Peggy McIntosh Sets Record Straight on White Privilege

By Carla Murphy May 14, 2014

White privilege. It’s been a hot topic in mainstream media in recent weeks because of a young Princetonian’s controversial essay, "Checking my Privilege." What is privilege? And maybe more important, what is it not? The New Yorker has a must-read interview with the original expert. Now 79, Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," remains, more than 25 years on, the clearest elucidation of the topic. Some highlights:

How McIntosh came to write so authoritatively in the late ’80s about privilege:

… About six years earlier, black women in the Boston area had written essays to the effect that white women were oppressive to work with. I remember back to what it had been like to read those essays. My first response was to say, "I don’t see how they can say that about us–I think we’re nice!" And my second response was deeply racist, but this is where I was in 1980. I thought, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them.

On reaction, over the years, to speaking up about privilege:

Well, at first, the most common responses were from white people. Their most common response was "I never thought about this before." After a couple of years, that was accompanied by "You changed my life." From people of color, from the beginning, it was "You showed me I’m not crazy." And if they said more than that it was along the lines of "I knew there was something out there working against me."

On the value of honoring and telling individual stories:

I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important–but so is seeing that it is set within a framework outside of one’s personal experience that is much bigger, and has repetitive statistical patterns in it.

There’re more gems from McIntosh, who’s still working on educational equity at Wellesley. Check out The New Yorker interview–as well as the Princeton essay that kicked off the mainstream media’s recent white privilege coverage.