By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.
For part 1 of this series, see here.
Peggy McIntosh has described how she stumbled upon the reality of her white privilege. She began to brainstorm about what privileges she had that her black colleagues did not, but encountered fierce resistance from her unconscious mind.
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, 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.
McIntosh was thus reluctant to see herself as having unearned advantages relative to her black colleagues, and this reluctance stemmed from a more fundamental commitment to believing that one’s life is “what one makes it” and that doors open for people due to their “virtues.”
She persevered, however, and understanding finally came. She was unable to keep silent about what she had learned, and her talk in essay form was soon being eagerly read by others; in the words of one facilitator,
[…] “white privilege,” was popularized by the feverish, largely grassroots, pre-World-Wide-Web circulation of a now famous essay by my now-equally-famous friend and colleague, Peggy McIntosh.
Readers followed in McIntosh’s footsteps, coming to grips with previously hidden and painful truths about their own privilege, and the rest is history.
But what actually happened cannot have been this simple.
A problem of chronology
Three years earlier, McIntosh had given a talk about how decent people often perceive “fraudulence” in
the myths of self-realization which go this way: “I came up from nothing, rags to riches, from pink booties to briefcase on Wall Street. I did it all myself. I knew what I wanted and I was self-reliant. You can be, too, if you set your sights high and don’t let anything interfere; you can do anything you want.” Now it seems only honest to acknowledge that that is a myth.
Did she at that time believe racial disparities were a thing of the past?
Women and lower caste or minority men are especially few in the tops of the hierarchies of money, decision making, opinion making, and public authority, in the worlds of praise and press and prizes, the worlds of the so-called geniuses, leaders, media giants, “forces” in the culture.
In 1985, McIntosh proclaimed that meritocracy consisted of clearly “fraudulent” claims, noted how it was in conflict with racial and gender equality, and urged undermining belief in meritocracy as essential for the survival of humanity; in 1988, she said that she had been fiercely reluctant to accept that she was unfairly advantaged by being white because it entailed “giv[ing] up the myth of meritocracy.”
We could try to rescue this chronology by postulating, for example, that McIntosh composed her privilege lists and acknowledged her white privilege before 1985. She then… kept silent about it for years, perhaps because she was still embarrassed about white privilege? But wasn’t embarrassed about her opposition to meritocracy, which she shouted from the rooftops? This seems a bit… strained.
Or we could conclude, with Amber A’Lee Frost, that she is full of shit.
I will propose a more charitable alternative, which I think is also more likely.
Suppose McIntosh did experience a sort of epiphany in 1988, which involved new ideas and the renunciation of important previous commitments. If sufficiently traumatic, this experience could have played havoc with her sense of time, and of her past self – a development which has been amply documented in similar contexts.
To see whether this is at all plausible, we should look at what the pre-1988 McIntosh believed. For this, we do not have to rely on what McIntosh says she believed. There is in fact extant one piece of writing by McIntosh from prior to 1988. Maybe only one, although it is a difficult to be sure; according to Frost, McIntosh is “incredibly protective of her intellectual property.”
It is a talk from 1985, about a dozen pages long in text form, entitled Feeling Like a Fraud. It is, to say the least, fascinating.
Note: I would have liked to include a link to Feeling Like a Fraud so that readers could read it in integral form, but although I have a copy of the text, it has as far as I know completely disappeared from the Internet.
The vertical world and its hidden adversary
Central to McIntosh’s conception was an image of the modern world as broken into two halves.
I see both our individual psyches and the whole society as having the shape of a broken pyramid, with a kind of geological fault running more or less horizontally through the center and dividing the top part from the lower part. The public and competitive functions of our psyches are contained in the top part of the pyramid, and the most ordinary, lateral, everyday business of simply getting along “without accomplishing anything” is, in my view, at the base of the psyche, and of civilization, and of the pyramid which I am drawing here.
At the tops of the pyramids are concentrated money, power, and decision-making functions, and in the very much wider base are the more ordinary functions which have either no visibility at all in most of what we read and do and think and are told, or very little visibility, and have seldom been named and identified.
