Unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s Knapsack,White privilege theories dark secret

[White Privilege is] the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.

—Peggy McIntosh, quoted in the Racial Equity Resource Guide

The concept of ‘white privilege’ was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 paper written at Harvard University and titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack.” It was written as a personal, experiential essay, and it details 26 ways in which McIntosh’s skin color has been decisive in determining her life outcomes. This hugely influential paper has been responsible for the subsequent proliferation of a rigidly enforced theory of privilege throughout social movements and university classrooms. So central has this doctrine become to progressive politics, pedagogy, and activism, that to even question its validity is to invite the inquisitorial wrath of ‘social justice’ radicals. But it is for this very reason that it is important to subject McIntosh’s ideas to scrutiny. So let us return to the source and to first principles and unpack Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack…

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Peggy McIntosh was born Elisabeth Vance Means in 1934. She grew up in Summit, New Jersey where the median income is quadruple the American national average—that is to say that half the incomes there are more than four times the national average, some of them substantially so. McIntosh’s father was Winthrop J. Means, the head of Bell Laboratories electronic switching department during the late 1950s. At that time, Bell Labs were the world leaders in the nascent digital computing revolution. Means personally held—and sold patents on—many very lucrative technologies, including early magnetic Gyro-compass equipment (U.S. Patent #US2615961A) which now helps to guide nuclear missiles and commercial jets, and which keeps satellites in place so you can navigate with your phone and communicate with your Uber driver. Means is also recorded as the inventor of a patent held by Nokia Bell in 1959 known as the Information Storage Arrangement. This device is the direct progenitor of ROM computer memory, and is cited in the latter’s patent filed in 1965 for IBM. So, long before Peggy McIntosh wrote her paper, her family was already having an out-sized effect on Western culture.

Elizabeth Vance Means then attended Radcliffe, a renowned finishing school for the daughters of America’s patrician elites, and continued her private education at the University of London (ranked in the top 50 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), before completing her English Doctorate at Harvard. Her engagement to Dr. Kenneth McIntosh was announced in the New York Times‘s social register on the same page as the wedding of Chicago’s Mayor Daley. McIntosh’s father, Dr. Rustin McIntosh, was Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Columbia University. His mother was President Emeritus of Barnard College, an institution in the opulent Morningside Heights district of Manhattan, famous since 1889 for providing the daughters of the wealthiest Americans with liberal arts degrees. This was once the stomping ground of American cultural luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cecil B. DeMille, and several Supreme Court Justices. Kenneth McIntosh was himself a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy, which boasted alumni including Daniel Webster, the sons of Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and a number of Rockefeller scions. He later completed his elite education at Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School. By the time of his marriage to Elizabeth, Kenneth McIntosh was a senior resident at the prestigious Brigham Hospital in Boston, founded by millionaire Peter Bent.

In other words, Peggy McIntosh was born into the very cream of America’s aristocratic elite, and has remained ensconced there ever since. Her ‘experiential’ list enumerating the ways in which she benefits from being born with white skin simply confuses racial privilege with the financial advantages she has always been fortunate enough to enjoy. Many of her points are demonstrably economic. One is left to wonder why, given her stated conviction that she has unfairly benefited from her skin color, there seems to be no record of her involvement in any charity or civil rights work. If she did take to the streets in support of some cause or other, she left no trace that I can see. Nor, as far as I can tell, has she spent any time teaching the underprivileged or working directly to better anyone’s condition but her own. Instead, she has contented herself with a generous six figure salary, and has not shown any particular eagerness to hand her position over to a more deserving person of color.

Very few of the people reading this article—whatever the color of their skin—will have even the vaguest idea of the comfort and privilege in which Peggy McIntosh grew up and to which she has since become accustomed. Nor will we have access to the world of opportunities that she has been fortunate enough to enjoy. But even though the lifetime of privilege McIntosh has experienced is almost certainly due to her wealth and not the colour of her skin, she nevertheless found a way to share this irksome burden with the illiterate children of Kentucky coal miners, the hopeless peasants of the Appalachians, poor single mothers struggling to make ends meet on welfare, and the vast majority of whites in the United States and throughout the world who never had the chance to attend Radcliffe or Harvard. She simply reclassified her manifest economic advantage as racial privilege and then dumped this newly discovered original sin onto every person who happens to share her skin color. Without, of course, actually redistributing any of the wealth that, by her own account, she had done nothing to deserve.

All of which means that pretty much anything you read about ‘white privilege’ is traceable to an ‘experiential’ essay written by a woman who benefitted from massive wealth, a panoply of aristocratic connections, and absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. This alone calls into question the seriousness and scholarly validity of the derivative works, since they are all the fruit of a poisonous tree. But McIntosh’s hypothesis was eagerly embraced nonetheless, because it served a particular purpose—it helped to mainstream a bitter zero-sum politics of guilt and identity. This dark epistemology has quietly percolated through the universities and the wider culture for two decades now. It has had the effect of draining attention from a massive and growing wealth gap and it has pitted the poor against one another in public spectacles of acrimony and even violence. Even so, it was readily embraced by progressively-minded professors who might otherwise have had trouble squaring their thirst for social justice with their high six figure salaries. In the last decade, this dogma has come screaming out of the nation’s august halls of learning and into mainstream civil discourse (although to call most of what passes for discourse today ‘civil’ somewhat labours the definition). And, still, we are endlessly and forcefully reminded that to question this concept in any way is, in and of itself, racist.

