Critical White Studies Part II ~ The Knapsack of Privileges
The power of Peggy McIntosh’s compilation of white privileges was that they were her personal observations of what she termed “unearned skin privilege” – advantages she felt as a white woman. What is lost at times in McIntosh’s argument are her powerful explanations of her lack of awareness of seeing herself as an oppressor, “an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.”
As with many of us, McIntosh points out that she was not taught in-depth about slavery and to recognize slave owners as damaged people with a truncated ideology and pathology. To constantly focus on the oppressed without a thorough analysis of what caused oppressors to oppress deflects a necessary step of the argument. In other words, what caused slave owners to justify inhuman oppression as an inherent entitlement for centuries?
Slave owners were once children, who were raised and schooled to believe that to inflict inhumanity, without personal consequence and at will, was their right without boundaries. Slavery was founded on false delusional assumptions of inherent entitlements, privileges, superiority, supremacy anchored by violence, power and control.
A major step for understanding the depth of white entitlement is to come to terms that slave owners and their legacy (pre-post the Civil War) did not see people of color as equals with access to healthcare, education, civility, decency, empathy, opportunities of worth, choice, respect and freedom. A life of servitude, without questioning why, was the reality of slaves and their children. To be buried in unmarked graves was the ultimate savagery that their lives and deaths as slaves did not matter.
This factual reality is one of the primary reasons why slavery should be studied in all schools with age and grade appropriateness. History does not shame nor blame, but unveils the truth in order to teach, forewarn and avoid inhumanities in the present and future. History provides empathy – that exceptional human quality that can lead to awareness and connectedness that we share as human beings.
As McIntosh points out, “My schooling followed the pattern which Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us.” Followed by a quick jab and uppercut, “I think many of us know how obnoxious this attitude can be in men.”
The following list published in 1988 is infamous, and it should be noted that since 1988 the list has been scrutinized and updated. Nevertheless, the original remains a pathway, at a minimum, to awareness of White Privilege while providing opportunities for awareness, reflection, introspection and substantive examples for discussions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 in which she is the only member of her race.
- 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 do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- 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 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 bad morals, poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can talk with my mouth full, laugh loudly and not have people put this down to my color.
- 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 be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
- I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
- If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
- 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 to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
- My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives on power of people of other races.
- I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
- 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.
- 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 be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
- I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
- If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
- I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
- I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
Peggy McIntosh seemed to always end her facilitating with questions that would linger. What would be our advocacy given our personal and professional power of influence to enhance the quality of our lives and the lives of others? How would we manage our privilege?
Critical White Studies I: White Privilege
Critical White Studies II: The Knapsack
Critical White Studies III: White Capital
Critical White Studies IV: Aversive Racism by the Well Intentioned
Critical White Studies V White Loss