McIntosh thus subdivides society into a “vertical world” and a less visible “lateral world.” The lateral world, though not valued highly, is the real substance of things, while the vertical world, in all its glory, is vain and twisted. The evident injustice by which a small number of people at the top of the pyramid have throughout history monopolized power, luxury, and public esteem, is therefore to some extent reversed: all along, the real glory was that of the ordinary people who did the little things necessary to make things keep going. We who share the values of the lateral world need to acquire a “dual vision” by which, yes, to some extent we manage to hold our own in the vertical world, but not at the cost of compromising our fidelity to the lateral world. “Imposter syndrome” – “feeling like a fraud” when being successful in the vertical world – should be taken as something at least partly positive: it can signify an unarticulated reluctance to lose our lateral selves in the vertical world. McIntosh says:
[…] the feeling of fraudulence is the critique of the vertical from those lateral parts of the personality, objecting both that the vertical behavior is partial and misrepresents us and that the lateral realities which are the ground of our humanity are not honored in the culture’s value system […]
The comforting warmth of the lateral world
McIntosh reflected on the boundary between the two worlds:
[…] I notice as I think through feelings of fraudulance [sic] that they seem to me not to occur in some areas of life. I pat our cat and the cat purrs. I don’t feel like a fraud. It’s not the same as getting an A on a paper. When I bring home chocolate chip mint ice cream, the kids’ appreciation doesn’t throw me into a panic about who I am. I think that being praised for a good spaghetti sauce or for finding a bargain is not so unnerving as being praised for giving a speech.
Whereas scholastic papers and speeches belong to the vertical world, purring cats, chocolate chip mint ice cream, and a good spaghetti sauce belong to the lateral world – hence McIntosh’s instinctive comfort with them.
McIntosh’s dualism aims at revalorizing the ordinary: she describes the lateral world as
the ordinary work of upkeep, maintenance, and making and mending of the social fabric
speaking concretely of
patting the cat, and having talks with one’s friends, and earning enough money to put the bread on the table, and getting the bread on the table, and washing the dishes, and loving those who cannot help us “get anywhere.” […] answering the phone, of driving home at night
of the secretaries that “keep everything going,” of “the woolgatherer, the conversationalists, the imaginer,” and of people who would rather to be told “You are good to talk to” than hear gushing praise of their academic production.
Scorning the vertical world
Unsurprisingly, McIntosh was unimpressed with success in the vertical world:
[…] we know that usually those who happen to get the high titles and the acclaim and the imagery going with them are not “the best and the brightest” […]
[This] suggest[s] that most leaders are poseurs, and that the “top” is not the top. I think Alice in Wonderland was right when she said to the Court, “You are nothing but a pack of cards!” Wise people go behind the screen and perceive the Wizard of Oz as the little shriveled man.
Elements of these sentiments are broadly shared, and so it is worth emphasizing how thoroughgoing McIntosh’s stance is. Her repudiation of
the worlds of worth, distinctiveness, excellence, authority, creativity, opinion, or forceful expressiveness
is radical and comprehensive. She rejects not only the corporate world and mainstream politics, but also academia and the realm of intellectual debate. It is in fact in these last spheres that her critique is most detailed.
Conversations versus speeches
According to McIntosh, the intellectual world is driven by a focus on authoritativeness and genius, and so there are considerable incentives to present oneself as such. She feels like a better way is indicated by speakers who preface their remarks with a disclaimer like “You may not agree with this, but…” The reason is that this opening explicitly acknowledges the existence of another person:
This opening not only acknowledges the presence of the Other, it also […] as they say in literature, it postulates reader response […] it creates a tentative tone […] a sense of give and take. As I see it, this opening acknowledges and strengthens the social fabric before it can be torn by rhetoric.
What does she mean by rhetoric, and how does it tear things? According to McIntosh, in the academic world success means the ability to speak as if others were unable to respond. Doing so causes one “to appear to be an authority figure, an expert, “the best.” “ The setup presupposes others who would like to be the best, and would like to respond, but are instead suppressed:
[The assumption that writing is] the marking of a case against the fancied attacker, permeates our teaching of writing from the expository courses through the graduate student’s defense of the thesis, which is a kind of king-on-the-mountain in which you take on all attackers of your small piece of territory. […] the paper must make a “watertight,” “unimpeachable” argument, must make “points”, and be like the world of boxing or dueling, holding off imagined attackers.
If we were to follow McIntosh’s preferred practice, we would instead be
creating an atmosphere of detente, […] negotiation-making tentativeness, rather than using the podium for the violent act of bringing everyone over to our side.
We would implicitly be saying to others:
I am not taking the floor from you. I recognize you are there. I am trying to make this more like a conversation than like a speech.
McIntosh sees the production of the characteristically authoritative academic image as not only aggressive but deceptive, and she praises people who “show us not a finished theory, but a process of reaching a theory,” in which
one is likely to begin with a complex of myriad ideas that constitute what William James called “a buzzing, blooming confusion.”
The “dishonest” roles associated with success place us upon “pedestals”
which separate us from others like ourselves and which imply that we are self-sufficient or independent loners
thereby destroying our “own rich sense of connection” and our “ability to listen […].”
She concludes that
it is constructive for the whole society if we question why there must be a podium
proposing that we
invent a form of podium behind which honest people don’t have to apologize for their connectedness to others.
