The perils of “privilege”

The concept of “privilege” as we know it today comes from Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”. In it, McIntosh explains, in accessible terms, a simple, obvious-in-retrospect parallel. Just as men often seem, to her, oblivious to their advantages as men, she has surely been unaware of her own leg up as a white person: “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, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.” The best-known part of the paper is the ur-privilege checklist. McIntosh lists forty-six unearned advantages that she “think[s] in [her] case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.” The list is a mix of subtly brilliant insights (“I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect upon my race.”); prescient observations (“I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.”); and a few entirely idiosyncratic advantages that say more about Peggy McIntosh than about life for white people generally (“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”). In the 1988 paper, McIntosh at various points gestures toward the need for more than just privilege enumeration: “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?’” But the ultimate outcome is, in a sense, beside the point. In a 2014 interview with New Yorker writer Joshua Rothman, she describes coming up with her forty-six forms of white privilege as follows: “I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer.” She insists that it’s very important to acknowledge privilege, but she admits that doing so may not lead anywhere. Nor does she rule out that listing one’s privileges will make someone that much more inclined to hang onto them. To their credit, scholarly proponents of privilege theory agree that simply acknowledging privilege isn’t sufficient to accomplish anything. In his 2003 introduction to a reader in which McIntosh’s essay appears, sociologist Michael Kimmel emphasizes that privilege awareness is only a first step: “Eliminating inequalities involves more than changing everyone’s attitudes.” As for the next step, Kimmel isn’t especially precise: “Examining our privilege may be uncomfortable at first, but it can also be energizing, motivating, and engaging.” The only concrete aim of the privilege-awareness project might well be that it inspires more privilege workshops and for-credit privilege coursework, aimed mainly at privileged students.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy in “The Perils of “Privilege”” (Communists in situ)