Fighting racism first requires awareness

Princeton University is known for a lot of things, like its Halloween-themed school colors, its position in the Ivy League trifecta and its affiliation with Albert Einstein. Currently, the prestigious school is making headlines for publishing an article in a conservative and moderate student-run publication, The Princeton Tory, titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.”

Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote the article to discuss his disgruntlement with the attribution of his success to “white male privilege.” He argues that his ancestors — Poles persecuted by the Nazis who eventually immigrated to America — faced plenty of struggles, and his family’s history has not always been privileged. He argues that his character and accomplishments — not lineage — should define him. 

But, societally speaking, it does not. 

Fortgang falls short in his understanding of what “white male privilege” means. We’re all participants in an invisible system of privilege, whether we acknowledge it or not. Fortgang’s gender, skin color and socioeconomic background — he hails from the well-off city of New Rochelle, N. Y. —  all set him up for opportunities that others are usually not afforded.

Nevertheless, a new MTV study described our generation as being “post-racial,” with 67 percent of participants — who were between ages 14 and 24 — reporting that race is no longer a “barrier to accomplishments” in light of Obama’s election. 

The most concerning statistic from this study was that 48 percent of white millennials said discrimination against whites is as grandiose of a problem as discrimination against racial minorities. 

Essentially, nearly 50 percent of our generation believes that white people are being oppressed. It can be difficult to understand how institutional oppression works if you’ve never been oppressed. Being in the majority awards you privilege, but not empathy for minorities. As a female, I’ve faced my own bouts with discrimination, such as sexual objectification in the workplace and social situations. 

Although sexism is radically different than racism, my experience offers me insight into the world of oppression. It is insight that white males often have no way of experiencing firsthand.

We are all different, and differences demand to be acknowledged in a fair, meritocratic society. What we need is an increased understanding of the obstacles that others — specifically minorities — face. Only then can we solely judge one on his or her accomplishments.

The best way to combat any kind of discrimination is to broaden understanding of others’ backgrounds through mainstream education,something that Fortgang and many other white millennials seem to lack. 

For instance, I took an utterly eye-opening class in Africana studies one semester that focused on black families in America. I realized that I took for granted how nuanced and subtle racism really is. 

Racism is no longer overt. There are no signs saying, “Sit in the back of the bus.” But it’s resurfaced in a softer form, like when a white person asks a black person, “Can I touch your afro?” reducing him or her to an intriguing object instead of a human. 

These are things white people, like me, might not understand without an explanation. We never have to experience it and, therefore, can be blind to its existence and effects. 

Formal education isn’t the only tool for increased understanding, though. 

Social media websites — like Tumblr — can have very insightful and original articles on discrimination. If you have socially conscious friends, Facebook can be a valuable resource, too. Friends might link and post articles on cultural and racial issues that you would have otherwise never found.

The Internet is a smorgasbord of information about discrimination and, if we truly want equality, we have to assume responsibility for exploring the accounts available to us.

Fortgang is probably very smart and hardworking — getting into Princeton is a laudable accomplishment for anyone. But he lacks the understanding of how his position in life and the circumstances he was born into — beyond his control — automatically granted him privileges and greater chances of success. For example, look at incarceration statistics: 14 million whites, and 2.6 million African-Americans are reported illicit drug users. But African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people, a direct result of system prejudices, according to the NAACP. 

So, it seems like a lot of other millennials are missing this point, too, if they think that whites’ struggles are comparable to those of minorities, seeing that about 50 percent of millennials believe that they’re being oppressed.   

Inequality exists, and ignoring its existence will help it perpetuate. 

Recognizing that you have privilege doesn’t belittle your personal success. The existence of inherent privilege is a critique of our institutions and society, and the problem begs for action. 

If we truly want to be the generation that heralds equality, we must first recognize where our society falls short. Change can only be brought about if first there’s awareness that a problem exists.

Write  to Channing at [email protected]