What of The Invisible Knapsack Today?

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. Itís real

information, but it tells you next to nothing.

– Toni Morrison, 1998

Once, again, it ís the annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, one of the most understated of our national holidays. Perhaps this is how King might have hoped it would be. No car sales built around it. No special travel deals. No parades.

Yet, I worry that the holiday errs almost too much in the other direction. Perhaps, like the legacy it seeks to honor, it’s too invisible. In our congregation, we traditionally honor this holiday by reminding ourselves both of the legacy of Martin Luther King, and also the long road that still stretches toward the beloved community of which he dreamed.

On this day I am always somewhat caught, betwixt between wanting to celebrate the work of this extraordinary champion of civil rights, and also bound to speak the truth in love about the work still before us. Yet, the very fact that it is on this particular day that I speak of these issues is fundamental to my theme today. As a white-skinned person, a part of the dominant culture in this country, I have the option of looking at race on this day. Tomorrow, or the next day, I can return to life as usual, which means I can go about my daily life not thinking much about race at all. I have the privilege of living apart from the day-to-day challenges of race that come because of the whiteness of my skin. The ability to choose to enter into this subject, or not, is just one aspect of white privilege, the subject of my reflections this morning.

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a researcher and writer at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, wrote an essay entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (McIntosh) That essay was an outgrowth of her work on the phenomenon of male privilege, a term that refers to the advantages that men are granted at their birth and are continuously accorded by a society that reinforces an unequal distribution of power. In her words, like the inequalities between men and women, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but I had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. McIntosh had sort of stumbled into the reality of the invisible benefits that come with having white skin, an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but to 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.

McIntosh realized, in thinking about the roots of this concept, that men are sometimes willing to say, yes, women are disadvantaged in certain ways in our society, but those same men are not so willing to admit to their own over-privilege. The same happens between white-skinned and other-colored skinned people. Most self-reflective whites are likely to understand that other-colored skin people suffer disadvantages, but are less aware of the over-privilege that is granted them. It’s hard to admit ìover-privilege. It’s far easier to admit that others are at a disadvantage. But like a finely tuned set of scales, there’s just so much privilege to go around. If someone has fewer privileges, then it follows that someone else must have more.

McIntosh began to count the ways in which she enjoyed unearned skin privilege. Here are just a few of her observations from her list written in 1988 I’ve selected several that, 18 years later, seem to me to still be true. She says, as far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions. These are a few of those conditions:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • 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 swear, or dress in secondhand 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 speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • 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 worldís majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • 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.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

These are just a few of McIntosh’s observations about her own life. There are a few things that she listed in 1988 that I can report have changed ñ there are now Band-Aids in more than one flesh color; choices in stores have diversified so that a variety of foods, music and printed materials are available that reflect different cultural backgrounds; and the expansion of media means that more people of color appear prominently in television shows, movies and other entertainment venues. But if I went on to read the rest of her list, I can assure you that most of what you’d hear would reflect the current state of the world.

McIntosh’s observations, written in first person, have a personal quality for me as a white-skinned woman. Not much separates my experience of the world from hers. Itís not difficult for me to imagine seeing the world through her eyes. I am sure that we share more than we differ. So I have the opportunity to ìtry onî her observations in a very real and personal way. And I have a variety of emotional reactions. I am surprised at how much I want to argue, to deny her the truth as she speaks it. No, I want to say, these are not privileges conferred by my skin color. My life is neutral, I want to say. It comes without any special deals. Certainly I can say that people of color face hurdles every day that I do not, but I donít want to believe ñ to see ñ that because of the skin I was born with, the society that I live in gives me preferential treatment. Entitlements. Unearned advantages that are intertwined with the deeply imbedded racism of this country. When I speak of racism, I don’t refer just to overt acts of hatred and violence, such as the recent painting of slurs and symbols on the property of the Shinnecock Nation. Racism is composed of two elements: prejudice plus power. Racism is the systemic, institutionalized mistreatment of one group of people by another based on racial heritage. And this country has got it, bad.

Turning back to McIntosh, reflecting on the list that she compiled, she writes: ìI repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

Reading her words, I wonder, is it just that I take certain things for granted? To take something for granted, you need to know, at some level, that you have it. But, in the words of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, privilege is least apparent to those who have it. This ìinvisible package of unearned assetsî truly is not seen by most of us and neither is the power that it confers. Perhaps, instead of taking privileges for granted, it’s better to say we operate with certain blind assumptions about how the world is for us.

