Excerpts from White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. From “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” Working Paper #189, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley, MA. 1988.
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. Denial s 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 in 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 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 in 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.
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.
For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to me 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 ground. 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. […]
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 we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. […]
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 people 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 try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
Biography taken from Wellesley Center for Women www.wcwonline.org/Active-Researchers/peggy-mcintosh-phd
Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, is also the founder, of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity). The SEED Project helps teachers create their own year-long, school-based seminars on making school climates, K-12 curricula, and teaching methods more gender fair and multi-culturally equitable. Dr. McIntosh currently leads the expansion of the SEED Project, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Dr. McIntosh directs the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project, which provides workshops on privilege systems, feelings of fraudulence, and diversifying workplaces, curricula, and teaching methods. Dr. McIntosh has taught English, American Studies, and Women's Studies at the Brearley School, Harvard University, Trinity College (Washington, D.C.), Durham University (England), and Wellesley College.
She is co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute, and has been consulting editor to Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. In 1993-1994, she consulted with women on 22 Asian campuses on the development of Women's Studies and programs to bring materials from Women's Studies into the main curriculum. In addition to having two honorary degrees, she is a recipient of the Klingenstein Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership from Columbia Teachers College. She earned her doctorate degree from Harvard University.