Monday, October 23, 2006

Race: Fact or Myth? by christopher bowers

In Critical White Studies they talk about race as being much more a social reality than a biological reality. "Race" as a concept is not seen, even scientifically, as a biological reality. There are biological differences, obviously, but those are less than 5% of our genetic make-up. However, we attatch certain meanings to those minut differences and that meaning becomes more powerful than the reality of biology (that 5%). This means that two white people could have less in common genetically than a European-American and an African-American.

Race, as a concept, comes out of a political/social context, particularly in this country. People could be defined not by their biology but by a political definition of race. The whiter you were, the more likely you were to be offered citizenship, the more property you could have, acceptance... and often your race was determined by the amount of property you had (Mexicans were considered white on the west coast because they owned property). Still today, race manifests much more as a social reality.

This is not to invalidate body memory and racial pride. However, that scientifically this would be attributed more to an environmental experience manifesting through the body, not specifically to race. For example, Jewish people (of many races) may also have pride and genetic memory as a result of oppression. Identity politics is still necessary.

What is quite left out this discussion is culture. Cultural differences are huge, but still not strictly biological. This makes them none the less valid. The whole idea of race as a biological myth is intended to confront the long history this country has of oppressing people through a huge process of "othering" which often took the form of scientific inquiry (ie, Eugenics) or making the case that people are less due to INHERENT differences, that actually are not inherent, but percieved.

Vonnegut on Privilege

"This is a conservative nation. It continues to treat nonwhite people badly. It has always done that. It will continue to let its writers run free, no matter what they say. It's always done that. It's lazy about change. I'm lucky to be the color I am and to do what I do. This is the place for me"
-Kurt Vonnegut's address at Wheaton College Library, 1973

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Flipping the Script by Christopher Bowers

We often don't want to ask what social dysfunction might say about the perpatrators . Yet, if we do not, we may not understand how oppressive and hierarchial belief systems begin. For example, last year we heard many ask"What does hurricane Katrina mean for black people?", an important question to be sure. However, as anti-racist activist Tim Wise points out, another important question is what does hurricane Katrina mean for for white people? For black people it may have meant the devistation of their communities and for most white people in the area it meant their continued insulation and entitlement to safety and wealth, despite mother nature. Granted some white people were also devistated by the hurricane, most of them found it easier to relocate, get trailers, and to get their lives back on track. Why don't we ask more about why that is?

In the process of understanding social identity we must understand that aspects of race and gender are formed not in a vacuum but in contrast to it's so-called opposite. Therfore, white is defined, and has been historically, as everything that black isn't. Men also are defined against women. However, it is often the privileged group who is doing the defining. In fact, it is a part of privilege to define the world around you and to have that definition be considered reality. So with the privilege of definition, dominant groups can create a reality in which they are not culpable, a reality in which the problems of society, are the problems of certain sectors of society. For example, let's look at sexual violence and rape. It is most often defined as a problem for women. But, what if we flip the script and ask not how many women are raped, but how many men have raped? If the stats are correct, at least 1 in 3 women have been raped and about 95% of the rapes are committed by men. Therefore, taking into consideration that some men violate multiple women, approximately 1 in every 5-10 men are rapists. How many men do you know? How many men do you work with, go to school with, party with? Likewise, homophobia is seen as a problem for gay people. This, despite the facts that the most deadliest hate crimes against the queer community were committed by self-identified straight men. So whose problem is this? Furthermore, by this scape-goating logic, racism is a problem for black people and white people then, as always, are off the hook. This despite the fact that it is white people who harbor most of the wealth and power, and white people who are most often discriminitory and abusive to people of color.

This understanding of power and privilege is not intended to shame or demonize men, heterosexual people, or white people. Instead, this understanding gives us an opportunity to take responsibility if we find ourselves in a dominant social group. It is an opportunity to realize that reality may be different than we had been braught up to think, that we have a part in the ills of society and that in fact, we truly have the power to stop oppression in it's tracks. To be an ally isn't just to say "how can I help you with your problems". To be an ally, to be a human, is to say "This is my problem too".

Thursday, October 05, 2006

How White Privilege Shapes the U.S. by Eric Stoller

“White privilege shapes the U.S.”

