White Privilege

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White Privilege

Post  MissL on Thu Oct 25, 2012 12:20 pm

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

By Peggy McIntosh

This article is now considered a ‘classic’ by anti-racist educators. It has been used in workshops and
classes throughout the United States and Canada for many years. While people of color have described
for years how whites benefit from unearned privileges, this is one of the first articles written by a white
person on the topics.

Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have
often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that
women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the
university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which
amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages.
These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since
hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege,
which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about
racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its
corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to
recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white
privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can
count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is
like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes,
tools and blank checks.
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to
reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white
privilege must ask, “ Having described it what will I do to lessen or end it?”
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I
understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges
from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why
we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways
in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged
person or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral
state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth
Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and
average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow
“them“ to be more like “us.”
I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white
privilege on my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to
skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all
these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American co-workers,
friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place
and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can
afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely
represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my
color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their
race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. 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, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone
who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the
appearance of my financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. 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.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s
majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being
seen as a cultural outsider.
18. 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.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled
out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s
magazines featuring people of my race.
21. 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.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that
I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be
mistreated in the place I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it
has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white
privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in
facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country;
one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
In unpacking this invisible backpack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily
experience which I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the
holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some these
varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be
ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were
passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and Iwas among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to
want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for
me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural
forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In proportion as my racial group was being confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups
were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. whiteness protected me from many
kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of
color.
For this reason, the word ”privilege” now seems to be misleading. We usually think of privilege
as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have
described here work to systematically over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers
dominance because of one’s race or sex.
I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred
systematically. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to
escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the
expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court,
should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the
humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.
We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages which we can work to
spread, and negative types of advantages which unless rejected will always reinforce our present
hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say,
should not be seen as a privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a
few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that
some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in
unearned advantage and conferred dominance.
I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and
conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them or
whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned race advantage and conferred
dominance and if so, what will we do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in
identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most of our white students in the U.S.
think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color, they do not see “whiteness” as
a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need
similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical
ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion or sexual orientation.
Difficulties and dangers surrounding the task of finding parallels are many. Since racism, sexism
and heterosexism are not the same, the advantaging associated with them should not be seen as the same.
In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class,
economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors. Still, all of the oppressions
are interlocking, as the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 continues to remind us eloquently.
One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms
which we can see and embedded forms which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see.
In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in
individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in the invisible systems conferring unsought
racial dominance on my group from birth.
Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism
could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. (But) a “white” skin in the United States opens
many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.
Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The
silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about
equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making thesetaboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal
opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male
advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the
myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of
confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep
power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Though systemic change takes many decades there are pressing questions for me and I imagine
for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned.
What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether
we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage and whether we will
use any of our arbitrarily-awarded power to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
Peggy McIntosh is Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research for Women.
Reprinted by permission of the author. This essay is excerpted from her working paper. “White Privilege
and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s
Studies.”
Copyright 1988 by Peggy McIntosh. [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
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Re: White Privilege

Post  American Zombie on Thu Oct 25, 2012 1:19 pm

White privilege..Yeah.

But then again, life isn't fair and everybody is born with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some people have the advantage of being intelligent while some just don't. Some people are attractive while others aren't. The list goes on and on. or am I missing the point
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Re: White Privilege

Post  MissL on Thu Oct 25, 2012 6:46 pm

I think there is a difference between privileges because; race vs. privilege of beauty or intelligence is that with the latter two, they can be altered or be undetected. If a person is ugly they can have plastic surgery, wear makeup, change their hair style in efforts to fit in and have the same benefits as pretty people. Those lacking in intelligence can similarly read books, practice math and writing skills and gain intellect. Intelligence is also something that a person merely looking at you can't fully know what your intelligence level is without a test or something. With racial privilege it is something that people notice right away from the language you speak, tone of voice, obviously by seeing the person etc and privileges are withdrawn or given based on race. Unless a person is willing to goto extremes like Michael Jackson to alter their skin color, there is no make up product, book, or other device to change the fact that someone is of a different race. Of course there are privileges that Black, Asian, Mexican and other races obtain, however in America it is the white population who seems have the majority of privileges, and not because they deserve them but because they have white skin which is something in society white people should be aware of and try to make things more equal for everyone. Does that make sense or was that just a ramble? lol.
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Re: White Privilege

Post  yak.yak on Thu Oct 25, 2012 7:41 pm

is it race that has advantage or money? i kno poor white people that cant find jobs living on food stamps and i kno rich black ppl that have quit 3 jobs cause they didnt want to wake up early. its not race its class that controls america.

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Re: White Privilege

Post  Forum Gawd on Thu Oct 25, 2012 8:18 pm

im jewish, money making is so easy, why is that? scratch is it a privilege?

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Re: White Privilege

Post  American Zombie on Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:03 am

MissL wrote:I think there is a difference between privileges because; race vs. privilege of beauty or intelligence is that with the latter two, they can be altered or be undetected. If a person is ugly they can have plastic surgery, wear makeup, change their hair style in efforts to fit in and have the same benefits as pretty people. Those lacking in intelligence can similarly read books, practice math and writing skills and gain intellect. Intelligence is also something that a person merely looking at you can't fully know what your intelligence level is without a test or something. With racial privilege it is something that people notice right away from the language you speak, tone of voice, obviously by seeing the person etc and privileges are withdrawn or given based on race. Unless a person is willing to goto extremes like Michael Jackson to alter their skin color, there is no make up product, book, or other device to change the fact that someone is of a different race. Of course there are privileges that Black, Asian, Mexican and other races obtain, however in America it is the white population who seems have the majority of privileges, and not because they deserve them but because they have white skin which is something in society white people should be aware of and try to make things more equal for everyone. Does that make sense or was that just a ramble? lol.

Well I agree that you can't hide your skin color or your race.. To me, still, life isn't fair.
I mean, a tall athletic guy has an advantage of getting attractive girls compared to a really short, not so athletic guy. And being unattractive isn't always something you can hide.
But I'm interested in how exactly are the privileged class of people supposed to make things more equal?
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Re: White Privilege

Post  MissL on Fri Oct 26, 2012 9:50 pm

I agree that class has a lot to with why people get jobs or not. Having money not only means you can buy, and invest, but you are likely to make friends with people who also have money and therefore have connections in society making your life easier. Its social capitol. It is interesting though that if you look at different races, there is a large proportion of black and hispanic who are poor compared to the overall black and hispanic populations. Racial privilege is not just about how much money a person has or that they have a job, its about the way people think about you before they even know you, they base their opinion off of race and gender. Because of how our society is shaped, for instance; I'm a white female, if I get pissed off at a guy its not likely to hear "Oh your just another angry white girl." Black women are frequently tagged with the label of being angry because she is black. This is an unfair and racially charged label....The band-aid example the author gave was I thought really clever. Perhaps they make them, but I have never seen band-aids that match the skin tone of a black person, they are always cream color, and that is a small privilege white people take for granted.

I also agree that life isn't fair, isn't fair for many reasons other than race, I just thought the article was interesting and had an uncommon perspective.

As for how racially privileged people could make things more equal, obviously the first way is to realize that you are privileged and understand that not everyone has the same experiences. I think many white people don't even realize how easy they have it, and how being white effects what others think about you. In addition I think companies should start making more products available like multi race color band-aids. Alot of it is changing our own thought processes, and when we see someone don't assume they will act or think like their stereotype....I read a book that talked about how black people often have to name drop the school they went to, what type of job they have, & dress more formal in order to let the people around them know that they are middle class and not some thug. Most white people I know don't feel the need to prove themselves like that. Society should be willing to treat people equally, treat others the way you want to be treated.
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Re: White Privilege

Post  American Zombie on Mon Nov 05, 2012 1:39 am

Hey MissL, good post but to me that sort of sounds like "white guilt".

I don't think their should "officially" be privileged classes of people either, especially through law. Every person should be seen an individual first with recognized rights. Specifically the right to Life, property and right to be left alone.

I guess my only concern is when the word equality starts being used by the egalitarians. Since we're all different people and we're not all equal.
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