your racial privilege

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I used this material recently for a class I taught at Vanguard. All too often we think that racism is something that other people do, yet I wonder if there is more to the story. I ran across this article recently, and it truly opened my eyes to the reality of the systemic nature of racism.

Racial Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

This is an adaptation and paraphrase of the work of Peggy McIntosh

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”

As a person of the majority population, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage. I had not been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, my racial privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

Daily effects of majority privilege

Can I count on most of these conditions?

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  3. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  4. I can be sure that my children will be given school materials that testify to the existence of their race.

There is the frequent charge from minority groups that I am oppressive. I fight that, because I don’t see myself that way. Then I was informed about the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege although I have been oblivious about its existence.

What it is like to have racial privilege? I have come to see the privileges of belonging to the majority population as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day.

Daily effects of majority privilege

Identifying some racial privileges: These are conditions that attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.

Can I count on most of these conditions?

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can avoid spending time with people who mistrust either my race, or myself.
  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.
  4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  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.
  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.
  8. I can be sure that my children will be given school 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 privileges of belonging to the majority population.
  10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  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.
  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.
  26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  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.
  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 minority will have.
  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.
  32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  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.
  45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
  46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
  47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  48. I have no difficulty finding neighbourhoods where people approve of our household.
  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.
  50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

Unearned strength, unearned power

I see a pattern running through the example; my racial status was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as being of the main culture, I belong and can make social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. I could also criticize it fairly freely.

If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not simply what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

Yet, disapproving of the system won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if racist individuals changed their attitude.

I do not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring racial dominance on my group from birth. I did not earn this strength but I benefit from its power.

This is an adaptation and paraphrase of the work of Peggy McIntosh

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.

This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

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