Thursday, December 9, 2010

Unearned White Privileges

A lot of the talk by those who espouse accountability and self reliance (which are important values) seems to ignore the un-level playing field that logically has to exist for there to be "equal opportunity" (also important). Why is that? How come they do not see that the power structure is not fair, prejudices and disadvantages minorities and others who are not in the mainstream?

Peggy McIntosh, (Associate Director of Women's Studies at Wellesley College) suggested in her classic 1988 paper, "White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack" that privilege is kept strongly inculcated in the U.S. in order to maintain the myth of meritocracy which serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already. That many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own (making those very same people's claims to having earned their position particularly venomous).

If that strikes you as wrong or overstated McIntosh suggests we think about the conditions of daily experience that you probably take for granted (of course there are exceptions to each of these but as a general proposition this list developed in 1988 seems still quite relevant): (The actual list in the McIntosh article is much more extensive - this is just a sampling and while this list focused on race it is worth thinking about how they apply to any member of a group that is outside the mainstream)...

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

2. I can arrange to protected my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

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

4. I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my race.

5. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

6. I can pretty sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race.

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

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

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

10. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area where I would want to live.

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

12. I can be pretty sure that my children will be given educational materials that testify to the existence of their race.

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

14. If my day or week or year is going badly, I need not ask myself if any of those negative situations has racial overtones.

Peggy McIntosh is an American feminist and anti-racist activist, the associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and a speaker and the founder and co-director of the National S.E.E.D. Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).

McIntosh is most famous for authoring the 1988 essay "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies." This analysis and its shorter form, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, "have been instrumental in putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of gender, race and sexuality".

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