White Privilege: Updating the invisible Knapsack

“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

In Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (pdf) she took on trying to understand the unearned advantages her skin color granted her. First there was establishing that these advantages existed, then enumerating them- and then, taking what measure she could to lessen them. In some cases that meant trying to extend them to all people, but many are based on a racial exclusivity and simply needed to go. I was first introduced to this essay in a session at BIL looking at how the election of Barack Obama had changed race relations and the lives of white people.

The essay was inspiring to me. But it was about the privileges enjoyed by a white professor more than 20 years ago. If I was going to take the message to heart I felt I needed to update and personalize it- try to examine my own white privilege in my own context. Thus was the idea born for what I suspect will be the world’s least popular internet meme: unpacking my knapsack. Based on Mcintosh’s original essay I will examine my own privileges, which ones have diminished, which remain, and which don’t really apply to me. Then I’m tagging five friends (Ethan, Aaron, Danny, danah, Tim) to unpack their knapsacks as well.

I think there’s an extra challenge in asking poor whites to lay down white privilege. Being poor is terribly hard in this country and it feels as though you’re a fool for letting go of any scrap of advantage you can get. And that has been used as a wedge to drive people apart and even keep them poor and underprivileged since Nixon visited the South, and probably before. It is to everyone’s long term advantage to let go of white privilege.

I discovered in this process that my queer sexual identity undoes some point of white privilege, and doesn’t affect others at all. I think this is one of the real values of this exercise- seeing how this applies to your own life and context.

I won’t pretend this will be a perfect list, merely an effort along the way.

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

I can, though this seems more universal than it might have once been. I don’t choose to, in part because I don’t feel a particular affection for my race.

1.1 (new privilege) I can not feel an affection for my race without facing criticism. I don’t have to race identify, or deal with issues around my race if I don’t want to, and no one will really question that. I don’t have to worry if I am white enough or too white.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

Unchanged: as it ever was.

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.

Yeah, basically, except no, because I don’t have much money.

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

This is an important departure- unless they find out I’m queer. So I have to continually wonder if I’m giving it away, and maintain my alienation for my sense of safety and dignity.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.


6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

This is no longer a position of white or male privilege. This is an area of true progress since 1988, which is wonderful. On the other hand, queers still hide and when politicians reveal themselves to be not straight it goes with a resignation. I can see queers everywhere, but with a nudge and a wink, with only the rarest of exception. And those exceptions are always lead with “Openly gay…” As for openly poly, transgender, or modded people, I see them not at all.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Yes, this is largely unchanged.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.


9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

Publishing is leaving the privilege sphere. Not gone yet- but my option for this is my blog- and blogging is (relatively) free and pervasive. Publishing is now open to the poorest of nations, if still restricted to the more privileged and educated people within those nations. In the US, online publishing has given voice to even the homeless, prisoners, the poor, the mentally ill, and people of color from any SES. Definite progress.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

Yes. Not true of being a woman, and if I’m the only queer in a group, I am most likely going to stay quiet to stay safe. I would say this is largely unchanged.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.


12. 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.

I think this is safely out of the sphere of whites. I think this is an area of true progress.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

Yeah, and this is still bad.

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


15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

Not yet, but it might become an issue later.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

True. I have some worry about my child getting flack for her family structure; I certainly did.

17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.


18. 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.

Yes. As a matter of fact, my race protects me from them realizing that I come from a background of poverty and attributing misbehavior to that.

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


20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.


21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Actually, I have been, and for women and queers. I think this is a strange reversal of fortunes.

22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

That’s changing hard and fast. This is an area of real progress.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

No I can’t, in fact my treatment on this point is severe, but related to queer culture rather than race.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

Most yes, but much less so, but I can rest assured that if I face a person of color my race will not work against me.

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.

Yes, or because of my gender, or my sexuality. This is still a race thing, and still bad.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

Yes, but this is much better- still not perfect.

27. 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.

This is not true for me. Also, I am more likely than most people of color to face violence for my sexual identity.

28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.


29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.


30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

Absolutely true, in fact, possibly more so than in 1988.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

This seems more common to me, as in the writing and activism has become rich enough that more people of color can ignore things outside of their field as much as whites do. Is that progress? I don’t know.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

That certainly changed recently.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

Well, no, I look white and feel like I have white body shape. Perhaps this is privilege eroding. Perhaps this is also just strange to me.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

In a weird way this isn’t true. I can be accused of political correctness as a self seeking strategy. I think that’s a change, but not a good one.

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


36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

Yes, but this seems like perhaps it’s also diminished from 1988.

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

Less so because of gender. I am very shy about this- in part because of my sense of alienation, which is largely class, gender, and sexuality based.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

True, but much more limited on the basis of my sexuality and gender.

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.


40. 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.

Yes, but often I have needed to cover the nature of my relationships.

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

Yes, though my sexuality will, and has.

42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

I think that many people can now, but through dangerous insularity. Nevertheless I think this is eroding.

43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.


44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

Not true at all anymore! Progress!

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

Definitely eroded- I see the experiences of many races now. It would take effort not to.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

Yes. Clear has been a great innovation though, and even more so fun bandages.

47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

This has lessened all around, even for queers.

48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

I can never feel assured of finding neighborhoods where people approve of my household, even in the Bay Area.

49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

Absolutely false for me.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.


I also identified what I think of as new white privileges:

* I can assume that my problematic sexual identity doesn’t conflict with or disrupt my racial identity. I can come out of the closet and keep my racial identity.

* I can, if I choose, ascribe problems and failures to individuals and claim that there is ‘a level playing field,’ and not be perceived as callous or racist.

* I don’t have to wonder if my missed opportunities are due to my race.

I strongly recommend reading the original essay, and will end my list with the quote that ends hers:

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

I think the prognosis is mixed. Some things are better, but others are worse, and my racial privilege is still insulating me and subtly repressing people of color. Even places where My queerness trumps my white privilege my race often still disadvantages others- worst of both worlds.

It’s incumbent on me now to notice and speak against my own privilege where I can. This isn’t easy, but unpacking my knapsack is a first step.

Ok, I tag Ethan, Aaron, Danny, danah, and Tim to unpack their knapsacks based on McIntosh’s original 50 points, add their own, and note the changes they’ve seen in their lives and communities. Then tag five more unpackers.