Unpacking the invisible knapsack of white privilege message

In the United States over the last 30years a useful concept has been developed which we could do with discussing much more on this side of the Atlantic.  This is the concept of ”white privilege”. As a white person I can take a whole range of advantages and privileges for granted as I go about my everyday life in the UK. So much so that I can even fail to notice that I actually have those advantages merely by virtue of being from the white majority. For example I don’t expect to be followed around by security guards whenever I visit expensive shops. I can generally drive my car or walk around anywhere in London without fearing that I might at any moment become the focus of police activity. As a parent of white children I do not expect to have to explain to them why they are continually stopped and searched  or why they may need to avoid any even innocent contact with the Police for their own safety. Nor do I have to explain to them that some people will treat them less favourably because of the colour of their skin, and I don’t have to talk to them about how they should react to such behaviour and how it might make them feel. I can assume that when I apply for a job my application will be treated fairly and that my name or my place of birth or any other signs of my origins or identity will not mark me down. I can reliably assume that when I have to interact with the Police, government  departments,  private sector or any other organisations, I will be treated with due respect and courtesy. "White privilege"  then “refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race."[1]

For those of us from the white majority, anti-racism needs to be more than just about “valuing diversity” and marching or campaigning against racism. It also needs to be about us working to unravel our own white privilege. This means working to change our own minds and challenging our own presuppositions. It is also about feeling the assault on our own dignity every time we observe or experience white privilege and fail to challenge it. It is also means starting to understand the connection between my everyday privilege and the institutional racism that both riddles British society and reinforces my own privilege by turning it into a feeling of entitlement.

The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, whilst marking others out as different or abnormal. Seeing non-white people as “ethnic” or “exotic” while perceiving oneself as “normal”. This ability of white people to call everybody else “the other” and insist that whiteness is the default, the “normal” is even more of a problem in the UK than it is in the US. In the US the white community is itself far more often differentiated within itself on ethnic lines than it is in the UK. The US considers itself to be a land of migrants and with the exception of First Nation Americans almost everyone is able to track their heritage back to somewhere outside the US. This is often done by defining ethnic subgroups in the form of hyphenations and applies almost as much to the white as to other population groups. Scottish-American, Ukrainian-American, Iranian-American as well as African-American etc. Perhaps the exception to this hyphenation is the old ruling class sometimes referred to as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

In the Britain quite the reverse is true. Most white people in England[2] see themselves just as English or British and for them their whiteness is so much the norm that they seldom think about it or even notice it. They don’t usually have a strong notion that they have inherited particular cultural traits from elsewhere  – this makes it even more unusual for them to see that their own cultural, linguistic and other behavioural traits are equally as “ethnic” as anybody else’s. Perhaps this is why the concept of white privilege has not taken off in the UK. Most white people don’t even see themselves as white or having an ethnicity but only as “normal”. They resist seeing their identity as being racialised in any way – indeed that is a power that they reserve only to  do to others. This may be one of the reasons why in the UK there is so much resistance both to discussions about race or white privilege and to activities designed to try to end racism.  

The term white privilege gained new popularity in academic circles and public discourse in the US after Peggy McIntosh's 1987 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". McIntosh suggested that white people need to understand how racial inequality includes benefits to them as well as disadvantages to others. Academic and societal ideas about race have tended to focus solely on the disadvantages suffered by racial and ethnic minorities,overlooking the advantageous effects that accrue to whites.

One of the benefits of white privilege is that it allows the privileged group to represent inequality in terms of outgroup disadvantage(and then sometimes take the next step of blaming the outgroup for its own disadvantage). It allows privileged group members to avoid the negative implications of inequality and the realisation that equality may involve having (and therefore having to give up) some privileges that they have no right to, rather than seeing inequality as a pre-ordained part of the natural order. In the UK everyone is encouraged (and sometimes required) to live by the attributes defined by the privileged. In these kinds of society white people define and determine the terms of success and failure; they are the norm. This allows members of the privileged group to see their successes and achievements as hard-earned and well deserved because of their individual effort rather than as resulting from their pre-existing privileges and the inbuilt advantages these privileges have given them.

Critics have sometimes suggested that the concept of white privilege uses the term "whiteness" as a proxy for class or other social privilege or that it distracts us from deeper underlying problems of inequality. Other critics of the idea point out that the concept of white privilege can lead to us ignoring important differences between and within white subpopulations. Certainly many unemployed white working class young people are unlikely to see their whiteness as being a privilege or as giving them much of an advantage[3]. The least successful white ethnic and cultural groups are often the ones that are disadvantaged the most from any positive action that attempts to take into account white privilege. Despite some of these concerns about the way the concept of white privilege is used,  it is a useful way of challenging white power and institutional racism and it forces us to ask some quite radical questions about the “whiteness” of our own world view.

Here are a few guidelines that I find helpful in trying to address my own white privilege[4]:

1.    Do not assume that there is a common-sense understanding of racism by white people. Do not expect a widespread awareness of race and racism as an issue that needs to be challenged. Society has not educated white people to recognise racism (we hardly talk about it except when we feel we are being accused of it!). Conversely it has trained us not to notice or understand our own race privilege.

2.    Do not confuse racism with other non-racial oppression. Race privilege is never exactly the same as privilege based on class, gender or sexuality. Saying "I know exactly what you mean" to a Latin American man's story about racism – and proceeding to tell him your experience as a gay man – will most likely cut off any discussion of racism.

3.    White people need to "do our own homework". We must never assume that the nearest person of  Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritage has either the time or the inclination to educate us. We can learn from the increasing number of books, online discussions,  and literature addressing race privilege, racism, and the realities faced by BAME people in the UK and elsewhere. We need to discuss these issues with other white people rather than expecting Black people to do our work for us. We need to take responsibility for the issue of race rather than expecting our black friends and colleagues to constantly take responsibility for dealing with the race dimension

4.    Expect hard work. Commenting, "I feel so bad about all the racism in British society" is nice, but working to challenge and change it is far better. And this means taking concrete and consistent actions to challenge our own racism and that of all of our own cherished  organisations and institutions. It also sometimes means getting it wrong and being open to criticism that may be painful.

5.    Do not expect to not feel uncomfortable. Race is an uncomfortable issue – if it wasn’t there wouldn’t be a problem. Privilege needs to be faced honestly and consistently with learning taking place from any mistakes.

6.    Be careful. Talking about white privilege can itself, in certain circumstances, turn into a very privileged thing to do

7.    You are doing this for yourself because you have to do it. You are not doing it on anyone else’s behalf or out of concern for or to “help” black people. If you don’t see why white privilege damages both you and other white people then you haven’t got the point.

8.    Do not expect BAME people to celebrate your discovery of  your own white privilege. White people addressing race privilege may be rare, but it is never an heroic act.

9.    Some of these guidelines are much more difficult to hold to then they might look at first sight. Privileged ways of thinking, feeling and behaving always creep back in. White privilege is being constantly reiterated and reinforced in all aspects of the media and everyday life.

10.Dealing with one’s own privilege is a constant process – there is unlikely to be a time when you reach a state where you have completely overcome it. But not to have tried is unforgiveable.



[1] — Delgado, Richard; Stefancic, Jean (2001), Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, New York and London: New York University Press, p. 78, ISBN 0-8147-1931-7


[2] I use the term England here as most residents or descendants of the celtic nations –  who identify as Welsh, Irish, Scottish or Cornish have a rather different and stronger sense of their own heritage and identityidentity

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html

[4] Based loosely on the Guidelines in Jennifer Simpson’s  resource article  Identifying Race Privilege: From One White to Another  1995