Unpacking the knapsack of race privilege

Photo: phossil/Flickr

This article, first published in 1999, was taken from rabble.ca's vaults in time for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21.

It's several weeks after Black History Month; have you checked your racial awareness recently?

My own awareness received a sharp and exhilarating little jolt when I read an article by Dr. Peggy McIntosh in a journal published by the National Association of Women and the Law.

When you're struggling with a difficult new concept, sometimes a lively metaphor brings everything murky into vivid focus. That's what McIntosh, the associate director of the Centre for Research on Women at Wellesley College, has done for the concept of systemic racism.

Her idea came to her as she tried to convince her male academic colleagues to introduce more material about women into their courses.

"I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged in the curriculum, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged," McIntosh wryly notes in her article.

Her male colleagues, she says, seemed mostly "oblivious to the connections between over- and under-representation. Denials which amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages which men gain from women's disadvantages."

McIntosh was struck by the realization that white privilege, in just the same way, gives whites an automatic, unearned advantage while making them oblivious to its existence.

And now we come to that inspired metaphor: "White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank cheques."

McIntosh launched into an exercise of "unpacking" her knapsack, naming and writing down all the previously unnoticed ways in which she, in her daily life, enjoys "over-advantage" by contrast with her African-American women colleagues in the same building and line of work.

Here are just a few of the 46 privileges she lists: she can move into housing she has chosen and be pretty sure her neighbours will be neutral or pleasant to her; she can go shopping alone, assured that she won't be followed or harassed; she can turn on the TV or open the newspaper and see people of her race widely and positively represented; she can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting her race on trial; when she is told about "our national heritage" or about "civilization," she is shown that people of her colour made it what it is.

She does not have to educate her children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection; she can swear, dress poorly or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty or illiteracy of her race; she can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to her race; she can criticize the government without being seen as a cultural outsider; she can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking; she can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of her race; she can remain oblivious to the language and customs of persons of colour, who constitute the world's majority, without feeling any penalty for such oblivion. She can go home from meetings of organizations she belongs to feeling tied-in rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard or feared. She can buy "flesh-coloured" bandages that more or less match her skin.

McIntosh's list is a provocative, sometimes scathingly funny recognition of daily experiences which, she writes, she once "took for granted as neutral, normal and universally available to everybody," just as she once took the male-focused curriculum as neutral.

"If we could just see our own over-advantage... it would change the way we act."

The problem, McIntosh writes, is that "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my racial group."

That's why McIntosh's metaphor of a knapsack, stuffed with comfy clothes and blank cheques, is so valuable. If we follow her example and take a close, honest look at our unearned assets, we may, like her, have to give up the self-flattering "myth of meritocracy" and recognize how many doors swing silently open for us because of our skin colour. We may suddenly understand how much fear, anxiety and painful marginalization we've escaped just by being born white in a white-dominant society. And if we're honest, we'll see that unearned advantage, like hereditary wealth, can also be soul-damaging and character-deforming. Because we think we're exempt from racism (after all, we don't choose our white privilege) we may lay claim to a moral purity to which we're not entitled.

"If we could just see our own over-advantage, and not merely others' disadvantage, it would change the way we act," McIntosh said in a phone interview.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star in 1999.

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