Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Why Privilege?


A few days back, I followed up a link on Malcolm Pollack's blog and read a piece written by Tal Fortgang, a freshman at Princeton who was challenged, "Check Your Privilege," because he was a male and more or less white, so he took the advice and did check his privilege, with some interesting results that should remind people not to judge a book by its color.

Reading his story reminded me of a similar challenge I faced way back in 1990 in Berlin on a Fulbright trip. I was friends with an African-American artist who was also there on a Fulbright. The two of us were in conversation when we were approached by a woman, yet another Fulbright scholar, a radical leftist in the field of political science, if I recall, who chose us to speak with because we looked politically correct, I guess (probably the ankh earring dangling from my left ear and my friend's dark skin), and to be honest, I was a bit left of center in those days.

Anyway, my friend soon disengaged himself from the ensuing conversation, undoubtedly aware that it would lead through a political minefield. I was left alone with the activist. She had recently been involved in political issues with Palestinians on the West Bank and was gushing about how 'democratic' they were. I merely listened.

At some point, she interrupted herself to inquire about me.

I acknowledged that I was a Fulbright scholar, but added (in my humility, of course) that I wasn't special , and that if I could obtain a Fulbright fellowship, then anybody who would put in the effort could succeed. I believe I said, "If I can do it, anyone can do it."

Rather than ask why I held that opinion, she pounced: "Oh, but you had it easy compared to him!" she exclaimed, pointing to my friend, now safely across the room.

I was stopped cold. She knew nothing about either of us, but anything I now said would sound like special pleading. I therefore did not say:
I was born in 1957 in the very rural Arkansas Ozarks to a part-Cherokee family and raised by my grandparents along with my four brothers. The first ten years or so of my life, I slept in a basement in an old bed above a dirt floor, and we used a wood stove in winter. The first five years or thereabouts, we had no indoor plumbing, so we got water from a well and used an outhouse. Clothes were hand-me-downs. Toys were few. Money was little. I worked on the Youth Corps a couple of years in my early teens, handling what we called a 'sling' to chop weeds. I delivered newspapers for three years. In the mid-teens, I worked with school buddies hauling hay. I got into university on work-study for 20 hours per week or more, along with a federal loan and grant, as well as a valedictorian scholarship ($200 a semester). I worked every year as I studied, never had much money, and following several years of such privilege ultimately qualified for a Fulbright. But you may be right -- I probably didn't have it as hard as him.
As I said, I did not say that then, and I'm not so much saying it now as reporting what I didn't say, because I'm checking my great privilege . . .

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At 4:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you should have said it then and oft times afterward! Mighty proud of you and all our SHS alumni who carved a place for themselves in whatever endeavour they chose.

Did you hear there is talk of cutting the Fulbright Scholarship funding by the federal government? I really hope that does not happen.

An earring.....really!!


At 5:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm full of surprises . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Privilege" is no guarantee.

(I'm thinking you ought to've included your nearly getting electrocuted changing out the lightbulb in the berthing cavern your brothers shared.

I'm thinking too now of the time I was standing on the verymost top of a step-ladder checking whether a 277 [volts] fire alarm circuit was "hot" - it was and I got stuck. One of my "seconds in command" asked, What're you doing, counting the cycles? [Hertz]

After I "had to step off" the verymost top (with some - very short I assure you - period of recovery) I explained to the very soon to be re-hired [only really competent construction electrician in Branson]

You think I'd done that if I could hire a Professional?)


At 11:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you have led an enviably exciting life, much more so than I have . . . aside from our common electrifrying experience.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


All I'm really saying is, the "less privileged" could've - had that choice been made ... as you allude.

Nearly everybody stands an equal chance to get electrocuted.

Personally I think that's what it comes down to, ... don't know I'd be "envious" the back of my sweaty hand - poor decision that instance - slipped contacting the blue phase in a 400 amp panel.

But then, "constructing something" generally speaking, tends to yield more Social Securitywise than selling dope [of whatever variety] on whatever location.

At least I hope so. Guess I'll be finding out soon. But then if Cran can manage his adventurous life, I reckon I can too.


At 1:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, where is Uncle Cran?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:07 PM, Blogger Yule said...

The shrill "White Privilege Theory" enforcer would still, Mr. Hodges, say you are Guilty. It's not about the details -- It's about your racial guilt (now and forever, Amen). All Whites are guilty. Don't ask how it works; it just does.

Separate the wheat from the chaff and the real message slowly comes into focus: "Whites are the moral inferiors of Nonwhites". It's a sick, racist ideology.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good thing I'm mixed! Not that it much shows . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:07 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

HJH and JK,

This looks like fun. May I show you my privilege?

I was 3 when WWII ended. My parents and I were Holocaust survivors, and we were sheltered by Gen. Eisenhower's troops in a series of displaced persons (DP) camps in the American Occupation Zone of West Germany.

After legal immigration to America, we became naturalized citizens, and my parents strove to provide me with a middle class upbringing in (I kid you not) Hicksville, Long Island, NY. I subsequently earned a doctorate in physics from Columbia U., and finally retired from Los Alamos National Lab.

But the privilege I am most proud of is the "home" we lived in for several months in one of the DP camps: it was in the basement of a large house -- a single room whose walls, ceiling, and floor were all coal black! It had been used as a coal bin during the war.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

TBH, you've out-privileged me on the basement section of the 'white privilege' test!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:34 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...


It's been a pleasure to "out-privilege" you, as well as a privilege to out-pleasure you.

I wish you all the pleasures of privilege you can muster, my friend.


At 11:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, TBH. You have my sincere admiration.

Jeffery Hodges

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