White Privilege – Part II of VI

Slicing and Dicing the Term

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2019

The term White Privilege has been defined on many levels. It’s not new. What is new is the amount of air time that it is now getting in print, on cable TV and social media. Critical Race Theorists and social justice advocates were slicing and dicing the term throughout the 1960s. But as with Multiculturalism, the term created controversy and offended a society not yet ready to rip its bandaids from its historical wounds. The term was mostly used within the ivory towers of Law Schools, Departments of Social Science, progressive Schools of Education and Psychology where groups of scholars wrote, spoke and presented to each other. To use the term outside of conferences, colloquia and/or workshops was taboo. As for politicians, to hint of the term meant to lose White votes.

It was Peggy McIntosh who in 1988 pushed the term into the mainstream with what she called “her untutored way to ask what it was like to have white privilege based on her daily experiences within her particular circumstances.” The paper, White Privilege and Male Privilege – A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, Working Papers Series No. 189) became a watershed treatise on White Privilege that has been used by Middle School students through college graduates to begin a conversation on White Privilege and its peripheries. Her definitions seemed to be more basic, more personal, more connected and tolerable by white people, or at a minimum, consider as possibilities.

“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.” She continued,

“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, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

Peggy McIntosh did not only attempt to define the term but provided a list of circumstances and conditions she experienced which she felt she did not earn but which she had been made to feel were hers by birth, by citizenship, and by virtue of being a conscientious law-abiding “normal” person of good will. The list, from McIntosh’s perspective, is attached more to ‘skin- color privileges’ than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical locations, although she recognizes that all such factors are intricately intertwined. The compilation of conditions are provided in Part III.