The apostles of this ludicrous doctrine cherry-pick narrow snippets of history and count on the decline of classical education and the meretricious imprimatur of obscurantist pseudo-scientific jargon to ensure the doctrine is never carefully examined. The fact that progressives are so heavily over-represented within the humanities and social sciences naturally helps their cause a great deal. Universities now have exacting strategies in place to enforce doctrinal compliance should the reluctant require encouragement. In one Ontario middle school, class students were instructed to fill out a questionnaire and then physically line up in order of their ‘white privilege.’ Amazingly, not even physics now escapes the iron grip of this dogma. But to resist this nonsense is to bring the nine plagues of political correctness down upon one’s own head. A school board in British Columbia even thought it would be a good idea to greet its poor and working class white middle school students with this poster reminding them of the guilty burden they bear on account of their skin:

I grew up a very poor white kid. By which I mean, single-mother-on-welfare-in-Alberta poor. As a child, I remember feeling utterly hopeless about ever making any sort of life for myself. If I were at school in British Columbia today, I would now have to deal with seeing this admonition every morning as well. One wonders why Teresa Downs doesn’t simply step down from her $200,000 a year job and pass it to a person of colour since she acquired it unfairly. Is her public declaration of culpability supposed to be compensation enough? Presumably, like Peggy McIntosh, she has convinced herself that human well-being will be better served by shaming the children of people whose average annual income is around $23,000.

And all of this has created the societal conditions in which a spoiled racist like Sarah Jeong—another hyper-privileged Harvard graduate and member of a population group far more statistically favored by rates of wealth, education, and incarceration than whites—can send countless tweets denigrating white people, and then have the validity of those ugly sentiments defended by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the progressive consensus. Dozens of articles suddenly proliferated patiently explaining that we just don’t get it, that only whites can be racist, that only whites have privilege, and that anyone who disagrees is almost certainly a racist.

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result. Every work and every action is now scrutinized for micro-aggressions and the “invisible package of unearned assets” benefitting anyone not deemed to be sufficiently ‘marginal.’ No one, it seems, is interested in questioning the wealth gap anymore. Those of us on the Left who still care about social justice are now expected to devote the limited resource of our attention bandwidth to the cultural appropriateness of cafeteria food. And, all the while, the emphasis on divisive racial categories and the arrogant dismissal of debate has handed the radical Right the best recruiting tool it has ever had.

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But then what do I—a person privileged by accidents of race and gender—know about ‘identity politics,’ that Peggy McIntosh does not? Well, I can share at least one lesson drawn from my own ‘lived experience.’ The year I turned 25, I was serving as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia. My unit engaged the Croatian Army in what would come to be known as the Battle of Medak Pocket. Eventually, we halted the enemy’s advance and pushed them back.

Clearing a house after the fighting, we discovered the contorted and charred bodies of two young women tied to chairs. One was estimated to be in her early 30s, the other in her late teens. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police techs who processed the scene for the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague confirmed what we could tell just by looking at the corpses: the exaggerated arching of the backs, the screams of agony that still seemed ready to burst from what remained of their gaping mouths, the fingernails embedded in the wood of the chair arm—these two young women had still been alive when they were dowsed in gasoline and set alight. But then the tech added a detail that was not readily apparent. His tests appeared to confirm that they were almost certainly already dead when the Croatian Army rolled into town. That meant they had been burned alive by their neighbours. People they had lived beside and gone to school with.

The area that the Croatian army had briefly overrun had been mixed Croatian and Serbian farming villages. These people had lived together for half a century. They had intermarried, lived in the same streets, eaten the same food, and attended the same social events. But slowly, starting in the 1980s, political leaders and demagogues of various stripes had started using a politics of identity to solidify their social and political power. Each side’s citizens were repeatedly told by respected academic figures that they were being robbed, and that the ‘other’ was exploiting unearned ‘social privilege’ granted by their ethnic status. Children were taught this in school as received truth and ostracized if they dared to question it. Slowly, this curated resentment built into hatred. From there, events developed according to an inescapable logic. Sometimes, soldiers on one side of the ethnic conflict would ask us for news of a high school sweetheart or friend across the lines. But identity allegiance remained paramount. To those who respond with the fatuous claim that this was simply a ‘white-on-white issue,’ I will only note that, as I was fighting for my life in Eastern Europe, the same divisive hatreds were being broadcast across Rwanda by Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. Tribal hatreds are not a white or a black problem, they are a human problem.

Every time identity politics has been used by any faction in human history for any reason violence eventually follows. No matter how detailed and intricate the justification, no matter how reasonable it can be made to sound as a way to correct for unequal social conditions and historical injustice, it always ends in the same foul basement of mutual fear, loathing, and depravity. It is past time to consign this foul epistemology to the trashcan of self serving debasements and return our attention to the real causes of ‘privilege’; the growing disparities of wealth that divide us, whatever the color of our skin.


William Ray is a decorated former Canadian Peacekeeper now working as a Journalist, Documentary Film-maker, and very substandard handyman. He is active in advancing Press Freedom in Montréal. You can follow him on Twitter @billyray105

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