Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Popular discussions often make use of terms and concepts divorced from their origins. When I investigate, I’m sometimes delighted to find trenchant essays whose value far exceeds the buzz words or phrases they spawned.

I’ve recently been working on a piece about the geek style of thinking, meritocracy, and privilege. In tracing the origins of the latter I naturally came across Peggy McIntosh’s 1987 “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I find that much of the contemporary discussion (and confusion) about the concept of privilege is anticipated in McIntosh’s work. Below, I provided a mindmap of some of the concepts from McIntosh and others. (As a historical aside, the notion goes back at least to W. E. B. du Bois’ “The Souls of White Folks” )

  • Mcintosh (1987) privilege
    • is earned, or
    • is conferred (by birth or luck)
      • which has advantages
        • postive
          • “what one would want for everyone in a just society” (“entitled”)
          • " like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society."
          • Gordon (2004) labels many of these as “rights”
        • negative
          • “give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive … which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.”
          • “like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.”
          • Blum (2008) distinguishes between
            • spared injustice: a white person is “spared an injustice” suffered by people of color
            • unjust enrichment: privileges in which a white person benefits from the injustice to another
            • non-injustice-related privilege: “when one benefits from one’s position, in a manner that one does not deserve from a moral point of view, but, in contrast to the previous two categories, the benefit is not related to an injustice suffered by the disadvantaged group.” This could include linguistic or cultural privileges (e.g., a posh accent)
    • gives
      • strength (especially “earned” privilege)
      • power to dominate (especially “conferred” privilege)

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