The concept of white privilege has become common in modern discussions about race and racism. Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” introduced the concept to readers to help them understand that racism is more complex than simply one individual using racist language or behavior against another person. The list contains 50 items that serve as examples of how our social, political and economic systems benefit white people over people of color. Several items on the list resonate and reveal the complexity of racism that is not apparent on the surface.
Item 14 in particular resonated with current life in America. McIntosh notes that one aspect of white privilege is being able to protect one’s children. In recent years there have been dozens of high-profile cases of young black men being shot by police or others who were not held accountable. Trayvon Martin was killed by a member of neighborhood watch who was found innocent even though Martin was unarmed when he was shot. There have been dozens of cases where police shot an unarmed black youth. These cases show that it is not possible for Black parents to ensure the safety of their children against racist police officers and citizens. White children and parents do not have the same fears for their children, which resonates with McIntosh’s definition of white privilege.
Other items on the author’s list also show whites have a clear advantage over people of color. Items 6, 7 and 8 all address the issue of representation, drawing attention to the fact that what white people have come to expect as “normal” does not always apply to people of color. Item 6 refers to representation on TV and in newspapers. There has been significant progress in expanding media representations of people of color on TV. However, there is criticism that these representations are based on stereotypes or only certain “types” of people of color are represented.
Items 7 and 8 refer to representation in school materials and history lessons, where for the most part civilization is attributed mainly to whites. These materials ignore the many advanced civilizations created by people of color. The problem with lack of representation is that it continues to present the false idea that whites are superior to people of color by giving more attention to their accomplishments and ignoring the accomplishments of people of color. This benefits whites because it normalizes the idea of white superiority.
Peggy McIntosh wrote, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1988. There are some changes that could be made to update the article to resonate with white privilege in modern-day America. For instance, item 6 addresses the lack of representation of people of color on TV and in the news. This isn’t exactly the case anymore. That item should be updated to reflect the fact that although people of color are represented more now than in the past, representation is often based on stereotypes such as the prevalence of violence in African American communities. Item 9 relates to publication and is not as relevant given the vast number of opportunities to publish online. Item 26 does not resonate as much now either due in part to the fact that you can buy these items online. Item 19 refers to speaking “in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.” This is the only place in the article where McIntosh brings up gender. The list could be updated to be more conscious of the ways that sexism and racism work together under white privilege.
In addition, one item should be added to the list: the issue of cultural appropriation. In item 12 McIntosh discusses the privilege inherent in being able to find one’s music, food and other cultural elements available for purchase. An updated list should account for the white privilege of appropriating those cultural items without suffering the same criticism a person of color would face. For instance, white musicians are praised for using the same musical styles and themes that people of color are criticized for (rap, dance, etc.).