Posted on November 2, 2007

Recognizing White Privilege

Julia Wilson, The Heights (Boston College), November 1, 2007

Dr. Peggy McIntosh visited Boston College on Tuesday for the event, “The ‘Invisible Knapsack’ of White Privilege: Continuing the Struggle.” Speaking to a packed crowd in McGuinn 121 with students seated on the stairs and scattered on the floor, McIntosh—associate director of Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, founder and co-director of the national Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) project on Inclusive Curriculum, and author of White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s Studies (1988)—elaborated on her work, concentrating on, but not limited to, white privilege, and engaged BC students in a discussion with their peers.

“White privilege,” as discussed by McIntosh and defined by, is “a right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others.”

At the end of the lecture, which was sponsored by the Undergraduate Government of BC, AHANA Leadership Council, and FACES, McIntosh allowed for an exercise in testifying to one’s own truth. Those in attendance were asked to turn to their neighbors and, for two minutes, speak on how an unearned advantage or unearned disadvantage has affected their lives. “It could have to do with birth order, the region you came from, your gender, sexual orientation, income, or body type,” McIntosh said.


McIntosh described the idea of privilege as a “knapsack,” or like having an invisible package of unearned assets that one can count on cashing in each day, but of which one is meant to remain oblivious. In her paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s Studies,” McIntosh describes coming to each of her 46 realizations of the daily effects of white privilege on her own life, as “[giving] up the myth of meritocracy.”


Marcus [Paul Marcus, executive director of Community Change, Inc.] took McIntosh’s list and applied it to BC—a list he uses in his History and Development of Racism in the United States class. While Marcus noted that these conditions could be applied to any institution, he said, “What’s really important for whites to understand is when you’re part of a dominant culture, you don’t realize the things within the culture that are examples of white privilege.”

Four of Marcus’s 14 conditions of white privilege include: “I can be sure that people I meet at BC will not think that I got in because of an affirmative action program”; “When decisions are made about policies, practices, and procedures at BC, I can be certain that members of my race had a great deal of input into the decision making process”; “I feel well represented in almost all aspects of life at BC and do not feel the need for a support program for people of my race”; and “When I take a history class at BC I can be sure that the history of people of my racial background is well represented.”

In turn, some of McIntosh’s 46 conditions of white privilege include: “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 into my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.” He continued, “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race”; and “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have this more or less match my skin.”


“Racism is racial prejudice plus power,” Marcus said. “While racial prejudice is simply the unfavorable attitudes or actions against other races, racism exists when such attitudes or actions are supported by the power of law, institutional structures, and culture. It is important to note that race is not a biological reality but a social, economic and political construct.”