Please Pass the White Meat, or Is It White Privilege?

At our Thanksgiving table, between the salad and the main course, our family conversation morphed from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter to White Privilege.

White Privilege is one of those things, if you’re White, you might not be aware it exists or is considered a problem for others at your dining table.

Here’s a question to give you a feel for the issue. When you walk through your local department store, have you ever had the security man follow you? If you’re White, chances are you’ll probably answer “no.” If you’re Black, you’ll probably answer “yes.” Here’s another: When you step on a public elevator, have you ever had the women who are already on the lift, clutch their handbags more closely? If you’re White, you’ll answer “No.” If you’re Black, you’ll answer, “Yes.” You get the drift.

White folks tend NOT to believe that such oddities occur in our society. But the fact is, they do. Ask ANY Black person, or really, any Person of Color.

While racism ranges from the individual to the institutional (according to the section on Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center ), in contemporary American society; it:

  • Claims to find racial differences in things like character and intelligence.
  • Asserts the superiority of one race over another or others.
  • Seeks to maintain that dominance through a complex system of beliefs, behaviors, use of language and policies.

Whereas racism is a strong manifestation of these beliefs and application of them, White Privilege is a “transparent preference for Whiteness that saturates our society.” It:

  • Provides white people with “perks” that they don’t earn and that people of color don’t enjoy.
  • Creates real advantages for Whites, allowing them immunity to many challenges.
  • Shapes the world in which we all live — the way we navigate and interact with one another and the world. (Also from The Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Knowing about White Privilege isn’t about blame or guilt. It’s about the awareness and understanding there is an underlying aspect of our society. Yes, it needs to be changed, and change can’t occur unless we are aware of the problem and acknowledge its affect.

On Wednesday, I attended a community conversation hosted by The Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion. In Milwaukee, 120 interested individuals of diverse race broke into small groups to answer two questions: 1. What had been each of our experiences with White Privilege and 2. How did we think we could address the subject with others?

My response to the first was that I was only recently realizing the issue and to the second, I would pass my knowledge along via this blog post. I’ve included the article credited with establishing the original concept of White Privilege: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Collage Center of Research on Women published in 1990.

Like any issue, it is not without controversy. Google “White Privilege” and you’ll see articles like, “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” and arguments disavowing the existence of White Privilege. As opponents want to explain away many of the subtleties of White Privilege to conclude it doesn’t exist, there is one statistic that’s REALLY hard to ignore. Forbes Magazine (in March, 2015, called it the Racial Wealth Gap:

“In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. (All figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation.)”

As far as I can see, there are only two ways to explain the origins of such a financial discrepancy between Whites and People of Color: either racism or White Privilege — neither an ideal choice at the dining table.

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White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”


I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  12. 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 with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  18. 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.
  19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181. The working paper contains a longer list of privileges. This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

  1. 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 oblivion.
  2. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  6. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  7. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  8. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
  9. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  10. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
  11. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  12. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  13. I can worry about racism without being seen as self- interested or self-seeking.
  14. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  15. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
  16. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  17. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  18. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  19. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  20. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  21. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  22. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  23. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
  24. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
  25. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
  26. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  27. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
  28. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
  29. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181. The working paper contains a longer list of privileges. This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

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