White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack

*The author Anne Sibley O’Brien

“Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.  They may say that 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 that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that 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 that was similarly denied and protected.

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that 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 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, code books, 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 to 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 colour that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are mostly 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 that will allow “them” to be more like “us”.

Daily effects of white privilege:  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 that I think in my case, attach somewhat more to skin color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.
As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, 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 that I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours 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 colour 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 that fit  with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
  10. Whether I use cheques, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin colour 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 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 colour, 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 behaviour 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 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” colour that more or less match my skin.

Elusive and Fugitive:  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 of it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
In unpacking the invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these
prerequisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of 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 that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf; and was among those who could control the turf. My skin colour 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 made 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 colour.

For this reason, the word privilege now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favoured state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to over-empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

Earned strength, unearned power; I want then to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systemically.

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 neighbours 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 advantage, 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 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 that I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the Unites States 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 we will 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 Unites States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are people of colour; 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 advantages associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage that 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 members of the Combahee River Collective pointed in their “Black Feminist Statement” of 1977. One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppression. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group one is taught not 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 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.

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 subjects taboo.

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.

Although 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 prerequisites 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.”

[McIntosh, Peggy (1990) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Independent School. Winter 1990, pp. 3136.]

One response to “White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack

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