Talking about Privilege with Nuance by Elise M. Edwards


elise-edwardsYesterday evening, I led a seminar at a local church as part of their series on “Unpacking Privilege.” Once before, I’d been invited to this church, Lake Shore Baptist Church, to speak about intersectional feminism with one of my colleagues, so I expected them to be open-minded and welcoming.  They were.  Although the attendees were overwhelmingly white and older than me, they were attentive and engaged.  We had an enriching time together diving into topics like male privilege, white privilege, and class privilege with Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” as a resource.  (If you are unfamiliar with it, I recommend taking a few minutes to read it and reflect.)

In the essay, McIntosh writes about becoming critical of male privilege and men’s obliviousness to it through her work in Women’s Studies, which then led her to see her own race privilege (as a white woman) and her obliviousness to it.  The essay does not offer a precise definition of white privilege, but the entire piece is a reflection about it.  She explains:

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which 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.”

Comparing her own circumstances with some African-American women she worked with, McIntosh lists multiple examples of white privilege.  While her examples are illustrative and evocative, McIntosh has cautioned readers from taking them to be definitive, as they come from her own experience.  Taking cues from her work, in last night’s seminar, we focused on sharing our own experiences as testimony or autobiographical insight instead of forming precise definitions about what privilege is.  I’ve learned that intentional attention to people’s lives is a critical part of feminist, womanist, and liberationist methodologies.  Adopted in this church seminar, the emphasis on speaking our own experiences allowed our learning to be cooperatively constructed: I provided the framework for our discussion, McIntosh provided accessible, yet provocative descriptions of privilege and the seminar participants offered their own examples of insights into why privilege is difficult to acknowledge.

Although we focused on personal experience, the seminar was not about airing grievances.  Rather, my aim for both seminar participants and readers here is to make us aware of privilege’s systemic nature and the multiplicity of forms so that we can first recognize, and then address the injustices that result from it.  Privilege is ultimately about power, not just feelings of exclusion.  As McIntosh explains, white privilege and male privilege “simply confer dominance because of one’s race or sex.”  By developing nuance in our understanding of privilege, we can understand the different ways that privilege confers dominance and provide alternatives to it.

I chose to explore McIntosh’s essay because when I teach lessons on racism, sexism, and heterosexism in my university classes and I introduce the concept of privilege, time demands often prevent us from drawing out its fine points.  But the church context provided the opportunity for subverting this pattern.  Last night’s seminar was the third in a series on privilege and the church is progressive enough to be familiar with language about social justice that we could do an exercise I’ve thought about bringing to my classroom. It’s prompted by McIntosh’s statement that “we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege.”  We named some examples of white privilege, but then contextualized them and differentiated between conditions of daily experience that unfairly empower some people over others vs. conditions we would want everyone in a just society to have.

Let me provide an example of privilege that empowers one group over another.  In many academic disciplines that work with cultural traditions (like the study of religion or theology), the writings of European males form a dominant canon that is taught and referenced in the discipline’s ongoing work.  We expect scholars from all kinds of backgrounds, even those of non-European descent to become conversant with the canon, whether it reflects their own cultural heritage and social context or not.  And yet, it has been my experience that male scholars of European descent are not expected to have the same familiarity with writings beyond their context.  We often expect women and non-whites to know their own traditions and the male-dominated, Eurocentric canon.  It is clear who holds the power.

And yet, McIntosh provides a related example of a condition that we’d want everyone to experience if the world were just: “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”  Seeing one’s own people in the educational curriculum is not a form of privilege we should want to take away from the dominant group.  It is a form of privilege we need to extend to others so that they, too, have their contributions to society affirmed.  By extending this form of privilege, its ability to disproportionately confer power on one group over another is dissipated.

I concluded the seminar with a discussion of responses to counter privilege.  Recognizing it is important, but McIntosh offers another suggestion, too.  Those of us who have some form of privilege should use our “unearned advantage to weaken the systems of unearned advantage.”  In my next post, I’ll expand on this point and connect it to Christian theologies.  In the meantime, I’m interested to hear about your experiences of either benefiting from or being disadvantaged by privilege and what we should do to disrupt these systems.

