“White privilege:” Unpacking the Backpack of Invisible Errors
[For reference, Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack]
Though now almost 30 years old, Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” remains the go-to article for unpacking the meaning of “white privilege.” Academic writers refer to it as awakening them to the concept. Race theorists have formalized its basic idea into working theoretical terms. Psychologists have developed psychometric instruments to measure what the article describes, and the American Psychological Association has even incorporated its basic framework into its treatment guidelines, all suggesting not only that “white privilege” is real but that it is presumably here to say. All in all the impact of the article cannot be underestimated. Despite all the developments it has spawned, the article has shown remarkable staying power and remains the go-to source of its kind.
This is actually quite surprising because McIntosh makes more mistakes than not in unpacking the invisible backpack of “white privilege,” and all the errors she makes are subtended by an even simpler mistake that accounts for all of the concept’s staying power, even as it points to its fundamental flaw. Or put another way, McIntosh’s argument consists of a litany of errors compounded by a single unifying error—a fact inexplicably missed by its advocates. The goal of this essay is to lay out these errors and to show that because of a root mistake, “white privilege” is an incoherent concept, even as what the concept ostensibly tries to say needs to be said, just in a more sensible way. The main thesis is that contortions within the meaning of “privilege” coupled with a normative emphasis on “fairness” versus “unfairness” accounts for both the concept’s staying power and its fundamental flaw, resulting in an incoherent notion that only deflects attention away from the real problem of ending racial discrimination by insuring rights towards the false problem of overcoming dominance by removing privileges—“privileges” that if they exist should never be removed, given up, or taken away.
In the article, McIntosh introduces the concept of “privilege” as an “unearned benefit” leading to an “unearned advantage,” then she lists 26 invisible unearned benefits that come with being white, all of which belong to the “invisible backpack” of white privilege. This list, however, suffers from five significant problems which are subtended by one basic error. These five problems are discussed first, then the fundamental error follows after some additional development of McIntosh’s position.
The first problem with McIntosh’s list of “privileges” is with her basic idea of privilege itself. An “unearned advantage” stemming from an “unearned benefit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for privilege, and vice versa: a privilege is not necessarily an “unearned benefit” or an “unearned advantage,” and it requires different sufficiency conditions than both. A naturally talented athlete with an advantage over others, for instance, is not a privileged athlete simply because the benefit of his talent is unearned. He is simply a better athlete. Nor alternatively is a “privilege” equivalent to an “unearned advantage” stemming from an “unearned benefit,” for privileges like a medical or driver’s license are earned, as are many other privileges in our society. So the first mistake McIntosh mistakes is to equate privilege with an “unearned advantage” conferred by an “unearned benefit,” when this simply not the case. On can have an “unearned advantage” that is not a privilege, and one can have a privilege that is not an “unearned advantage.”
The second problem with McIntosh’s “privileges” is that some of them aren’t privileges in any sense; they are just ordinary rights, and “earning” or “not earning”—her main delineating criterion for “privilege”—is neither here nor there for their status. For instance, not having one’s skin color affect cashing a check or using a credit card, not being pulled over or audited because of race, not being denied medical or legal care because of race—these sorts of things…none of these “benefits” have to be earned in order to be enjoyed, therefore it’s not relevant whether or not anyone has earned them, hence not earning them should have no bearing on their status as “privileges.” Instead of being privileges by the criterion of following from unearned benefits, these instances of legal non-discrimination by race are simply a right.
The third problem with McIntosh’s “privileges” is some of them are simply a function of being in a majority, and as such they cannot be given up, like one always can give up a privilege. For instance, for the most part being “in the company of people of my race,” and “feeling somewhat tied-in” rather than “isolated, out-of-place, [or] outnumbered” cannot be avoided by whites any more than it can be enjoyed by minorities, and calling this inevitable fact a “privilege” suggests it could be avoided. For any “privilege” can be surrendered or revoked, and calling these unavoidable and irrevocable features of being in a majority a “privilege” is like calling someone tall “privileged” relative to short people. Being tall or being in a majority is just a function of what one is, not a privilege.
