Peggy McIntosh and 'Unpacking Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege'

Emily Coffin '17 Contributing Writer

Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., Senior Researcher and Associate Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, spoke on Nov. 12 on the topic of white privilege. The Concerned Students of Color Committee prompted the administration to hold the event and the administration followed its advice; the President’s Office, the Dean of the College and the Dean of Students co-sponsored the event along with the departments of multicultural affairs and religious and spiritual life.

McIntosh is a trailblazer in the field of dissecting power relations in society. “When I went inside, to my deepest experience, is when I became useful to this world,” she remarked at the beginning of the talk before explaining how she began thinking about privilege. She was working with faculty, both men and women, at a conference in the early ’80s discussing the inclusion of women in curricula. McIntosh was faced with resistance from male professors, who deemed women’s academic contributions as “soft” and “extra,” saying that there was no room in syllabi for their work.

“All of these men had been born of a woman…had wives, cousins, sisters, yet we had become ‘extra’ to them,” she stated.

McIntosh was then faced with what she described as a binary dilemma — “Were these men nice or were they oppressive?” As she began attempting to mediate this, she began conceptualizing male privilege in a new way. These men were nice and they were oppressive, she realized. Soon she recognized where this dichotomy had come up before.

McIntosh recalled women of color writing about this very topic in the context of white women, mentioning the oppressive dynamics that surface when women of color worked with white women, just as McIntosh was struggling with working with men. So upon her realization of male privilege, she saw “what came down the pipe next” — white privilege. This began the process of unpacking her “invisible knapsack.”

She described this metaphorical knapsack as invisible to her, but very visible to people who didn’t have the knapsack of white privilege. “I can pull out maps, charts, and blank checks,” she explained, saying that these items help white people navigate the world with more ease, and oftentimes they don’t even realize that other people don’t have the same materials.

McIntosh covered a hefty amount of literature on the topic of white privilege during her talk, including two important pieces she went over with the audience. One enumerated many privileges of whiteness: Number 18 reads, “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.” Number 14 says, “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” McIntosh recalled: “At the time, I knew this was the most important thing I was ever going to do in my life.”

After going over a few examples with the audience, she explained how someone approached her on the topic of white guilt. This prompted another article, “White Privilege: An Account to Spend,” which describes the process of understanding one’s own privilege as well as offers ways white people can be allies to people of color. She discussed the idea that this bank account will never run out, so white allies can and should spend as much as possible to make change. She highlighted the importance of leaving guilt behind to become a productive anti-racist ally.

As the co-founder of the National Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity Project on an inclusive curriculum, McIntosh finds approaches in the classroom an important way to positively influence society. She drew a diagram of mountains, explaining that most classroom approaches reinforce a hierarchical “kill or be killed” mentality in our culture. She explained her alternative, phase theory, and gave advice on how to bring classrooms and communities more in line with what she described as the “multicultural soul,” which allows individuals to understand their complexities of self more completely.

She said on the topic, “We all have it in us to make or mend fabrics of life, but we also have the ability to reinforce the pecking order…We must not be guilty about it.”

Questions from the audience prompted more remarks on white privilege. The last remark came from a member of the Concerned Students of Color Committee; she asked McIntosh to elaborate on how white students can be allies to students of color.

“The best way to be an ally to people of color is to know yourself deeply,” McIntosh concluded. “People can tell when you’ve done homework on your psyche.”