In the wake of social unrest in the United States, following the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the protests which have ensued around the world, it’s not enough to reiterate the simple fact that Black lives do matter, but challenge our non-Black counterparts to take notice of issues that plague the Black community. For the world to begin to see a real turning point in the fight against systematic racism, non-Black individuals and groups need to listen more, speak up as often as they can, acknowledge privilege where necessary and take responsibility for their actions and reactions. This battle can only be won together.
Oftentimes, you find that understanding a problem with an established system can come from self-reflection. In 1989, a well-researched paper written by women’s studies scholar, Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Philadelphia. In this article, the American feminist and anti-racism activist highlighted 26 everyday examples of white privilege, often gone undetected or taken for granted.
“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,” McIntosh wrote. “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 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 […] – like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
In a bid to identify some of the evidence of white privilege in her own life, McIntosh went on to compile this list of common situations where White people could naturally have the upper hand in the society:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
- 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 cut my hair.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- 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.
- I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- 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.
- 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.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- 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.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
- I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.
McIntosh goes on to admit that it’s tempting to avoid the subject of white privilege altogether as it’s often seen as uncomfortable, and it might be significantly easier to fane ignorance and/or turn a blind eye to issues that don’t personally affect you. “In facing it, I must give up the myth of meritocracy If these things are true, this is not such a free country.”
While clearly stating that the goal of this paper has never been to “blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a ‘nice person’,” McIntosh firmly addresses the benefits White people enjoy from structural racism – knowingly or unwittingly – and the role they (should) play in levelling the playing field.
“Some people “get” the idea of systemic privilege and ask “But what can I do?” My answer is, you can use unearned advantage to weaken systems of unearned advantage. People with privilege have far more power than we have been taught to realize.”
In everyday, practical terms, this is what she believes that would look like: “Use unearned assets to share power; these may include time, money, energy, literacy, mobility, leisure, connections, spaces, housing, travel opportunities. Using these assets may lead to key changes in other behaviors as well, such as paying attention, making associations, intervening, speaking up, asserting and deferring, being alert, taking initiative, doing ally and advocacy work, lobbying, campaigning, protesting, organizing, and recognizing and acting against both the external and internalized forms of oppression and privilege.