I just finished reading Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks. bell hooks is amazing. Her writing is pleasantly painful. I wish I could write as eloquently as hooks. Her words are completely accessible yet they have meaning that can take days to process.
One problem that plagues our society that has been stirring my mental pot is white privilege. Thanks to bell hooks,
Beverly Tatum(Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) and Janet Helms (White racial identity and A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life ), I now have an awareness that is light years from where I started. Self awareness can be challenging and very frightening. I wrestled with Janet Helms until I could finally understand what she meant when she says that all white people start there lives as racists.
On that note, I would like to start a discussion with my readers. I want to ask a question and attempt to elicit responses via comments. I will moderate comments so that hate does not appear. Dialogue is good, but hate has no place on my blog.
Feel free to add comments to the following question(s):
Does white privilege exist? and if you answered “yes”, how have you become aware of it?

Affirmative Action by Eric Stoller

Affirmative Action
Posted on Saturday 4 March 2006
Six years ago while I was nearing graduation for my undergraduate degree I was asked the following question, “Aren’t you afraid that you won’t be able to get a job?” I was not immediately certain as to the context of the question, but upon further inquiry, I soon found that the questioner was worried I would not be hired for jobs because I was white (and a man). This was the first time I had really thought about what affirmative action was, and what it might mean to me. My thoughts regarding affirmative action had mainly been influenced by my family and the media. For the most part, I thought that affirmative action was a good thing, but I did not know why I thought that way. Doubts about affirmative action being a positive policy seeped into my head while I was conducting my first job search. I believed that reverse-racism and/or reverse-discrimination existed and that I would have to “watch my back.”
Today, I have read, thought, and conversed about affirmative action. I feel that I use to believe in the myth of meritocracy. “Everyone can succeed as long as they work hard,” floated around inside my head and veiled my mind from the truth. I believe that the United States is not a meritocracy and that affirmative action is extremely necessary. Why is it necessary? Because the United States is a system built upon the backbreaking labor, systematic abuse, and marginalization of people of color, women, and other subordinate groups. Affirmative action is a program that seeks to provide equity for these marginalized groups. It helps to create a balance against the white supremacist patriarchy in which we live.
Several arguments exist which seek to discredit or devalue affirmative action. Two arguments that I hear frequently include: 1) Affirmative action gives jobs to people of color who are not qualified and they only receive said job due to this program. 2) White men are discriminated against because of the inherent reverse-racism within affirmative action programs.
The first argument seems to stem from the belief that the definitions of what makes for a “qualified” employee are usually in the hands of white folks. Most of the institutions in the United States are chaired, governed, and otherwise presided over by white people. When a person of color is hired for a job, how often is their competency called into question? Let’s consider the following scenario: A white person interviews and is consequently hired for a job. I would posit that no one says to themselves, “wow, they must have been hired because they are white.” It does not happen. However, if a person of color goes through the same process there will be doubters. I think that a lot of people will say quite negatively, “Yep, here’s another example of affirmative action hiring a person of color. I hope they can do the job.” The white person is given an air of competency simply because of their whiteness. Affirmative action opens up spaces for marginalized individuals to combat the inequalities of white supremacy within the realm of employment.
The second argument against affirmative action is constructed within a context that is void of a historical context and knowledge of the existence of institutionalized racism. Historically speaking, white men have been in positions of power over everyone. This “power over” has saturated the United States for over one hundred years. White privilege exists because of racist tactics, strategies, and actions of the dominant paradigm. The dominant paradigm is hierarchical and white men sit atop this ladder. To say that white men are discriminated against during hiring processes due to affirmative action is like saying white men are not in power. It is a falsity that is used to erode affirmative action and to maintain the ladder of white supremacist power. I believe that racism is something that white people perpetuate. Racism is institutionalized and spread into white consciousness like a virus. White men can be discriminated against, because discrimination is different from racism. It is true that I might be discriminated against in my lifetime, but not by affirmative action programs. Affirmative action programs will take a look at my qualifications and the qualifications of a person of color, a woman, etc. and if our qualifications are the same then I will not get the job. For racism to end, white people have to be willing to give up their unearned privileges and power. The same principle applies to sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and lookism. I feel that it is part of my anti-racist philosophy to rejoice in the fact that I did not get a job because of the mere fact that I am white. There are plenty of jobs that I can get.
So, rejoice in the knowledge that affirmative action exists. Affirmative action helps to restore the dignity of people in oppressed groups as well as people in oppressor groups. Affirmative action places all those who seek to work for the government at the starting gate of employment processes, instead of allowing the dominant paradigm to start ahead of those who have been, and currently are, marginalized.

