Peggy McIntosh. (July/August, 1989). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom.
It is easy for me to walk into a stationery store and find a greeting card appropriate for my family or most of my friends. But recently, my wife and I wanted to send a card to dear friends who just had a baby girl. But we had a challenging experience finding the right card. The problem was not in the lack of congratulatory messages, but in the lack of cards which properly identify with our friends. Our friends are African American. It is also heartbreaking to notice that their birth announcement portrays a sketch of a white baby; they, too, had a hard time finding an appropriate greeting.
This is white privilege.
According to Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, “white privilege” is “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” This discovery came as she was preparing a research article concerning male privilege in America. Her studies in this field were rooted in findings of men’s unwillingness to acknowledge their over-privileged status, though they would admit the disadvantaged state of women. These denials, in essence, protected male privilege from being acknowledged, decreased, or curtailed. Calling out this unacknowledged male privilege phenomenon, McIntosh knew that since hierarchies in the society of the United States were interlocking, her finding of unattended white privilege might be a key to racism as well. She realized that while she was under the dominance of males, she had dominance over other women who were of another ethnic origin, particularly black women.
For McIntosh, racism is taught as something which puts another at a disadvantage. In light of the preceding, she realized an erroneous omission in the teaching of racism: if some are disadvantaged, a significant corollary must be that another is placed in a position of advantage. Specifically, white privilege must be the translated position of advantage.
McIntosh finds that whites are taught “to think of their lives as a morally neutral, normative, and average ideal, so that when [we] work to benefit others, it’s seen as work allowing “them” to be more like “us.” This kind of teaching establishes a silent, but strong belief that the white is superior, even deserving our advantages.
McIntosh describes white privilege vividly and powerfully as the idea of an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions and more. In other words, a white person in the United States has on his or her back an invisible weightless knapsack granting favored positions, status, acceptance, and more.
In wading through the disillusionment the reality of realized white privilege brings upon one’s life, McIntosh understood that it then made one newly accountable. McIntosh began working through this issue first in herself through accountability in counting the ways in which she enjoyed “unearned skin privilege;” possibly even more grievous, she noted that she had been conditioned into oblivion of its existence. Likely, many whites operate in such oblivion.
Here are some of the items that she found to compose an invisible white knapsack:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions …
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
These few components of the invisible white knapsack encompass social, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of one’s life. This means, therefore, that the invisible white knapsack serves holistically for the unearned privilege of one, and contributes towards holistic injustice of another.
After “unpacking the invisible knapsack” with this list, McIntosh outlines why she believes that “privilege” is too soft a word. She asserts that “dominance” is more appropriate; the mental control that a particular race has over another is a sort of dominance. We are really talking about power. The conditions above allow for the systematic over-empowerment of certain groups. In short, such privilege “confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.” Such dominance, whether intentional or unintentional, is embedded in white privilege. McIntosh suggests that no longer are the chains of power made of metal; rather, they are made of mental control devises such as the ones listed. But no one is held responsible because of the oblivious nature of the whole thing. She believes that it is perhaps as damaging as slavery.
McIntosh goes on to say that disapproving of racist systems will not be enough to change them. However, systemic change can begin with the acknowledgment, identification of, and teaching of white privilege for oneself and then others. Individuals must understand what is happening and then make others aware. Once everyone understands white privilege, the issues of control can be addressed and eradicated. Only after such persistent and patient work, may one hope for system changes.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do you agree with McIntosh about the concept, and reality, of the ‘invisible knapsack?’ Do you see how this invisible knapsack can also express itself in terms of religion or age? If not, how would you interpret her findings? Do you think this is a specifically American phenomenon or is it an international one?
- Have you listened to the stories of people of color disadvantaged when they drive, when they go into a store, and in many other daily experiences? How do they feel about “white privilege”?
- How does the matter of an unfair playing field make you feel if you are a ‘wearer’ of such a ‘knapsack’ – Distressed? Outraged? Indifferent? Hopeless in bringing change? If you are one oppressed by the ‘knapsack’ others seem to have, what are your feelings: – Angry? Saddened? Justified? More isolated?
- What are some things you can add to McIntosh’s list as examples of your own ‘invisible knapsack’ if you believe yourself to wear one? Do you unintentionally perpetuate white privilege—how?
- How were you taught about racism, through your family, peers, media and educational system?
- What can you do to lessen the effect or remove the ‘invisible knapsack’ if you believe yourself to wear one? Will you continue to identify how unearned race advantage and conferred dominance affects your daily life if you are in such the position of ‘favor?’ What can you do to end “white privilege”?
- Do you think others in your surrounding sphere understand this view of racism? Are there positive ways you can discuss it with them?
Though outright racism still exists, it occurs to a lesser degree—or perhaps just slightly different forms—than it did even thirty years ago. The experiences of people of color deny any “end of racism” that some may claim. Though there are no longer U.S. slaves, people with light skin still dominate dark-skinned people in the mental obstacles that are ignorantly positioned. As a light skinned American, it’s easy to believe that anyone can achieve whatever they desire-and if they don’t, it’s their own fault because they didn’t try hard enough.
When one recognizes the inherent advantages of being fair-skinned, one must adjust his or her thinking. But don’t assume that race-based hiring is the immediate solution. If this age and society continues to prevent dark-skinned people from having a fair chance, then no government program will solve the deeper problem. However, if popular media and teachers join forces, then those in power will be forced to address their method of control, and the barriers may begin to crumble.
Here are several suggestions:
- The language of white privilege must be included in any education on racism. Without understanding the underlying barriers, no one can address the real concerns. Few people will openly admit racist attitudes, but everyone with fair skin should at least admit that they have a privilege and consider relinquishing that privilege in the marketplace of ideas and money.
- Media personalities can lead in the breaking down of racial stereotypes. Racial identity may be an important factor for people, but perpetuating negative stereotypes does not break down walls. If media personalities such as TV and movie stars and respected news anchors and talk show hosts begin to address issues of white privilege, the masses will learn about the issues. This will allow us, as a society, to effectively deal with the problem of racism.
- Difficult as it may be, we deal best with racism and other kinds of discrimination by listening and responding to one another.
Shelly E. Bland and Matthew Furr© 2020 CYS