White Privilege: Unpacking the
by Peggy McIntosh
Through work to bring materials from women's studies into the rest of
the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that
are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are
They may say they will work to improve women's status, in the society,
the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the
idea of lessening
men's. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages
men gain from women's disadvantages. These denials protect male
from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I
realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there
is most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly
denied and protected.
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as
that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one
its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege,
as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in
untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have
to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that
can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to
oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of
provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in
women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up
some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege
must ask, "having
described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?"
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of
unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their
oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges
from women of color that white women whom they encounter are
oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive,
even when we don't see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in
which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into
oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as
an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged
was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on
her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my
Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their
as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that
we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to
be more like us.
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
that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege
to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of
all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can
my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I
into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line
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. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or
purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would
want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will
be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured
that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the
paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about
civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular
materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for
this piece on white privilege.
9. 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 that
with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone
who can deal with my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on
my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from
people who might not like them.
12. 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.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without
putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called
a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons
of color, who constitute the worlds' majority, without feeling in my
culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear
its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge"
I will be facing a person of my race.
19. 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.
20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting
cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my
21. I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to
feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place,
outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without
having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that
people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race
will not work against me.
25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of
each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color that
more or less matches my skin.
Elusive and fugitive
I 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
up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such
free country; ones' life is not what one makes it; many doors open for
certain people through no virtues of their own.
In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed
conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I
of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we
a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these
are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others
license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a
pattern of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person.
There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I
was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset
for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as
belonging in major ways and
of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear,
neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural
forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable,
and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident,
uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of
hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to
visit, in turn, upon people of color.
For this reason, the word privilege now seems to me misleading. We
usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or
by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work
systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply
confers dominance because of one's race or sex.
Earned strength, unearned power
I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned
power conferred systematically. Privilege can look like strength when
it is in
fact permission to escape or to dominate. Power from unearned privilege
look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to
But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some,
the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race
not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society.
Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the
of the holders as well as the ignored groups.
We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages,
which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which
rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example,
feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans
should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned
At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for
This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the
that I originally say as attendant on being a human being in the United
consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.
I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned
male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and
like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly
distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred
dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we
need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily
lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States
think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people of
color; they do not see whiteness as
a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only
advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily
experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical
ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual
Difficulties and angers surrounding the task of finding parallels are
many. Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the
associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is
hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage that rest more on
class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity than on
other factors. Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the
of the Combahee River Collective pointed out in their "Black Feminist
One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They
take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as
member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see. In my class and
place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to
racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group,
in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group
Disapproving of the system won't be enough to change them. I was taught
to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their
attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for
whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been
conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal
unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are
key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or
incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by
these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems
me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of
while denying that systems of dominance exist.
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like
obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in
the United States
so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic
is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom
confident action is there for just a small number of people props up
in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that
most of it already.
Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing
questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise
our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What
will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an
open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to
weaken hidden system of advantage, and whether we will use any of our
arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a
Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center
for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189.
Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See
through Work in Women's Studies (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available
$4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women,
MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.
This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent