The Metaphors of Privilege

Privilege is often understood by way of metaphor. Like any tool, a given metaphor is apt for some tasks more so than others. Even so, “when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Hence, it’s worth considering the merits of metaphors related to privilege.

privilege as an invisible knapsack
Peggy McIntosh’s (1990) original metaphor for privilege was that it was “like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions.” This is useful in that it speaks to relative advantage and that privilege is often hidden or unseen.
privilege as the “lowest difficulty setting”
In the contemporary technology context, John Scalzi (2012) likened privilege to playing a game on the lowest difficulty setting: monsters are easier to kill and there’s more health and bonus packs. This not only translates McIntosh’s notion into the digital realm, but improves upon the knapsack insofar as it recognizes that you can still lose the game: there are still challenges to overcome, yet “The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the ‘Gay Minority Female’ setting? Hardcore.”
privilege and smoking
Tim Wise and Kim Case (2013) also speak to the non-deterministic character of privilege on outcomes; they liken it to smoking: many people smoke without getting cancer, but it is highly correlated with it. Similarly, whiteness is highly correlated with advantage relative to people of color.
privilege as a intergenerational relay race
Mcnamonee and Miller’s (2004: 49) metaphor nicely accounts for the importance and perpetuation of social, economic, and cultural capital by likening privilege to an intergenerational relay race: "children born to wealthy parents start at or near the finish line, while children born into poverty start behind everyone else. Those who are born close to the finish line do not need any merit to get ahead. They already are ahead. The poorest of the poor, however, need to traverse the entire distance to get to the finish line on the basis of merit alone" (p. 49).

Finally, meritocracy is also spoken of as by way of metaphor, often as a bubble. The meritorious are said to “rise to the top,” much like champaign bubbles. This naive notion of meritocracy is that there is an inherent quality of superiority which causes a person to rise through a transparent and fluid medium. Alan Fox (1956) and Alice Marwick (2013) have critiqued this metaphor.


Fox A (1956) Class and equality. Socialist Commentary, 11–13.

Marwick A (2013) Silicon valley isn't a meritocracy. And it's dangerous to hero-worship entrepreneurs. wired, Available from: http://www.wired.com/2013/11/silicon-valley-isnt-a-meritocracy-and-the-cult-of-the-entrepreneur-holds-people-back/ (accessed 10 December 2014).

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

Mcnamonee SJ and Miller RK Jr. (2004) The meritocracy myth. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Scalzi J (2012) Straight white male: The lowest difficulty setting there is. Whatever, Available from: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/ (accessed 15 December 2014).

Wise T and Case KA (2013) Pedagogy for the privilege: Addressing inequality and injustice without shame or blame. Case KA (ed.), Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom, New York: Routledge.

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