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White Privilege: Repacking my Invisible Knapsack

Check Your Obedient Privilege
Check Your Obedient Privilege
Daily Anarchist

For some reason everyone in the Privilege Preaching Posse that I ever talk with eventually sends me an essay written in 1988 titled “Unpacking my Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. I think of it as the White Privilege Manifesto. Did I mention Peggy is a Women’s Studies professor, and Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women? The ideology of privilege, and it’s central failure, is beautifully summarized in Peggy’s first paragraph:

“I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women's statues(sic. I think she means “statuses.” Although there’s still no verb.), in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women's disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.”

Do you see it? The privilege preachers do not want to raise up marginalized people. They want to knock straight white men down a peg. It’s classic crab mentality. This idiom refers to a bucket of crabs who could cooperatively escape, but instead they pull each other down and ensure their collective demise. It’s as if a man found himself on a life raft ahead of the queue, so he reaches back to the sinking ship to help women and children aboard. But Preggy stands on the deck, crossing her arms stubbornly and demands that he get back on the sinking ship before she’ll board the life raft.

The men she chastises admit that women are disadvantaged, and want to work to rectify that injustice by shattering the glass ceiling, but she would rather knock the floor out from under them. She wants to live in the world of "Harrison Bergeron" where the government ensures that all citizens are equal by handicapping anyone above average. The privilege preachers don’t want a rising tide that lifts all boats. They want a tidal wave that sinks all boats, because at least at the bottom of the ocean we are equal.

The bulk of her essay is nothing but a list of 50 advantages she enjoys in her life that she attributes to “unearned skin privilege.” What’s embarrassing about her article is that it reads like it was written by a high school girl who made a list of her favorite pop bands when she was supposed to be writing a comprehensive essay on the history and influence of jazz. This is the level of intellectual rigor I’ve come to expect from our privileged academics.

Most of the items on the list fall into four categories.

Some are utterly inconsequential, as in number 46:

"I can choose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin."

This is really scraping the bottom of the crab barrel looking for oppression if you ask me. Besides, they make brown and clear bandages now. The market went ahead and solved this one without government intervention.

Many of the items on her list may have been the case in 1988, but haven't been for many years, as in number 26:

"I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race."

Maybe you couldn't get ethnically diverse magazines when this was written, although I seriously doubt it. Ebony, which is still a popular magazine, was first published in 1945. Freedom's Journal, the first African-American owned and operated newspaper in the US, was published in 1827. The first African-American Barbie doll debuted in 1968. The first Hispanic Barbie doll debuted in 1988, the same year as this article's publication. I'd say the privilege that Peggy is actually describing is being utterly ignorant of products and services that are not marketed toward her.

Another portion of the items on her list are things it's utterly despicable to desire anyway, and certainly not socially sanctioned today, as in number 1. Apparently it was on top of her mind:

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

This has not been my experience at all. In fact, I think the opposite is true. It is socially acceptable for people of color to organize groups on the basis of race, but not for white people. But no matter, I’m not sure why this is valuable anyway, unless Peggy prefers the company of her own race over others for some reason… which is kinda racist.

And finally some of the items on her list are not the result of white privilege at all, but the result of other privileges she enjoys, as in number 9:

"If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege."

Peggy's article was published in academic journals and on leftist websites. I seriously doubt those journals and websites will publish my rebuttal just because I’m white. This is an academic privilege and an ideological privilege. The Internet has blown the door wide open on self-publishing. I publish articles here and the managers of the site don't even know my race.

All that's left of her list after you remove these categories are a select few white privileges that are not privileges at all, but rights violations against people of color, as in number 40:

"I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen."

No one calls marriage as a “straight privilege.” They call it a “human right,” because they don’t want to take marriage from straight people. They want to give marriage to all people. Bring all the historical injustices, and modern statistics you want. It’s still the wrong word for the wrong concept. By using the term the privilege preachers reveal themselves as more interested in the privileges they intend to take away, rather than the rights that all people of conscience want restored.