Staff Reading: “White Privilege – Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh

This is the second recap of our ethics discussion from our weekly staff meeting.  Reading materials regarding a specific topic are provided before each meeting so staff may read, think, and formulate comments and questions for the group discussion.

June 16, 2020 – Microaggressions

June 24, 2020 – White Privilege

The excerpted essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh (found here) was circulated amongst our staff for general discussion.  The full text of this piece can be obtained from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women for a nominal fee.

The following is a loose recap of our discussion, with paraphrasing and direct quotes from staff where appropriate.  Please feel free to engage with us in the comments section of this post!

Conceptualized within the essay, the author suggests “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.”  Further, McIntosh states “I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way,” acknowledging that a greater, constant, consistent awareness of white privilege is necessary in dismantling the structures that uphold (and are upheld by) that privilege.

McIntosh goes on to list examples of daily instances of white privilege, such as:

25. 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.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.

Concluding that white privilege “opens many doors for white whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us,” the task is upon white people to use the unearned advantages and arbitrary power to dismantle and reimagine society and institutions that historically have harmed Black people and people of color.

From our staff:

“I sent this article along to my parents, because it’s a good baseline.”

“Privilege is sometimes labeled as ‘advantages,’ which is spun in a positive light that doesn’t show the people that the privilege harms.”

“Intersectionality is important; income inequality intersects and compounds with race.  We cannot ignore those intersections.”

Coined by Columbia Law School professor and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the word “intersectionality” is a way to help explain the oppression of African-American women.  In an interview, Crenshaw states “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.  It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LGBTQ problem there.  Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

From our staff:

Even under the illusion of a meritocracy, systemic barriers are still real.  The psychological belief of doing things “right” bringing a reward, and if we’re rewarded, it means we’re doing something “right.”  We want to believe that privilege is not privilege, but something that is “earned,” and that people without privilege have done something to “deserve” what they have not been granted.  We have to be actively aware of the inherent bias that is built into our brains.  Even when you’re doing work on yourself, it’s so easy to not acknowledge when you’ve experienced white privilege.

Further, the term “kyriarchy” was shared, as a more encompassing definition of patriarchy, including social structures upheld by privilege.

From our staff:

“It’s easier to try to look at relating to Black people as a member of another oppressed community [as a woman], but it’s possible within systems of power to experience one form of oppression and also benefit from privilege based on other parts of my identity.”

“Holding privilege and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.  Racism is seen as something so disconnected from ourselves, and not seen as our responsibility to fix.”

To close, a staff member shared the quote “Anti-blackness and racism won’t be fixed until white people see it as their issue to solve, and not a Black issue to empathize with.”

Shared by one of our staff members, “Vocabulary & Frame of Reference: Anti-Oppression Concepts,” is linked here as another foundational resource.


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