(Note: I've revised this post, so some of the older comments on it may no longer apply.)
When I began unpacking “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, I thought I would be unpacking whiteness theory. To my surprise, I also began unpacking middle-class niceness. I found a clip on Youtube where Peggy McIntosh talks about writing “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. As soon as I saw her, I thought, “That’s a nice middle-class white woman.” Almost as soon as I thought it, I heard her use the word “nice” to explain why she wrote.
In 1980, I had read two essays by black women who had lined it out just like a given: white women are oppressive to work with. And I remembered reading those essays with astonishment. They were so factual about it. White women are oppressive to work with. And I had two thoughts in 1980, and I still remember them. One was, I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice. And the second, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them. Then I thought, did we fill the reading list and the programs and women’s studies with white people’s stuff? And at first I said maybe, and then I said yes. And I asked myself, if I have anything I didn’t earn by contrast with my African-American friends in this building, show me. And I had to pray on it. And I asked my unconscious mind to answer my questions. And after three months, forty-six examples had swarmed up, most of them in the middle of the night. And if I didn’t flick on a light and write them down, they would be gone by morning, because I didn’t want to know them. They were messing up my view of myself as a person who had earned everything I had.
Two things struck me: McIntosh created her list through prayer and sleep like a prophet, not a scientist, and what drove her was a need to reconcile her belief that she was nice with her awareness that it was not nice to think she was nice because she worked with black people.
Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing made me think more about niceness and whiteness when she wrote that McIntosh’s essay “completely changed the way I thought about what racism is, and the privileges I experience as an upper-middle class white person.” Koerth-Baker and I live in a state that values niceness so much that Wikipedia has an entry for “Minnesota nice.” A great many nice middle-class white people share Koerth-Baker’s reaction to “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.
I don’t. Since I’m talking about niceness and class, and because whiteness theorists love personal stories, here’s a little about me: My mother was the epitome of white middle-class niceness, a druggist’s daughter from northern Minnesota. My father grew up on a small farm, and while I’ve heard many people speak of him with respect, I’ve never heard anyone call him middle-class or nice. My earliest awareness of whiteness is tangled up in the civil rights conflict, when our family couldn’t get fire insurance because the Ku Klux Klan had threatened to burn down our home and I was bullied in school for being a "niggerlover". So far as I was concerned, people who put any stock in whiteness were the enemy. I don’t mean I concluded black people were better than white people. I only mean that for decades, my experiences with black people were good and my experiences with white people were mixed.
But when I began to argue that class matters more than race or gender in a capitalist country, I learned the limit of middle-class niceness. First came suggestions to read “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. When I said I’d read it and agreed with some of its examples but not with its assumptions, niceness ended. I was called obtuse, then a racist. McIntosh’s fans insisted I was denying the existence of racism, which baffled me—if criticizing an ideology about race is denying the existence of racism, then when Malcolm X criticized the Nation of Islam, he was denying the existence of racism.
So I began researching. At the time, there was little analysis of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” online—people loved it or rejected it. Adolph Reed Jr. helped me see why. In “The Limits of Anti-racism,” he wrote,
Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it.
Reed’s comparison of anti-racism to a dualistic religion was reinforced by the Reverend Thandeka’s “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”. Writing about anti-racism training in Unitarian-Universalist congregations, she said the “belief that all whites are racists is based explicitly on the Christian doctrine of original sin…” Thandeka's “explicitly” refers to one antiracism's trainer’s writing. There are anti-racists of all beliefs, including atheists, but they all divide white people into the saved who confess their racism and the heretics who do not.
Peggy McIntosh speaks most persuasively to the privileged white graduates of expensive private schools because she’s one of them—she’s the associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, one of the private women’s schools that have been educating the daughters of America’s elite since the 19th century. Wellesley’s graduates include two secretaries of state. It’s among the US’s most expensive schools—in 2013, a year there costs $57,042. It touts its diversity because less than half of its students are white and nearly a quarter are Asian, but that diversity doesn’t translate into class diversity—as a group, Asian Americans are richer than white Americans.
McIntosh effectively describes Critical Race Theory when she says,
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 which 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.
Whether she’s playing a rhetorical game when she says she asked in “an untutored way” or was so immersed in Critical Race Theory that she did not realize she had been tutored by her black friends “in the building” and her reading, I don’t know. Though she never names CRT in her essay, she mentions “institutional racism”, a core belief of CRT.
Critical Race Theory gave her a way to reconcile her belief that she was nice with her recognition of her not-nice racist thoughts. Just as Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul the evangelist, Peggy McIntosh the racist became Peggy McIntosh the anti-racist. When she prayed to see the things she didn’t earn by contrast with her African-American friends, she was not looking for things she and those black friends did not earn by contrast with working class people of any hue—her concern was with the forms of injustice that affected her middle-class black peers.
