Get This Thing Off of Me!
My husband used to ride his bike to work. He rode every day past the Olympic Sculpture Park near downtown Seattle and one day he came home and told me that his morning ride had been exquisite. It had been so fast, so smooth, so easy. Maybe, he thought, he was getting more fit? Maybe all those months of riding were finally paying off and he could look forward to riding with such ease everyday? But as he sailed down Elliott Avenue full of pride at his new level of physical fitness, he happened to glance up and notice the flags in the park. They were all billowing hard and flying in the same direction. He realized then, considerably deflated, that he had only felt so powerful, so strong because he had been riding with the wind at his back.
This is what white privilege looks like. If you are a white person in the United States, regardless of class or status, regardless of how broke you are or how hard your life has been (none of this should be minimized in any way, it’s just not the point of what we’re talking about here), you have been riding with the wind at your back your entire life. And if you’re like me, you probably never noticed.
There’s a well-known article by Peggy McIntosh called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In it, McIntosh says,
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege . . . 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 backpack of
special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
McIntosh goes on to explain in further detail about what can be found in that invisible backpack. If you are unfamiliar with the article, here are a few of the “special provisions” she mentions…
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be
followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see
people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown
that people of my color made it what it is.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work
against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not
- 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.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- 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
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and
behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- 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.
- 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.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys,
and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or
less match my skin.
After reading the article, originally penned in 1988, I pondered McIntosh’s list for weeks. It was a few years after my trip to Los Angeles and I was embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that I hadn’t considered any of these things. Ever. Which is the point.
Around the same time I read a book that further illuminated the unacknowledged privileges I enjoyed. I don’t recall the name of the book but I remember it was a novel about the friendship between two women; one black and one white. It brought up many of the same themes as McIntosh’s article and I suddenly had so many questions. Is what I’m reading reflective of reality for Black women? Is so, what is my role in it? What does it all mean? What now?
I wasn’t sure where to go with my questions; who to ask. I finally decided, with trepidation, to turn to my friend, Janelle, who is Black, and asked her if I could email her with some of my questions. It wasn’t her job to educate me and she didn’t need to do it, but she responded with profound kindness despite my utter and complete ignorance on the subject at hand.
That email conversation with Janelle was a turning point for me. It propelled me beyond an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs about white privilege and into something much more personal. Hearing from my friend about her experience at our predominantly white college and growing up in a mostly white town changed everything. Now there was an actual person involved and I was deeply pained by her story, particularly to realize that I had been part of her circle of friends in college and had likely interacted with her from a place of un-seeing insensitivity.
This then brought me to firm standing in stage two of white privilege awareness: anger. I was angry about my whiteness, angry about my undue privilege, angry about the wind at my back, angry that I had not noticed, and angry that other people were not yet aware. The burden of the invisible backpack, which was supposed to be undetectable, was suddenly brought to bear and I wanted it off.
Ready for the Next Stage?
The Rest of the Series
Click HERE for Stage One: I’m Not a Racist!
Click HERE for Stage Two: Get This Thing Off of Me!
Click HERE for Stage Three: Look at Me! Look at Me! I’m a WPGI!
Click HERE for Stage Four: Awareness Fatigue
Click HERE for Stage Five: What Now?
And for the complete series all in one place, click HERE.