Re-Packing The Invisible Backpack

I hate the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh.

pc-principal

Artist’s reconstruction of Peggy.

Because it conflates many things that have nothing to do with each other, and puts them all down as “White Privilege.” I’m going to break all the points Peggy makes down and categorise them as either White Privilege, or something else. And remember, if something is “White Privilege,” it must

1. Not just be an encounter with some bigoted asshole.
2. Apply to all white people, and not to other races
3. Apply to a white person raised by blacks
4. Not apply to a black person raised by whites.

So, with those points in mind, let’s look at the backpack:

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

This is a product of diversity. If Peggy lived in Detroit, she would not have this privilege, but a black person would. Therefore, not white privilege.

  • 2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

Same as the above point, but with added passive-aggressive undertones. Peggy would not have this privilege in Detroit. Therefore, not white privilege.

  • 3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

If we want to talk about privileges, this is a product of class privilege, not white privilege. Jay-Z can do this, a poor white guy in rural Alabama cannot.

  • 4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

Two points here. First, like the above point, this is a product of wealth. Rich neighbourhoods are low crime neighbourhoods generally. Second, the truth of this statement will largely depend on how diverse the neighbourhood is. Low diversity neighbourhoods, black or white, are more pleasant (higher social cohesion and trust) than high diversity ones.

  • 5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

This is another example of class privilege. If Peggy was a poor white girl in Detroit, this would not be true.

  • 6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

Now, finally, we have reached something that could be considered white privilege. Let’s look at the numbers. In 2013 there was a study examining racial representations in top grossing films. It found that in 2008, the racial makeup of movie characters was: 71% white and 13% black and the rest Asian, Hispanic, or other. Now, according to the US census, the racial makeup of the US in 2010 (the only date around there I could find easily) was 63.7% white and 12.2% black. So, yes, whites are over represented, but so are blacks. All of this is a red herring though, since this would be true of any person living in any country as a minority. A white person living in Japan would experience this. We’ll file this under “Racial Majority Privilege,” so as not to be white-country chauvinists.

  • 7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Two points to be made here: First, this is another racial majority privilege, as it would be equally true for a Japanese person living in Japan. Second, what if people of Peggy’s colour actually did make it what it is? I’m not arguing here that that’s the case (go read a history book), but if it were the case, I’m not sure “My ancestors did more awesome stuff than your ancestors” is what most people think they mean when they say “white privilege.”

  • 8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

Oh boy. Um… Let’s give Peggy the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was really the case when she wrote it. It is no longer the case. Find me one well respected professor or curriculum that includes “White Studies” in anything approaching a neutral (not even positive, but neutral) way. Now find me a major university that does not have an African American Studies department. I seriously doubt you’ll be able to find either.

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

That’s nice Peggy. But that has nothing to do with white privilege. A random white person off the street probably couldn’t get this piece published, and you couldn’t get an article published called “Black Privilege” that talked about diversity hires or SAT score boosts. Maybe this has less to do with your own white privilege, and more to do with the popularity of the concept of “White Privilege”.

  • 10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

People listen to tokens, be they white or black. In today’s political climate (and depending on the issue talked about), a black person in a group of whites would probably be more listened to than Peggy in a group of blacks. This one is incredibly subjective as well.

  • 11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

Not if you want to keep your job you can’t. Again, we’ll give Peggy the benefit of the doubt and assume this was true at the time. It is no longer true.

  • 12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

Let’s again give Peggy the benefit of the doubt and assume this was true at the time. It is no longer true. Find me a record store without a rap section, and a supermarket that sells haggis. However, even if this was true, it would still be a racial majority privilege, since it would also automatically be true of whites in China.

  • 13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

Let’s ignore the unsubstantiated nature of this claim, and point out the fact that Jews and Asians are seen as (and are) richer than whites in the US. This is therefore not white privilege (remember Rule 2), but black (and maybe Latino) anti-privilege

  • 14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

Class Privilege. I’m going to stop explaining these ones, they’re fairly obvious.

  • 15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

This begs the question. “Here’s a list of white privileges. One of the white privileges is that my kids don’t have to learn about white privileges.”

  • 16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

First, tell that to Aaron. Second, I don’t know of one case where a black student was reprimanded for being black, while conforming to “school and workplace norms.” The argument we hear now is that those norms themselves are racist because of disparate impact.

  • 17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

So can Asians. Black anti-privilege.

  • 18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

So can Asians. Black anti-privilege.

  • 19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

So can Asians? I’m not completely sure what Peggy is saying with this one, but if it’s anything, it’s probably Black anti-privilege.

  • 20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

So can Asians and Jews. Black anti-privilege.

  • 21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Racial majority privilege. If Peggy was the only white person on a school board in Detroit, she very well could be asked to speak for the white interests of the community. If anyone cared.

  • 22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

Not if you want tenure you can’t. But seriously, this is another racial majority privilege. A farmer in China wouldn’t feel a penalty for not knowing English. This is also less “white privilege” than Anglo privilege in the US. No one knows about Slovakian language and culture. (Sorry to my two Slovak readers).

  • 23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

Black Lives Matter was endorsed by the president, your argument is invalid.

  • 24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

Well, probably someone Jewish. But ignoring that, this is another racial majority privilege that wouldn’t be true in Detroit.

