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 looked deeper into my knapsack and I invite you to do the same. What I have come to see, is 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, on white people. Unearned liabilities are the societal and cultural disadvantages that put white people in a state of blurred reality, separateness, and deep internal damage to our humanity, which in turn affects all the rest of humanity. I hope you’re 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 us 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
- tells us we are entitled and deserving
- makes us believe things that are not real
- allows us to deny things that are real
- allows us to deny peoples lived reality
- restricts us from really understanding the world of which we believe we are an exceptional part
- tricks us into thinking the playing field is level
- justifies us living in a false reality
- allows us to be mediocre
- hinders our ability to feel compassion and empathy for all humans
- limits our ability to create equity
- limits our ability to ask the question…. why?
- restricts our ability to see and be comfortable with all of humanity
- limits our ability to understand parts of our own identity
- keeps us from seeing human differences as an amazing gift
- closes us off from seeing people who are different as equally human
- limits us in choosing the truest friend and true love
- limits our awareness of how people really feel or what they think
- deceives us into seeing beauty in only some places
- limits our ability to have a true connection to many people of color
- limits our ability to see the true contributions of people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people
- controls our judgment
- allows us to rationalize injustice
- stops us from working to create change in systems that are unjust and inequitable
- has confined us to communities who are also hurting from all these same things
- White privilege expects to have the same affect 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.
8 thoughts on “Liabilities of White Privilege –How White Privilege Hurts White People”
So off and wrong! Nothing more than jealousy, wanting what white people have! This kind of white bashing and racism against whites promotes violence and keeps racism alive!
Dear Ty, I’m so intrigued by your comment this is “Nothing more than jealousy, wanting what white people have!” What exactly do white people have that people of color don’t have? How did we get what we have? Is it right for us to have something others want but for some reason can’t have? Aren’t we all “just human”? So why would one group of people have something another group wants but can’t have? Robin
Wow, hearing your frustration, Ty, with idea that white people may have something others want too.
Is there something in particular you don’t want to share?
Like 98% of the elected seats of our democracy?
Respectful and kind treatment by police and store keepers and white people when you are walking around their (your?) neighborhood?
The dignity of decent schools and health care?
Would you rather have been born a black or brown American? What might we have that it is wrong to be jealous of?
This reminds me of DeBois’ idea of double consciousness. It’s as if as white people, we have a ‘partial consciousness’, missing so much as we look through the distorted lens of whiteness.
Thank you for this, Michelle! I think your list is a great companion to Peggy’s. It also makes me think of a couple of books I’ve recently read that go deeply into many of the liabilities on your list: Robin D’Angelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White? and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White. I highly recommend both.
In my conversation with Peggy McIntosh not so long ago, she also mentioned her written work on “white male privilege.” She talks specifically how white men will never deny their white privilege. Their apsorbtion with their privilege is so imbedded, that there afraid to look at it or give any of it up, even at the cost of a white woman. Interesting.
As a long time admirer of Peggy McIntosh, first discovered when I was a doctoral student at Harvard, it is inspiring to read of your important work in reaching young minds at a critical timefor developing brains and bodies and a critical time for our country. What great resources your books are! Keep up the good work! Hope to see you soon! Xxoo Olivia