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 . . .