Before someone can overcome racism and sexism, that person must take stock of his or her own unearned advantages and disadvantages, Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., told a packed auditorium on March 25 at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.
McIntosh, the founder of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, delivered an interactive lecture, Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey, at Flom Auditorium. In the lecture, which was sponsored by Fordham’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, McIntosh explained the process behind White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, an essay she published in 1989.
The essay lists 26 privileges that white skin afforded McIntosh, she said, such as, “I am never asked to speak for all people in my racial group.”
The revelations only came to her, she said, after an intense period of prayer, meditation and writing details of her dreams. She had come to accept that because she was white, it helped her become a Harvard professor and win grants.
“It kept eating at me that I had these big institutional arbitrary circumstances that were putting the wind at my back with regard to getting grants and getting credibility,” she said.
She began to write down ideas that came to her during sleep. The first was, “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of my race most of the time,” which she described as not being lonely or isolated in meetings.
After three months of writing down 46 ideas in the middle of the night, she said her husband pressed her to explain what she was doing.
“I said, ‘Ken, I’m writing down stuff I don’t want to know. That’s why I have to write it in the middle of the night.’ My subconscious knew all about this privilege system that I was in, but I didn’t consciously know it. That’s why I had to dream on it and pray on it.”
The method of deconstructing unearned advantages was similar to a process she had used previously to navigate the male-dominated world of academia.
“It’s men who make knowledge, men who publish knowledge, and then men who profess knowledge as professors. The knowledge system they’re in—and it’s not their fault—is about how men are knowers,” she said. “Once I got to, ‘Men are knowers,’ then I understood why my husband can’t ask for directions when we’re lost. It goes against his identity to pop out of a car and say, ‘I’m lost, can you tell us where to go?’” she said.
“What had gotten into my identity is, whites are knowers. Whites have knowledge, whites make more knowledge, whites profess knowledge as the core of the teaching force in the United States, whites run the university presses and whites publish knowledge,” she said.
Although some privileges, such as, “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to ‘the person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race,” have dissipated with the election of President Barack Obama, McIntosh noted that others have not, including the self-referential, “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”
That said, McIntosh resisted the notion that whites have a moral imperative to destroy the existing power structure that gave them a leg-up over equally qualified blacks and Latinos. White Privilege, she noted, ends with, “It is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to construct power systems on a broader base.”
“If I am really comfortable with a kind of capitalism that says winner take all, and we have no responsibility for poor people, then those are my values, and I’m not under any obligation to use my good luck to share welfare,” she said.
“I have found it is life-changing to act on my actual values, such as the reduction of suffering. That means I want to reduce power for those who have been given it arbitrarily.”