The lateral world and minorities
The oppression – and the misunderstanding – come when these parts [i.e., the lateral world] are devalued and then projected on to women and lower caste people only.
The point here appears to be that when a basic error of valuing (preferring the vertical world to the lateral world) is fused with additional unfairness (preferring upper class white males to everyone else), the result is general obfuscation about both problems.
While McIntosh condemns the correlation between vertical status and categories into which one is born, for her the primacy of the vertical world is at the core of what is wrong. If women and minorities value the vertical world too highly, they will simply internalize “systems of seeing which say that most people are not valid,” and remain unable to draw strength from the importance of the lateral world throughout history.
The lateral world should be thought of, not as a consolation prize for the marginalized, but as a way of being that could be good for everyone. While many people forced by society into lateral roles are unhappy,
Much research is now showing that […] men [are also not so happy] with the projection onto them of the [vertical] world of winning versus losing […]
She therefore holds out the hope that groups like men, ostensibly favored by the current system, will nevertheless be able to join her in trying to create a better society. The reason is that even though society presents their roles as superior, they are in reality one-sided and dehumanizing. So everyone might have something to gain from a renewal of the lateral world:
It’s important for all of us, female and male, to fulfill ourselves in the lateral parts of our personalities.
Female predilection for the lateral world
But other times, the lateral/vertical distinction is projected more straightforwardly onto a female/male axis. During the Q&A period, she asserted:
I’ve found that for a great many women [success in the present world] isn’t enough. They know that there are other parts of themselves, parts which the major institutions of the world […] do not recognize as existing and valid.
She immediately says that “it is important to recognize these [lateral] parts and their importance for all people,” but we are left with the impression that it is women who have a particularly intimate sense of their value. A similar notion of virtuous intuition is present in the phrase “deeply wise,” which McIntosh uses three times, always to refer to (primarily women’s) feelings of instinctive anxiety when trying to conform to the dictates of the vertical world. She comments:
For women, especially, this absoluteness, and those metaphors of pathbreaking and being expert don’t correspond to our complex sense of the web of circumstances in which we are born […]
Is this “complex sense” of appreciation for the lateral world, this aversion to “absoluteness” innate? Maybe – McIntosh reports with pride that
Research has indicated that girls in playgrounds often break up a game rather than having it disintegrate into conflicts over rules.
McIntosh’s plea for the disadvantaged to hold firmly to the best parts of their worldview, and not simply to integrate into the mainstream culture, had some points of contact with contemporary voices; compare these famous 1984 remarks by Audre Lord:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
But not all of McIntosh’s women’s studies colleagues were sympathetic to her stance, and the first question posed to McIntosh when she gave the Fraud talk was a blunt
Don’t you think it’s more important for women to try to build their self-confidence by learning to be competent in the way the world does operate at this time?
Another commenter was still more critical, calling McIntosh’s discourse “dangerous;” she averred that what McIntosh “romanticize[d]” as the “lateral parts of life” was merely “what oppression has done to us.” McIntosh’s response was steadfast:
[…] I don’t see these lateral parts of life only as those phenomena produced by oppression. I’m describing functions – the differing kinds of sustaining functions that are needed in all societies but also within everyone’s life and personality; I’m saying that we would all be better off if we recognized the crucial validity of these functions of making and mending the personal and social fabric. They do not result simply from being victimized.
Buying space to be ideologically flexible
During the 2016 election season, Chris Atwood commented:
[…] in a highly partisan environment, voters on one side are looking for signals that their guy hates the bad guys on the other side. Candidates can give them that reassurance either by 1) being rigidly dogmatic on party ideology. That’s Cruz. or 2) being so obviously attitudinally hostile and offensive that he buys space to be ideologically flexible. That’s Trump.
McIntosh, who could have anticipated being under fire for some her views, was rather constrained by her “lateral” commitment to avoid “tearing the social fabric” with her colleagues. What are some ways she could attempt to buy space for herself?
She could try to appeal to her audience by identifying the positive (lateral) pole of her dualism with women. At times, this identification may have worked in the opposite direction; take her praise of those of us who realize how often
our lives do not have trajectories and goals, but are, rather, threads in the fabric of circumstance, only partly of our own social and emotional weaving.
This quote might be easier to explain in terms of societal ideas about women lacking volition, rather than McIntosh’s own lateral system.
She could also make clear to her audience more directly that her message was intended for women. When summarizing manifestations of imposter syndrome, she mentions
[…] a student who works on a committee may be praised by the Dean for her organizational skill, and think guiltily of the mess on the desk which the Dean hasn’t seen. Analogously, a person feeling like a fraud when told that someone likes her will feel “Then, he must be a jerk.” Or, if told she is beautiful, will think only of her faults.
