White privilege

Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack” (1990) provides a very accessible discussion of race/racism, in particular, how whites have trouble even seeing it. She identifies 50 daily effects of white privilege, “conditions that…attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location” per se.

McIntosh predicts that if you’re White you’ll answer “yes'” to most of these, and if you’re Black, you’ll say “no” to many of them. Try it yourself. For example,

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

John Berry (2004) adapts these for the library profession. I like both of these articles, and can imagine ways to use such lists to spark a discussion.

I would have to answer yes to most of the statements myself. Then I imagined it for my time in Ireland (thinking more about nationality, than about race per se). Still mostly yes, but some no’s and some harder to answer. When I thought about my stay in Turkey, there were fewer yes’s. For Haiti, fewer still.

But what was most interesting to me is that even for Haiti, I could still say yes to most of the statements, even though I’m the outsider there in terms of race, nationality, language, culture, and above all, economic class. The fact that I can take myself mentally to Haiti, and still possess White Privilege shows even more to me why it’s such a powerful social construct. It also reveals why it’s so hard to understand and accept that one possesses that unfair privilege.

In a Harvard Law Review article, Cheryl Harris (1993), takes this concept further, arguing that racial identity and property are deeply intertwined. She examines “how whiteness, initially constructed as a form of racial identity, evolved into a form of property, historically and presently acknowledged and protected in American law.”


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