White Privilege

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.

5 thoughts on “White Privilege”

  1. Katy, you are right ‘white privilege’ is such a superficial buzzword these days. Sometimes it feels like the magic word that gets you out of the conversation without delving deeper into the real issues. I have to say I enjoyed your groups discussion today, even though it was the last one and talking about a lot of what was already said you guys did a great job of making it an engaging and interesting dialogue.

  2. Mischa, I think that is the case (White privilege becoming a superficial buzzword) because for White people, it is impossible to learn about racism without learning through an academic lens, and not an experiential lens. I think it is interesting to read your story about the Marshall Islands, Katy, because of your experience with being marginalized, albeit being for a short time.

    Something about the group discussion presentations that was triggering for me was how people were throwing around the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ without defining who these pronouns were referring to. Especially with the fact that the topic in-mind was addressing the disparities between people of color and white people, I think it important to question who must be the ones doing the work towards ending systemic racism.

  3. Chris, I noticed that “we” problem too. I remember at one point, as I was speaking, trying to figure out how to phrase it – “we white people?” “those of us who are white?” – and I can’t remember what I said. I hope I didn’t default to “we,” but if I did I apologize. I certainly felt weird about being part of an all-white group telling the class about white privilege, and I thought about bringing that up for discussion but wasn’t sure how.

    1. Katy,

      I am curious. Why did you feel weird about presenting about White privilege as a White person?

      Something that I often think about is how come when racism is something that White people have created, why is it that People-of-Color know more about it? I firmly believe that if racism is socially constructed, it can also be socially deconstructed, but examining your response, I wonder why is it that White people might feel uncomfortable in 1. recognizing ownership of White privilege and 2. breaking it down and advocating for social change.

      1. Chris,

        It wasn’t talking about white privilege as a white person that I felt uncomfortable with, it was being in an entirely white group that was presenting the subject to the class. I felt that it was a subject that could have benefited from a variety of perspectives. I was uncomfortable with the fact that the essay we were reading, although it was not the first essay on white privilege, is nonetheless considered the classic work on the subject because it was the first one written by a white person. I would consider that to be a classic example of white privilege, as the publishing industry and academia have historically treated racial issues as nonexistent until they are acknowledged and written about by white people. So while I agree that it’s necessary for white people to be able to acknowledge and discuss racial issues, I also want to avoid any suggestion that white people are the natural authorities on a subject like white privilege. And since part of the point of the article we read is that privileged groups have a hard time spotting their own privilege, I think any panel that’s composed only of white people is probably going to present an incomplete view of the subject. Of course our group’s makeup was just a matter of chance, so there was nothing to apologize for, but I did feel that perhaps I ought to acknowledge the fact that we were coming at the subject from only one perspective.

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