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Essay on white privilege unpacking the invisible knapsack

Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you. The essay, published in 1988, likens the founding privileges upon which American institutions are built to an "invisible package of unearned assets" and unpacks those assets in terms of power, identity and self-image.

As an essay written by a white person on the topic of white privilege, McIntosh's work was ground-breaking. People of color had been talking and writing about white privilege for years, but when the emperor himself realizes he's naked, everyone checks their pants.

A quarter-century later, evaluations of progress vary. It was the status of women that led McIntosh to examine white privilege in the first place, and many would agree that advances have been made since 1988, when Women's Studies was still a relatively new area.

But the status of people of color may not have improved to a comparable degree. And in spite of anecdotal evidence, casual observation and numerous blogs that support the widespread belief that white women have enjoyed the greatest benefit of affirmative action, even these many years later, there's nobody voluntarily peeking into the knapsack.

And no one seems to have noticed the other invisible knapsack. McIntosh rightly observed that white persons -- indeed, everyone in American society -- are "conditioned into oblivion" about the existence of privilege in the United States.

On My Mixed Experience with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

In the same way, people are socially conditioned not to recognize all the unearned disadvantages stuffed into the invisible knapsack carried by people of color. McIntosh lists her privileges, all expressed in terms of what she and people like her can do. Of the 26 items in her knapsack, 23 contain the phrase "I can," 2 contain "I am" and one contains the phrase "I need not. She can find flesh-colored bandages.

As McIntosh unpacks her knapsack, I pack mine.

Packing the Invisible Knapsack

I begin by placing McIntosh's positive statements in their opposite terms. Now my pack contains 23 statements that begin "I can't," 2 that say "I'm not," and one that begins "I need to. I can't express what it means to know that the color of flesh is determined by someone whose privilege allows them that power. After packing these 26 statements, there's room for more items in my pack. Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people who do not look like me.

Authority most often rests in people who do not look like me. My children and grandchildren are taught by white teachers.

  • I can't express what it means to know that the color of flesh is determined by someone whose privilege allows them that power;
  • Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 continues to remind us eloquently.

People who are not of my culture are acknowledged experts of my culture. People appropriate my identity and profit from describing their versions of my experience.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

My children and grandchildren are likely to drop out of school. My children and grandchildren are likely to be victims of violence. My children and grandchildren are likely to suffer from tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, incarceration and poverty.

  • So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege;
  • I compared my own circumstances with some of those of African American women I worked with.

As McIntosh pointed out, these circumstances are not individual situations, but are defects of the systems and institutions with which we live. McIntosh listed conditions of unearned advantage in her daily experience, and she invited us to examine them when she unpacked them from her knapsack. I have listed conditions of unearned disadvantage of my daily experience.

  • We tried to tell the hiring committee that there are white people from Mexico;
  • As an essay written by a white person on the topic of white privilege, McIntosh's work was ground-breaking;
  • History has many records of such types of racism and society, through its laws and social norms, has conferred its disapproval to such acts;
  • Racially and ethnically ambiguous students, who might have identified as mixed in their private lives, were lost in a sea of white faces juxtaposed against an archipelago of black bodies—especially if these students were taciturn and had white names;
  • I also believe that citizens need to know that color blindness is a pernicious myth rather than an ideal, and that race—though an utterly bogus and unhealthy concept— will continue to be relevant into the unforeseeable future given the democratic-free-market right of social groups, businesses, and corporations to utilize concepts of race and ethnicity when they conclude that it is in their collective best interest to do so.

I invite you to examine and unpack the knapsack so it does not remain invisible.