The fourth problem with McIntosh’s set of “privileges” is that some of them, even if privileges, are simply not true. No one, for instance, enjoys the assurance that others will like their kids. Or blacks, for instance, should have no trouble finding music of their race, jazz and blues being carried in virtually any music store (in her time) and in virtually every music store in our time. Hip hop and rap are hardly incidental musical traditions, and these traditions have always been acknowledged. Nor are whites immune to ‘representing their race,’ as any “redneck” or “cracker” can attest. And so forth. While relatively rare in her list, these errors are nonetheless present, and in each case they speak against being a “privilege” because they aren’t even true, privilege or otherwise.
The fifth and final problem with McIntosh’s set of “privileges” is that many of them have been rectified as “advantages” only whites enjoy, and while this has no bearing on the accuracy of her statement in her time, it does bear on the accuracy of the concept now. For instance, black contributions to “our national heritage” are widely recognized; there are even African-American Studies. Also, cultural materials that testify to the existence of blacks have always been available in a ‘negative’ sense (no account of American history denies slavery) and are now available in a ‘positive’ sense as well (contributions of black civil right activists and innovators are widely recognized, etc.). Other changes include the availability of “posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazine featuring people of my race,” as well as Band Aids that match skin color. While once so-called “privileges” denied to blacks, none of these “white privileges” are true today, suggesting that “white privilege,” if more of a problem in 1986, is less of a problem now.
Taken collectively these five problems with McIntosh’s list of “privileges” leave few, if any, of them intact. The “privileges” she lists are in fact not privileges at all for one reason or another. So it must be asked: in light of these errors, why the staying power of her article? Why is “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” the go-to article for the notion of “white privilege,” even though her list of privileges is riddled with errors? What accounts for its representativeness and timeliness today?
Simply put, all the “benefits” McIntosh unpacks from the “invisible backpack” are true of those who don’t suffer racial discrimination, but they are not true of those who do. Also, following from what racial discrimination is, not being discriminated against implies, necessarily, an “unearned advantage” over those who suffer from its disadvantage—thus the list is de facto persuasive as delineating privilege, if one grants that “privilege” means unearned benefits conferring unearned advantage. Five reasons have called into question whether the benefits on the list constitute privilege, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant that generally speaking white people do enjoy every benefit on the list. Let’s also assume that enjoying these benefits gives any given white person an “unearned advantage” relative to a minority who doesn’t enjoy them—in other words, the “unearned benefit” of each item on the list confers an advantage over those who suffer the disadvantage of discrimination, and this advantage accrues simply because of the color of one’s skin. Before addressing the core issue—whether these “unearned benefits” conferring “unearned advantages” amount to privilege—what, summarily, can be said of McIntosh’s list? What can be said in general of the 26 benefits she details? What is the underlying, unifying sense that gives them meaning as privilege, even though analysis thus far suggests that few, if any, retain that status, despite amounting to “benefits” that confer relative “advantage” when racial discrimination occurs?
Generally speaking, all the “unearned benefits” of being white that McIntosh unpacks imply some sort of non-discrimination by race, with “non-discrimination” here conceived very broadly. In the context of her list, non-discrimination refers to anyone enjoying, as a rule, comfortable association, reassurances of fairness, and favorable (or at least non-biased) behavioral expectations. All of the items unpacked from the invisible backpack boil down to one or more of these three benefits, and collectively these benefits can be said to be non-discrimination by race. The core meaning, then, that unifies all the specific benefits McIntosh lays out is the privilege of non-discrimination, and for McIntosh whites enjoy this privilege but minorities don’t. But the question remains: does non-discrimination confer privilege? Is one privileged for generally not suffering the disadvantages of racial discrimination simply because others do? A look at the nature of privilege offers the first clue for teasing out the fundamental confusion that is “white privilege.”
