peggy-mcintosh

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 that will allow them to be more like us.
—  Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
The pressure for white people to avoid acknowledging white privilege is great, for in facing it they must give up the myth of meritocracy. If white privilege is true, then this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors are opened for white people through no real virtues of their own.
Good morning! Happy first month of Feminist Summer Book Club!

I hope y'all are as excited as I am! Our first month is on intersectionality and feminism. Our reading list is:

  • “Feminism is for Everybody” bell hooks [PDF available here, here, here, and about a hundred different places if you google it]
  • “Mapping the Margins:  Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women” Kimberle Crenshaw [PDF available online here]
  • “Disappearing Acts: Reclaiming Intersectionality in the Social Sciences” Nikol G. Alexander Floyd [available here]
  • “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh [PDF available online here]

I will post discussion questions in our group on Goodreads by the end of the week, and please feel free to start engaging in a discussion there as the month progresses.

If you have thoughts or questions that you want to share throughout the month, please utilize this blog’s submit and ask features (which will be up and running by the end of the day today) to share those with everyone else in the FSBC.

I am so looking forward to doing this with y'all!

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that 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, assurances, tools, maps, guides, code books, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.
—  Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege” (1988)
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What color are people? Black as neutral in Russian comics.

By Gwen Sharp, PhD

In her article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh talks about a number of types of white privilege, including using the phrases “flesh tone” or “nude” to describe light skin and featuring mostly white people in tv, movies, and advertising.

When I’ve had students read this article, they often argue that it just makes sense to do that, since the majority of people in the U.S. are white. They also question what other color could be used as a “neutral” or “normal” one.  In fact, this is exactly what was argued in the comments to this post about the “white” Facebook avatar.

But English Russia points out that in Russia, it’s not uncommon for people in cartoons to be black; not Black racially, but literally black. Examples of these cartoons are included above.

Despite the fact that many people in Russia would be classified in the U.S. as white, these cartoons obviously use the color black as a neutral color — the people in the cartoons aren’t Black in any racial sense, it’s just the standard color the artist has used for everyone. You might contrast these with things in the U.S. that are labeled “flesh” or “nude” to counter the idea that there are no other options but a sort of light peach color to be the fallback color when you aren’t specifically representing a racial minority.

Thanks to Miguel at El Forastero for the link!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

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 that 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?

—  Peggy McIntosh 
Shit, privilege now?

Privilege. This is one of those thorny topics that everyone likes to fight over, mostly because having privilege is seen as one of those things that mean that you’re not oppressed or can’t talk about oppression. I’m going to get to that bit later on, but I want to get straight what the hell we’re talking about first. Hold on to your butts, here we go! So, from Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege,” we get the following:

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…

Okay, so this is our starting point: while McIntosh is talking about white privilege, the things she’s pointing out can apply to any form of privilege that we want to talk about, especially the bits about privilege being an “invisible package of unearned assets,” which is the most basic definition of privilege we can come up with. This is where we usually lose people when we’re talking about privilege: they get hung up on the “unearned assets” bit and miss the “invisible” bit.

So invisible doesn’t mean that privilege doesn’t “appear” to some people, and here we’re talking about “appear” in a kind of phenomenological sense (you should check out the piece on phenomenology) because those with privilege don’t see that they have it; those that don’t have it can totally see it surrounding the people who do have it. So privilege is there, like a kind of invisible barrier of benefits that follows those who have it around. But wait, if this is the case, then how do people with privilege don’t see it. McIntosh pretty much says:

whites are taught to think of their lives as a morally neutral, normative, and average, also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us.”

Right, so let’s unpack this. When we’re talking about things that are “morally neutral, normative, average…” and so on, we’re talking about things that are taken as the default of whatever. That’s not as precise as I’d like: when we’re saying something is morally neutral, it means that it has no moral value. Pretty much, it’s neither good nor bad: it just is in a moral sense. So, if we take a comparison, the stereotype that being Black means you’re into some criminal nonsense is basically saying that Blackness is morally negative because to be Black is to be inherently criminal.

Let’s take it out of the realm of race for a second: what the “morally neutral” thing is saying is that a privileged group views itself as without any positive or negative moral value: it just is whatever it is. Because it’s just there, it doesn’t really have any connotations associated with it and it can do whatever it wants without someone making a moral judgement about the action when it’s being done by the thing.

A pretty good example of this is the “default” setting on any system. The default setting on any game or system is the setting where most people won’t have any issues with it: it just is. Whenever you boot up a band new computer, it’s on the “default settings,” which are assumed to be the settings that everyone uses. In comparison to it, everything is either harder or easier. That’s what it means to be part of a privileged group: to be morally neutral means that everything is either morally better or morally worse than what you are. You’re the moral standard.

Alright, let’s go to the next bit “normative, average.” So when we’re talking about normativity, we’re talking about something that functions according to the rules or “norms” for society. But this is actually deeper than that: for something to be normative means that it sets up those “norms” or “rules” for society. So when McIntosh is saying that white people are “normative,” she’s saying that white people set up the rules by which everyone else is judged. Wait, let’s not stop there: most privileged groups do this, even those that lack privilege.

Because the group that is normative (which means that it’s the group that sets the rules) is also the group that considers itself to be average, anything that can’t follow the rules as well is taken to be less than average. Okay, so the dominant (or normative) group decides what the average experience is for a human, those people whose experiences don’t conform to the average tend to be disadvantaged in a world that is set up for the people whose experiences are taken to be average. If one privileged group’s experience is taken to be the average experience for everyone, then the people without privilege, whose experiences aren’t “average,” won’t have as easy a time in the world as the people who are average.

All of this pretty much gets us to one of McIntosh’s points, the fact that she was meant to remain oblivious to the existence of her privilege. All of the stuff above is supposed to show how people with privilege are kept ignorant of their own privilege, but what we haven’t talked about is why this is the case Sure, people with privilege don’t notice their own privilege because the world has pretty much been set up with them in mind, but why do those of us with privilege struggle so hard against it. Well, McIntosh has this to say about it:

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 thing 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.

Basically what this says is that one of the reasons (and there are many) that privilege keeps hanging out is because we keep clinging to this idea of “the myth of meritocracy,” which is pretty much when people believe that hard work and determination get people everything that they want or need. So, all our lives we’re taught that working hard means that we can reach whatever goals we set. That’s a pretty basic way of talking about a meritocracy, which is a system of advancement based on the results of the work that people do.

How does this keep privilege in place? Well, the only people who can really get what they work for are the people with privilege as the places and systems that they’re working in are set up with them in mind. Remember how I said people with different experiences will have a harder time? Well, if you’re in a meritocracy that’s designed around a group of people with certain experiences, and you don’t have those experiences, then you’re not going to be able to advance as quickly. What I’m saying here is the argument that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed is pretty much bullshit because of the way that the systems for success are set up.

And this is part of the other reason why privilege keeps hanging out: people with privilege are often the people who’re organizing the systems that allow people to succeed. If we buy everything above, that the privileged group sees themselves as average and normal and the default, and they’re the ones with the access to the social structures, then they’re going to keep making systems based around their own experience (which they think is average, and they’ve convinced everyone else of this fact too), which means that the very systems actually keep producing privilege like some kind of infinite devil machine.

Even silly things are subject to this. Don’t believe me? I’ll give you an example. So the whole “dad bod” phenomena is pretty much male privilege incarnate. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are many people who find the “dad bod” aesthetically pleasing, and that’s not the issue. The issue is that because men are a privileged group, they can set the standards for what is “normative, average,” which includes beauty norms: the rules that people have to follow to be considered beautiful. The issue is that under normal social conditions (I’m not fucking talking about wearing jeans and a t-shirt to a formal gala, MRMs: sit the fuck down), most men’s worth isn’t based on their appearance. So the “dad bod” can be a thing.

To really get on my soapbox, you could say that the “dad bod” phenomena is the result of men (or TEH PATRIARCHIES) controlling the beauty standards for themselves so that they’re not required to go to the same extremes that women are in order to be counted as beautiful. I mean, where’s the whole “mom bod” movement? There isn’t one and I don’t think we’ll see one because the norms for beauty, as established by men for women, have extraordinary requirements. Even the new move towards “plus sized” modeling demands that women appear in a certain way in order to be classed as “curvy” or “plus sized” or “full figured.” Men don’t really have the same kinds of demands to maintain their appearance.

Now, this doesn’t mean that men don’t get crap for their appearance (SIT DOWN MRMs, goddamn), it does mean that a man’s “social value” is less dependent on his appearance, that he will not be considered “less than” for not appearing in a particular way under normal social conditions. Women, on the other hand… Well, I don’t need to prove the point: go look at a tabloid that attacks female celebrities for going out in public in sweatpants; go look at the fact that a woman’s clothing is even a factor in her sexual assault; go look at the entire industries devoted to the maintenance of absurd beauty standards.