McIntosh's 1989 revision of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” begins,
Through work to bring materials from women's studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.
She starts with the belief that privilege theory explains problems between the sexes. She sees all men as overprivileged and all women as disadvantaged, even though when she wrote, Queen Elizabeth was the fourth richest person in the world, Maggie Thatcher had been Prime Minister of Britain for nearly a decade, and Ronald Reagan’s cuts in social services had made over a million Americans of all races homeless, the majority of whom were men.
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, "having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
It’s an excellent question. For her, acknowledging privilege is the answer. Once acknowledged, that privilege may be enjoyed—she never considers giving up her job so a less-privileged black woman might have it.
Believing all white people are racist may comfort recovering white racists, but tests for racism say they’re wrong. They get the most support from Project Implicit’s test for race—its researchers found that only 30% of white people have no racial preference or, like me, a preference for blacks. But even if Project Implicit’s findings are right, their researchers stress that an implicit preference may not indicate meaningful racism, especially in people who’re aware of their preferences. Being human calls for balancing preferences. During the 2008 primaries, the differences between Obama and John Edwards were minuscule, yet white Democrats preferred Obama, and in the general election, Obama won a larger percentage of the white vote than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter. If Project Implicit is right that most white people have an implicit preference for whites, their preference does not translate into meaningful racism when they act in the voting booth and may not be meaningful elsewhere.
But suppose McIntosh is right and all white people need to acknowledge their white privilege. What will that do? Adolph Reed Jr. wrote,
In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus.
The internet calls McIntosh's approach Underpants Gnomes logic. In an episode of South Park, gnomes were stealing underpants. When asked why, they showed their three-phase business plan:
1. Collect Underpants
They had stolen an enormous number of underpants. All they needed to do was figure out step two, and they would be rich. The privilege theory plan looks like this:
1. Make men/whites admit they are overprivileged.
3. The end of prejudice and the beginning of meritocracy.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us.”
Elizabeth Minnich is another white academic who works at exclusive schools. She’s very right when she says, “when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us.”” Her “them” must refer to working class black people, not the black middle or upper class. Neither Minnich nor McIntosh notice that working class white people also see middle-class do-gooders doing “work that will allow "them" to be more like "us””. McIntosh and Minnich’s focus on people of color either makes “overprivileged” working class whites invisible to them, or they cannot imagine that what they see as “morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal” is not whiteness, but middle-class niceness.
At the end of her introduction to her list, McIntosh says,
I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.
Her mention of class should be significant, but you’ll find no class considerations in what she wrote after she began praying. Most of her points boil down to a simple truth that may be implied in item #36 on her list:
If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
If she’s saying she never has to wonder whether a white person treated her badly because of her race, I agree. But if she thinks white people never have to wonder if an unpleasant encounter had racial overtones, she should notice that people of color commit hate crimes too.
From “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism” by the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective (Timothy J. Lensmire, Shannon K. McManimon, Jessica Dockter Tierney, Mary E. Lee-Nichols, Zachary A. Casey, Audrey Lensmire, and Bryan M. Davis):
“McIntosh suggests that the privileges might be divided into different categories, but she does not tell us how to categorize them. There is little about the order of the list to help us make sense of the key aspects or contours of white privilege.
“Further, our confusion was also grounded in how McIntosh describes privilege. First, she seems to assume that lessening privilege for white people would also, in some direct way, lessen oppression for people of color. We found this especially puzzling since a number of privileges on McIntosh’s list seem better characterized as human rights, to which she refers as “what one would want for everyone in a just society”. In the case of such privileges, it seems that the struggle should be to guarantee them for everyone rather than lessen them for some.
“Second, even as McIntosh gestures toward systemic oppression, her text focuses overwhelmingly on conceptualizing privilege as individual and seems to equate individual white people coming to understand their white privilege with overcoming systems of racial oppression. Stated differently, while reading and working with McIntosh’s piece might be a consciousness-raising exercise for individual white people, her text provides limited help with understanding and undermining systemic white supremacy. There is no call to activism, unless activism is conceived of as individual white people somehow lessening their own white privilege.”
In my first draft of this attempt to unpack McIntosh’s unpacking, I embraced the subjectivity that Critical Race Theorists advocate and arranged them like this:
1. Items that have some objective truth
2. Items that do not apply to the white working class
3. Items that were no longer true when McIntosh wrote
4. Items that are purely subjective
I tried discussing them all, but McIntosh's list is remarkably redundant, so I’ll only include a few examples of the first two:
* Items with some objective truth
“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”
There’s an old joke realtors tell: “What are the three most important things when selling a property? Location, location, location.” McIntosh’s black colleagues at Wellesley would’ve had trouble avoiding white people—the 2007 Census Bureau estimated the town’s racial makeup was 84.6% white, 10% Asian, and only 2.2% black. If unequal racial distribution is a sign of racism, Wellesley, Massachusetts is one of America’s most racist communities.
