In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a four-page paper called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.
It’s only 4 pages long, so you might want to read it first before continuing reading this. You can read the entire thing here:
In her paper, McIntosh coins the term “privilege” to describe what she called the “unearned assets” that white males have over women and people of color. She talks about “advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages”.
McIntosh also describes how people “in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power” as the only means to achieve gender equality. But she says that men “can’t or wont support the idea of lessening men’s” power, meaning that men oppose gender equality, because on some level, men realize that they have to give up their unearned power to achieve equality.
McIntosh says men don’t want equality because men gain advantages from women’s disadvantages, and men don’t want to give their advantages up.
All of this is wrapped up in a term that McIntosh calls “privilege”.
This actually fits with the etymology of the word “privilege”. Privilege is from a law made for one person to lift them up above everyone else. If you remove the privilege, that person gives up their privileges and has to drop down to be equal with everyone else.
This definition of privilege forwarded by McIntosh creates what can only be described as an antagonistic view by women against men, and by minorities against whites. Every form of discrimination, accordingto McIntosh, is the result of privilege. And the recipients of privilege will have to give up their privilege for the world to achieve equality. So the entire class of men have incentive to oppose gender equality. And the entire class of whites would have incentive to oppose racial equality.
After defining privilege, McIntosh then goes on to describe what she says are daily effects of privilege in her life. She lists 26 items in her publicly available paper. (apparently, she has more if you want the longer paper.) But of those 26, only 1 of them is actually an “over privilege” that whites would no longer have if the world were a world of equality.
If it is an over privilege, then that would mean white males would have to give up whatever it is for there to be equality in the world. But of McIntosh’s list of 26 examples she says are “privilege”, only one of them remotely qualifies as an “over privilege” or “underserved power” over another class.
Number 18 in her list says: “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.”
In a world of full equality for all, if anyone asks to see the person in charge, they might be facing a man or woman, a person who is white, black, or some other color. This “privilege” goes away in a world of full equality. I wouldn’t call this the “ring of power” of benefits, though.
Every other item in her list is not something that would go away in a world of full equality, but rather would be enjoyed by everyone in a world of full equality. For example, Number 19 says “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.” In a world of full equality for all, EVERYONE should enjoy this. This isn’t an over privilege that whites will have to surrender in a world of equality, this is something that everyone should experience regardless of gender or race. Therefore it is NOT A PRIVILEGE, it is NOT over power or undeserved power.
McIntosh coins the term “privilege” and defines it as undeserved advantage over another class maintained by holding that class at a disadvantage, and that advanatage must be surrendered for the world to achieve equality, but members of the dominant class will avoid acknowledging they have extra, undeserved power, and will resist surrendering that power.
And yet, McIntosh’s list of over two-dozen examples of “privilege” fail to meet her own definition of privilege.
Instead, what McIntosh lists is more a matter of “these are things I didn’t really have to think about before, but now I’m thinking about them.” And that isn’t a function of “privilege” or over power, undeserved power. That is a function of empathy.
This is reinforced by the fact that almost every conversation about privilege will inevitably have one person who says one privilege is not having to think about privilege. That’s really nothing more than pointing at empathy. And when empathy is missing, you have apathy.
A famous example of apathy: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? One outcome of apathy is not having to emapathize with others. And the last thing Scrooge wanted to do was think about those less fortunate.
Apathy is not what McIntosh defines in her paper to be Privilege. McIntosh defines privilege as active systemic discrimination. McIntosh isn’t talking about apathy when she’s talking about some over powering benefit that whites or men get from allowing discrimination.
An extreme example of privilege would be white plantation owners who grew wealthy off the backs of slave labor. Take away slavery, and the wealth of plantation owners goes down. A privilege is something so strong that the people who have it will resist attempts at eliminating discrimination because they realize it means they will lose their benefit. The South went to war to try to keep slavery.
One possible example of modern day privilege would be the wage gap between white men and women and minorities. If one argues that men’s pay would go down if equal pay were achieved in the workplace, then as long as there is a pay gap, men are paid more than they should be. But if rather than men’s pay going down, women’s pay goes up, then teh wage gap wouldn’t be a privilege of men, it would be a detriment against women. Currently in the US, the wage gap between men and women is 77%, meaning women get paid 77% of what a man gets paid for the same job.
There is some debate as to whether this gap is due to gender differences, lifestyle choices, or outright discrimination. The other question would be if men’s wages had to go down for equal pay to be achieved, how much of a drop would it be? A 23% difference between teh two, if you split it, that’s a 12% pay cut for men, and a 12% pay raise for women.
I’m not entirely sure that a 12% pay cut is such a threat to men that it becomes an overpowering privilege that men will defend to the point of supporting sexual discrimination. It’s not like we’re talking about plantation owners at this point. The median income for men in 2006 was about $45k a year. Women who worked full time that same year averaged $35k a year. It’s difficult comparing apples to apples because there are some large statistical differnce between the behaviors of men and women that it is not clear how much of this difference is from job discrimination and how much of it is lifestyle choices and other varibles.