I know I’m ragging on male privilege here, and that’s because it’s pretty obvious, but not all privilege functions the same or opens the same kinds of doors or has an affect outside of particular situations. This is one of the things that I want to get across, and probably why this piece follows intersectionality: privilege is largely dependent upon the situation because a lot of what privilege is comes from being a certain person in a certain situation. Let’s go back to McIntosh:

the word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth of luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

When she says “systematically overempower,” she’s referring to the way that the dominant group’s power comes from their position in the system. And by system, I don’t just mean things like “the criminal justice system,” or economic systems, I mean the whole of society as a system. Pretty much whenever we’re using system with or without an adjective, we’re talking about a bunch of things that come together to form one larger things. In this way, society itself is a system, and the dominant group structures that system, which is what gives them their privilege.

Whenever someone says that privilege is “systemic,” or refers to privilege as a form of “systemic inequality,” they’re pretty much talking about the way that privilege is a result of how society (as a system) is set up to advantage or disadvantage particular people. Further, because the system assigns different values to different social things (some things are seen as better or worse than others), it stands to reason that not all people who might have privilege are privileged in the same way. So, what I’m saying is that privilege is intersectional. McIntosh pretty much lays it out:

Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the advantaging associate 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. Sill, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 continues to remind us eloquently.

Aside from the shout out to the Combahee River Collective, one of the earliest groups of feminists of color who laid the groundwork for what would become intersectionality, this paragraph pretty much explains one of the big deals with privilege. Since not all advantages are the same, not all privileges show up in the same way. There’s the tried and true example of poor Black men and poor white men, both of whom have male privilege, however, the white man has white privilege which means that the “playing field” of these two men is uneven.

The problem with a side-by-side comparison (also called oppression olympics) is that it assumes that the playing field was level from the start, that we all have the same basic starting point that privilege adds on to. This is wrong, because pretty much none of us have the same starting points, even among underrepresented groups: two black men, while they might both have male privilege, may be privileged in other ways which affects how the system works against them. It’s not really the case that we are all born without privilege, its how that privilege is affected and affects the trajectory of our lives.

Further, this kind of point by point comparison misses the objective of privilege theories in general: privilege isn’t a thing to measure “the most oppressed,” it was developed as a way to show people how the system that was supposed to make sure that everyone was treated fairly, actually made sure that no one was treated fairly. So, when people try to compare privileges and disadvantages, this is a misuse of the theory altogether, as the point isn’t to prove who is the most or least advantaged, but to show how the system is pretty broken.

To bring this back around, to McIntosh’s point about people with privilege being kept ignorant of their privilege, this happens with people who’re not privileged. Few men of color see how being men, marginalized men, grants them a measure of privilege over their disabled or classed or gender non-conforming peers. To take an awesome historical advantage, the Civil Rights Movement was class and male privilege writ large into a movement of resistance. Because the movement largely focused upon the rights of middle-class Black men, the issues facing Black women of all classes were pushed aside. Further, the reasons for choosing particular figureheads for the movement over others are also rooted in the preservation of the privilege of a particular class of Black people.

This is something that continues today with the co-opting of Black Lives Matter from the three Black queer women who started it and the relative silence where the deaths of Black women, Black transfolk, and queer Black people are concerned. As contentious as this may sound, one component of Black male privilege is the hypervisibility of violence against your body. That is, Black women, Black queer folk, and Black transfolk have to claw and scrape for the kinds of visibility surrounding violence against them that Black men are automatically afforded. To put a final nail in the coffin, when we think about the movement for racial equality, it is largely the image of a Black man that comes to mind. This is what I mean by Black male privilege: the expectation that any struggle for equality will automatically place your rights at the forefront.

So, in this way, Black men are taught not to see themselves as “privileged” due to the overwhelming disadvantages placed upon them and the construction of the struggle for Black liberation around the experience of Black men, which serves to exclude the experiences of Black women, transfolk, and queer black folk. To understand this, we need to remember McIntosh’s use of interlocking oppressions (also known as intersectionality) as the basis for talking about privilege, as well as the fact that privilege exists because of systems. When the system changes so does the privileges that the system gives to people: within the Black community, Black men have a different set of privileges that allow them to be “systemically overempowered” in comparison to other members of the Black community.

Okay, so, if you’ve made it this far, I want to conclude by pointing out something that McIntosh, and other people who’re working with privilege in academic settings, try to make super clear: privilege exists in forms that are pretty visible and in forms that are fairly invisible. The reason for the invisibility is due to how the system is set up, so people who might not think they’re privileged can exercise privileges that they’re not aware of. Basically, an invisible privilege is pretty much something that you don’t even have to think about when you go about your life: it’s just there. Until we start thinking about these things, we’re no closer to understanding our own privileges or taking apart the systems that maintain these privileges.

