You Don’t Have to Apologize for Being White
Tal. Hey bro.
I want to talk to you for a minute.
I read your article, ‘Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege’. First off, congrats on landing an article on Time. That’s huge.
And I get it, dude. You’re annoyed with the ‘check your privilege’ line. Hey, I am too. I think it’s overused, and it’s basically turned into a meme at this point.
I read your piece. You’re Jewish. Your family, or at least your family a couple generations ago, had it pretty damn rough. And your dad worked his ass off so that you could have the opportunities that he didn’t. That’s great.
But, I want to talk about this line right here:
It was [my grandparents’] privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.
This is where you messed up, bro.
This country actually does care about your race. A lot.
You brought up some of the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s a pretty heavy card to play off the bat, but it’s not going to work on me.
I forgot to tell you: I’m black. And I bet you can already guess where I’m going with this. You want to tell me about the systematic extermination of six million? I see that and raise you to ten million. You want to talk about a few years of forced labor? Let’s try for a few hundred. You seem to be able to trace your family’s history back pretty far. That’s awesome. I can’t, because they didn’t really keep records for property like that back then.
I’m sure that if you wanted, you could come up with some ways that somewhere in history, Jewish people had it rougher than black people. Or maybe even now. And we could go back and forth about this, endlessly.
But realistically, in the court of general opinion on historical victimhood, you’re not going to win. I will. Black people always do.
But really, is this a game that you want to win? Would you like to be at the bottom rung of the social ladder? Is pity what you want?
Probably not. And right there — that annoyed feeling that you probably had when I asked if you wanted people to be sorry for you — that’s the same feeling that a lot of people probably have when you accuse them of coming up with ‘imaginary institutions’.
It’s not imaginary, bro. It’s real.
It’s good that you’ve put effort into understanding your past. But we also need to understand everyone’s present.
What I’m trying to get at here is that bringing up various ways that your ancestors’ lives sucked isn’t a good defense for racism.
I’m not saying that you’re racist (but it’s okay if you are). I’m saying that you are, probably unwittingly, defending the racism that exists in society.
But, let’s stop talking about the past.
Tal, have you ever had a gun pointed at you?
I have, but only by police. The most recent time was when I was driving home and my car broke down, so I walked up to a highway police station for help. As I knocked on the door, two officers came up from behind me out of the bushes, guns drawn, and shouted at me to freeze. It turns out they thought I was trying to rob them. That wouldn’t have happened if I was white.
I bet you worry about your grades, or how you’re going to finish that last paper before the deadline. All college students deal with that. But you’ve probably never had to worry about whether or not you might die at a routine traffic stop. White people don’t have to deal with that. Because you don’t fit the ‘profile’ of a criminal.
That’s part of what people mean when they talk about ‘privilege’.
The ‘equal protection under the law’ you mentioned — it doesn’t quite work that way for people that look like me.
And again, I’m not trying to ‘win’ a comparison game here. I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I don’t want you to either. I could hit you with a ton of scenes from my life that would be hard to imagine for a dude like yourself. On the flip side, you talked a lot about your family, but I bet you’ve personally dealt with some stuff yourself that I couldn’t imagine.
But I can try to understand, which is what I also ask of you.
Tal, I am upset, but I’m not upset at you.
I want you to know that. I’m not upset at you. I’m upset at Time.
I’m upset at Time for publishing your essay. I’m upset at them for taking advantage of you.
I’m a graduate student, Tal, which means I sometimes teach college classes. Next year, I’ll be teaching a writing course. If you’d handed that essay in to me, you’d get, maybe, a C. Your claims just don’t hold water. You’re good at arguing, but not good at thinking (yet).
Your essay isn’t even particularly well written. There are grammatical and spelling errors all over the place. And that overwrought first paragraph, full of bizarre metaphors and SAT vocabulary, is pretty typical of a kid that still thinks that big words make you sound smarter. (Protip: this only works on dumb people.)
But you seem like a bright kid. I’m pretty sure that with a bit more life experience, some patient friends, and some guidance from a dedicated teacher or two, you’ll start to figure things out.
That’s why I’m so upset that Time would let you make a fool out of yourself on the Internet. It’s precisely because you’re such a smart kid. Because in a couple of years, you’re going to look back and feel horribly embarrassed.
I can’t understand why Time would give a kid that hasn’t even decided on his major, that can’t even use a spellcheck, and that can’t formulate a coherent argument, a national platform.
Actually, no. Tal, I think I know why Time did this. I think somebody over there wanted an article that would stir things up, and put the ‘privilege’-shouters in their place. They had a frankly racist agenda, but nobody had the guts to put their name on something so asinine. So somebody found your piece on the Princeton Tory, and scooped it up.
They needed a front. Someone with some credibility. You’re not perfect, but you’re a pretty good fit. You’re young, you’re at an Ivy League, and you’ve got the whole historical victim/rags to riches/American Dream backstory thing going on. Trust me, if some black or Asian or more interestingly ethnic kid had offered to write a similar article, you would have been dropped like a bad habit, for reasons we’ve already discussed. But they took what they could get.
So, Time, you’re not fooling anyone. And that’s really cowardly of you to use a kid who can’t even drink yet to do your dirty work.
But back to you, though, Tal.
Or more specifically, back to us.
You said that you won’t apologize for your privilege. That’s fine, man. I don’t think anyone actually wants you to apologize for anything. Really, all we can ask of you, especially at this early stage in your development of thinking about the world, is that you give it some thought. It’s hard, I know. If it was easy, all the bad stuff we have today — racism, sexism, homophobia, wars, all that — would be gone. But it’s not easy. These are hard problems.
I said earlier that it’s okay if you’re racist. It is. As long as you’re working at it, as long as you’re trying your best to listen, and to understand, and to not be racist, or sexist, or whatever, that’s all anyone can ask. It’s a hard battle, man. I’m racist and sexist too, but I’m doing my best not to be.
I’ll be honest, man. I don’t have an easy solution for you. But I do know that shutting down and rejecting what your friends are saying isn’t going to help, and really, it’s not an option. Your friends aren’t asking for pity, they’re asking you to understand them and work with them.
One last thing.
I can tell that you read a lot. I know you’re probably going to be busy hanging out and discovering life this summer, but I want to recommend a book. It’s called The Fire Next Time, by a really smart dude named James Baldwin. It’s short, but heavy. Read it slowly. I think you’ll like it.
I know it’s rough being a college student, so if funds are tight, hit me up and I’ll be happy to mail you a copy. I just landed a pretty lucrative fellowship, so I’m in a position of relative financial privilege.
Have a good summer, Tal.