Liabilities of White Privilege

 White privilege was explained to me by Peggy McIntosh in her essay * “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.” Peggy writes, “I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” I was taught the same, but I question, is this the complete picture? Should my critical thinking stop at the understanding that my white privilege is an asset for me and the liabilities are someone else’s to bear?

I am a white woman who was raised in towns almost exclusively designed for white people and educated as a social worker in predominantly white institutions. Thankfully, when I was 20, I began to be challenged, by professors of color, to think about my whiteness and specifically race as a social construct. As I studied the history of white supremacy in this country, the political and economic structure that governs all laws and policies by white people and for white people, I began to question the advantage and status I had because of my whiteness. As I reflect on my grandparents decision to immigrate to this country from Italy and Portugal, on one hand, I understand that they essentially embraced whiteness as an asset-socially and economically. However on the other hand, their culture, language and history were stripped from their children and their grandchildren. I deeply experience that decision every day as a disadvantage, liability, culturally, linguistically and historically. I feel like part of my identity is missing. I truly don’t know who I really am.

I imagine this is how my husband feels sometimes, a Black man, who is only four generations removed from slavery and the horrific stripping of his family from their home, land, and way of life. “Where are you from?” people always ask him and I want to scream, “That knowledge was stripped away from him and his family!” and in a way, it was stripped away from me too.

As I began examining my liabilities of whiteness and wrote the essay, “The Liabilities of White Privilege: How White Privilege Hurts White People,” my new found consciousness made it clear that acknowledging the advantages/unearned assets was not the whole truth. The “bill of goods” that was sold to my white ancestors was a farce and a dubious heist- whether intentional or not.

I decide a long time ago, as I studied to become an L.I.C.S.W., that the responsibility of engaging in therapy with another human being was enormous. The ability to connect and empathize was vital and my understanding of my own humanity would be essential to my success. I wasn’t ready. I needed to do the work of understanding my own whiteness and how I walked through the world differently than people of color. I needed to be able to listen to experiences of people of color and contextualize that while I truly would never be able to completely understand their reality,-my responsibility as a white therapist is to understand the liability of whiteness and leverage the asset to create space for that person- space that as a white person, I experience as an inherited asset from my ancestors. In doing this, I could allow freedom- the goal of therapy for any person- freedom to be, vulnerable and not judged by my implicit bias, prejudice or ignorance. I wasn’t ready, but through understanding whiteness and all the complexities of oppression embedded in our culture, I have found more of my own humanity.

I believe, we must look deeper into the knapsack of white privilege past the assets and advantages that whiteness can “cash in” every day and look deeper to reflect on the liabilities and disadvantages that whiteness “withdraws” from our soul, our identities, our connections and our humanity. This is a personal journey and one that each and every white person must take the time to reflect and unpack continuously. Ask yourself, how has your whiteness and white privilege been a liability? Then, dig deeper. How has it been a liability in your self-identity, relationships with people of color and connections with your clients of color? This is the work you must do.

* Copyright 1989, Peggy McIntosh. Peace and Freedom magazine, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Phila, PA.

* Copyright 2016, Michelle Chalmers. “The Liabilities of White Privilege: How White Privilege Hurts White People”

Liabilities of White Privilege –How White Privilege Hurts White People

Completely Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

How White Privilege Hurts White People 

  Michelle Chalmers, MSW

            In 1988-89, Peggy McIntosh published two papers on white privilege, the shorter of which is called “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it she listed many ways in which she benefits from a system of “unearned assets” she has as a white woman in a society that favors whites and gives them unearned advantages. She compared white privilege to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” As far as she could see her colleagues of color did not have these unearned assets.

I am a white woman who has been married to a Black man for 27 years. We have two sons. I have looked deeper into my knapsack. In addition to the seemingly endless list of advantages and benefits of white privilege are all the harmful disadvantages that white privilege empties onto me as a white person. These disadvantages are the unearned liabilities of white privilege. Unearned liabilities are the societal and cultural disadvantages that put white people in a state of blurred reality, separateness, and internal damage which in turn affects all the rest of humanity. I am ready to dive deeper into the concept of white privilege and examine it for the harm it does to the people who have it, and enable white people to see it is something we need to work against.

Some Liabilities of White Privilege –How White Privilege Hurts White People

  • White privilege racializes us to believe we are superior
  • White privilege tells us we are entitled and deserving
  • White privilege makes us believe things that are not real
  • White privilege allows us to deny things that are real
  • White privilege allows us to deny peoples lived reality
  • White privilege restricts us from really understanding the world of which we believe we are an exceptional part
  • White privilege tricks us into thinking the playing field is level
  • White privilege justifies us living in a false reality
  • White privilege hinders our ability to feel compassion and empathy for all humans
  • White privilege limits our ability to create equity
  • White privilege limits our ability to ask the question…. why?
  • White privilege restricts our ability to see and be comfortable with all of humanity
  • White privilege limits our ability to understand parts of our own identity
  • White privilege keeps us from seeing human differences as an amazing gift
  • White privilege closes us off from seeing people who are different as equally human
  • White privilege limits us in choosing the truest friend and true love
  • White privilege limits our awareness of how people really feel or what they think
  • White privilege deceives us into seeing beauty in only some places
  • White privilege limits our ability to have a true connection to many people of color
  • White privilege controls our judgment
  • White privilege allows us to rationalize injustice
  • White privilege stops us from working to create change in systems that are unjust and inequitable
  • White privilege has confined us to communities who are also hurting from all these same things
  • White privilege expects to have the same effect on white children


* Copyright 1989, Peggy McIntosh. Peace and Freedom magazine, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Phila, PA.

Thank you to Peggy McIntosh for your wisdom and grace.