It is a familiar phrase on college campuses, often meant to serve as conversational kryptonite, the final word in an argument to which there is no response.
“Check your privilege.”
But Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman from, had a response.
After class recently, he was explaining to a classmate his views on welfare and his concern about the, when he was told — not for the first time, he said — to check his privilege.
He thought about the phrase, what it meant and last month penned apointed essay in a conservative campus publication, The Tory.
“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laserlike at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung,” he wrote.
His essay touched a nerve.
He was hailed on the right, his piece used as evidence that America’s universities are hopelessly liberal. Conservative bloggers and national publications picked up his cause.
He appeared on Fox, in a segment labeled “Student Takes Down Liberals Over ‘White Privilege’ Debate.”
The reaction on the left was equally strident, with other students challenging his position and saying his own words were evidence that he had failed to understand the phrase.
Josh Moskovits, also a freshman at Princeton, said the phrase was not commonly used and argued that Mr. Fortgang did not even understand what privilege meant.
“In my opinion, it’s sort of a manufactured right-wing idea that people are running around left wing colleges saying ‘Check your privilege,’ ” he said. “He would have to say, in my opinion, something incredibly outrageous to get someone to say ‘Check your privilege.’ ”
Mr. Fortgang, 20, said he often saw the phrase used on Facebook after he has voiced conservative opinions.
In his essay, Mr. Fortgang, who is from New Rochelle, N.Y., uses his own family’s powerful story as evidence that his “privilege” should not be assumed. He tells how his grandfather fled the Nazis and was forced into exile in Siberia and how his grandmother was sent to a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. “Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown,” he wrote. “Maybe that’s my privilege.”
His grandfather and father built up a wicker basket business, he wrote, and emphasized education in the home.
“While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a,” he wrote. “But that is a legacy I am proud of. I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”
All the attention he has received since then has been somewhat surprising, Mr. Fortgang said, adding that he was not always happy with the kind of people who have rallied around him.
“I am sure there are some really racist white supremacists who point to me as a hero on the,” he said. “That is not me. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
His father, Stanley, said he was proud of his son and was moved by the essay but had urged him to be wary.
“I told him it is very important that you unequivocally disassociate yourself with things you don’t believe,” he said.
On campus and beyond, a common criticism of Mr. Fortgang’s essay was that it missed the point of how privilege affects one’s worldview.
“I was in shock because it said ‘checking my privilege,’ and I concluded after reading that he had been ultimately unsuccessful in examining his own privilege,” said Briana Payton, a freshman from Detroit and thefor the college’s Black Student Union.
While his family’s story was moving, she said, and not something to be trivialized, it was not something that affected his daily experience.
“He doesn’t know what it feels like to be judged by his race,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve met an African-American who believes that they are judged solely by their character.”
In defense of Mr. Fortgang, Zach Horton, a junior from Houston and former editor in chief of The Tory, said that “check your privilege” was the kind of dismissive phrase that sticks in the mind of freshmen, who are new to the school and new to the politics on campus.
“He has some very interesting thoughts,” Mr. Horton said. “He will stir the pot and get people thinking and get people talking.”
Mr. Fortgang said he had read and heard from many critics but stood by what he had written.
“I know a lot of the criticism centers around the idea that meritocracy is a myth,” he said.
“I don’t mean to minimize the impact privilege can have on the outlook one has, but there are many other factors that should not just be written off.”
Still, he said, after a year at Princeton, he hoped his views were starting to develop “some real nuance.”
“I am learning how to learn,” he said.