, and end up coming to the ultimate conclusion that:
It's not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates "privilege." And there's nothing wrong with that.
I'd like to explain to you how you have completely missed the most basic definition of privilege; why you, like so many others, immediately got offended at the idea that you have somehow had it easier than others and leapt to your own defense without trying to listen or understand what someone was truly saying.
Privilege is when you get conscious or unconscious benefits from a demographic trait about yourself that you cannot control. These benefits may be overt (getting paid more as a man) or they may be covert (being able to walk down a street alone at night without fear of violence). I want to stress the last type of privilege. A privilege does not have to be something positive; it can simply be the lack of something negative.
Privilege is not personal. Privilege is institutional and cultural. It is macro. You have privilege because you are part of a group that has privilege. It is not because you are special or different or better in anyway (any more than those without privilege are not special or are worse in any way). This is going to be really hard for you to hear, and this is normally about the time where you're going to start railing and ranting about how you are at Princeton because you worked super hard and are naturally brilliant and wonderful. Maybe you are; and no one wants to take that away from you. Seriously - no one is saying that. But let's step back and remember once again, this isn't a personal conversation.
Checking your privilege doesn't mean anyone is asking you to say "I only have things because I am part of privileged groups". It does mean someone is asking you to say "By position of a characteristic I was born with, I have been helped, or at least not hurt, more than others without this characteristic". It does not mean anyone wants you to apologize for it; it does mean someone is asking for an acknowledgement of the implications of it, either for how it is impacted where you are now, how it might be skewing your perspective or level of knowledge in discussing a subject, or for how the lack of that same privilege may have made things different for someone else.
You may be in Princeton, but it seems like we should probably put this in really simple kindergarten examples for you. In the simplest, crudest metaphor I can think of, let's say you're a fully abled person in a race against a man with only one leg. You train a long time, run really fast, and beat him. No one is saying you shouldn't be proud of working hard or running so fast; all we're really asking for is that you admit that maybe having two legs fucking helped a little bit.
Using this metaphor, let's again break down some other arguments you can't really use. For instance, just because some one-legged people are faster than some two-legged people or manage to race doesn't mean that it is still not, on the whole, easier for two-legged people to walk and run. Again, privilege deals with macro level institutional and cultural ideas, not anecdata. If your grandfather only had one leg, but you had two, you don't get to claim that you do not have two-legged privilege. Having ancestors that endured hardships is important only if either you endure those same hardships or if those past hardships have continued on today in the form of discrimination based on your shared characteristics.
Privilege isn't an on/off switch. You can have one type of privilege, while not having others. You can, for instance, feel like you don't have religious privilege while still being able to admit that you have white privilege and male privilege. If our two legged man is black and our one legged man is white, he's still got white privilege.
Not all privilege is obvious; above, to make it simple, I used a metaphor where you could clearly see how one person had ability privilege (having two legs in a race instead of one). Some other examples are equally obvious: white/POC, male/female, rich/poor. Some other examples are not. Some require you to examine things you too for granted and realize the privilege underneath them. For instance, you admitted you were privileged because you felt like your parents and grandparents made sure you were educated. Looking deeper, I can reasonably assume that there is a huge likelihood that that involves financial privilege; no matter how wonderful a parent, someone who has to work three jobs in order to put food on the table is less likely to have time to spend learning the alphabet with you, or even possibly to be educated themselves. Looking deeply at things you're offering up as the ways in which you are privileged are going to show you that you are in fact privileged in the ways that you just denied. And again - that's okay. I'm genuinely happy you had that. Nothing to apologize for, just something to acknowledge.
Acknowledging privilege is hard (not as hard as not having privilege, but baby steps here), in no small part because it forces you to acknowledge other people don't have it, and that things are pretty shitty out there. It's a lot easier to yell "reverse racism!!!" than it is to sit down and fucking stare the realities of actual racism in the face. It's easier to feel the victim than it is to feel like the bad guy. All you'd like to do is keep staring at Megan Kelly's breasts and being blissfully oblivious that the world is a sad, fucked up place and dealing with your feelings of guilt that you got an okay deal? (Again - I want to take this opportunity to remind you that privilege is not personal. You're not the bad guy. When someone says "white men have done bad shit", no one is saying "you, dude in front of me, are the reincarnation of Satan and I personally blame you for everything")
So if there is one thing I want to leave you with, it is your own quote:
Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn't always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn't tell the whole story
Take your own words to heart. In the same way your appearance doesn't tell the whole story, neither can you judge anyone else's story based on their appearance. You wrote this article because you felt people were treating you and judging you unfairly, and you wanted to be able to tell your story; to share the parts of you that weren't obvious because of your appearance.
And so does everyone else - especially people from groups who have historically been silenced or disregarded. Everyone wants to share their thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences rather than being judged based on the way they look or their demographics. So when someone says "check your privilege", what they mean is embrace and admit that you have preconceived notions and a specific world perspective, and to set those aside for a second and just listen. You wrote this entire article because you felt judged and un-listened to simply because of who you were and where you came from. Ironically, this is exactly how those you're railing against feel too. If you want people to listen to you - truly listen, without judgement - begin by doing the same for them.
Otherwise you'll just look like a complete fucking asshole when you write a hypocritical article completely missing the point of everything.