In this piece I will be discussing Peggy McIntosh’s article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible
Knapsack which has been heralded the first time the phrase “white privileged” entered the popular lexicon. This helped establish a new school of thought concerning the study of race and what should be done in light of racial inequalities. I must start this piece with a disclaimer, although what I have to say is critical of McIntosh these criticisms are not be to taken as a tacit admission that I secretly support some version of racism or any other ideology that endorses prejudice. I have seen first hand people treated differently for no other reason than the colour of their skin. Further, it does not take much examination of the situation of one’s society to see that although great progress has been made there are still racist elements that exist within it on an individual and institutional level. The question that then arises, of course, is what should be done about this? It is here that my views deviate from the what is socially and culturally acceptable. In addition, it is my contention that is examined closely the concept of white privilege is uncannily similar to religious conceptions of original sin. The supreme irony of this is that the vast majority of the cultural left who lean heavily on conceptions of white privilege to justify their actions are either mildly or strongly anti-religious. Little do they know that they have far more in common with their cultural enemies than they realise.
What is original sin? Although there are many different ways of thinking about the concept it is, simply put, the belief that mankind enters the world in fallen state that makes him alienated from God, that it is man’s nature to sin and further that he is born into a world that is inherently flawed. This idea was championed by St Augustine in his Confessions, a work which greatly influenced the later development of Christian thought. The only way out of this state is through God’s free grace exhibited in the life and death of Jesus. There are complexities relating to how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice should be understood that I am not going to discuss here. Regardless, the sinful person is expected to atone for the wrong they have done, whether this be through a simple admission of guilt or some an act of service. Crucially, whatever the individual has done wrong a humbling or lessening1 of the person is required in order to receive God’s forgiveness.
There is undoubtedly truth in this idea, even the most cursory look into the conduct of humanity through history shows us that we are capable of gratuitous cruelty, violence, greed and every other vice imaginable. However, the idea of original sin has been cynically used by the church and others to manipulative ends. By enforcing moral guilt on a person they can be coerced into doing things they would not normally agree to such as the purchasing indulgences (a practice that plagued Europe in Luther’s time), and pressured into believing incredible doctrines in the most crude and literal sense. I have experienced the later first hand.
The concept of original sin contains a great deal of truth but must be balanced with an awareness of the potential for goodness that exists in all people. If this is not understood then a stunted, unconscious and compassionless view of humanity arises. Such a distorted view will often move people to ironically act out the very vices that are condemned as sinful.
What Is White Privilege?
In her article McIntosh offers an analogy as a way of explaining what she sees white privilege as: “I see white privilege as a bank account that I did not ask for, but that I can choose to spend2.” This quote illustrates the key difference between McIntosh’s conception of white privilege and original sin. Privilege is an advantage whilst sin is a disadvantage.
What Is To Be Done?
However, this dissimilarity may only be superficial for what the is expected of the individual in who in possession of unearned advantages or moral guilt is the same, namely, it must be something that must be atoned for. Here are some of the actions McIntosh suggests:
“Using these assets may lead to key changes in other behaviors as well, such as paying attention, making associations, intervening, speaking up, asserting and deferring, being alert, taking initiative, doing ally and advocacy work, lobbying, campaigning, protesting, organizing, and recognizing and acting against both the external and internalized forms of oppression and privilege3.”
It is my contention that the similarities between it and the typical conception of original sin are more than just accidental and that the mind that adopts one doctrine given different information would adopt the other. On a fundamental level they are ideas that operate according to the same logic. Both original sin and white privilege are something the guilty person has not consciously chosen but at the same time must atone for. This idea is flawed, it is not possible for someone to be morally responsible for something someone has no control over. For regardless of whatever window dressing is offered by McIntosh of particularities relating to social situations it is clear that a real target is white people in general. This can be seen when she uses phrases like “…if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge4?” The tacit assumption throughout the paper is any examination of a white persons life some form of unearned advantage will be discovered and must be addressed. This is similar to the a priori assumption of Christian doctrine that mankind is evil by nature, it is not a case of looking carefully investigating if man is sinful, it is taken as an unquestioned fact that man is morally deficient. The problem with such thinking is that uncritically applying general notions of guilt or blame to a large group of people ignores the particularities of a person’s situation. Further, that labeling large groups people or judging them according to one characteristic is precisely what racists do.
