The theory of white privilege – why racism is not a privilege, but an injustice

Sandew Hira, May 3, 2017

Within some parts of the activist movement the concept of White Privilege is quite popular. Let us take a decolonial look at the concept.

It was introduced in 1988 by a white feminist from America, Peggy McIntosch, in an article titled White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work on Women’s Studies.[1] A year later she published a shorter version under the title White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.[2]

This is how she explains the concept.

She did not study black thinkers to see how they analyzed racist oppression before she came up with her concept about racism. She does not refer to any black activists who have analyzed racism in terms of colonial oppression, dehumanization, exploitation, violence, the colonization of the mind and the institutions of knowledge that produce and promote concepts of superiority and inferiority. That rich body of literature on black thought was lost on her.

She came up with the concept by looking at how white men treat white women. McIntosch: “Through work to bring materials and perspectives from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged in the curriculum, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully recognized, acknowledged, lessened, or ended.”[3]

And then she extends it to racism, as if racism is more or less the same as sexism. It is a matter of privileges: “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege.“[4]

Nothing about colonialism, superiority/inferiority, brutality, rape, murder, theft, apartheid etc. Racist oppression and injustice are turned into a privilege. You might think that this is part of a stand-up comedy routine: “I feel so privileged to be your oppressor. I have the privilege of stealing your land. I have the privilege of raping you. I have the privilege of beating you to death, etc.” It is not stand-up comedy. It is a serious analysis that has gained support even in black activist circles.

How does McIntosch turn racist oppression, exploitation and injustice of people of color into a privilege of white people? She uses five techniques.

First, she changes the origin of racism as a phenomenon that is historically rooted in colonialism into an occurrence whose origin is unclear and invisible. McIntosch: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

If racism is an invisible package of unearned assets, then you don’t have to call it racism. White privilege is now a more suitable term than racism, a term that has a historical background rooted in colonialism.

Second, she replaces oppression, exploitation and injustice with “unearned assets”. Rape, theft, murder, kidnapping, enslavement disappear in a comparison of a knapsack of provisions like maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas etc. If you talk about a map you possess and another person is missing, then you don’t need to talk about a historical crime. Her examples of white privilege are all on the level of superficial interaction between individuals and nothing substantial in the field of institutional racism. She made a list of 46 examples. Here are a few.

“1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another woman’s voice in a group in which she is the only member of her race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

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.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”[5]

You will not find examples such as:

  1. I am living on land that my ancestors have stolen from the Native Americans and don’t intend on giving it back.
  2. My ancestors had enslaved Africans work for free for hundreds of years and I don’t intend to pay reparations for that historical injustice.

Third, she individualizes racism. This enables her to distance herself from her community and claim the willingness to give up white privilege. That is why her list almost invariably starts with “I”.

Take this statement: “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.” She does not pose the question: who is the one that pulls me over? It is some abstract colorless force which she has nothing to do with. In fact, she is not the traffic cop who pulls you over. That is somebody else.

Fourth, she removes the distinction between perpetrator and victim of a crime. McIntosch: “At school, we were not taught about slavery in any depth; we were not taught to see slaveholders as damaged people. Slaves were seen as the only group at risk of being dehumanized.”[6] So the white criminals who have organized the kidnapping of millions of Africans, shipped them to the Americas and had 2 million killed during the journey and for hundreds of years enslaved and brutalized black people are now placed on the same level as their victims. They are “damaged people” and are also “at risk of being dehumanized”.

Fifth, she would not dare to use the same method in a case that is clear cut for white people regarding racism: anti-semitism in Nazi-Germany. Suppose, you are a Jew living in Nazi-Germany under Hitler. You are forced to wear a Jew star on your jacket to identify you as a Jew. Now comes a sympathetic German who wants to show her solidarity and empathy with you. Instead of shouting “Here is a grave injustice going on”, she yells “Here is an example of German privilege. We don’t have to wear a Jew star on our jacket!” This example would show that the concept of German privilege would constitute an insult to the Jewish people.

Why not tell it like it is and call racism “racism” and injustice “injustice”? We know the practical implications of this. It starts with the strategy of the empowerment of black people to organize and mobilize for a struggle.

What happens if you turn racism and injustice of people of color into a privilege of white people? Now the struggle is about an appeal to the morality and consciousness of white people to please give up their privilege rather than an appeal to fight institutional racism. It is understandable that some white people would rather have black people appealling to their morality and consciousness instead of mobilizing to break down their power structures. But the fact that the concept of white privilege is even used by black activists as part of their narrative of liberation shows the extent to which their mind has been colonized.

[1] McIntosch, P. (1988): White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/White_Privilege_and_Male_Privilege_Personal_Account-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf.

[2] McIntosh, P. (1989): White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. http://code.ucsd.edu/pcosman/Backpack.pdf.

[3] McIntosch, P. (1988), p. 2.

[4] Idem.

[5] McIntosch, P. (1988), p. 4-7.

[6] McIntosch, P. (1988), p. 4.