The Problem of Privilege by Eric Stoller

The Problem of Privilege

1: White Privilege #1 - I can speak of my own experiences regarding diversity and be seen as unique or vulnerable when I am in a room full of white people.
White Privilege #2 — I am never asked if I am from the United States or if I just moved here. It is assumed that I am a citizen because of my skin color.
2: In privilege # 6, McIntosh writes about the lies that are spread via our educational system. One way that I believe that I can give up the privilege of ethnocentric education is to read history books that accurately portray the history of marginalized groups. I can also pass on these books to friends and family members as potential sources of re-education. Howard Zinn and Ronald Takaki are excellent sources of accurately written historical texts. I think I am working towards giving up privilege #6 and in some ways, beginning to share or extend new information to other white folks.
I am currently choosing to not align myself with the first privilege that McIntosh writes about. This privilege is the privilege of “arranging to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” I am working on developing networks of friends who are of color, LGBT, and any other members of oppressed groups. I’m doing this to be a better person and to do what I can to lead by example. I think white folks need to see and hear white men talk about diversity.
I currently identify as an anti-racist, a feminist, and an ally. These identities are causing me to give up the 21st privilege. This privilege is one that I am struggling with giving up because I am unsure what it will mean to my psyche. The idea of coming home after “meetings of organizations I belong to, and feeling isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared,” is not a pleasant thing. This feeling of isolation has already started to happen on a limited scale. It is a new experience for me in my efforts to subvert the dominant paradigm. I feel like the system wants me back and that my punishment is going to be isolation. Fortunately, I have an excellent support system of folks whose views align with my own.
3: I believe that it is accurate to call something a privilege that is imposed upon a person by our social structure, that they do not want and can’t get rid of. McIntosh makes it very clear in her article that it is important to distinguish unearned privileges which are part of unearned advantages. It is important to discuss privileges that are unearned; because within that discussion comes the reality that institutionalized oppression creates unearned advantages for some, while simultaneously disadvantaging someone else. Unearned privilege comes from institutional power.
4: The second we truly realize that we are privileged means that we also realize that our privileges come at the expense of someone else and that these privileges do damage to those who are privileged. Systems of oppression like racism, sexism, and heterosexism could not exist if heterosexual white men gave up their privileges and to do that, they would have to give up their power. If temporarily able-bodied folks realize that they benefit from the institutionalized oppression of persons who are disabled then all TABs would be forced to create new institutions that create systems where buildings would be accessible and technology would be usable for all people regardless of visual or motor impairments

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why Bother?

White people cannot be fully human while they participate and benefit from a system that denies others their own humanity. The struggle against racism and oppression is faught knowing that our own liberation and integrity is also at stake.

Critical White Studies

(Courtesy of Bill)Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America Peter Kolchin The Journal of American History Vol. 89, Issue 1 (posted by History Cooperative and Gregory S. Jay)

Suddenly whiteness studies are everywhere. The rapid proliferation of a genre that appears to have come out of nowhere is little short of astonishing: a recent keyword search on my university library's electronic catalog yielded fifty-one books containing the word "whiteness" in their titles, almost all published in the past decade and most published in the past five years.1 All around us, American historians and scholars in related disciplines from sociology and law to cultural studies and education are writing books with titles such as The White Scourge, How the Irish Became White, Making Whiteness, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, and Critical White Studies.2

Although the term "whiteness studies" might at first glance suggest works that promote white identity or constitute part of a racist backlash against multiculturalism and "political correctness," virtually all the whiteness studies authors seek to confront white privilege—that is, racism—and virtually all identify at some level with the political Left. Most of them see a close link between their scholarly efforts and the goal of creating a more humane social order. 1 Whiteness studies authors manifest a wide variety of approaches. In many of the disciplines outside history, prescriptive policy goals assume a central position; writing on whiteness in education, for example, Nelson M. Rodriguez calls for the creation of "'pedagogies of whiteness' as a counterhegemonic act" predicated on the need to "refigure whiteness in antiracist, antihomophobic, and antisexist ways."3

