The Invisible Knapsack

Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege (1988) is an anti-racist essay by Peggy McIntosh that espouses that white people benefit from social systems that confer privileges on them, while these systems deny such privileges to others. These systems have been ingrained over time and exist despite the elimination of formal and visible discriminatory policies.

McIntosh, a white female, elaborates that racism is covert and subtle in nature. Thus, she has privileges and power that makes her life better based on how she looks and the positive associations that are assumed of Whites. These associations are not thought of as privileges. Thus, when persons who are non-White struggle, it is seen as only a failing without taking into account other factors that may undermine their success.

Over 25 years later, the concept of White privilege is still polarizing. There are those that argue vehemently that it does not exist, often imploring that individuals must rise above their situation. Taking into account the previous position on surface diversity, in many parts of the globe we appear to be multicultural when in fact decision making, polices and opportunities do not reflect a commitment to multiculturalism or equity. When combined with a populace that does not know or respect the history of underrepresented and indigenous groups, and their challenges, confrontation on the validity of White privilege by many (including those from historically marginalized populations) is inevitable.

However, the greatness of an idea, concept or position can be measured by how long it has stood the test of time, how it is considered and how it is deconstructed. Twenty-five years ago the United States was comprised of a majority White population at the outset of a recession. Presently, Whites in the United States, are projected to be in the minority as soon as 2043, the economy is still volatile, divided by race and subjected to further class divisions.

As McIntosh mentions, disapproval alone of these systems will not eliminate inequities. “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects” (p.35).

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies, Westley College Research Center for Women: Westley College.

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