A Jeanne Site
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: February 9, 2000
Curran or Takata.
Peggy McIntosh has done a great job of helping us to become aware of white privilege. She examined her own daily routines, and ". . . listed 46 ways in which I experienced daily conditions of unearned overadvantage by contrast with . . . " colleagues of color. The importance of this approach to understanding privilege is that most of us are completely unaware of privilege as it operates in our daily lives. Our traditional response to a charge of white privilege is "What privilege?"
One plausible reason for our failure to see privilege is the explanation that Peggy McIntosh gives: " . . . we were taught not to see [privilege] . . .I observe that the people who benefit most (in the short run) from privilege systems in the United States are kept most blinded to the existence of privilege systems, to preserve the myths of moral and managerial meritocracy and the belief that democracy is working as it should." This explanation seems to suggest collusion on the part of the privileged, or at bare minimum a perpetrator or group of perpetrators. I have drawn that conclusion from the phrases "taught not to see" and "kept most blinded." Those phrases suggest agency, that someone has intent, and is actively engaging in an activity that has our lack of awareness as a result. That explanation is plausible, and may, in fact, be correct.
Another plausible explanation is that privilege operates outside rationality, at an out-of-awareness level. (Jonathan Lear's Open Minded is a good reference on this. See Annotation on Open Minded.) Martha Minow deals with this issue in her discussion of unstated assumptions in Making All the Difference: Inclusion and Exclusion in American Law. For example, McIntosh's 15th instance: "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely and positively represented." Unstated assumptions which underlie this are that people tend to like people who appear to be like them (Adorno, Rokeach, etc.), that a majority of the people engaging in this activity will be white, that they want to see pictures of people who appear to be like them. The recognition that all people share this liking for people like them leads to TV programs and local newspapers that satisfy the preference for "like them." The major unstated assumption here is that people do, in fact, want this likeness feature. Made aware of it, perhaps they would not, or perhaps we could temper the messages we are sending over the media. (One approach to research in this area takes off around Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality, and anothre approach is reflected in work on status characteristic theory, Irwin Katz, Elizabeth Cohen, and others.)
I particularly like McIntosh' focus on not invoking blame or shame, just making us aware. The importance of awareness as a tool for altering privilege and exclusion is reflected in the work of Martha Minow and Jonathan Lear.
See also: Morris King's article on racism in tennis