White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack  

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"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." --"White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (1989)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (1989) is an essay by Peggy McIntosh.

In 1988, she published the article "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies". This analysis, and its shorter version, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (1989), pioneered putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of power, gender, race, class and sexuality in the United States. Both papers rely on personal examples of unearned advantage that McIntosh says she experienced in her lifetime, especially from 1970 to 1988. McIntosh encourages individuals to reflect on and recognize their own unearned advantages and disadvantages as parts of immense and overlapping systems of power.

Invisible knapsack

In her 1988 essay, "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies", McIntosh describes her understanding of "white privilege" as unearned advantage based on race, which can be observed both systemically and individually, like all unearned privileges in society (such as those related to class, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or ability). After observing and investigating what she calls "unacknowledged male privilege" held unconsciously by men, McIntosh concluded that, since hierarchies in society are interlocking, she probably experienced a "white privilege" analogous to male privilege. McIntosh used the metaphor of white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks".

In her original 1988 essay, McIntosh listed forty-six of her own everyday advantages, such as "I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed"; "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race"; and "If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race."

McIntosh has stated that in order to study systems of advantage and disadvantage as they impact individuals, "Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one's place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents' places of origin, or your parents' relationship to education, to money, or to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background." She believes that all people in the U.S. have combination of systemic, unearned advantages and disadvantages. She feels that it is not possible to do work against racism without doing work against white privilege, any more than it is possible to do work against sexism without doing work against male privilege.

In 1990, the original "White Privilege and Male Privilege" was edited down and retitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". This short piece showcases the white privilege McIntosh, and her counterparts are able to use to their advantage on a daily basis, by giving an extensive list of examples McIntosh goes on to illustrate that white privilege is like an intangible gift of unearned entitlement, unearned advantage, and unearned dominance. This privilege establishes easier access to political and societal classes for white people, that would otherwise prove an unattainable goal, such as minorities face. McIntosh conveys that racism can be found within white privilege itself, because white parties are granted unearned dominance in the invisible systems that distinguish the elite from the many. This work has been included in K-12 and higher education course materials, and has been cited as an influence for later social justice commentators.

McIntosh has written other articles on white privilege, including "White Privilege: Color and Crime"; "White Privilege, An Account to Spend"; and "White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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