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Check Your Privilege, Donald


I’ve always found the concept of owning a sports team unsettling. What exactly does one own in a team? When it comes to basketball, the fact that most team owners are wealthy white men who possess teams made up largely of strong black men doesn’t help the imagery. It definitely doesn’t help when an influential NBA team owner gets caught making racist remarks on tape. The fact that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, actually believes he owns his players makes matters just a little more uncomfortable.

As has been widely reported, Donald Sterling was caught expressing frustration with his lady friend and reprimanding her for associating with black men; including the likes of Magic Johnson (oh…the lady friend appears to be of African descent too). When she reminds him of the team of black men that play for him, he responds, “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”

For those that know Sterling, these execrable remarks should come as no surprise. His ‘plantation’ mentality has been well-documented. In a 2009 wrongful-termination lawsuit that was eventually rejected by a jury, former Clippers manager Elgin Baylor reported that Sterling remarked, “Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players.” In 2006, Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination when he refused to rent to blacks and Latinos. His reasons, according to one of his property supervisors: “Because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean. … And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.” He’s been documented using the N-word as well.

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So, given that Sterling’s despicable views were well known, why is it only now that he’s fined and forced to give up ownership of the team? What is the NBA punishing him for? Being a racist or getting caught on a tape that went viral? The swift decision to penalize and ban him is laudable, but the moral high ground the NBA claims is not one that is bona fide. Public outrage, loss of corporate sponsorships, brand damage, and internal politics more aptly describe the league’s decisions. Being a member of one of the most exclusive and wealthiest clubs on the planet, Sterling no doubt has many enemies; this is their chance to take a shot at him.

As repulsive as Sterling’s comments are, one cannot overlook the ethical dilemma they’ve led to. On the one hand is the desire to hold accountable a powerful man for espousing abhorrent and intolerable views, on the other is the violation of that man’s privacy and the broadcasting of comments he made in private. After Snowden’s revelations on government spying, Americans have unequivocally deemed the private space as sacred and inviolable. So, it comes as a surprise that the same public would demand to penalize a man using evidence obtained surreptitiously, through spying.

Sterling’s comments have sparked an inadvertent debate on race across America and, as it turns out, he’s not the only white man being tried in the court of public opinion. Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang made headlines last week after his essay on white privilege was re-published by Time magazine.

After being told repeatedly to “check his privilege” on campus, Fortgang wrote an essay trying to dispel the notion that he was privileged. He did this by highlighting the struggles of his ancestors who escaped the horrors of the holocaust and started a new life in America. Since the publication, he has received rather unwarranted attention; right wing groups giving him airtime to further their agenda, while left wingers lambasting him for defending racism.

I’ve never used the phrase nor have I ever been told to “check my privilege;” perhaps it’s because I am not white, or possibly because I went to school in Canada. Either way, I find it a rather harsh thing to say to anyone. Presumably it’s something you would say to shut someone out in an argument by telling them their opinions are invalid simply because of their skin color; not to mention the emotional damage caused by accusing them of collective guilt. It’s the Ivy League equivalent of, “your face is so [insert debate ending petty argument].”

The frustration that might have caused Fortgang to pen that essay is understandable. However, while I am opposed to using that phrase, primarily because it’s rather petty, one can’t deny the legitimate privileges that accompany a particular race. In denying that privilege, Fortgang displays his naïveté and failure to comprehend the racial realities that underpin our society.

“Checking your privilege” doesn’t mean you must apologize for being white, but rather simply recognize that your race gives you an advantage in a multitude of arenas – think of it as a head start in a competition. Success ultimately rests on your abilities, but having the right skin color can make the road a little easier for you by eliminating prejudices.

Since we started out speaking about basketball (and if you’re reading this Tal), let me illustrate the concept of how race can impact one’s success. Imagine you and I showed up at the tryouts for a basketball team at an inner city high school. You might be more qualified to make the team than me, but you can’t dispel the myth that “white men can’t jump” (you should definitely check out that movie).

Without much effort on my part, being dark and tall will likely cause the coach and other players to have greater faith in my abilities than yours; the struggles of my ancestors are irrelevant here. You, on the other hand, will have to go out of your way to prove yourself. Your mistakes will be under greater scrutiny and your chances of ultimate success in the sport will be far lower. I need to perform to ultimately make the team, but I won’t deny that darker skin does help a little in this case. I won’t apologize for it, but I recognize it and I don’t think its fair.

