- by Stacey Prince
When most of us first begin to learn about racism, we focus on interpersonal acts of meanness or harassment. We also focus on the oppressed individual and their disadvantages, rather than on the oppressor. Many white people have been known to say things like, “racism is not a white person’s problem, because I have no race”. This denial of whiteness as a racial identity (the flip side of which is confirmation of whiteness as the norm), and denial of the unearned benefits that come along with being light-skinned, are taught to us from a very young age. It can be a difficult transition to move from a focus on interpersonal oppression and the disadvantages that others face, to an examination of one’s own privilege and the systemic nature of structures and institutions that solidly hold the privilege gap in place. That is what I want to focus on here.
In an article that has since become a classic, Peggy McIntosh in 1988 began to deliberately explore and delineate the unspoken, unearned benefits of whiteness. Many of these are hard to see, because they are often the absence of something (barriers, hindrances) than its presence. You don’t feel doors as you move through them if they open wide for you; you only notice them if they are locked, or get slammed in your face. In the article Peggy McIntosh describes the “invisible knapsack of privilege,” as follows:
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. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
With this invisible knapsack the white person’s passage through the world is profoundly changed, both on a moment by moment, daily level, and in terms of the larger trajectory of their life: career, building a family, moving about the world geographically, borrowing money, getting an education—all are impacted by the invisible knapsack of special (and unearned) privilege.
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