By the normal meaning of the word, a “privilege” is a special entitlement, immunity, benefit, or prerogative, one above and beyond that to which others are ordinarily entitled, or one beyond which others can ordinarily expect. A privilege thus bestows a special benefit where one would not otherwise exist. Note here the emphasis on “special.” To be a privilege the benefit, entitlement or advantage must go above and beyond that to which one is otherwise entitled, or what one can otherwise expect to enjoy; it must add an additional benefit to the ordinary benefits one would usually have. Lest I be accused of imposing the dictionary anyone, this meaning also captures what people normally expect “privilege” to mean. Ordinarily people consider someone “privileged” when that person is granted a special right, benefit, or advantage—something, in any case, above and beyond what others ordinarily enjoy, something from which others are normally or even in principle excluded. For instance, a physician is said to be “privileged” because in light of her special training she is granted a right to practice medicine that in principle excludes non-physicians; she might get, for instance, admitting privileges at a hospital. Or alternatively, a famous athlete who is given a table at a packed restaurant when normal patrons are turned away can be said to enjoy the “privilege” of being famous, for he gets the seat when others don’t, simply because he’s famous. For yet another sense, a person who inherits a fortune from her parents is said to lead a privileged life, as are people in positions with guaranteed incomes, and so forth. Under the normal meaning of the term, privilege confers a special entitlement, benefit or advantage over and above what one is ordinarily entitled to enjoy, or can ordinarily expect. In other words, privilege separates one out from a baseline or ordinary entitlement or expectation.
With this meaning in mind, the tangle of errors that is “white privilege” begins to unravel. For note: McIntosh wants to call the “maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that come in the invisible backpack of being white components of privilege. Additionally, as shown above, all these items in the backpack boil down to one general sense of “privilege”—non-discrimination by race. And therein lays the problem. In our society non-discrimination by race is not a special right, immunity, or benefit to which one is not otherwise entitled; it is instead a baseline, ordinary benefit to which everyone is entitled. As such it cannot be a “privilege,” for as already noted, a privilege requires a special ‘entitlement, immunity, license or prerogative’ above and beyond ordinarily entitlements. In fact, as something to which everyone is equally entitled, non-discrimination by race is the opposite of a “privilege”: it is a fundamental right. In effect, then, all McIntosh does by unpacking the invisible backpack of “benefits” entailed in being white is unpack anyone’s ordinary rights against discrimination. All the “maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” she finds amount to the ordinary benefits constituting the right anyone is entitled to enjoy—whites included. We will turn to the fact that whites are not supposed to enjoy these benefits later. For now it simply bears repeating: the only effect of unpacking the invisible backpack of being “white” and “privileged” is a trivial exposition of the benefits of non-discrimination by race anyone is entitled to enjoy, period. As such, the invisible backpack of “white privilege” really amounts to the quite visible backpack of ordinary rights. If “whites” enjoy this backpack, that is not a problem because everyone is supposed to enjoy it, and whites are as included in “everyone” as anyone else.
Given this unintended but rather obvious implication of “white privilege,” what, it might be asked, accounts for the concept’s staying power as something that must be undone, as something that must be called out and challenged in order to be lessened, ended, or given up? In other words, why is McIntosh’s list persuasive as constituting “privilege”—and admittedly it can be persuasive, if one confabulates the plain meaning of words? We’ve seen that McIntosh makes five separable errors in itemizing her list comprising “privilege.” We’ve also seen that by the ordinary meaning of the term, the items on this list aren’t “privileges” at all. We’ve even seen that the benefits she unpacks—whatever they are called—are precisely what everyone should enjoy, whites included, so there seems to be no reason to problematize them in anyone, much less suggest that anyone should give them up. Yet “white privilege” has apparent staying power as an indictment of something whites have but minorities don’t; as an indictment of what should not be had by anyone. What accounts for this staying power? In addition to mistaking what a privilege is, what error does McIntosh make that makes her notion of “white privilege” just as persuasive as it is flawed?
