White Privilege

I’m a huge fan of Dr. Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty, as well as the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets, both of which point out characteristics, knowledge, etc. that can make children more likely to succeed.  On a broad level, both point out how certain privileges have the ability to totally change trajectory of a person’s life.  As such, it only makes sense that I’d be so intrigued by what I’m about to share.

I’m working on a training session for a friend talking about effective youth ministry in a group that is fairly diverse racially and socioeconomically.  While doing some research, I stumbled across Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  It’s remarkable, if not a little sad, really, that her paper is still so applicable over 20 years later.  The paper is fantastic; I feel like I could quote every sentence, however, I’ll just start with a few that set the tone of the rest of the piece.

“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.”


My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague 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 that will allow “them” to be more like ‘us’.”

McIntosh then goes on to list what she calls the “Daily Effects of White Privilege,” a list of 50 benefits she has identified that are racially specific (although, as she also notes, it is generally impossible to totally remove socioeconomic status, religion, etc. from the equation).  I highly recommend reading all 50, however, I have highlighted the 11 that struck me as the most poignant at this point in my life.

 5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

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

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection. 

17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

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

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

30. 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.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking. 

 39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

 I can certainly add my own to this list.  Off the top of my head, when I tell people I live in Glenwood, they assume it’s a choice, and not that it’s the only area I can afford.  It doesn’t matter if this assumption is true or not (or does it?).  As a white person interested in race, as opposed to being seen as self-interested (#34), one is seen as a social activist.

McIntosh goes on to discuss the fact that simply “knowing” that whites are privileged (or any other group for that matter) isn’t enough to change the system.  The easy way out is to say that we just need to change our attitude.  She doesn’t really offer any tangible ideas, but invites the reader to consider what they will do with this knowledge.  I certainly don’t have the answers, but the word I keep coming back to is intentional.  An attitude of “inequality is unfair” is all well and good, and might even lead you to take a few stands for what’s right.  Usually, though, this attitude stays in the back of our minds, and our actions are apathetic at best.

Of course, this doesn’t even address the fact that when most people use the term racism, we use it to narrowly represent only blacks and whites, overlooking the inclusion of many other ethnicities.  I’d argue that McIntosh’s list is fairly black/white-focused, as well.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have to be intentional in creating change, not just believing in it.

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