Written by Morgan DeLisle
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, the then associate director of Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women, published an article that would later help an angry white girl in a college class come to grips with her reality. Entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh’s article did not stir in me feelings of vast excitement when it was assigned. She explains in the opening paragraph that the list of fifty things that made up the article were those things that she – after much consideration – felt she could count on that those around her who were not white would not be able to consistently rely upon to be true.
The examples range widely, from the almost silly and yet annoyingly eye-opening:
“17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.”
“46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”
To the much more distressing:
“15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.”
“30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.”
“34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.”
I would vastly recommend the rest of the article to anyone of any color, for several of the reasons that it has stuck with me. The first is that McIntosh is right: it’s an invisible knapsack. I really believe that very few people are readily aware of their privilege, or grow up seeing themselves as privileged. Growing up, I knew there were certain things I had that everyone else may not: my father’s small salary as a private school teacher was supplemented by our “free” education outside of the public school system, my parents are happily married and care deeply about me, we had cars that ran and a nice home. These things were blessings, and we were taught to be grateful. But it would occur to me until college that being white is a privilege any more than it would that being a woman meant less privilege. The privileged often are truly unaware of what benefits their bag contains, much less that they have a knapsack at all.
A second reason I think this article is beautiful is that it is not a list of the ways other groups are oppressed. There is no promise here that if you are not a white woman, your table manners will always be held against your race or that your children are certain to be in harm’s way because of their color. This is not about outlining the way a life other than your own is lived, it is about examining your life through a comparative lens. Thus, it is an urge for each of us to unpack our own privileges because all of us were given a knapsack at birth, and while our privileges differ, none of us are without them completely.
Roxane Gay cemented this idea firmly in my mind in one of the brilliant essays contained in her witty book Bad Feminist. Gay is genuine, hilarious, intelligent and has a gift for attacking difficult issues in ways that make them approachable. I was surprised when she started talking about privilege, not because I wasn’t used to it, but because she was addressing her own privilege. Wait, that might not surprise you. Gay is an openly bisexual daughter of Haitian immigrants. I had never heard a “black privilege” or “gay privilege” talk. For good reason, I have come to realize. So I was surprised to hear her outline the way her work with inner-city students in Detroit forced her to recognize the extent of her privilege. She said that the students she was trying to motivate to get college or to graduate had not been taught how to be students. How to study and read and work hard for school. Gay said that the pressure her parents put on her as far as education went – their insistence on her doing homework, their sitting with her over it, their urging her to do the very best possible – was her privilege.
A gift that not everyone had, but she had been given.
The next article in the series: “But Privilege Isn’t Everything!”
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