White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an essay written by Peggy McIntosh and published in Peace and Freedom magazine in 1989. Peace and Freedom was the magazine of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Peggy McIntosh
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Copyright 1989, by Peggy McIntosh. Permission to reprint must be obtained from Peggy McIntosh, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481 Ph: 781 283-2520 Fax: 781-283-2504. Excerpting is not authorized.
Text Dependent Questions
Reread the paragraph that begins, “I think whites are carefully taught.” What metaphor does the author use for white privilege? Explain this metaphor in your own words. Include an explanation of the words “assets” and “provisions.”
The author compares white privilege to an invisible bag that is full of all kinds of things that she can use to make her life easier. The items included in the bag are also metaphors (maps, passports, codebooks, clothes, blankets). The author doesn’t actually have a bag full of these things, but she does have valuable, useful things needed to navigate life in an easy fashion. These items are described as both provisions and assets—again a supply of things that are usable or valuable and necessary to survive.
a. What relationship does the author see between the words “privilege” and “dominance”?
By privileging a certain race over others for a period of time, that privileged race becomes over-empowered and therefore dominant over the other races.
b. How does the author draw a dichotomy between earned privilege and systemic privilege?
If privilege is earned, people did something to gain it. They took an active step. If privilege is systemic, it is given to them by the system in place. They did not do anything to get it (other than being white, for example).
What change in rhetoric happens in this paragraph? What is the author saying?
The author moves from explaining the problem to starting to describe how to change the system. The author claims that individual acts or saying that the system is broken will not be enough. Major systems need to change in order for sustainable change to happen.
In the second half of the essay, the author describes the way she was raised to be unaware of white privilege or the way she was taught that racism involved individual acts against others. How do these mentalities create barriers for change?
The seeming invisibility of white privilege is a part of the white, dominant culture. It is something that is kept in place by the dominant race in order to keep the system moving and the masses unaware. If white individuals are not pushed to question their race or their place in racial conversations, for example, they will not be pushed to change anything, in which case the system will keep running as is.
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