What’s in your knapsack?


- by Stacey Prince


When most of us first begin to learn about racism, we focus on interpersonal acts of meanness or harassment.  We also focus on the oppressed individual and their disadvantages, rather than on the oppressor.  Many white people have been known to say things like, “racism is not a white person’s problem, because I have no race”.  This denial of whiteness as a racial identity (the flip side of which is confirmation of whiteness as the norm), and denial of the unearned benefits that come along with being light-skinned, are taught to us from a very young age.  It can be a difficult transition to move from a focus on interpersonal oppression and the disadvantages that others face, to an examination of one’s own privilege and the systemic nature of structures and institutions that solidly hold the privilege gap in place.  That is what I want to focus on here.


In an article that has since become a classic, Peggy McIntosh in 1988 began to deliberately explore and delineate the unspoken, unearned benefits of whiteness.  Many of these are hard to see, because they are often the absence of something (barriers, hindrances) than its presence.  You don’t feel doors as you move through them if they open wide for you; you only notice them if they are locked, or get slammed in your face.  In the article Peggy McIntosh describes the “invisible knapsack of privilege,” as follows:


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.


With this invisible knapsack the white person’s passage through the world is profoundly changed, both on a moment by moment, daily level, and in terms of the larger trajectory of their life: career, building a family, moving about the world geographically, borrowing money, getting an education—all are impacted by the invisible knapsack of special (and unearned) privilege.


Examining one’s privilege is difficult to do, for a number of reasons.  First, because white people have been raised to view our whiteness as the norm, and to ignore its accompanying unearned privilege, it is difficult at first to even identify what’s in the knapsack.  In her article Peggy McIntosh begins to list just some of the many effects on her own life, and even after doing so owns up to the fact that she forgets them easily and they remain elusive.  Second, examining one’s privilege can be accompanied by feelings of guilt, anger at the system that created both unearned privilege and undeserved oppression, and bewilderment.  It challenges the belief in a meritocracy that many of us have been raised in: if only you work hard, success can be yours (and its embedded message of false equality, that success is equally obtainable for all).  Third, once recognized and unpacked, what does one do with the knowledge that one’s knapsack is full of special passports, get out of jail free cards, and blank checks?  As McIntosh points out in her article, it is not enough to disapprove of or condemn such systems; one must work to dismantle such systems and to share and/or give up some our unearned power.


White privilege is just one of the social group memberships in which unearned privilege is conferred.  Ranks such as gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and age also come with unearned privilege or its opposite.  Pam Hays identifies nine such groups, and uses the acronym ADRESSING to help remember them: age, disability, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender.  Recently as part of a group I am a member of, I was asked to unpack my own invisible knapsack of privilege.  I chose to do so using the ADRESSING model, and examining my own rank in each of these categories.  It was extremely uncomfortable, informative, painful, and enlightening.  I share excerpts of it here by way of illustration, and invite each of you to do the same.


Age:  I am exactly midlife.  I think this gives me a great deal of privilege.  I’m at the peak of career advancement and earning power, have the status of an adult without the reduced status (and functioning) of an elder.  This age is also associated with other privileges, such as being able bodied, which may change as I get older.  As a late bloomer, I actually like my age, and am much happier with myself and my life than I was in my 20’s or 30’s.


Disability: I have a couple of chronic illnesses that are more annoyances than anything else.  As an able bodied person with no physical, cognitive, or developmental disabilities, I carry a great deal of unearned privilege.  My awareness of this is heightened when I have deep encounters with other groups, such as working with clients with autism, or attending events for deaf women, or running events where deaf people cannot attend without an interpreter.  I can attend events, fly on airplanes, interact with friends, strangers and colleagues all without special accommodations or an interpreter.  I can feed and clothe myself, drive around town, and exercise without assistance.  Like the privilege of race, the knapsack associated with become able-bodied becomes fuller and fuller of goodies as one examines it.


Religion: This is a tricky one for me.  Raised Jewish, I am very proud of my heritage and cultural identity although I am not a regularly practicing Jew.  However, like most Jews I was steeped in the history of the holocaust at a young age, and I understand that my people have been persecuted, hunted and killed millennia for being Jewish.  I was in synagogue during the Yom Kippur war, and we had to evacuate the building because of a bomb scare.  The day the shootings took place at the Jewish Federation in downtown Seattle was another day when I was viscerally aware of being targeted for this social group membership.  The issue of being “non-practicing” is interesting in and of itself: some struggle with how much they or others can claim their Jewishness if they are not keeping kosher, attending synagogue regularly, etc.


It is recent news to me that some people consider Jewish to be a non-Caucasian ethnicity, an other-ness like Greek or Italian but not quite the same as African American or Latina.  I mean this with regard to Jews who are of Northern or Eastern European heritage, not the many Jews who are people of color.  On the other hand, some people consider Judaism to be an incredibly privileged status, and one way that anti-Semitism gets expressed is by people asserting that Jews are not oppressed at all but rather have unearned privilege because we are white and, for some Jews, affluent.  Very confusing for me, and issues of social class are very much compounded with religion in this case.  I have also had the uncomfortable experience of having close and astute friends point out instances of my own internalized anti-Semitism at times.


