In her article ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,’ considered a ‘classic’ by anti-racist educators, Peggy McIntosh attempts to identify some of the daily effects of white privilege on her own life, providing 26 examples of conditions on which her African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom she comes into daily or frequent contact cannot count.
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- 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.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials in their schools that testify to the existence of their race.
- If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece of writing on White privilege.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- I can swear or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can remain oblivious of the language customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to see “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
- 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.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
- I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
In ‘White Privilege in Schools,’ which can be found in the text Beyond Heroes and Holidays, Ruth Anne Olson uses McIntosh’s format to elaborate on her own work and adds observations from her own experience:
- Whatever topics my children choose to study, they are confident that they will find materials that link people of their race to the accomplishments in those areas.
- My children know that they will always see faces like their own liberally represented in the textbooks, posters, films and other materials in the hallways, classrooms and media centers of their schools.
- When my children talk about celebrations, holidays or family observances in show-and-tell or in other informal exchanges at school, they know that their teachers will have experienced similar events and will be able to reinforce their stories.
- My children are confident that the musical instruments, rhythms, harmonies, visual design forms and drama traditions of their culture will be generously recognized in the formal and informal uses of music, theater and visual arts in their schools.
- The color of my children’s skin causes most adults in school offices, classrooms and hallways to have a neutral or positive assumptions about them.
- My children know that the vast majority of adults in their schools will be of their same racial background, even in classrooms where many or most of their fellow students are of races different from theirs.
- My children are confident that they will never be embarrassed by being called on to tell the class about their race, culture or special ways of celebrating events.
- When I visit their schools, my children know that school staff members will reserve judgment about my economic class, my level of education and my reason for being in the school until I make them known.
- My children take for granted that the color of any crayons, bandages, or other supplies in their classrooms labeled “flesh” will be similar to their own.
- I take for granted that the tests used to judge my children’s achievement and to determine placement in special classes have been developed with groups that included significant numbers of students who share our racial history and culture.
- My children are confident that they will never be embarrassed by hearing others suggest that the problems of the school (low levels of achievement, the need for special support services, etc.) are caused by the high numbers of children of their race.
- I am confident that policy decisions that affect my children’s school experience will be made by state and local bodies dominated by people who understand our racial history and culture.
Over the course of the last decade, perhaps no time period epitomized the existence of white privilege in this country than the 2004 U.S. Presidential election season. Because of this, I have chosen to end this particular blog with Tim Wise’s eloquently written essay, ‘This is Your Nation on White Privilege’ (http://www.timwise.org/2008/09/this-is-your-nation-on-white-privilege/):
“For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.
White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because ‘every family has challenges,’ even as black and Latino families with similar ‘challenges’ are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.
White privilege is when you can call yourself a ‘f***in’ redneck,’ like Bristol Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you’ll ‘kick their f***in’ ass,’ and talk about how you like to ‘shoot sh**’ for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.
White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.
White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don’t all p**s on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you’re ‘untested.’
White privilege is being able to say that you support the words ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance because ‘if it was good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for me,’ and not be immediately disqualified from holding office–since, after all, the pledge was written in the late 1800s and the ‘under God’ part wasn’t added until the 1950s–while if you’re black and believe in reading accused criminals and terrorists their rights (because the Constitution, which you used to teach at a prestigious law school, requires it), you are a dangerous and mushy liberal who isn’t fit to safeguard American institutions.
White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people immediately scared of you.
White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto is ‘Alaska first,’ and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you’re black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she’s being disrespectful.
White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do–like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor–and people think you’re being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college and the fact that she lives close to Russia–you’re somehow being mean, or even sexist.
White privilege is being able to convince white women who don’t even agree with you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway, because suddenly your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in these same white women, and made them give your party a ‘second look.’
White privilege is being able to fire people who didn’t support your political campaigns and not be accused of abusing your power or being a typical politician who engages in favoritism, while being black and merely knowing some folks from the old-line political machines in Chicago means you must be corrupt.
White privilege is when you can take nearly twenty-four hours to get to a hospital after beginning to leak amniotic fluid, and still be viewed as a great mom whose commitment to her children is unquestionable, and whose ‘next door neighbor’ qualities make her ready to be VP, while if you’re a black candidate for president and you let your children be interviewed for a few seconds on TV, you’re irresponsibly exploiting them.
White privilege is being able to give a 36 minute speech in which you talk about lipstick and make fun of your opponent, while laying out no substantive policy positions on any issue at all, and still manage to be considered a legitimate candidate, while a black person who gives an hour speech the week before, in which he lays out specific policy proposals on several issues, is still criticized for being too vague about what he would do if elected.
White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God’s punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you’re just a good church-going Christian, but if you’re black and friends with a black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you’re an extremist who probably hates America.
White privilege is not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is when asked by a reporter, and then people get angry at the reporter for asking you such a ‘trick question,’ while being black and merely refusing to give one-word answers to the queries of Bill O’Reilly means you’re dodging the question, or trying to seem overly intellectual and nuanced.
White privilege is being able to go to a prestigious prep school, then to Yale and then Harvard Business school, and yet, still be seen as just an average guy (George W. Bush) while being black, going to a prestigious prep school, then Occidental College, then Columbia, and then to Harvard Law, makes you ‘uppity,’ and a snob who probably looks down on regular folks.
White privilege is being able to graduate near the bottom of your college class (McCain), or graduate with a C average from Yale (W.) and that’s OK, and you’re cut out to be president, but if you’re black and you graduate near the top of your class from Harvard Law, you can’t be trusted to make good decisions in office.
White privilege is being able to dump your first wife after she’s disfigured in a car crash so you can take up with a multi-millionaire beauty queen (who you go on to call the c-word in public) and still be thought of as a man of strong family values, while if you’re black and married for nearly twenty years to the same woman, your family is viewed as un-American and your gestures of affection for each other are called ‘terrorist fist bumps.’
White privilege is when you can develop a pain-killer addiction, having obtained your drug of choice illegally like Cindy McCain, go on to beat that addiction, and everyone praises you for being so strong, while being a black guy who smoked pot a few times in college and never became an addict means people will wonder if perhaps you still get high, and even ask whether or not you ever sold drugs.
White privilege is being able to sing a song about bombing Iran and still be viewed as a sober and rational statesman, with the maturity to be president, while being black and suggesting that the U.S. should speak with other nations, even when we have disagreements with them, makes you ‘dangerously naive and immature.’
White privilege is being able to say that you hate ‘gooks’ and ‘will always hate them,’ and yet, you aren’t a racist because, ya know, you were a POW so you’re entitled to your hatred, while being black and insisting that black anger about racism is understandable, given the history of your country, makes you a dangerous bigot.
White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing racism and an absent father is apparently among the ‘lesser adversities’ faced by other politicians, as Sarah Palin explained in her convention speech.
And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion, just because a lot of white voters aren’t sure about that whole ‘change’ thing. Ya know, it’s just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same, which is very concrete and certain.
White privilege is, in short, the problem.”
Over the last two blogs it has been clearly demonstrated that white privilege is, indeed, a problem in this country. This obviously begs the question, what can schools do to contribute to combatting white privilege? This latter question will be addressed in the final two blog posts of this four-part series, the next of which will specifically discuss what classroom teachers can do.