This is not say that advantages due to racial type do not exist, nor that people do not have evil tendencies. Rather, it is what must be done about such as situations and how should blame be assigned. Under both views guilt is what motivates penance. The question must be asked is it reasonable for someone to be condemned simply for being born into a situation? Without attention to what someone does with the life they are given all judgements that masquerade as those of morality are mere prejudice. To be fair to McIntosh she is certainly interested in what actions people take, although, it is a open question how far a person must go down the road of activism before they can be said to have atoned for their privilege. There is nothing wrong with taking action to right what one sees as a wrong, but without careful attention to the place that the action comes from nothing is truly solved. If people seek to change the world from a place or artificial guilt and shame they center themselves in actions that are meant to be for the sake of another. This centering of white people is dangerously close if not equivalent to a paternalist form of racism, where all non-white people must ultimately be dependent on white people’s actions for salvation. This sort of attitude is exemplified by Joe Biden in his ridiculous comments made during his presidential campaign.
Further, a problem with the allegations of white privilege is that anything that comes across as overly condemnatory and self righteous often has the opposite effect from the one that is desired, namely, the person who is being blamed feels humiliated and is therefore more susceptible to the siren song of bigotry. To be fair to McIntosh she does caution against this when she “Urge participants to avoid self righteousness and preaching to family and friends about privilege, especially if it is something they have just discovered themselves5.”
Although these actions I earlier referenced from McIntosh’s lists are tabled and as mere suggestions there must be some element of moral obligation at work here for surely by suggesting these actions the author is herself demonstrating what she feels the practical implications of her ideas are. To use her metaphor, if you are not emptying the balance of your bank account then presumably you are selfishly saving this advantage for yourself. Both original sin and white privilege require a lessening of the individual who is guilty. It must be said that McIntosh would object to the usage of the word “guilt” as she explicitly says that “My work is not about blame, shame, guilt6…” However, if someone must carry out a set of actions to remain in good moral standing then you are by definition guilty even if the guilt is not explicitly mentioned. In McIntosh’s defense she is very careful to focus on the particular, not the general in her articles only citing examples that are local to a particular situation. I cannot decide if this focus on the local and particular is a rhetorical strategy that makes her general ideas harder to refute or what she sincerely thinks.
Regardless, I cannot help but feel there is an element of ambiguity here, for race is a general characteristic that cannot help provoke discussions of the the universal and societal . She recommends that discussions are held by individuals concerning their own particular situation with others who are not white. These discussion are to uncover the privilege that already exists. This call to action would remain assumes that white privilege has a universal import to American society and most likely the wider world. The discussions that are to be had are confessional in nature and almost identical with the confession Christians are expected to perform on a regular basis in order to remain in a state of grace. Her paper is does not seem to me to be merely a series of suggestions. I seriously doubt a successful conclusion to one of the group discussions she recommends white people partake in would be that everything is more or less fine and that no concrete action was required. The use of this sort of discourse in the media has supported the this interpretation. So it may be that even if McIntosh was unsure if these ideas were to be applied in blanket and universal fashion that this application is logically consistent with the content of her ideas.
An interesting question that is not addressed by McIntosh is if there are examples of racial bias that are not morally significant. For example, if at school a white person is selected by a biased teacher for a extra curricular activity that all of the students (regardless of ethnicity) detest . Surely this does not count as a morally significant form of racial favoritism, for what is seen as a reward by the teacher is seen by the favored student and the rest of the students as a punishment.
In conclusion, it is clear that from a close reading of White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack that the concept of white privilege has been used in ways since the publication of the paper that McIntosh would not have agreed with, particularly, in its use in the popular culture as a term of abuse. However, much of what is problematic about the concept as a guide for moral decision making is present in her essay. The parallels with the problematic concept of a original sin (as traditional understood) illuminate this. If we are to create a more equitable and fair society assigning blame and guilt will not help with this task. In fact, the resentment accusations of white privilege generates give ammunition to those who seek to recruit people to racist causes around the world. It is a sad irony that the very thing McIntosh has sought stop she has unwittingly aided.
- The idea that acknowledging white privilege requires a lessening of the individual that therefore requires the person to atone for something they are not responsible if eloquently expressed by Wes Alwan in this episode of The Paritally Examined Life podcast
- Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1989), Available from: https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf (accessed 10th of October 2021), pg 7.
- Ibid, pg 4
- Ibid, pg 6
- Ibid, pg5