Ethnicity: I’m white.  I am still trying to unpack and understand the incredible, daily, micro and macro level unearned privilege this has given me.  It’s that “invisible backpack” that Peggy White and others write about—I can only sometimes understand this because of the absence of something (barriers, looks, words) rather than the presence of something.  I can draw some parallels from my experience as a sexual minority, but I know it’s not the same, because generally in the world, unless I am with my partner or someone has good gaydar, I pass as heterosexual (another privilege).  So the white privilege perplexes me more than any other.  Also, my childhood and adolescence were fraught with mixed messages about ethnicity.  Raised by liberal and well-intentioned parents, race was nonetheless a taboo subject, or only one that was referenced obliquely, such as when my childhood friend Renee was mistreated by her peers, and my parents commented by saying “you know she’s Black, right?” and leaving me to figure out in what way that was at all explanatory.  Did it mean she deserved to be treated that way?  If not, how did it explain her mistreatment?  Similarly, the “race riots” of the 1970’s were observed close to home in our local public high school, but not discussed.


Socioeconomic status:  Again, some confusion and ambiguity here.  I grew up middle class – not upper, closer to lower, maybe lower middle.  Mixed SES neighborhood.  I was very privileged to go to a private school grades 7 through 12, and received an excellent education there.  Yet I was also one of a handful of students on “work study,” which clearly delineated us from the rest of our class, some of whom were quite well to do.  My friend Melissa recently told me the story of being asked to pick up the garbage outside of our classroom (and in front of our more affluent classmates, whose candy wrappers and crumpled notepaper she was being asked to collect).  She refused.  I was lucky to do some more desirable jobs for my work study jobs, like selling school supplies in our little bookstore, but still the caste system was clear.  Yet I am aware that I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend this school, and am grateful that my parents could manage to send me there, even with work study.  College is a similar story: I went to Brown, a very elite Ivy League school, and received a fantastic education.  Again, I held many work study jobs and took out lots of student loans in order to do so, but I was able to go.  Graduate school was much the same (attended a great school, worked and borrowed my way through) and my PhD has landed me solidly middle class.  A great example of how a fair amount of privilege can go a long, long way, and how the effects of such privilege tend to accumulate over the lifespan.  Despite the nuances of my upbringing I must own and acknowledge the fact that I held and hold now a great deal of privilege by virtue of my social class.


Sexual Orientation:  As a lesbian, I experience oppression in the form of lack of access to social institutions such as marriage and the rights associated with same.  I do not often experience outright harassment or discrimination, though I do frequently experience microaggressions and subtle nonverbals, especially when I leave the comfortable, progressive environs of Seattle.  Generally in the world, unless I am with my partner or someone has good gaydar, I pass as heterosexual (an unearned privilege).   My partner Teri as a more butch woman more often experiences “the look” than I do—and when we are together, and expressing our gendered butch and femme selves, and outside of the safety of Seattle, we experience “the look” almost continuously.  I have a client who often references the “black tax” (having to work that much harder to succeed and be successful as a professional woman of color) and recently on a trip I recognized how often I experience the “gay tax,” for example having to prove myself a worthy companion when surrounded by heterosexual couples with whom I am trying to make conversation.  I see the look, the recognition, and the subtle standoffishness; by the end of the event a few are laughing and joking with me, and I feel the success of that but also the exhaustion, and notice how this is something they seem not to have to work so hard at.


Indigenous heritage:  As a non-native indigenous person, I carry a great deal of privilege, though as a great grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe, perhaps not as much privilege as some of my Protestant peers.


National origin: Same as above; much unexamined and unearned privilege here.  As a US citizen I can pass freely from country to county, merely flashing my passport, without fear of being detained.  I can change jobs without jeopardizing a work visa or the future potential of a green card.


Gender:  What can I say about gender.  One way I experience disadvantage in this area is in earning power; lesbian couples have, as a group, the least earning power of any couple type, and my partner and I are certainly emblematic of that.  My gay male friends, and some of our heterosexual friends, are doing much better than we are.  I also experience (and often bristle at) the ways that men take up space in the world (in all senses, including personal space, driving, etc.) in a way that is so much more entitled than most women do.  Some men seem capable of taking up a larger amount of square footage, and personal space, and air time, in a way that I would never dream of.  I also sometimes experience male colleagues taking credit for my work and ideas in an unconsciously entitled way.  They don’t think about it; they just own it, appropriate it for their own.  As I write this, I have to acknowledge that this is the area that rankles me the most, more than religion, sexual orientation, or social class, in terms of my own rank.  So I guess it gives me a lived experience of being considered “less than,” or having people take their unearned privilege as justification for acting more worthy of things (space, attention, money, prestige, success) than I am, and maintaining the image that such things are granted based on meritocracy, rather than unearned.


It’s interesting to note as I review this how much easier it was to explore target membership areas than agent memberships.  I mean this both in terms of comfort level, and ability to elaborate with rich detail.  This is probably true for most of us—that invisible knapsack is both hard to perceive at first, and uncomfortable to unpack.  Whether you utilize the list method that McIntosh did in her article, or the nine category assessment as I did, above, I encourage you to try this exercise of evaluating your own areas of unearned privilege, and then thinking about what you might do with that privilege to transform existing power structures in communities and institutions that you are a part of.