(Not Just) Black and White: Thoughts on the Princeton Privilege Essay

3 years ago

Have you seen the article about privilege written by the Princeton freshman ?

It's probably all over your Facebook/tumblr/whatever feed ... or at least, it was all over mine, for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on.  It's possible that outrage fueled the social media frenzy, like "Princeton Mom" Susan Patton's injunctions to young women to marry well have done.


Image Credit: stu_spivak via Flickr


In a nutshell, the student published a piece in a conservative student publication, raging against people whom he feels diminish his accomplishments because of the color of his skin.  He's annoyed at people telling him to "check his privilege," because his ancestors were victimized, and he has earned everything he has.  (*edited for a more correct representation of his article)

Recently, I attended a talk given by Deborah Prentice, a Princeton professor of psychology, about gender and normative behavior at Princeton.  The phenomenon she described was interesting, though not terribly surprising: that Princeton male students have a much narrower bandwith of non-normative behavior than females do; that is, that females have many more proscriptions and prescriptions that males do, when compared to a non-gendered Princeton "student norm," or what students would describe as the "typical Princeton student."  In other words, the "typical" Princeton student is--in descriptive behavioral terms according to peers--male.  Women, on the other hand, are much more visible (they "stand out"), but also much less audible; we notice them on campus, but are less likely to remember what they say, or even to attribute what they say to other people.  Essentially, women have to work harder to be "normal."  (In case you're curious: she finds that this is the case on many other campuses too, though the effects are much more pronounced at private than at public schools.)

I found myself thinking about this as the Princeton privilege story spread.  The student who wrote the article (and I'm not using his name because I hesitate to give him any more air time than he's already gotten) is precisely the sort of student most people conjure when they think of Princeton: white, male, from a relatively well-off background.  And when people think of Princeton, in my experience, they also think of privilege.  The student's public rejection of privilege and the ensuing social media frenzy in some ways reinforced people's concept of what it means to be a Princeton student:  There go those privileged white dudes at Princeton again, poor guys, it's so hard to wear Abercrombie.  He's actually not the norm, though: Princeton is a very diverse place, with 13% of the students being the first in their families to attend college, 8% self-identifying as African American, 10% identifying as Latino, 12% international, 60% come from public schools, and another 13% from religiously affiliated ones. The students who attend Princeton may be privileged to be at Princeton, but they don't necessarily arrive already marked by it.  Yes, we, too, are Princeton.  Or Harvard.  Or whatever.  Take your pick.

On the other hand, of course, privilege is both slippery and relative, like the aphorism about one-eyed man in the land of the blind. My thoughts were less about being at the Ivy League, though, than they were about being admitted to any "privileged" group; i.e., that (1) we often forget to acknowledge our own privilege (duh), (2) as insiders, we sometimes make assumptions about the privilege of group members that simply aren't true, and that erase their difference, and (3) that group outsiders will also sometimes erase the pasts of former outsiders who join a group that is "privileged/normative" (e.g., infertile people who manage to have children sometimes find themselves ostracized from a group that was their sole source of strength during years of infertility, because somehow they are now "fertile").

All three of these approaches prevent us from connecting with each other.  We owe it to each other to listen, and make ourselves a little vulnerable, instead of making assumptions.  Unfortunately, some of the less authentic privilege-talk results in the pain/suffering Olympics we all know too well.  People who feel guilty about privilege dig deep to deny it, and rarely use it as an opportunity for self-examination.  It's embarrassing and uncomfortable to have an advantage.

Hopefully, the Princeton freshman who wrote this particular piece will, by the time he's done with college, understand a little bit about why people reacted as they did to his article, because he will have met quite a few people who are not like him.  Hopefully, he won't regret posting this to the internet, and fueling some good dialogue.  I'm pleased that some of the responses from his fellow students have been thoughtful, honest, and even--in some cases--non-judgmental.  Because as we know, the best way to help people understand difference is decidedly not to launch a counterattack, and we all--privileged in our own ways--have a lot to learn.


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