Simply put, in order to call all the items on her list “privileges,” McIntosh exploits one sense of the word “special” in the meaning of the word “privilege,” even as she ignores the other necessary one—and this is the root error subtending the incoherence that is “white privilege,” including its staying power. Specifically, for McIntosh, “white privilege” amounts to unearned benefits and advantages that come with having a suite of “special maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” consequent to being white (emphasis added). For her, “having” versus “not having” this suite of benefits is sufficient to make them “special,” and therefore to make them, summarily, “privilege.” However, in its proper use having and not having in “privilege” means not just unequal possession; it also means unequal possession over and above ordinary entitlement or expectation. In other words, contrary to McIntosh, a benefit or advantage is a “privilege” not simply because it is unequally possessed, but only if this unequal possession also goes above and beyond that which one is ordinarily entitled to possess, or can ordinarily expect to possess. McIntosh gets around this normative implication of privilege—in fact she exploits it by inverting it—by focusing solely on the idea that a “benefit” or relative “advantage” is “special” in the limited sense that some have it and others don’t, when in fact privilege requires this unequal having also to be above and beyond baseline or ordinary entitlement and expectation. It is this simultaneous emphasis on a restrictive meaning of “special” at the exclusion its other necessary meaning in the word “privilege” that accounts for the persuasive power of McIntosh’s “white privilege,” and its underlying nonsense. By manipulating the one meaning of “special” (“not universally shared”) but ignoring the other (“not ordinarily entitled”), McIntosh creates the mirage of privilege with every item on her list. In other words, by overlaying a conceptual contortion onto undeniable facts she calls the items she unpacks from the invisible backpack components of “privilege,” but this overlaying contortion only creates a mirage of privilege at the expense of violating its underlying meaning. “White privilege,” then, is nothing more than a semantic mirage created through a shell-game with words—one endowed with, as will be shown next, strong normative implications.
Now, with these corrections of McIntosh in place—that is, with her specific errors laid out and the re-appropriation of the ordinary meaning of words intact—one final untangling of the contortion that is “white privilege” remains: addressing its normative power. Specifically, “white privilege” is nominally about the unfairness of racial discrimination, and as such it has one element in common with other attempts to bring about racial equality, namely, an emphasis on unfairness. But, this similarity is more apparent than real. That is, with its conceptual contortions to get “privilege” from an “unearned benefit” conferring “unearned advantage”—or alternatively, with its redefinition of privilege into not suffering a disadvantage—“white privilege” actually obscures the unfairness inherent in racial discrimination, not makes it clearer. And more to the point of unfairness in general, “white privilege” actually entails unfair treatment of non-discriminating whites as a means toward more fair treatment toward minorities. Plain statement of the unfairness caused by racial discrimination should illustrate both the obfuscation and unfairness “white privilege” entails.
In a society such as ours, where non-discrimination by race is deemed a fundamental right, the fact that some people enjoy its benefits while others don’t is, without question, unfair. Furthermore, any relative advantage conferred by enjoying this right while others don’t is, again, without question, unfair. But, per the previous discussion of “privilege” and McIntosh’s semantic contortions to get it, non-universal enjoyment of an ordinary right is not sufficient to create it, for privilege requires a special right, benefit or advantage over and above the ordinary entitlement, not differential enjoyment of an ordinary one. To put the issue directly in terms of white privilege, then, the unfairness intrinsic to any given person enjoying non-discrimination by race ‘as a rule’ while a member of a discriminated minority doesn’t isn’t sufficient to make one privileged, regardless of whether one invokes “unearned advantage” as a precipitating condition or not. Instead, this differential enjoyment of an ordinary right simply means the ‘benefits’ embodied in the right are unequally distributed throughout society, and this unequal distribution needs to be rectified. And to this point of unfairness that needs to be rectified, it bears noting: in a society where non-discrimination by race is a basic right for everyone, all parties are equally entitled to enjoy it. Therefore anyone enjoying it—white or otherwise— is entirely within their rights to do so; they are, in a word, entitled to do so, and given this equal entitlement there is no basis for calling one enjoyment over another “privileged” on the grounds that it is “unearned” and confers a relative “advantage.” Doing so amounts to a subtle but significant denigration that is itself entirely unfair, for earning—or not—a basic right has no bearing on its enjoyment, and the fact that one is both white and enjoying it is morally identical to being both a minority and enjoying the same. In short, one enjoyment is no more privilege than the other, regardless of whether or not all in inequities in society have been alleviated. Yet privilege-one-shouldn’t-have is precisely what white privilege imputes. “White privilege” imputes—both implicitly and explicitly—that even non-discriminating whites enjoying the benefits of non-discrimination by race is problematic; that they, as singled out, shouldn’t have the “backpack” of “unearned benefits” that is ultimately nothing more than that—i.e. nothing more than a trivial exposition of not suffering racial discrimination. Through its semantic contortions and against it nominal intent, then, “white privilege” only obscures the unfairness of racial discrimination by confusing not suffering it with “privilege,” even as it makes racial discrimination worse by unfairly discriminating against whites, imputing as it does that a white person enjoying the benefits of non-discrimination is morally problematic and needs to be addressed—i.e. it represents the “privilege” needs to be given up, as McIntosh explicitly states, or even (god help us) taken away. This obfuscatory logic and discriminatory unfairness has two notable consequences.
