A you've probably heard or read by now, a Princeton freshman wrote an article for an astroturf conservative collegiate newspaper about how he's never experienced white privilege (despite, you know, being a freshman in college whose poorly written essay has now been featured in Time magazine, among many other outlets). I'm not going to link to it directly because the last thing dude needs is more page views, but here's a great take down of how moronic it is.
The reason the piece has blown up is pretty obvious, as it taps into a ton of white resentment over the fact that it's no longer particularly acceptable to publicly proclaim people of color stupid/unworthy and how that's apparently super unfair to white people.
I'm not here to explain what white privilege is or to prove it exists (I've written about it tons and tons and tons and tons before, and at this point in the development of the term and empirical findings in the field, if you're denying it exists you're basically the social science version of a creationist).
What's most annoying about this kid's tone deaf essay is the deliberate misunderstanding of the term. Literally no one is asking him (or any other white person) to apologize for being white or for getting where they are. The entire point of asking people to check their privilege is to simply remind them that the world is not particularly fair, and to remember that the unfairness of the world tends to work in their advantage. No one's saying you haven't overcome difficulties in your life, just that other people also have difficulties, and probably more than you do if you're a straight white guy at Princeton. Which, to borrow a popular analogy, is pretty much the lowest difficulty setting possible.
But this kid wrestling with the concept of privilege actually reminded me of a bizarro version of myself at his age. As a college activist only beginning to learn of the many horrors of our world I, like many others, began to feel like I was not allowed to be sad or upset about anything. Sure, that girl dumped me and broke my heart, but do you have any idea what's going on in Darfur right now?!?
It's a long process for many activists to realize that just because other people have it objectively worse than you doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel shitty when shitty things happen to you. A much healthier way to approach it is just to remember some perspective when you're feeling shitty. So I hit on a new way to think of the concept of checking one's privilege.
When I was a senior in college, I broke my ankle in a pick up basketball game. Not in the figurative sense that someone juked me out of my sneakers, but in the literal sense that I displaced a number of the "floating" bones in my ankle. And that really, really hurt. Like, "scream a string of obscenities every time I even tried to move my ankle for months" kind of pain. It took months of physical therapy to regain the use of that ankle, and to this day I only have about 75% motion in it.
Contrast this with a friend of a friend who a few years ago died from a very aggressive cancer. In fact, by the end, it had so thoroughly spread throughout his skeleton that his bones were literally snapping due to the pressure of the enormous cancerous growths inside of them. His last weeks were spent writhing in unimaginable pain.
No obviously that guy's situation was simply objectively worse than mine, no matter how you slice it. Although breaking my ankle like that was by far the most physical pain I've ever experienced, it's not even a sliver of what that guy went through. To compare them on any level is frankly insulting to his memory.
But that doesn't mean breaking my ankle didn't hurt really, really bad. You see, both things are possible: just because he went through something exponentially worse does not mean my situation didn't suck pretty bad. For me to compare the two would be absurd, and people would be right to be upset with me were I so stupid as to do so.
And that's all we're asking when we ask you to check your privilege: we're not saying you don't have any difficulties in your life, or that you have to apologize for anything. We're simply pointing out that your broken ankle is not nearly as difficult to overcome as that guy's super-aggressive cancer, and that you probably shouldn't complain to the dude with cancer about how your ankle hurts. That's all.