A Cultural History of Privilege

The notion of privilege, an unearned advantage relative to and perhaps at the expense of others, first arose in the context of class and racism in America. In 1920, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois observed how “the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing” (Du Bois, 2005). In 1935, he further noted that whiteness functioned to divide the interests of the working class against itself: that low-paid white laborers received a “public and psychological wage” for their complicity in inequity. They were given access to public functions, parks, and good schools; they populated the ranks of the police and could participate in civil society. And while the latter “had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them” (Du Bois, 1995: 700–701). Decades later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., responded to those that asked him to delay and temper (nonviolent) protests for civil rights. In a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King (1963) wrote that extremism for love and justice could not be delayed because, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Although, King’s usage was more general, in 1967 socialist writers Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen returned to the class consciousness of Du Bois, amplifying and repeating his concern in such a way as to make the wage and privilege of whiteness a more purposeful and strategic move between the U.S. ruling class and the “misleaders” of American labor: as a reward for helping “conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force” white workers would receive “the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin” (Ignatin and Allen, 2011: 149–150).

Du Bois’ notion, now wedded to the term privilege, was extended and popularized by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. In “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh (1990) wrote that in her role as a feminist and educator she “realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious” and that insight led her to “count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege.” She spoke of privilege as something that is conferred, by birth or luck. As such, it is an unearned power (to dominate) rather than an earned strength. She also distinguished between privileges “not worth having” (like being able to ignore those less powerful) and those that are “worth having” and that everyone should enjoy (like non-discrimination when buying a home). She then enumerated fifty “daily effects of white privilege,” including being able to “turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” Her self-confessional listing has since been replicated, such as in Jonthan McIntosh’s (no relation) recent essay (and subsequent YouTube video) “Playing with Privilege: The Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male” (2014b, 2014a). In addition to the confessional format of the essay, the essay was influential for its (1) use of metaphor (i.e., “like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions”), (2) recognition that privileges of color, class, and gender are “intricately intertwined” (now often spoken of as “intersectionalism”), and (3) linking it to “the myth of meritocracy.” On the latter point, she wrote that because of privilege “this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”

As McIntosh’s essay become widely known, other scholars and educators came to reflect on the work’s shortcomings. Lewis Gordon (2004: 175) argued that much of what McIntosh listed were actually human rights and “as such, the term ‘privilege’ runs counter to their normative import since such rights are by definition imperatives that apply to and for all human beings.” Lawrence Blum (2008) offered a “mild critique” via additional distinctions. He wrote that a spared injustice is a harm avoided (e.g., not being subject to stop-and-frisk policing). An unjust enrichment is a benefit resulting from harm to others (e.g., better education favors one in the job market relative to others). And a non-injustice-related privilege is a benefit with no harm; this could include linguistic or cultural privileges (e.g., a posh accent). Blum’s other concerns about privilege included “its inadequate exploration of the actual structures of racial inequality, its tendency to deny or downplay differences in the historical and current experiences of the major racial groups, and its overly narrow implied political project that omits many ways that White people can contribute meaningfully to the cause of racial justice” (p. 320). This latter point, and a critique of the confessional format, was echoed by a collective of teachers (Jensmire et al., 2013) and the challenges of teaching about privilege was the topic of an edited collection in the same year (Case, 2013).

Blum L (2008) 'White privilege': A mild critique. Theory and Research in Education, 6(3), 309–321, Available from: http://tre.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/3/309 (accessed 1 January 2015).

Case KA (2013) Deconstructing privilege: Teaching and learning as allies in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Du Bois W (1995) Black reconstruction in America, 1860 -- 1880. New York: Free Press.

Du Bois W (2005) The souls of white folk. In: Darkwater: Voices from within the veil, Project Gutenberg, Available from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15210/15210-h/15210-h.htm (accessed 1 January 2015).

Gordon L (2004) Critical reflections on three popular tropes in the study of Whiteness. Yancy G (ed.), What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question, New York: Routledge.

Ignatin N and Allen T (2011) "White blindspot" & "Can white workers radicals be radicalized?". Davidson C (ed.), Revolutionary Youth & The New Working Class, lulu.com, Available from: http://www.sds-1960s.org/WhiteBlindspot.pdf (accessed 1 January 2015).

Jensmire TJ, Mcmanimon SK, Tierney JD, et al. (2013) McIntosh as synedoche: How teacher education's focus in white privilege undermines antiracism. Harvard Educational Review, 83(3).

King ML Jr. (1963) Letter from a Birmingham jail. University Of Pennsylvania - African Studies Center, Available from: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html (accessed 19 January 2015).

McIntosh J (2014a) "No relation but I was inspired by her list. RT @ErowanHD: remember reading Peggy McIntosh in college and it opening my mind. Any relation?". Twitter, Available from: https://twitter.com/radicalbytes/status/505672642485960705 (accessed 9 February 2015).

McIntosh J (2014b) Playing with privilege: The invisible benefits of gaming while male. Polygon, Available from: http://www.polygon.com/2014/4/23/5640678/playing-with-privilege-the-invisible-benefits-of-gaming-while-male (accessed 7 February 2015).

McIntosh P (1990) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Available from: http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html (accessed 1 January 2015).

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