Comments: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

by Peggy McIntosh

“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

* * *

“In unpacking this 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 perquisites 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 patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color 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 color.”

“One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. 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.”

* * *

The checklist of 50 daily effects of white privilege still shocks me, every single time I read it. Whether it’s recognizing places that I, too, because of my Jewishness am suffering from the effects of privilege, or more shocking, more painful, more <em>embarrassing</em>, places that I’m guilty of perpetuating white privilege or at least not dismantling it, I never fail to learn something from reading it.

My most recent discovery, courtesy of Lily, is that I always identify the skin color of anyone who is not-white, but only occasionally identify the skin color of people who are white. So what? Ask yourself why I don’t identify white skin. I’ll wait. Got it yet? It’s because white skin is my mental default.

Well, duh, yeah, because you’re white. I am. I’m also Jewish. Jewishness is never a default. If I read an untagged character, I will assume they are white, Christian, and quite possibly male. I will almost certainly assume they’re cisgender and straight. What’s wrong with that?

On the one hand, nothing. I’m not doing it wrong. I’m assuming exactly what American culture has taught me to assume. On the other hand, everything. I’m wrong because the culture is wrong. Why on earth should the default character set be white, male, Christian, cisgender and straight? If I think through my friends and relations, I know maybe ten people who fit that description. I know vastly more people who are female and queer, quite a few who are not cis, tons who aren’t Christian, plenty who aren’t white, and couldn’t pass for white if you were tone-blind (including me).

The world has taught me that me and most of my friends are not the default. We’re Other. We’re not the Us. We’re the Them. Think about that for a minute. Even though I’m learning to think of myself as a Me in my daily life, and everyone as an Us, in fiction, I still identify myself as Other. Weird, huh? Uncomfortable, too. No wonder I get all excited about non-stereotypical Jewish women in fiction…

No wonder people want diverse casts without stereotypes and protagonists who aren’t white. Not so weird after all. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s exactly how it should be.