Elise M. Edwards, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter or academia.edu.

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Categories: Activism, Christianity, Community, Education, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Justice, power, Power relations, Privilege, Race and Ethnicity, Reform, Resistance, Scholarship, Sexism, Women's Voices

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17 replies

  1. In an article we are reading in my Ecofeminism class this week, “Our Differentiated Unity: An Evolutionary Perspective on Healing the Wounds of Slavery and the Planet,” Belvie Rooks calls for a paradigm shift from focus on “right” and “wrong” to wounding and healing.

    I find this very helpful in discussions of oppression and privilege. The right-wrong/good-bad paradigm leads to the immediate judgment, “then am I bad?” This is very hard for white men who think they are good no matter what and for white women who try hard to be good even though we have been told we are bad. Taking that question out of the mix could make it easier to focus on who has been wounded and by what and for all to focus on how to heal the wound.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Wow Carol, I really like this response. The right -wrong thing is a trap that we just don’t see as such when it comes to oppression/ privilege. So often this kind of polarization keeps us stuck…
      But sometimes not… this morning I am still reeling from learning that six states have banned six week abortions for women – in the natural world animals have a built in mechanism that allows them to naturally abort any fetus if the mother is ill, undernourished, or cannot care for her young in some other way… Nature protects her mothers and her unborn children. No one protects us.

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      • I like that reframing, too. In the seminar, we talked about adding more nuance to the concept of privilege because some forms of privilege aren’t morally “wrong” for the person who receives it, although the system itself is harmful for those who are disadvantaged by it. I’m going to start using the wounding/healing framework.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this piece. White women and men need to constantly work on this issue. I have used the reading of the invisible knapsack, and found it quite helpful to identify the seen and unseen advantages that whites have. However, an African-American friend of mine has pointed out that the word “privilege” is very hurtful to others, and doesn’t speak to the ways to defrock the priest, or call out the emperor without clothes.
    The unearned benefits of being white propagated by race disparities in America is not privilege, but on-going benefits afforded whites by unearned economic, social, political, and personal exploitation. Starting with unpaid labor of slavery, the unequal application of the G.I. Bill’s for mortgages and education in the 40’s and 50’s, and even today comparing black income as only 75% of white income, is even greater than the income gap between women and men of 83% in 2015. On the ground, white women earn $17 an hour average and black women only $13 an hour. In addition, black unemployment was two times greater than white unemployment in 2018.
    We have to look at the semantics when we speak of race. We half to change the nomenclature of our conversations. The fact that all whites benefit from race disparities means that all of us are racist. We should spend our time in groups like yours and other anti-racist activities. We must work to be anti-racist, while acknowledging to this day we have Slavery by Another Name, called mass incarceration (please watch Netflicks 13th, if you haven’t already.)
    Thanks for your consideration of my post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jammyali, i agree with you that all white people benefit from racism and our ancestors in the US did too, but i think it is important to make distinctions between active and passive racism, the line is crossed when you know or should know what is going on and do not try to do anything to stop racism. most of my friends would fall into the categories of actively anti-racist, while still benefiting from racist structures, and depending on the person very actively or somewhat less actively trying to inform themselves as much as possible about white privilege and racist structures and to work to dismantle them. this is not the same as the racism of those who voted for Trump and feel that they have the right to what they have and believe that blacks and others are taking what is rightfully theirs.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for your comment, Carol, I think you miss my point that passive racism is still racism, and if we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem. I believe white women need to more actively work against, not just the overt racism exposed by Trump voters, but also to do our own consciousness raising by reading and dialoging, work to integrate our neighborhoods and places of employment, vote for and actively promote prison reform, teach our children to embrace those different from us, and march and fight for civil rights not just our own rights. I know many white women are actively doing this, but many are not, saying, wrongly, that our society is post-racial, etc, and voting for Obama is not the end of the story, it’s barely a beginning.
        We need to continue the conversation with folks who still suffer from blatant oppression, listen and act on the important issues we can, embracing the lead from people of color, fight against police violence, and step back when we are taking over the fight, fostering the brilliant non-white folks who are ready to take the reins out of white hands.
        Giving up ‘privilege’ means working hard on transferring equal rights, not just acknowledging that we can go in a store and not be followed to be sure we aren’t stealing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t think Carol has missed the point at all.