First, apprehending the contorted logic that is the mirage of “white privilege” accounts for most—if not all—of the much discussed resistance to admitting one has it. Specifically, when confronted with “white privilege,” most people (usually white) see right through the mirage and grasp the underlying implications, including the imputation of their part—or not—in racial discrimination. For instance, as a rule ordinary people know intuitively what a privilege is, and how to disambiguate it from an unearned benefit or a relative advantage over those who suffer a disadvantage. That is, they know intuitively that enjoying a right or benefit everyone is entitled to enjoy isn’t “special” in the sense required for “privilege,” even if others aren’t enjoying it as well. They know unequal enjoyment of any basic right like non-discrimination is unfair, yet they know just as well that not suffering unfairness doesn’t make one “privileged” either. In effect, when parsing “white privilege” most people recognize they shouldn’t be asked to give up enjoying the so-called “unearned benefits” they are perfectly entitled to enjoy—the benefits of non-discrimination by race—and when these benefits are spelled out for them, they know for certain that they should be enjoying them, as should everyone else; yet they are being told they shouldn’t be enjoying them, that enjoying them is morally problematic, that these “unearned benefits” must be ended or given up…and so on and so forth. At the end of the day, most people not pre-saturated with the semantic contortions of the regressive left recognize intuitively the obfuscatory gestures and discriminatory unfairness inherent in having their so-called “white privilege” called out. In short, the resistors see right through the political mirage and pick up on the primary, perhaps even exclusively intended imputation: that they are being singled out as complicit in racial discrimination solely for being white, as though being white makes them some kind of culpable beneficiary of an unjust system simply for not suffering discrimination. That’s bullshit, they know it, and hence they resist the imputation.
Second, this singling out white people for special discrimination—this exhortation “You should not have the benefits you have because you are white!”—comprises the primary, if not sole, normative force of “white privilege,” and it embroils its advocates in a hypocritical—and ultimately idiotic—stance. Specifically, “white privilege” singles out white people and applies a special prohibition against enjoying a “backpack” of “invisible benefits” they are perfectly entitled to enjoy—to wit, non-discrimination by race. In effect, then, “white privilege” tells whites that, solely by virtue of being white, they shouldn’t be enjoying the benefits of non-discrimination, even as it’s tacitly supposed by the white privilege advocates themselves that everyone—especially minorities—should be enjoying these benefits. There is an obvious hypocrisy here. If the whole point of advocacy is the universal “benefit” of non-discrimination by race, why then is the means of this advocacy problematizing its enjoyment in non-discriminating whites? McIntosh is quite clear on this problematization and consequent removal—this ‘lessening,’ ‘ending’ or ‘giving up’ privileges, as opposed to insuring rights for minorities (p. 1). For her, the “silences and denials” surrounding privilege is “the key political tool,” and the goal of social change is to de-structure the systems of dominance privilege entails (p. 5). The thinking goes, presumably: give up the privilege, remove the dominance—except in this case, the only “privilege” to give up amounts to nothing more than any given white person enjoying the benefits of non-discrimination by race. Can one seriously contemplate the surrender of protections from racial discrimination benefiting white people as the chief means for rectifying the unfairness of racial discrimination against minorities? Yet this is precisely what removing or surrendering “white privilege” entails; by McIntosh’s own predilections the key issue not one of insuring rights. As a result, as a means of advocacy for racial equality, “white privilege” is in equal measure hypocritical, unfair, an ultimately idiotic. At the end of the day, it seeks to remove from one race the very protections it seeks for the others. Such is the logic, though, when one trades insuring rights and equality for removing privileges and power.
