I’m not sure if Peggy McIntosh is considered outdated in feminist and WS circles by now but when I started studying feminist theory, she was the first exposure I had to privilege. I couldn’t believe how privileged I was just because I am white and I was even more shocked to find just how privileged my white (especially straight) guy friends were for having the added bonus of being male.
Privilege isn’t something people normally think about because it’s easy to ignore something you take for granted day to day. I don’t think that privileged individuals walk around and intentionally use privilege to their betterment. I do think that people tend not to notice they are privileged because they have spent their lives living in a way they are comfortable with and not confronted by. Once privilege is brought to someone’s attention, s/he is challenged by the concept that s/he can work less hard than others for some of the things that others do not have.
Frankly, this is a concept that blew my mind because after I learned about it, I couldn’t believe how few people considered the theory at all. Since privileged people are generally (consciously or not) unaware, once challenged they have two choices:
1. Do nothing. Continue living their lives just how they are, privileged and all.
2. Recognize their privilege and use it to help others.
Many people, even once challenged, live in denial of their privilege: “Why should I give up what I’ve earned?” or “No one helped ME get to where I am, why should I help others?” These common reactions are actually misconceptions. For one, you may have “earned” what you have with the help of being privileged (in whatever way privilege applies to you). And although no actual person or people may have helped you get to where you are, an institutionalized system of privilege, classism, and racism set up society to aid in your success.
Moving on to the good stuff. How are we actually privileged? Again, though outdated, Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack provides great examples of white privilege that are often overlooked:
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- 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 chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.*
- I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
Although Ms. McIntosh enlightened me in college, since then I have admittedly given very little thought to privilege. Yes I try to live my life acknowledging and recognizing what I have and what others don’t (and how to equal out the world) but I haven’t thought about it in an academic way in quite some time. That is, until recently. One of my fav feminist blogs, A Feminist Response to Pop Culture posted about privilege based on Racialicious’s recent series of posts on whether class has trumped race. The items of privilege they discuss are mostly in terms of class which I think is very current and especially important. Class based privilege is all about access to resources. Education and access to education is a huge part of that.
Here is a list they posted, anything in bold makes me privileged:
If your father went to college
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home (but they were mostly in Russian)
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind (piano - free, & flute - $20/half hour)
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it (once i got to college)
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp (Jewish Community Center)
If you had a private tutor (For about 1 month, for math)
If you have been to Europe (Born in Russia, should that count?)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house (a condo...)
If your parents own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (Only senior year)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family
Check out Racialicious’s terrific post (part 3 of her series) on acknowledging class privilege.
Also, feel free to comment on privilege or even post your own bolded list.
*I realize that since Peggy Mc compiled her list "flesh-colored" makeup has expanded to include all shades of flesh, but at the time, this was a relevant example.