Years ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.
Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.
His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”
There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.
But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”
My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”
Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.
Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.
I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.
Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.
In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?
I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege.
What do you think?
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Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.
We recently finished celebrating Passover, a holiday where “oppression” is an ongoing theme (and freedom, of course, is our cause to celebrate). We were challenged many times—through readings, traditions and symbolism—to experience the pain of oppression and celebrate the joys that accompany freedom. One particular text comes to mind: “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he, was taken out of Egypt.”
This statement encourages us to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are oppressed and to imagine what it would mean for us—personally—to be freed. Awhile back, I came across a tool that might help us better meet this challenge. I find it to be a very valuable resource when I begin to contemplate what it must be like to be oppressed, and to be free, in our society:
This chart lists various tendencies that can be found among people who are in positions of privilege and oppression. As the authors make clear, these are not personality characteristics that we can presume based on someone’s position of power: privileged or oppressed. However, it provides a framework from which we may be able to look at the behavioral tendencies that are common among people who experience privilege and oppression. It enables us to better understand our society’s expectations of people in these different environments and the ways in which these expectations are internalized to impact the day to day lives of everyday people.
Think back to the opening of the Passover seder and our invitation to the poor to come join us for the Passover meal. There is a symbolic attempt to level the power imbalance between people who live in poverty and people who don’t. All too often, people living in poverty are forced to encounter people with behaviors that mirror those listed in the attached document. In this way, the poor in our society are often being oppressed. The idea that we open our seder tables to the poor, indicates a desire to sit alongside the poor, to get to know the poor, to better understand the poor and to treat people who are poor with dignity.
I hope that this chart provides our readers with a greater understanding of how power impacts our personal lives, the lives of fellow community members and of people around the world who are oppressed regularly. I also hope that it provides ideas on how to best fight oppression and ensure that all people, in every generation, have the experience of freedom.
What are your experiences with privilege and oppression? Do you find this chart useful?