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Unearned privilege and how we can change it

On Tuesday, February 22nd, Peggy McIntosh held a lecture called “Waking Up to Privilege Systems”. This extremely well attended event was sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Center. McIntosh is often credited as the founder of the collegiate women’s studies program and is outspoken enough, amazing enough and important enough to have had Rush Limbaugh say horrible things about her. Having grown up a white woman in a wealthy home, McIntosh had a lot of unearned privileges early on. When she realized she hadn’t earned all of these advantages she had, she questioned how she could work to weaken unearned advantage while using her unearned advantage.

The answer for her would be to work within the system to destroy it and by “seeing privilege as a bank account to spend”. In the lecture she discussed how she had written a list of the markers of white privilege in her life. Of the list of twenty-five (all of which can be found in her paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”) these are a sampling, determine if they apply to you.

  • #4 I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • #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.
  • #15 I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
  • #22 I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race

What’s interesting is that all of these markers of privilege were at least somewhat true for me, and for the other white students surrounding me. After making sure that those attending understood white privilege on some level, she explained what we could do to end it. McIntosh suggested that by recognizing the advantage of whites and men, we can work to change those advantages. Simply by getting rid of the idea that everyone gets the exact same advantages and chances helps us realize our own misconceptions, so we can work to correct them.

An example that she had was the idea that we are brought up to think of knowledge as white & male and to think of whites & males as knowers. Women and people of color are grossly underrepresented in Congress, in CEO positions, as Nobel Prize winners and as world leaders. We tell ourselves that this is because women and people of color simply aren’t as smart or as qualified as their white, male counterparts. However, the evidence shows that this is not the case. It leads to follow that if we make the world cognizant of this discrepancy, by McIntosh’s theory, we will start to see the effects of white & male privilege fade away. The argument could be made that this alone will not be able to reverse the effects of centuries of privilege, but this reporter sincerely doubts that it could hurt.

About Rae Hartley

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