Peggy McIntosh is well-known for a groundbreaking research paper in the 1980s on white privilege, which became a staple for talking about bias. Now 82, she spoke this week at the University of Washington.
In the late 1980s, Peggy McIntosh came up with a system that helped her think more clearly about race and privilege. It’s still helping people, and McIntosh, at 82, continues spreading the word and expanding her work to foster equality.
McIntosh is widely known as the author of a paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which became a staple of discussions about bias.
Blame and shame aren’t part of her approach, which is rooted in recognizing and addressing unearned advantages and disadvantages conferred by systems of power that contemporary Americans didn’t create or ask for.
McIntosh spent a couple of days this week in Seattle discussing her work with University of Washington students and speaking Wednesday evening to a general audience at Kane Hall, where she talked about how she arrived at her understanding of privilege. Her visit was sponsored by the UW Alumni Association and the Graduate School.
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McIntosh is a former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She said that, for seven years, she led a seminar at Wellesley College in which professors from around the Northeast would gather each month and discuss the idea of including material on women in the curricula of all the liberal-arts disciplines.
She said the men who participated were nice people and brave for participating in the discussions, which began in 1980. But a pattern emerged. Each year, after months of discussions, the women would make concrete suggestions for including women, and the men would reject the ideas.
At the suggestion that first-year courses should include material on women, one man said, “When you’re trying to lay those foundation stones for knowledge, you can’t put in soft stuff.”
The UW audience gasped at that, likely because we’ve made some progress since then. McIntosh had to consider how such a nice man could say that. Were the men oppressive or nice? The next year, another nice man called material on women “extras.”
Later, she recalled essays written by black women that said white women were oppressive to work with. Her first response at the time, around 1980, was, “I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice.”
Her second thought was, “I especially think we’re nice if we work with them.” She asked the audience, “Do you hear the outright racism in that?”
A few years later it struck McIntosh that those women felt the same way she and the women in her seminars felt about the men in the groups. She had been heavily focused on the disadvantages she faced as a woman, but she began thinking more about the advantages she faced as a white person. She could get grants more easily than her black female colleagues, and it wasn’t because her ideas were always better.
She realized that a person can be nice and oppressive at the same time. That the larger problem was systemic. She began asking herself what other unearned advantages came with her skin color.
“I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,” she thought. Over a couple of years, she kept adding to the list that would constitute the invisible knapsack — unearned advantages she hadn’t been aware of.
She read a few of the dozens of items on her personal list:
“I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
“Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.”
“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.”
Her list became a way of making people aware of what tends to be invisible. Everyone has both earned and unearned advantages and disadvantages. People who are aware of that can choose to take actions that weaken the systems that distribute advantage and disadvantage unfairly.
McIntosh is still doing that. She’s the founder of the National SEED Project, which educates people, including educators, about privilege as a systemic problem.
Once you see what had been invisible, you have to choose how to react. That choice is all about just how good a person you truly are.