The denial of men’s overprivileged state takes many forms in discussions of curriculum change work. Some claim that men must be central in the curriculum because they have done most of what is important or distinctive in life or in civilization. Some recognize sexism in the curriculum but deny that it makes male students seem unduly important in life. Others agree that certain individual thinkers are male oriented but deny that there is any systemic tendency in disciplinary frameworks or epistemology to overempower men as a group. Those men who do grant that male privilege takes institutionalized and embedded forms are still likely to deny that male hegemony has opened doors for them personally. Virtually all men deny that male overreward alone can explain men’s centrality in all the inner sanctums of our most powerful institutions. Moreover, those few who will acknowledge that male privilege systems have overempowered them usually end up doubting that we could dismantle these privilege systems. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society or in the university, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s.
3

White privilege and the snow white santa.

By Lisa Wade, PhD

White privilege refers to the many, many benefits of being white in a society dominated, both culturally and materially, by other white people. The notion was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 an essay titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  One benefit is that most fictional characters, unless otherwise specified (and sometimes even so), are assumed to be white.  Growing up non-white in a white-dominated world, then, means that  most of the mythological figures of your childhood do not look like you in one important way.

Santa, of course, is a fictional figure whose appearance is invented.  Theoretically anyone could be Santa.  Yet, while we may see the occasional non-white Santa at the mall or in novelty holiday stories, he is unbearably and overwhelmingly white in our (google-able) imagination:  The first three pages of a google image search for “Santa” are embedded above.

For more examples, see all of our posts about white privilege.  Thanks for Martha Pitts as Ms. for this post idea.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

White Privilege 101: Starting with the Knapsack

This is a reproduction of Peggy McIntosh’s list of examples of white privilege that was originally published in her 1988 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which you can read fully by clicking the title.  Although it isn’t a good place to stop, seeing as so much critical race theory has been done since then, it is a good place to start in terms of thinking about instances where white privilege is experienced but not necessarily understood in that way.  It’s basic and doesn’t get into more complicated details, but it still has relevance to white privilege in the contemporary moment–that’s why it’s part of the “101” series.   

  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 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 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 secondhand 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 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, postcards, 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 my race.
  23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places 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.
MUH WHITE PRIVILEGE

Okay, so a day or so ago I had the joy of being preached to about “white privilege” by a fine young fellow on twitter dot com. Yes, he was white and male, although there was no goony beard in sight.

This is going to be TL;DR, so I’ll get right into it!

If you haven’t already sampled the delicious condescension, you can read it here.

First and foremost, I’ll highlight the no-nos in his own argument:

Keep reading

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. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color.
rolereboot.org
Why Most Mass Murderers Are Privileged White Men

The difference, as Chauncey DeVega made clear on Saturday, is that when white men commit mass murder we don’t hear how their skin color, their maleness, or their social class were contributing factors to their acts. As Peggy McIntosh famously wrote in her White Privilege Checklist, we see whites as individuals whose moral state reflects their individual will. In other words, white men kill simply because they are “sick” or “evil.” When men of color murder, it is because they are both those things and because of factors uniquely attributable to their race.

Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you. If you are—like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966—an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don’t have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.

We don’t yet know what drove James Holmes to do the terrible things he did. We only partly understand what drove the likes of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Charles Whitman, and the many other white men who have committed similar massacres. While each killer had a unique pathology that helped drive him to do the unthinkable, the fact that these white male mass murderers felt so confident choosing public spaces to commit their crimes reflects a powerful truth about the culture in which they were raised. Put simply, they did what they did because of an individual sickness—but they did it where they did it in part because of white privilege.

…But while men from all backgrounds kill their spouses, affluent white men are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our most infamous mass murderers. In other words, the less privileged you are, the less likely you are to take your violence outside of your family and your community.

White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect politicians and professors to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We expect public solutions to our problems. And when we’re hurting, the discrepancy between what we’ve been led to believe is our birthright and what we feel we’re receiving in terms of attention can be bewildering and infuriating. Every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal. This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.

This is one of my favorite quotes of all time.

“One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms which we can see and embedded in forms which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see… 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.” Peggy McIntosh.

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.

It is suggested that participants read the article and discuss it. Participants can then write a list of additional ways in which whites are privileged in their own school and community setting. Or participants can be asked to keep a diary for the following week of white privilege that they notice (and in some cases challenge) in their daily lives. These can be shared and discussed the following week.

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 I was 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 these taboo 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