  • 25. 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.

This is not true of the IRS and it is not true of traffic stops.

  • 26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

Racial majority privilege, Though I’d be surprised if this “problem” still exists today.

  • 27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

DIVERSITY! Ain’t it great?

  • 28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.

If this was true at the time, it is no longer true. HR departments have made firing non-whites harder than firing whites.

  • 29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.

First off, this is true for Asians as well. Second, just try to start a “white people advocacy program.” I dare you.

  • 30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

If this was true at the time, it is CERTAINLY no longer true. When was the last time anyone listened to a white person say “there’s no racism here, move along”?

  • 31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

And blacks can be protected from the consequences of ignoring Russian writing and activism. This is somewhere between racial majority privilege and Anglo privilege.

  • 32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

Except Asians. We can’t piss off China. But seriously, this would also be true of a Chinese person in China. Racial majority privilege.

  • 33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

“White Trash motor scooter.” But seriously, I’m going to pull out Rule 1 for this one. No one but a bigotted asshole would do this, and there are plenty of bigotted asshole blacks who talk about white women smelling like wet dogs, or having thin lips.

  • 34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

Only because you’re not allowed to worry about racism against whites. In which case, “self-interested and self-seeking” are very polite compared to how you would be described.

  • 35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

This is also true of Asians, but the solution for this is “Don’t have affirmative action employers,” and that’s the opposite of what Peggy wants.

  • 36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

Racial majority privilege. Japanese people in Japan also don’t have to worry about this.

  • 37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

There are programs specifically designed to help blacks with employment issues. There are no programs to help just whites with employment issues, that would be racist. Also, class privilege.

  • 38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

Find me a career that isn’t begging for more qualified female black applicants.

  • 39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

Asians and Jews, with a smattering of racial majority privilege.

  • 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.

Asians and Jews again, so black anti-privilege.

  • 41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

There are medical and legal help funds for blacks only. There are no medical or legal help funds for whites only.

  • 42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

Unless you want to play basketball in the inner city. Also, class privilege.

  • 43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.

Also true of Jews and Asians. Black anti-privilege.

  • 44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

No Peggy, you can’t, that would be racist.

  • 45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

Racial majority privilege. Also, “All the arts”? What about Manga or Anime?

  • 46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

This one I have no idea about. Let’s give Peggy the benefit of the doubt and say that this is, indeed, true, and that bandages worldwide are generally white flesh coloured (If this was not true worldwide, it would just be racial majority privilege again).

  • 47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

I seriously doubt you can do that in downtown Detroit. Racial majority privilege.

  • 48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

Class privilege.

  • 49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

I have no idea why Peggy thought this was a white privilege. This is not true for white polygamists, but is true for “westernized” people of all colours. Isn’t assuming all black people have weird family units… kinda racist?

  • 50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

Not in Detroit. Not at a basketball game. Not in a black studies class at college.

Summary

So there you have it. Peggy is indeed a very, very privileged individual. But the vast majority of those things are either class privilege, racial majority privilege, or black anti-privilege, since they apply to Jews and Asians. I’ll give Peggy the band-aid thing, and I’ll add that whites are more likely to be shown better houses when talking to a realtor than other races. Also, if convicted of a capital crime, whites are less likely to get a death sentence than blacks (I don’t have stats on Asians, but again, we’ll give the benefit of the doubt). So that is three things that actually are examples of “white privilege,” and can and should be worked on by white people. The rest of them, if they are indeed a problem, should be labelled what they are, and dealt with (or not) accordingly.

“But,” I hear one of you say, “All of those other types of privileges are tied inextricably to White Privilege! That’s all we mean when we say White Privilege!”

To that I have two rebuttals:

First, the white man in rural Alabama does not have any of the class privilege benefits listed above, and the only way he can “fix” any of the racial majority privilege things is by dying and being replaced faster. So no, stop blaming all whites.

Second, Fuck You, don’t try to fucking motte and bailey me. This is my house, only I may motte and bailey.

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5 thoughts on “Re-Packing The Invisible Backpack

  1. 2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

    This is precious, an loaded. We are ‘trained’ to mistrust, our other ‘learns’ to mistrust us.
    So ours is an active conspiracy theirs is a learning experience of being forced to live with us; trained to hate them.

    Sounds pretty tinfoil hat really. This whole White Privilege thing is one of the most elaborate conspiracy theories of all.

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  2. There are a number of versions of this essay knocking around the internet. The original has a list of 46(?) things, plus another list of examples of “heterosexual privilege”. Then some magazine or blog edited their own version of it, and for some reason tacked on four heterosexual privileges to the list of white privileges to round it out to fifty. That’s why the last four make no sense.

    Of course, the fact that no-one dares raise their eyebrow at them, that it would be considered churlish to criticise the list in any way, is the very problem itself.

    I believe Wellesley College owns the copyright, and I think they’ve been enforcing it in the past few years, so it’s now more difficult to find in any version.

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  3. One of the Lib argument on “privilege” is actually that being the majority race is a big reason why whites have “privilege.” That is, whoever is in the majority will automatically have various privileges, but in our case, the majority happens to be white. They don’t think this is some sort of global universal.

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