In order to fully understand white privilege and how to “unpack the invisible knapsack,” the first step is to clarify the basics.
What is white privilege?
In the essay “Understanding White Privilege” by Dr. Francis E. Kendall, white privilege is described as “an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.”
What white privilege is not about is whether a white person is “good” or “bad” — even the kindest, most generous people still have white privilege. It is not something to be personally offended by, rather something to recognize and be conscious of its influence in your life and how it affects others, specifically people of color.
White privilege is not something you can control or get rid of. As Kendall puts it, “privileges are bestowed on us by the institutions with which we interact solely because of our race, not because we are deserving as individuals.”
White privilege is not the same thing as being racist. Just because you recognize that you have white privilege does not mean that you are racist. However, this privilege exists because of historic and enduring racism.
Although the term includes the word “privilege,” white privilege does not mean that every white person has a perfect, privileged life. If you are white, your struggles and hardships are valid. What this does mean, however, is that these struggles are likely not due to race.
How does it work?
Everyone who is white has white privileges; however, there are many different factors that play into the extent of this privilege. White men, for example, generally have greater access to power and resources than white women do. Considering this, what may be truths of white privilege for some may be different for others, so it is important to self-reflect and understand how white privilege affects you personally.
Feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh’s essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” discusses the many realities of white privilege that may be unseen or unrecognized by white people. Because these privileges are inherent and not necessarily taught, they can be easily overlooked and deemed a part of “normal” life.
McIntosh explains, “not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should just be the norm in society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.”
Regardless of who you are and the privileges you experience, having white privilege means that you actively benefit from the oppression of people of color.
What can I do?
For some, it may feel like there’s nothing that can be done except ignore this inevitable privilege. However, ignorance is dangerous — it is essential to recognize that although white privilege is not something you can get rid of, there are still things you can (and must) do once you have recognized this privilege.
In an article by Cory Collins, there is a more complicated truth explained: “White privilege is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated. It is both on the surface and deeply embedded into American life. It is a weightless knapsack — and a weapon. It depends on who’s carrying it.”
Because white privilege is systemic, it is important to ask ourselves: “Who built that system? Who keeps it going?” Actively choose to not perpetuate white privilege when given the option, since certain elements can be conscious choices. For example, Collins writes, “if white business leaders didn’t hire many people of color, white people had more economic opportunities … People in power, legislative bodies, corporate leaders and educators are still disproportionately white and often make conscious choices (laws, hiring practices, discipline procedures) that keep this cycle on repeat.”
This means there is a responsibility to actively choose leaders and amplify voices that support the Black community. This could mean registering and voting, listening to Black activists, authors and content creators, etc.
It is also important to confront racial injustices and inequalities in our daily lives, not just when a tragedy occurs. Speak up — correct your friends, tell that uncle his racist joke is not funny, tell someone when they are appropriating Black culture. Educate friends and family on white privilege and how they can become more conscious. Listen to the experiences of Black community members.
Acknowledging white privilege can be uncomfortable. However, it is important to understand the unconscious and unintentional oppression of people of color and the impact this privilege has.