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What is White Privilege?

Photo: Kristin Brenemen and Anna Russell, License: N/A

Kristin Brenemen and Anna Russell

Antiracist writer Peggy McIntosh coined the phrase “knapsack of privilege” to refer to the “unearned assets” that members of the U.S.’s majority white culture enjoy, usually without knowing it. This creates what Jackson Free Press calls “the dirty water of privilege.”

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Editor’s note:
With the dismantling of significant parts of the Voting Rights Act (See “Why Texas Still Needs the Voting Rights Act” ), and the even more recent not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial, race issues are once again at the forefront of Americans’ consciousness, instead of simmering just beneath the surface. Last month, Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly paper in Jackson, Miss., ran this piece in their “GOOD Ideas” issue, which updates a famous essay written by Peggy McIntosh back in 1989, and granted the Current permission to run it here. Silence and denials about white privilege, McIntosh believed, “are the key political tools here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.”

The problem with white privilege is that those who enjoy it usually don’t know it, or want to know. It takes a deliberate effort to see through the dirty water of privilege, but it’s worth it for deeper racial understanding and meaningful dialogue.

“Sometimes, white privilege isn’t about stuff. It’s not always about better opportunities, or more money, or even greater access to those things than people of color. Sometimes, white privilege is as simple as knowing that, generally speaking, if you’re white, you’ll be perceived as competent and hard-working until proven otherwise, while people of color—even those who have proven themselves competent and hard-working—will still be subjected to presumptions that they just might not be, and that somehow, they (but not you) need to be reminded of the importance of hard-work and personal responsibility, lest they (but never you) revert to some less impressive group mean.”
Tim Wise, antiracist essayist and author

QUIZ: White Privilege Checklist

How many of these advantages are in your knapsack?
On a daily basis, as a white person:

If I need to move, I’m confident that I can rent or buy a home in an area where I both want to live and can afford. _____

In that neighborhood, I’m pretty sure the neighbors will be either nice to me or neutral about my presence. _____

I can go shopping in any area of the city at any time without feeling like I will be profiled, harassed or assumed to be a shoplifter. _____

Most media represent people who look like me in positive ways in most coverage. _____

When I am taught history or heritage in school, I’m told that people who look like me created the positive aspects. _____

I’m certain that my children will see people like them in their curriculum and books treated in positive ways. _____

I can go into most salons and find someone who can and will do my hair. _____

I’ve never had to give a thumbprint at the bank to cash
a check. _____

I can curse, dress in shabby clothes or miss a deadline without people believing it is because of bad parenting, poverty or illiteracy of my entire race. _____

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