But I want to introduce a concept I call the “equality waterline”. As a way to talk about privilege and detriments and sort out one from the other. Lets say that this year, on average, men make $45k a year and women make $35k a year. Then say that next year, you remove all forms of gender discrimination in the workplace to the point that men and women are making the same amount of money. How much would they be making? We won’t know until we get there, but if the average is $45k a year, then men’s pay was not a privilege due to discrimination. The pay gap was fully a result of discrimination being a detriment to women’s pay. If the average equal pay lands at $40k, then men were making a “privileged” income of $5k a year that was a result of discrimination.
The amount that the average equal pay ends up being won’t be known until the world has gender equality, but the line points to a concept I call teh equality waterline. The point of the equality waterline is to distinguish privilege for men from detriments against women.
Whites dont have to deal with systemic racial profiling by the police. People of color do. Where is the equality waterline with regards to racial profiling by teh police? Hopefully one would have as a goal of racial equality a world where no one has to put up with racial profiling by the police. In that case, whites are at the equality waterline, and people of color are at a detriment. Because tehy are at the equality waterline, whites not having to worry about police profiling them is not a privilege.
In her own paper, McIntosh defines privilege as something that essentially holds one class above the equality waterline. And yet in that same paper, McIntosh lists over two dozen examples that said were white “privileges”. But almost all of them were situations where whites were operating on teh equality waterline and people of color were below it due to discrimination.
If a class is above the equality waterline, that class will tend to not want to give up whatever is holding them above the line. Depending on how far above the equality waterline they are, they may be willing to do a lot to maintain their position. The extreme example already mentioned, plantation owners were far, far above the equality waterline because slavery gave them huge monetary privileges that they didn’t earn. And because of those huge privileges, the South was willing to go to war to maintain slavery.
But if a class is operating at the equality waterline and another class is operating below it, then the class at the waterline is not enjoying a ‘privilege’ by McIntosh’s definition.
And the important point made by the equality waterline is that situations where there is discrimination, but where the non-discriminated-against class is at the equality waterline, then McIntosh is wrong about one very important thing: there is no incentive by the class to maintain the discrimination.
Whites have no incentive to keep racial profiling by police in place. There is no privilege, no benefit, no reward from profilng that would affect a white persons moral compass. Only a racist would support profiling. McIntosh makes the point that privilege is a class reward that skews all members in that class.
But the vast majority of her examples were not privileges. Most of here examples were situations where whites were operating at or very near the equality waterline. So those example have no actual incentives to cause whites to try to maintain the privilege, except for those people who are racist to begin with.
McIntosh introduces privilege as a concept and forwards the idea that all examples of discrimination are a form of privilege, and that whites/males always have incentives to oppose equality because they benefit from discrimination. This goes back to that antagonistic view i was talking about.
But McIntosh fails to account for the equality waterline, and fails to acknowlege that situations where white males are operating at the equality waterline then there is no privilege, no benefit for men to keep women or minorities at a disadvantage. And most importantly fails to identify that the vast majority of her examples were NOT privilege, but rather discrimination with white males at the equality waterline.
All told, this yeilds some guidelines and rules of thumb for discussing privilege.
privilege is a subset of discrimination. Not all discrimination is privilege, and if there is no discrimination behind the scenario, then there is no privilege.
Privilege exists when discrimination lifts one group above the equality waterline. If discrimination is removed around a privileged group, the benefit to that group will drop. If the group does not drop, it is not privilege. It could still be discrimination because discrimination is a superset of privilege. But the group must drop for it to have been privilege.
Apathy is not the same as privilege. They are not subsets of another. They are orthoganal.They are different topics. A person could empathize with and care about a discriminated group and still benefit from privilege due to discrimination against that group. Privilege doesn’t always require your permission. Empathy does. But just because someone is apathetic doesn’t mean they are getting some privilege.
And saying ‘one privilege is not having to think about privilege’ doesn’t make it true. That assertion is talking about apathy.
Lastly, being white or male or straight doesn’t make you a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe. Nor does it make you privileged. And yet people comonly throw around accusations of privilege as undeniably true simply because the person they labeled is white or male or straight. To say someone is privileged simply because they are white fails to prove that individual is receiving some benefit due to discrimination that lifts them above the equality waterline.
This is really failing to apply systemic discrimination to individual bias. The existence of systemic discrimination against blacks doesn’t mean that all whites are biased or that all whites have.privilege.
If the gist of your accusation is ‘you are white, you will never know what its like for a black person to be stopped by a racist white cop’ then your gist is accurate, but that’s not privilege. That’s empathy and apathy again. If you want to accuse someone of privilege, its an unproven accusation until you show what benefit that individual is personally getting due to discrimination against a class of people. The existence of systemic discrimintion does not prove this individual is benefitting from it. The existence of systemic discrimination does not prove that this individual is held above the equality waterline due to discrimination.
If you simply assume guilt of privilege wihout actualy proving this particular individual got some beneifit as a result of discrimination, then your accusation doesn t hold water.