Although such didacticism is far from absent in the work of whiteness studies historians, their focus has been on the construction of whiteness—how diverse groups in the United States came to identify, and be identified by others, as white—and what that has meant for the social order. Starting from the now widely shared premise that race is an ideological or social construct rather than a biological fact, they have at least partially shifted attention from how Americans have looked at blacks to how they have looked at whites, and to whiteness as a central component of Americans' racial ideology. In doing so, they have already had a substantial impact on historians whose work does not fall fully within the rubric of whiteness studies but who have borrowed some of the field's insights, concerns, and language.4 2

This essay represents an effort by a sympathetic but critical outsider to come to grips with this burgeoning field. I will deal primarily with historical literature, although I will refer to works in other disciplines, and I will pay particular attention to two books that are among the best and most influential of the whiteness studies works: David R. Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness and Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color.5 Because the two books differ from each other in important respects, they reveal both the diversity within and the common assumptions behind whiteness studies, and they suggest some of the insights and potential pitfalls of the genre. My aim is to produce not so much a final evaluation of a finished project as a tentative progress report on a literature still very much in evolution
To Read the Rest of the Essay or Also check out:Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Life = White

A Little White Lie: "I'm not racist, I'm colorblind" by Christopher Bowers

In white, liberal culture people often think of themselves as "colorblind", seeing only humans, not their race. It seems reasonable enough. We want to be humanists and believe that we see people for who they are inside, for what we have in common with them. It is important to ask, is what we feel inside really a commonality or could that also be as different as the color of our skin?

A true humanist sees the beauty of difference as well as commonality and yet still isn't satisfied. A true humanist tries also to understand the distinct struggles with which every human lives. We are humans and as such we live in societies. To be "colorblind" is to neglect a fundamental part of humanism: of the many realities we exist in, the most compelling, consuming, and dire reality, is our social reality. It is the reality that will determine our fate.While race is not a biological reality, it is a social one. Not seeing color is to not see reality; it is to not see adversity. Colorblindness is a fantasy world in which we don't truly know one another. It would seem then that to not see someone's struggles (struggles often related to race) is to not see them at all. How would white people feel if their markers of individuality and community, be it artistic expression, intellectual prowess, gender or sexual orientation were glossed over as inconsequential? What if these important factors were swept under the carpet in the name of overcoming prejudice? It is a hard irony indeed. Some might argue here that it is those markers that we have in common. This is true. It is also true that those markers are themselves marked by race and the social reality of inequality and history.

To be colorblind is to be simply blind. It is to collaborate with the inhumane practices of assuming that all humans have the same experience, whether they are black, white, gay or straight, male or female. So the consequences of colorblindness must also be dealt with. Colorblindness implies also that since we are all the same, we have all had equal opportunity. This implication has lead to enormous power diffentials economically and politically that persist to this day.

It is doubtful that we can achieve a genuine equality without dealing honestly with our social reality. The social reality is that we are a diverse human family and that race affects every aspect of our lives. White people often have a hard time seeing this. It is as if they are blind.

Monday, September 04, 2006


White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
by Peggy McIntosh

"I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group"

Through work to bring materials from women's studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women's statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's. 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 acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there are most likely a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of while privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

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. 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, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, "having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?"
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don't see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."

Daily effects of white privilege
I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person's voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. 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.
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.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
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.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. 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.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. 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.
50. I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

Elusive and fugitive
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.
For this reason, the word "privilege" now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one's race or sex.

Earned strength, unearned power
I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.
We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power that I originally say as attendant on being a human being in the United States consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.

I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see "whiteness" as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.

Difficulties and angers surrounding the task of finding parallels are many. Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the advantages associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage that rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity that on other factors. Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the members of the Combahee River Collective pointed out in their "Black Feminist Statement" of 1977.

One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

Disapproving of the system won't be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies" (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.
This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.