My group discussed “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. We were all white, as it happened, and I found it interesting that within our group there were different levels of familiarity with the concept of white privilege. In Peggy McIntosh’s article, she talks about how difficult white privilege is to see and engage with, if you happen to be white. Unless you pin it down, as she does by listing every aspect of her privilege, you’re apt to forget all about it. And you want to forget it, she argues, because it’s not a comfortable thing to think about; it throws everything about your own identity and accomplishments into question. Now, decades later, white privilege has become such a buzzword in academic and political circles that it’s easy to assume that we know what it means. I wonder, though, if we really do, or if we fool ourselves into thinking we’re fully aware of our privilege when all we’ve learned is how to use the word. What our group discussion taught me was that it’s still an uncomfortable, awkward thing to read McIntosh’s list and confront those privileges directly. Our group spent a lot of time on the question of dominance and guilt; if privilege was just a system for pushing one group up and another down, then what were we expected to do – what could we do – to even the balance?
I think the most important thing we can do is foster discussions between our students about white privilege. It’s common for people to push back at being told that they have white privilege. They often see the concept of white privilege as a way to place blame on them for something they have no control over. And sometimes it is even presented in that way, as an accusation leveled at an individual. I think it’s important to teach students that while white privilege does exist, it’s not a matter for individual blame or individual guilt. I think it’s important to give students plenty of chances to discuss the issue of white privilege in a diverse environment, so that they learn how to address it with nuance and understanding.
There was one more thing that I thought about, which is how rare it is for white people to find themselves in a situation in which their white privilege doesn’t work. It happened to me once, when I lived in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and was bullied for being the only white kid in my second-grade class. Although in theory I still had white privilege – I was rich by Marshallese standards, I would be going back to America eventually – I had no way to access that privilege. It was a currency that didn’t work in the country I was in. It was a tremendously disorienting experience, and I’ve never felt so powerless. And it made me realize how right McIntosh is about the invisibility of white privilege – for I never realized I had been living life with a safety net until that safety net suddenly wasn’t there.