Is it Still Privilege if You Earn it?


community_chest_advance_to_go_card_by_jdwinkerman-d7kx1ltUnpacking the Invisible Knapsack 

I hear about privilege—particularly white privilege—but I confess: I don’t really know what people mean by privilege (spelled priviledge in Britain).

When I was a teenager my mum was strict, and we “lost our privileges” when we misbehaved.

Today a kid might be grounded, but, in my day, we were put on restriction.

And restriction means no privileges.

If this sounds penal, then you won’t be surprised to learn my mum was a deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County who worked in a women’s prison.

She was a strict parent who believed that a privilege wasn’t a right, but something you earned.

For example, she firmly believed that driving a car was a privilege that could be taken away by a judge.

As for the prisoners she supervised, their privilege of voting was revoked.

Rights carry more weight, as evidenced in the US Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Reading the words, “all men are created equal” brings part of privilege into focus, in light that half of the US population is comprised of women.

Dr. Peggy McIntosh seized on the idea of privilege in 1988, writing a landmark paper called White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.

McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley College, spent a good part of her career thinking about ways to infuse women’s scholarship into college curricula.

But the idea of white privilege didn’t take hold until she realized knowledge is framed from a white perspective.

“I came to this dawning realization … men make knowledge. And I realized this is why we were oppressive to work with—because, in parallel fashion, I had been taught that whites make knowledge,” McIntosh told The New Yorker in 2014.

Rooted in the idea of privilege, then, isn’t whether you have earned it or not.

Rather, the point is that some privileges come with the territory of birthplace, skin color, gender, religion—characteristics that a community decides are salient.

And each of us might be over-privileged in some respects and under-privileged in others.

McIntosh raised an important issue 30 years before “white privilege” became an insult on Twitter.

And that’s the lack of awareness, the denial, and the defensive posture those of us in privilege assume.

As McIntosh so aptly observes, our job is to “unpack this invisible knapsack of white privilege.”


22 August 2018















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in nativescience, white privilege. Bookmark the permalink.

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