Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thoughts on White Privilege, Tal Fortgang, and Racial Profiling at Vassar College

As you've probably seen, about a week ago Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote an earnest but ill-advised op-ed called "Why I'll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege" that embodies the fallacious defensive thinking many white folks employ when forced to reckon with the privilege they inadvertently receive because they are white. Briana Payton calls the letter

"an attempt at checking privilege that was so unsuccessful it was borderline satirical. Fortgang, a fellow Princeton freshman, complained about the overuse and misuse of the phrase “check your privilege,” and asserted that the phrase was “toeing the line” of reverse racism. To prove this, he detailed his family’s history of persecution under the Holocaust, their journey to America and their ultimate rise to entrepreneurial success. He claims that the only privilege he has is that his ancestors made it to America, were hard-working and passed down wonderful values such as faith and education."

In the wake of this letter and the consequent Internet firestorm, many a blogger has processed how Fortgang's letter sheds light on the ideology undergirding racism in America today. Some castigate Time for publishing on a global scale what was better left to the dusty annals of undergrad campus publications, some connect to other recent race-based controversies in social media, and others correctly point out that to have as a problem that people are always telling you to check your privilege is, in itself, a function of having privilege.

I've seen a lot of friends posting about and discussing this letter, but I want to provide a real-world, concrete, vivid example of how racial profiling and white privilege play out in my every day life, to illustrate to anyone (people like Fortgang, mostly, but also well-intentioned white folks) for whom debates about privilege remain mostly abstract and theoretical have an illustration of what the privilege-checking conversation is really about; how the unseen hand of privilege implicitly biases situations in white people's favor, every day, cushioning white lives in ease and convenience at the expense of people of colors' dignity and freedom.

My real-world example begins with news from another undergrad publication, this one the campus paper of my alma mater: the Vassar College Miscellany News.

According to The Misc:

“A Vassar student called the CRC [Campus Response Center] at 4:18 p.m. on Sunday, April 27 and reported that four to five teens were in the basement of the Library making noise and disrupting students trying to study,” explained Director of the Safety and Security Department Donald Marsala in an emailed statement.
Marsala said, “VC officers responded and a sergeant located the youths in the basement. They ran from him and a short time later the sergeant saw [them] exiting the Library front door.”
He continued, “When he asked for their identification to determine if they were on our trespass list, one complied, one gave two different addresses and two others refused to identify themselves. Per protocol, the police were called to assist in identifying the youths and they were able to obtain their identities.”
The Misc article doesn't say it outright, but the teenagers in question were all young black men. So basically, the fact that some teens of color were being loud and distracting resulted in someone reporting them to security and security calling the actual Poughkeepsie police (which, as anyone who's been to college knows, escalates the situation considerably).

If you don't think that sounds like a case of racial profiling, contrast it to the experience I have as a white woman walking onto Vassar's campus.

As part of my job, nearly every week I drive to Vassar campus, either to attend meetings or produce a live radio broadcast hosted by my students. I drive through the security checkpoint at the main gate, and I am never stopped. I am often playing very loud music as I drive by, but no one questions me, let alone looks for my name on a "trespass list." I park and walk around the campus and no one asks me for ID. No one thinks twice about me being there. Often I'm raucously talking on my phone, but no one reports me for being too loud and disruptive.  I can be as loud as I want anywhere on campus and not even have to consider whether someone may call security or the cops on me. People look at me and my white skin and make an unspoken assumption about whether I have a right to be there. No one regards my presence as a threat. Even when I'm with my large group of students--and I should say here that, for the past few months, the radio student crew has predominantly been white male teens--and we're all chatting boisterously, no one asks for ID, no one questions us, no one thinks we look suspicious, no one thinks twice about us.

And yet those teens in the library, the ones eventually removed by Poughkeepsie police, were just doing what my students and I do every week. Hanging around on campus, talking loudly, laughing loudly. The difference is that when we do it, it's not regarded as suspicious or criminal.