“If this is ‘one of the best colleges in the country,’ then I don’t belong here.” “He thinks I am wonderful? Then he must be a loser.” “She said I argued brilliantly? Then I fooled her.”
Consider: organizational skill, getting good grades, making a persuasive argument, being found wonderful by a romantic interest – one of these is not like the others. In fact, being unsure about one’s romantic prospects is more or less uncorrelated with the other phenomena McIntosh describes. Its inclusion makes sense, though, as an attempt to appeal to a familiar Cinderella archetype: a woman who is often told she is beautiful, but is so little taken with herself that she cannot consider any of the praise she is showered with seriously.
Another option for McIntosh was to throw in “attitudinally hostile” anecdotes about certain men, in hopes that by tearing the social fabric with imaginary absent men, she could strengthen the threads tying her to her audience. For an example of this, see the next section.
McIntosh’s views inherently put her in a tight spot. She was surrounded by people who thought that women who rose to prominence within the “vertical world” were trailblazers. Yet that world appalled her, and she was not interested in softening her radical critique of it.
A solution: acknowledgement
With some excitement, McIntosh shares the following story:
[A large United States research university] was holding a faculty-wide debate on whether affirmative action guidelines for hiring should also be followed for decisions about tenure and promotion. […] one after another, white male faculty members stood up to say […] when it came to promotion and tenuring, the university had to be on its guard against mediocrity, and not let down its high standards, and that when it came to giving people a lifetime vote of confidence, one couldn’t just take “any old person” […] [A certain] woman psychologist […] stood up and said, “I am hearing a lot of talk about excellence. But then I look around me and I see a lot of mediocre men. For me the real test of affirmative action will be whether or not I can stand up here in 20 years and see equal numbers of mediocre women and mediocre men.”
On the other hand, she praises a woman who began a talk with “I really don’t know what I’m saying, but here goes!” because while she
inspires neither confidence nor respect in the boardrooms of corporate America; […] she is not pretending […] I want to make the case for [these sorts of statements] as refusals to pretend, refusals to be a fraud […]
She also has favorable things to say about a group of female professors:
One woman, in examining her past, put her distinguished present down mostly to the circumstance that she had been rich. Another, examining her past, put her distinguished present down mostly to the circumstance that she had been poor. And a third put her success down to the fact that she entered the library and the books that interested her more or less fell down on her head. None of the women acknowledged her own competence or excellence or enjoyment of the field.
McIntosh’s reactions can be summarized as opposition to those who attribute meaningfulness to the vertical world or agency to those who rise in it, but warmth towards those who are reluctant to do so, and instead stress the roles of chaos and fate in life outcomes. For McIntosh, what, besides their gender, distinguishes the lauded female professors and corporate executives from the clueless, boorish male professors? Not a less intense participation in the vertical world, or a refusal to accept its financial and social rewards, but a willingness to acknowledge the hidden sovereignty of the lateral world.
The expedient required a certain suspension of disbelief. McIntosh saw “I really don’t know what I’m saying, but here goes!” as “not pretending,” while projecting an air of expertise was “fraud.” But in both cases, we are dealing with rhetorical conventions, and remarks like “but here goes!” are learned behavior acquired after years of acculturation in how to be likeable.
Yet this fig-leaf allowed McIntosh to square her circle. By blurring distinctions between her own lateral values and elements of the stereotypical “feminine ethos” (downplaying agency, dislike of sharp distinctions, etc.), she could see virtually all women, regardless of their roles in the world and merely by being “essentially feminine,” as bearing witness to the value of the lateral world.
Let us pause for a moment and take stock.
McIntosh began with an ideal involving images of familial and neighborhood happiness, with people talking to one another and being less obsessed with prestige and material success. Her ideas were most developed on rhetoric: here, she thought conversations provided a model for communication that would avoid the sort of constantly insincere self-presentations seen especially in academia.
Perhaps partly due to stress about the kind of reception she might encounter from her colleagues, a series of confusions were woven into her system. The lateral/vertical distinction was blended with the feminine/masculine axis; this imprecision in turn spilled over into general confusion with (her concept of) femininity, uncertain hints about natural gender differences, and disproportionate stress placed on symbolic affirmations of the lateral world. The resulting synthesis was not very graceful, and left many of her ultimate aims ambiguous.
Nevertheless, with all of her imprecision and lapses into tribalism, the early McIntosh was willing to dream, and dream ambitiously. When criticizing norms of rhetoric, she was moving into territory that was comparatively neglected, and some of her points are entirely reasonable. At her best, she was trying to articulate a vision that could work out for everyone. Even if one is at a loss to see how her ideas could work in practice, they still make one think about the way society operates, and what is actually important in life.
This post is the second in a series, which will conclude tomorrow.