Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Two Resources to Recommend to You: On Unpacking Invisible Knapsacks of Male Privilege, Racial Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege

Two resources to share with you this morning. These are resources recommended at the conference on embracing and affirming LGBTQ diversity in the black church that I attended recently at New Millennium Baptist church in my home city of Little Rock. Many of you may already know of these two items. If not, it occurs to me to share information about them with you, so that you'll be aware of them.

First, there's the now-classic essay of Peggy McIntosh entitled "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies" (1988), which is online as a pdf file at the website of the College Art Association. Peggy McIntosh is associate director of Wellesley's Centers for Women and an activist for women's causes and against racism. Her 1988 essay proposes that white people carry around with ourselves an "invisible knapsack of white privilege" that is very similar to the invisible knapsack of male privilege she and other feminist thinkers find many men carrying around in various cultures.

Men do not see or acknowledge that knapsack. White people also do not see or acknowledge it: as she observes, "I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege." She defines the knapsack of white privilege in this way: 

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

The point about these invisible knapsacks that deserves our attention, she wants to emphasize, is that they're unconscious. We don't recognize that they're there — we don't notice and enumerate their contents, or try to unpack them — because we do not even allow ourselves to know that we're carrying them around on our backs. We've been schooled to be oblivious to our male or our white privilege: McIntosh writes,  

My schooling followed the pattern which Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."

And then she sits herself down to begin thinking about and enumerating what's in that unacknowledge, invisible knapsack of white privilege she carries on her back, and she comes up with a long list of items, including the following: 

• I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race. 
•  I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race. 
•  I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

And on and on . . . . On the basis of the list she compiles, McIntosh concludes:

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. I could measure up to the cultural standards and take advantage of the many options I saw around me to make what the culture would call a success of my life. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as "belonging" in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. My life was reflected back to me frequently enough so that I felt, with regard to my race, if not to my sex, like one of the real people. 
Whether through the curriculum or in the newspaper, the television, the economic system, or the general look of people in the streets, I received daily signals and indications that my people counted and that others either didn't exist or must be trying, not very successfully, to be like people of my race. I was given cultural permission not to hear voices of people of other races or a tepid cultural tolerance for hearing or acting on such voices. I was also raised not to suffer seriously from anything that darker-skinned people might say about my group, "protected," though perhaps I should more accurately say prohibited, through the habits of my economic class and social group, from living in racially mixed groups or being reflective about interactions between people of differing races. 
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color.

And then: 

One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms that we can see and embedded forms that members of the dominant group are taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as racist-,because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring racial dominance on my group from birth. Likewise, we are taught to think that sexism or heterosexism is carried on only through intentional, individual acts of discrimination, meanness, or cruelty, rather than in invisible systems conferring unsought dominance on certain groups. Disapproving of the systems won't be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes; many men think sexism can be ended by individual changes in daily behavior toward women. But a man's sex provides advantage for him whether or not he approves of the way in which dominance has been conferred on his group. A "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems. To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

In the concluding section of her essay, McIntosh notes that a colleague, Professor Marnie Evans, had suggested to her that a similar "unpacking" project might be developed regarding the invisible knapsack of unacknowledged heterosexual privilege that many people carry around with themselves. Unpacking that knapsack would, however, not be easy, she proposes (remember: she's writing in 1988), because so many taboos surround the subject of homosexuality:

This is a still more taboo subject than race privilege: the daily ways in which heterosexual privilege makes some persons comfortable or powerful, providing supports, assets, approvals, and rewards to those who live or expect to live in heterosexual pairs. Unpacking that content is still more difficult, owing to the deeper imbeddedness of heterosexual advantage and dominance and stricter taboos surrounding these.

In 2010, a group of straight-identified students at Earlham College decided to follow McIntosh's lead here and begin unpacking their own invisible knapsacks of heterosexual power and privilege. This is the second resource recommended at the conference I attended recently. The Earlham students' essay, entitled "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack II Sexual Orientation: Daily Effects of Straight Privilege" (pdf file) is online at the Teach LBGTQ website maintained by the LGBTQ Study Group of the UCLA Writing Project. 

When the straight-identified Earlham students sat down to begin unpacking their invisible knapsacks of heterosexual privilege, they came up with a list that includes the following statements:

•  I am never asked to speak for everyone who is heterosexual. 
•  People don't ask why I made my choice of sexual orientation. 
•  People don't ask why I made my choice to be public about my sexual orientation. 
•  I do not have to fear revealing my sexual orientation to friends or family. It's assumed. 
•  I am guaranteed to find people of my sexual orientation represented in the Earlham curriculum, faculty, and administration. 
•  I can walk in public with my significant other and not have people double-take or stare. 
•  I can go for months without being called straight.

•  People do not assume I am experienced in sex (or that I even have it!) merely because of my sexual orientation. 
•  I am not asked to think about why I am straight. 
•  I can be open about my sexual orientation without worrying about my job.

In the era of Pope Francis and his (supposed) call for a more inclusive, all-embracing, merciful Catholic church, it would be fascinating to see Catholic scholars and journalists — especially those who have exceptionally significant influence in the Catholic academy and, as official Catholic voices, in the public square — engaging in such an unpacking project.

It would be fascinating to see them even begin to acknowledge their hitherto unacknowledged heterosexual power and privilege in a church that is, to all intents and purposes, a heterosexual boys' club.

One can dream. 

The photo of Peggy McIntosh is from her biography page at the website of the National SEED Project.

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