Here's where it all connects back to Fortgang's letter and white privilege. It's not my fault, nor is it my students' fault, that in our white skin, security and the cops assume we "belong" and let us walk around unquestioned. But it is also not the fault of those teenagers in the library that their black skin translated to being treated as criminal, first by a Vassar student, then by some security guards, then by Poughkeepsie police. The fact remains that white folks are given the privilege of walking around, un-interrogated, while that privilege is not only not given to people of color, but the opposite route is actively, aggressively pursued, for as petty an offense as evading security officers--an offense committed by any Vassar student who's fled an illicit dorm room party when security shows up-- actual police were called. The Misc doesn't mention whether any arrests were made or charges brought, but it does report that some of the accosted were as young as 12. Such an incident of being treated like a criminal has got to have a negative impact on a person--let alone a lifetime of such instances. I really don't know. I've never been forced to know. That's white privilege.

Ok but, some might say, you have professional business being on campus. Those kids in the library didn't. Yes, but the security officers looking at me don't know that! They can't, as they don't stop me to talk to me. They don't ask me for my name or ID. They don't treat me like I'm a criminal up to no good until I prove otherwise. They look at me and make assumptions, just like they looked at those kids and made assumptions.

Ok but, still some might say, but those kids were in the library making noise. Sure, but do you know what else goes on in the Vassar library? All kinds of legally suspect shit. Lines of Adderal and Coke snorted in the bathroom. Sexytime in the study rooms. Vassar students are clever, daring, and often naughty. I can guarantee you that other things were going on that could qualify as "loud and disturbing". It's just that those aforementioned infractions are the white kind, the kind we're trained to see as "kids being kids" or "just blowing off steam" instead of as a dangerous potential threat.

As a white person, one might not recognize the privilege and inequality at work in an act as seemingly simple as walking around Vassar's campus. If one is never stopped by security, one might begin to assume that no one gets stopped by security, that it's normal for a person to never get stopped by security, that all people drive onto campus without even thinking about it. One might not ever see when people of color are not given the same treatment. And that's exactly the point. Whether white people like Fortgang apologize or not, instances of racial discrimination like this occur everywhere, all the time, and will continue to do so as long as the conversation remains centered on people like Fortgang and whether or not they're willing to apologize. As a white person with privilege, even if I apologize for benefiting from white privilege and institutional racism, it won't do a goddamn thing about the larger systemic structures in which we live, in which white folks are assumed to be neutral and black folks are assumed to be dangerous criminals. That's institutional racism, and it's bigger than any one individual's intentions. It's more productive to move beyond intentions to grapple with the questions of how to change the fact that things like this occur everywhere, all the time.

Again, just to be clear in regards to those of Fortgang's ilk, it's not your fault, my fault, nor my students' fault that we're treated like we belong at places like Vassar while people of color often aren't. We didn't tell those security officers to treat us well and not treat those kids well. It would be pointless for us to apologize for something we did not do. But the fact remains that we did benefit from racial profiling and the privilege institutional racism allows folks with white skin in those moments of split-second, internal assumptions.

I don't want to live in a world where the convenience of me moving freely through a college campus comes at the cost of others being interrogated, criminalized, and oppressed just because their skin is a different color. But since that's the world we do live in, if we want a better world, we have to work hard every day to challenge those systems and fight back against that dynamic. Part of that work? When someone tells you to check your privilege, listen. Reflect on your behavior, and try to understand the ways your actions enact microcosms of larger systemic oppressions. Try to do better next time.

Easier said than done, I know. I try, I work really hard, but don't always succeed. I fuck up plenty, and I own that. But the way I see it, systematized oppression exists, we're all complicit in a nasty system, and we can be part of it in a way that also challenges the system, or we can merely be a part of it. To quote the Whedon show Angel (as I usually do), "if nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do."

And yes, I am aware of the irony smirking out from behind the fact that as a white person writing about and to white people, this post ends up re-centering the conversation on whiteness, the very thing I criticize Fortgang and my fellow white folks for doing. I own that. I'm trying to wield privilege responsibly here by elucidating the dynamics of privilege with an example from my own experience, but as I said, I fuck up plenty. Leave me a comment. If you're not a troll, I'm listening.