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        • I agree that racism is both personal and institutional and that white people need to actively seek to learn about and oppose racism in every form including forms we do not see or have not seen. I think what I was trying to say is that it may not be helpful to lump liberal and progressive white people together with regressive actively racist white people. Yes we are all “racist” in some form but our racism takes different forms and some forms are more deadly than others.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I think the word privilege can be misleading, and naming something alone does not change the system. But I disagree that, as you say, “The unearned benefits of being white propagated by race disparities in America is not privilege, but on-going benefits afforded whites by unearned economic, social, political, and personal exploitation,” because I think unearned power and assets is precisely what privilege names. I think McIntosh is pretty clear about that. We can disagree about what we call it,of course, as long as we work together to dismantle systemic explitation and disparity in power.

      I’m interested to hear what your friend finds hurtful about the term.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). When people discuss privilege, they often assume able-bodied as the norm.

    I do know as a white person, I have better access to mental health services than do others. However, my access to mental health services is dismal and is predicated on where I live, how much people place importance on them, and how much insurance I have. I am lucky in that I am not reliant on Medicaid. If I was, mental health services would be simply out of my reach.

    As for my TBI, I and others are dependent on a local charity devoted to people with TBIs. They receive money from soliciting it from the public. So, there is often more TBIs than there are services. For example, to obtain a service dog, it requires thousands of dollars. You have to go to where they train dogs, pay for the dog, and stay for three months in training. What my friends have to do is stage car washes, bake sales, and beg businesses for money to get the dogs. The dog is not covered by any insurance or government. (This holds for people who have vision problems or hearing or other needs for service dogs.)

    A tangent to service dogs – people assume that they can slap a harness on a dog, go into a restaurant or on a plane, and call the animal an “emotional support” dog or whatever. Because of the problems involved with able bodied people doing that, people with service dogs have to go through hoops to get on a plane or are often refused service.

    One last thought, I cannot go places that able-bodied people can. I shake a lot. When my friends go on our monthly lunch, we have scope out the eatery and the management. We were ordered out of a TGIF Fridays because we upset the other patrons. People in our group shake. They have only the use of one side of their bodies. They have special instructions on how to cut their food. Try eating when you cannot use both sides of your body.
    So, disability is another thing to consider in thinking about privilege.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for that insight, N.D. It’s something I never considered, but will be conscious of now.
      Watching bombs exploding in other Countries, I realize I’ve never had to deal with that kind of violence and fear. Mostly because I’ve lived in, or under, the power of the present world empire.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, any kind of disability is a huge issue. I am directionally dyslexic and as a result cannot drive in any city – rarely does anyone even notice that my dyslexia is a problem – that’s the hardest part of all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’m angry for you that you face such discrimination and exclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful, helpful post, Elise. I can think of an example of “an invisible package of unearned assets” from my own recent experience. A couple of weekends ago, friends lent me their apartment for the night in Brooklyn quite far from Manhattan. After several stops, I was the only white person on the subway and when I emerged from the subway, the only white person in the neighborhood. No one reacted to my presence in any negative way as suspicious or intrusive. Everyone I interacted with was helpful and friendly. I couldn’t help thinking what if someone black, especially someone young and male, had come into an all white neighborhood to borrow a friend’s apartment?

    I had the same thought when I was lost on a road trip in the western Catskills where Trump and MAGA signs abounded. What if I was black had to stop for directions?

    When I was a young woman, I was regarded by men as prey everywhere I went. As an older, physically-able white woman, no longer the object of predatory attention, I have a freedom of movement many people in many circumstances cannot take for granted.

    The day after my stay in Brooklyn I went to a resistance training given by indigenous leaders from North and South Dakota. One of the sessions was on how to be a good relative IF you are invited to come to Lakota territory. First, wait to be invited, then be a good relative by being aware that you are a guest, there to help, not to direct. Be aware of your white privilege and take responsibility for it. As Elise writes, “Those of us who have some form of privilege should use our ‘unearned advantage to weaken the systems of unearned advantage.’”

    I look forward to your next post.

    Liked by 2 people

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