That is, until a crisis rips off our blinders. If we might see Martin Luther King’s birthday as our annual check up a review of how things have been going with the questions of race in this country over the past year then this yearís major event for the body of the country has to be Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. (New Orleans) A poll of 680 randomly selected adult evacuees in Houston conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that 68 per cent believed that the federal government would have responded more quickly if more people trapped in the floodwaters were ìwealthier and white rather than poorer and black.î Last month, while most of us were busy getting ready for the holidays, black survivors of Hurricane Katrina gave emotional testimony before a special House Select Committee. Survivors and activists testified that racism was a big reason so many were abandoned and allowed to die. Their testimony includes graphic descriptions of the horrific conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome; of armed police denying passage on the bridges and roads out of the city; of the lack of provisions, help or care for the elderly, infirm and very young. And yes, there are references to racist practices throughout:

  • Shelly, a 31-year-old who was trapped in the Superdome, says ìWhen buses came to take us from the Superdome, they were taking tourists first. White people, they were just picking them out of the crowd. I don’t know why we were treated the way we were. But it was like they didn’t care.
  • Leah Hodges testified, ìand there were thousands and thousands of people. On the last day we were in there ñ and let me tell you something ñ they hand-picked the white people to ride out first. Yes, racism was very much involved. They hand-picked the white people to ride out first. Every day, the crowd got darker and darker and darker until finally there were 95% people of color in that place.

The small congressional panel sat and listened, but not without comment. When Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut heard one of the victims charges, about a gun being pointed at a young girl’s head, he said, “I don’t want to be offensive when you’ve gone through such incredible challenges. I just don’t frankly believe it.”

His words ‘I just don’t frankly believe it’ serve as the link between what happened in such a public way in New Orleans the overt racism that is very much a part of this country today and the other forms of racism that happen quietly, invisibly every single day in this country. When first confronted with the idea of white privilege, my own reaction was I just don’t believe it. Truth is, I still don’t want to believe it. But in reading McIntosh’s essay, by putting on her glasses and seeing the world with her, I am challenged to see that I must believe it.

What to do. That’s the question, really, isn’t it? What to do when our skin stays the color that it is through our lifetime. When the power structures of the institutions and structures of our society have hundreds of years of a head start on our efforts to dismantle them. Author Gloria Yamato gives us some good advice: Acknowledge racism for a start, even though and especially when weíve struggled to be kind and fair, or struggled to rise above it all. It is hard to acknowledge the fact that racism circumscribes and pervades our lives. Racism must be dealt with on two levels, personal and emotional, and societal and institutional. (Yamato)

These two levels of anti-racism work personal and emotional, societal and institutional must be done at the same time. For me, and perhaps for other white-skinned people, the personal work means not just reading Peggy McIntoshís essay, but making my own list of privilege, of unearned entitlements. In doing so, I seek to get beyond the emotions that I feel now when I read her list that of disbelief, even denial. I want to get to the rage and deep sadness and distress that these conditions exist, and that I participate in them, often unknowingly. On the institutional and societal level, our work involves using our power to sound the alarm. I keep wondering, why was it that a member of the Black Caucus had to ask for the special panel to convene to hear the testimony about racism? What prevented a white member of congress from seeing that something was terribly, terribly wrong, and needed to be heard, to be witnessed?

Yamato gives some additional advice to whites who want to be allies to people of color: Educate yourselves via research and observation rather than rigidly, arrogantly relying solely on interrogating people of color. Do not expect that people of color should teach you how to behave non-oppressively. Do not give in to the pull to be lazy. Do not blame people of color for your own frustration about racism, but do appreciate the fact that people of color will often help you get in touch with that frustration. Work on racism for your own sake, not their sake. Know that you’ll make mistakes and commit yourself to correcting them and continuing on as an ally, no matter what. Don’t give up.

Don’t give up, not matter what. And, conversely, I would add, don’t opt out. It’s so easy for us here, living in the 3rd most segregated suburban area in the country to not even see the problems. Our geography, our demographics, our liberalism, all make it so easy – too easy for racism to stay invisible. It’s that easy to leave it as invisible as the knapsack of privilege we carry about with us. In the end, the only legacy for Martin Luther King, Jr. rests in our own efforts to somehow reveal that which remains invisible, yet all so powerful. Let’s start by unpacking the knapsack.


Peggy McIntosh, ìWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,î in Paula S. Rothenberg, Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (NY: St. Martinís Press, 1998) 165-169.

Hurricane Katrina information from New Orleans Evacuees and Activists Testify at Explosive House Hearing on the Role of Race and Class in Governmentís Response to Hurricane Katrina, accessed 1/12/2006 at democracynow.org

Gloria Yamato, Racism: Something about the Subject Makes It Hard to Name, in Paula S. Rothenberg, Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (NY: St. Martinís Press, 1998)

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