It would be unjust to draw analogies between Donald Sterling and Tal Fortang; one is a known racist while the other is simply unaware of his privileged status in our racially biased society. I do believe, however, that both these episodes illustrate that racial inequality is exceedingly pervasive and remains deeply embedded in the American psyche – but that’s just my personal Weltanschauung.

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Waleed Ahmed writes on current affairs for MuslimMatters. His work has focused on Muslim minorities, human rights, culture and international conflicts. Currently based out of Montreal, he holds a Ph.D. in particle physics from McGill University. Waleed also has a keen interest in studying Arabic and French. He spends his spare time reading, playing basketball and praying for Jon Stewart to run in the next presidential election. contact: waleed dot ahmed at



  1. Saba

    May 12, 2014 at 2:53 PM

    I agree to a considerable extent with Tal Fortang. He is not suggesting that there isn’t racism in American society. He is rightly pointing out that there is a certain reductionalism and over-simplicity in the ‘white male patriarchy’ ammunition which forms a strong component part of the liberal discourse in this country. The “you’re a white male therefore you’re perspective is somehow inherently tarnished and needs to be qualified” rejoinder is often over-simplisticly applied and indiscriminately leveled on anyone whose opinions may not be fully aligned with liberal-leftist thinking on any given issue. It can sometimes just be used to distort arguments and implicitly lessen the credibility of the person making them.

    Human beings are more complex than that, our perspectives are not (and should not) just be a straight forward by-product of our gender, racial background, and cultural conditioning. Particularly in the American context, you mix with people of many backgrounds, and are exposed to varying perspectives on many issues. Suggesting that because someone comes from a certain background and is of a certain gender, and is therefore bound to think in a certain way is both naive and insulting. Fortang does not have to be apologetic about his opinions or achievements.

    • Razan

      May 12, 2014 at 11:50 PM

      Wow – thank you, and thanks to the author, for really beautifully articulating my thoughts on the term ‘privilege’! I’d always felt slightly uncomfortable with how it’s thrown around, but I’d never known exactly how to phrase it. :)

  2. Saliha

    May 13, 2014 at 12:49 AM

    The absolutely ironic part of Tal’s argument is that his grandparents destiny was shaped by whiteness. Hitler ethically cleansed Jews because he didn’t see them as white enough. Very ironic.

  3. Mahmud B.

    May 13, 2014 at 2:32 AM

    For a minute there I thought I was reading this article on CNN.

    It must be a slow news day over at Muslim Matters headquarters


    I fail to see how this article is relevant here on Muslim Matters.

    I know there are things that are not necessarily directly linked to
    Islam that affects Muslims as well

    But this isnt one of them

    I just hope that Muslim Matters doesnt up like CNN and other “news” organisations
    that put out articles on mundane topics such as famous online pets, celebrity gossips etc

    Remember….”where attention goes, energy flows”

    Just being honest here guvna’


    • Halima

      May 13, 2014 at 3:16 AM

      I second that. We have countless websites to inform us of “current news” and celebrity gossip. I for one would know all about that. Stick to what you guys know best. That’s my 2 cents.

      • RCHOUDH

        May 16, 2014 at 5:36 AM

        At first I was a bit surprised too to see this sort of article on MM instead of on a social justice tumblr site. However, I still see the value in bringing up these sorts of discussions amongst Muslims, because racism affects us as well and we can be both victims and perpetrators of racism in the US and abroad.

        I think that if the article had brought in a Muslim angle into its content, that would have made it more relevant to MM. For example, if they had talked about how the white privilege prevalent in the US extends towards favoring Muslims with light skin over dark, thereby causing conflicts between different ethnic/racial groups, that would have resonated more with MM’s primary audience.

        With that said, I agree with the article when they mention that just using a person’s privileges (whether earned or not) against themselves in order to shut them up is ineffective in the long run towards creating a dialogue over racism. It also leads people to believe that only certain groups of people engage in racism (in this case white people), thereby excusing or downplaying the racism of others, which is wrong. What I believe is key towards creating more effective discussions over racism, is to recognize that we all exercise different types of privileges (be they privileges pertaining to race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc). while also understanding that each of us also harbor different disadvantages in society. It is thus very important for us to foster such dialogue not only between ourselves within the Ummah, but also with those of other backgrounds.

  4. Edward Kefas

    May 13, 2014 at 5:54 AM

    The editors should check their judgement.

    Tal Fortgang cheering Israel’s 2012 bombing of defenseless Palestinians trapped in the Gaza ghetto.

  5. Mohammed76

    June 4, 2014 at 5:35 AM

    thats why you know yourself to be a lover of American justice system and values

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