Advocates of white privilege will no doubt themselves resist this re-appropriation of “privilege” to its proper meaning, and the consequences for their doctrine this re-appropriation entails. They will likely argue, in effect, that not suffering a disadvantage still makes one “privileged” so long as someone else suffers it, as though inequity alone confers privilege through relative advantage. And no doubt pointing out again that “unearned benefit” conferring “unearned advantage” is not equivalent to “privilege” will only increase their resistance, so perhaps another tack is in order, one geared toward more open-minded readers who accept the logic of ordinary use but might still be interested in the political logic implied in a concept like “white privilege.” For the political logic of “white privilege” as drawn out by McIntosh herself implies consequences that on their face are utterly absurd, if not horrifying as well.
For instance, the idea that “privilege” amounts to not–being-denied a benefit, an immunity, or a right—in other words, to not suffering a disadvantage (the only meaning of “privilege” left for advocates of “white privilege”)—this idea is tantamount to saying that not being the victim of a crime constitutes privilege. By the lights of the political logic entailed in a concept like “white privilege,” we are all privileged relative to the victims of any crime simply by the fact that we ourselves are not victims. Fleshing out the full logic in the terms McIntosh uses to flesh out the recognition of her own “white privilege,” given the undeniable fact that we are tacit beneficiaries of the laws and norms against criminal behavior, and that we share these benefits and protections with the criminals themselves, under the logic of white privilege any given person could be held “newly accountable” to the victims of crimes simply for her non-victim status, for she would come to recognize the tacit “benefits” of non-victimization as an “unearned advantage” over victims of these crimes (p. 1). In fact, she would even come to see herself as a “beneficiary” of some implicit sense of non-victimhood at the victim’s expense (p. 1), and through this unearned non-victimhood she would become an “unconscious” criminal herself, just as the white and privileged are unconscious oppressors “justly seen as oppressive” by people of color (p.1). In sum, this privileged non-victim would come to see herself as “an unfairly advantaged person” for not being the victim of a crime (p. 1), and this would entail implicit guilt for any crime committed, and therefore would entail as well a nexus of obligations that could, in principle, be extracted (for the guilty must be punished). This is all asinine, of course, for it turns criminal law and its protections on its head by making non-victims of crimes accountable for those crimes to its victims under the very regime intended to protect both. But such is the collective political logic implied in notions like “white privilege.” In order to get the concept off the ground, these conceptual contortions and their asinine implications are necessary, and as inane and frightening as they are, throughout history there has been no shortage of actors willing to put them into practice, with universally horrifying results. Every Marxist revolution ever born has deployed this logic of collective accountability though the categories of the privileged and the oppressed, and the removal of oppressor privileges (for her part, McIntosh explicitly denies that moral culpability is tied to individual behavior and not collective identification by race, right on the first page). The blood trail of this logic once backed by power should speak for itself.
There is a much simpler and far more sensible route to equal treatment for minorities. To advocate for it, one need only assert that non-discrimination by race is a fundamental right, and that unequal enjoyment of this right is unfair. Then one can remind anyone who enjoys the right that this unfairness needs to be rectified, and that we all have a common interest in rectifying it. One need not contort “privilege” into not-being-denied a basic right, then tell whites they’re privileged for enjoying the “unearned benefits” non-denial confers. Not only is this inversion stupid—and intuitively “whites” know this, thus they rightly resist this denial of their rights that is simultaneously the denial of their “privilege;” in its full deployment it carries asinine—even horrifying—implications. And when using concepts as vehicles for social change, implications matter. Instead of deploying the political logic of “white privilege” to reduce the status of whites, as it were—to remove their privilege—it is enough to stop discriminating against minorities and advocate for their rights, for their opportunities—in other words, the rights and opportunities we all should share. For there are no privileges to give up, only rights to be had. In other words, instead of the asinine inversion McIntosh proposes, remedy unfair treatment where it exists. Why not take this much simpler and far more sensible route? Why not simply point out to “whites” that discrimination by race still exists, and that as a rule they don’t suffer from it themselves; therefore they should be especially mindful of it in others and fight with minorities for its rectification? After all, on a good day this is the only sensible thing “white privilege” says. Other than an implicit attempt to denigrate or shame, there is simply no reason to advocate for equal treatment for minorities through the problematization and imputed guilt of being white and privileged.