The Elusive System of White Privilege

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious,” wrote Peggy McIntosh in a groundbreaking 1988 essay that laid the foundation for contemporary discussions of privilege systems. McIntosh, who is Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, compared white privilege to an “invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Comparing her experiences with those of African-American women in her building and line of work, she listed 46 ways in which she daily experienced unearned advantage based on her skin color. Some of the examples:

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

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.

I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another woman’s voice in a group where she is the only member of her race.

I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

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 do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

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 be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person 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 worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-serving.

“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Learning to See Correspon-dences through Work in Women’s Studies?® is available for $8 from the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley, MA 02181 (tel.:    781-283-2520   781-283-2520 ; fax: 781-283-2504). SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) establishes teacher-led seminars in K?12 schools and universities to focus on making curriculum, teaching methods, and school climates gender-fair and multiculturally equitable.