But the privilege of being in the company of people of your race most of the time depends entirely on where you are. Wikipedia’s list of U.S. communities with African-American majority populations includes two large cities, three small ones, and over 100 towns.
Whether McIntosh thinks voluntary segregation is a privilege that should be eliminated or a right everyone should have is, like most items on her list, unclear.
“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.”
A 2013 HUD study found “African-American home buyers learned about the existence of 17 percent fewer homes and were shown 18 percent fewer properties. On the renters’ side, 11 percent fewer units were “advertised as available” while they were shown 4 percent less units than Whites. Hispanic testers faced less discrimination, with renters learning about 12 percent less of available units, although they were shown 7 percent fewer available rental properties.”
Though McIntosh said she was considering class in her list, she overlooks a simple fact: middle class black people will still have an easier time finding a place in an area they can afford and would want to live than any poor white person.
“6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
White people are disproportionately represented because the media’s run by the rich, and the rich continue to be disproportionately white because the US has little class mobility. The people who can afford the most prestigious drama, film, and journalism schools will be disproportionately white until there is, to use Martin Luther King’s term, “a radical redistribution of economic power”.
* Items that do not apply to the white working class
“5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
I’ve been a clerk, so trust me on this: Good clerks try to watch everyone to be helpful and to reduce theft. Even the most racist clerks know they should watch shoppers of their own race. White people do not get a shoplifting pass—believing in one might explain why people like Lindsay Lohan and Winona Ryder get caught, but I suspect they thought they had a wealth and fame pass.
Mcintosh’s “most of the time” means she thinks being harassed is the most common experience for black shoppers. I suspect another form of privilege applies: Middle-class white people like McIntosh have the privilege of not noticing what the people who serve them are doing. Working-class white people know clerks watch them.
“9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”
She seems to have forgotten the published essays by the black academics who helped her see her racism. Anyone working at Wellesley could be pretty sure of publishing an essay, because credits, not race, matter most in publishing. A white teacher at a less-prestigious school would have a far more difficult time than any of McIntosh’s colleagues.
“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.”
If she thinks working class whites don’t get harassed by cops, I’ll happily tell her about cops harassing me when I was young and drove a used car. I haven’t been able to verify her claim that the IRS was auditing a disproportionate number of black people, but if the IRS was targeting people based on income, the disproportionate number of poor blacks would make a class injustice look like a race injustice to people who think primarily in terms of social identity.
After McIntosh lists 50 white privileges, she says,
Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In the 20th century, the people who were not free to criticize our culture were pacifists arrested in wartime and socialists denied employment during the Cold War. The most famous of those—Eugene Debs, the Hollywood Ten—were white men. The US has had black critics since Frederick Douglas. Which of them were not free to criticize?
…the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them.
If you accept her premise, it’s not “the few” who have the “feeling that one belongs within the human circle”—it’s the white majority. The language of privilege theory seems to have confused her here. She writes as if the US at the end of the 1980s had a white minority like South Africa under apartheid.
Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see "whiteness" as a racial identity.
I’ve never met a white person who did not know their racial identity was white. White racists value that; the rest do not. Privilege theorists want to teach whiteness to white people to make them admit they’re “overprivileged”, but that only reinforces the social construct of race. Like all bad ideas, race will die when people let it die, but no one clings harder to the importance of race than privilege theorists.
Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Again, she can’t decide if she’s talking about a majority or a minority. White people in the US are hardly “just a small number of people”. Had she been talking about capitalists, she would be perfectly accurate. In “Why Anti-racism Will Fail”, Thandeka notes,
First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class. One historical counterpart to this contemporary story of extreme economic imbalance is found in the fact that at the beginning of the Civil War, seven per cent of the total white population in the South owned almost three quarters (three million) of all the slaves in this country. In other words, in 1860, an oligarchy of 8,000 persons actually ruled the South. This small planter class ruled over the slaves and controlled the five million whites too poor to own slaves. To make sense of this class fact, we must remember that the core motivation for slavery was not race but economics, which is why at its inception, both blacks and whites were enslaved.
Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
What we know from watching men is that when they understand inequality in terms of rights, they extend those rights—black people and women got the vote when white men realized participating in democracy is a human right. Building a world of equal opportunity can’t be done by talking about privileges being taken away. Who wanted the right to vote taken from white men? Who wanted the right to marry taken from straight people? It’s nice to think that everyone could be equally privileged someday, just as it’s nice to think of everyone being above average and everyone giving 110%. But the problem of injustice calls for more than being nice. It calls for being fair.
ETA: Amber A'Lee Frost has a good short takedown: The Sad Song of Privilege | The Baffler
McIntosh talks about her work: