Tag Archives: white privilege


For many years when I walked into a room I instantly counted the women. It told me a lot about what to expect from that room. One day, having lost my best friend over racial politics out of my control, I began to count people of color. That too was for safety, for understanding how my views would be taken. That too told me a lot I needed to know about the room. But it also hinted to me about a whole realm of experience I wasn’t having.

The neighborhood where I grew up in LA gentrified unbelievably hard through my childhood. The odd Mormon Filipino family whose son was my BFF for a while eventually sold the shack they lived in, which was badly enough constructed that despite Legrande’s father’s efforts to patch his walls, you could still hear the ocean wind from inside his room. When they moved it was torn down, and the garden (like most of them would be) was filled in with expensive house, in the Socal Hollywood style of all stucco and reaching up past your neighbors for views. The houses got torn down one by one. The neighbor to the right, across the street, eventually my best friend’s, and all replaced with opulent houses. But opulent not so much to be seen as to keep the residents from prying eye — the way you signaled you were important in Los Angeles. As this happened across my neighborhood I stopped knowing my neighbors. The class divide had moved next door. Still, children don’t get this, and when they escaped from grown-up eyes they flocked together. I made a few friends at moments. Going back to their houses, I first heard the phrase “We don’t discuss money.” My mom discussed money, my dad, far away in northern California hardly discussed anything else.

How could you not discuss money? It was like a family that announce they didn’t allow the mention of food. Or hope. It was exactly like a family that didn’t mention food or hope.

I visited Oklahoma one as a teenager to see my paternal grandparents. They lived outside Tulsa in a place you could mistake for rural with a bad littering problem if you’ve never seen desperate poverty, American style. Out there the poor whites told me “We’re colorblind. We don’t even see color.” But there were no people of color to be seen in the area. The closest lived on the Res, and I learned many years later that when my father was a child, he was one of the only whites that snuck across to visit the kids at the BIA schools. He never told me what he saw there, but when I was young he would get very drunk sometimes at night and tell me we should all get back on the fucking boats and go back to Europe. I didn’t know what Europe was.

For a time I decided I couldn’t see color. But then I couldn’t see what happened to people of color. To not see their color, I realized, was to not see its absence, and its absence was everywhere I wanted to be, in every room I aspired to get into. I had made their pain and struggle invisible to me. I argued that this position was not racist, but anti-race altogether. And besides, many of my best friends hadn’t been white. How could I be racist?

In 2010 I went to a prestigious invite only conference in the tech world. I was, at this point, widely welcome in those rooms I’d dreamed of going in. I counted. My heart soared — it really felt like we’d turned a corner. It wasn’t just that there were more women. There were, but also they were talking. It was like pushing on a giant stone for all my life, then one day feeling it finally shift underneath my fingers.

On Saturday night I was sexually assaulted. Specifically, I was groped. I hit my aggressor in the chin and knocked him back. Despite having probably 100lbs on me, he stumbled drunkenly and barely kept his footing. “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose,” I told him. He laughed lightly, still finding his feet, and said “I like this one!” I looked at him, to catch his eye, and replied calmly, matter-of-factly “No. If you touch me again, I will break your nose.” He laughed again, but wandered away from me, looking to grope easier prey.

This is how I’d felt all my life, like my job was to not be easy prey. But this was a professional field, not the fucking Serengeti. I walked a little later with the conference organizer, a woman older then me, and of much stature in tech. I told her I was so happy to finally see women in my field. “But,” I said, “I think these incidents will be more common for a while. These guys don’t know how to behave around women.” To myself, I added bitterly, or other human beings at all.

In part, the tech community had allowed in women, but in part it had also only failed to keep them out.

It was always the ones that said they didn’t see gender or color who did the most damage. “They’re just words,” they would say, “Why do you let them hurt you?” And with that, my pain was made as invisible as me. “They’re just words.” Indeed, just the verbal incantations of power, like law and code and everything else that made the world. I decided to leave tech for words.

But now I’m all shouty. Now people are angry at me because I have a stage, and they can’t make me invisible and ignore me, because the truth is you can’t ignore words, and I have the words. So now they really hate me. The others, the majority, sit uncomfortably with the conflict. No one is quite sure what to do, they want things to be abstractly better, but they don’t want anyone to be loudly upset, either. One side is considerably louder than all the others.

This is what I ask: when you walk into a room, count. Count the women. Count the people of color. Count by race. Look for who isn’t there. Look for class signs: the crooked teeth of childhoods without braces, worn-out shoes, someone else who is counting. Look for the queers, the older people, the overweight. Note them, see them, see yourself looking, see yourself reacting.

This is how we begin.

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.