By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.
This post concludes a three part series. For part 1, see here.
The hidden goodness in everyday life
Before Peggy McIntosh began to talk about privilege, in 1985’s Feeling Like a Fraud (henceforth, Fraud), she saw the world as riven by a great conflict. On the one hand, there is the “vertical world,” where
[…] you win lest you lose […] Either you are on your way up, or you’re on your way down, falling toward the bottom. One wouldn’t want to be on the bottom, so it is assumed one will be striving toward what the world calls the top – that is, toward “accomplishment,” “achievement,” “success” […]
But, as described further in the most recent part of this series, there is also another world, the “lateral world,” containing
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.
In this world, ordinary people just trying to act decently make the world a better place, through simple, unsung activities that she summed up as “making and mending of the social fabric.”
The vertical world, however, treats its lateral counterpart with disdain. Partly as a consequence, it is unable to truly understand it:
[…] if you think only in terms used at the top, […] you really won’t have seen [accurately] the lateral world. Your account of it will be that of a person who has looked down at the surface of the water in the Caribbean rather than snorkeling in it. The life underneath can’t be guessed from the surface.
The hidden hurtfulness in everyday life
From 1988 on, McIntosh’s focus became very different. She continued to describe to others an everyday world that few could see, but it was no longer the “ordinary, lateral […] business of simply getting along ‘without accomplishing anything.’ “ It was now a world of oppressiveness.
The vertical world she had warned against had been an looming structure in plain sight. Now, she denounced “invisible systems conferring unsought […] dominance,” surrounded by “silences” and “taboos,” with “colossal unseen dimensions.” She entitled her talk the Invisible Knapsack.
Fittingly, McIntosh learned about these “hidden systems” through an “elusive and fugitive” process, fighting against great “pressure” from her subconscious.
The original motivation for thinking about white privilege
According to McIntosh’s account, when she started thinking in the direction that took her to the concept of “white privilege,” black people were not on her mental horizon. Relationships between men and women were on the other hand central.
McIntosh had been trying to insert ideas “from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum.” In doing so, she often dealt with men who were on board with working “to improve women’s status.” However, there was an additional step that McIntosh thought was appropriate, but that met with less assent. It involved acknowledgement and compunction:
I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged […]
I have met very few men who are truly distressed by systemic, unearned male advantage.
McIntosh was troubled by this intransigence, and, and as she pondered it, an idea came:
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected.
Reevaluating the vertical world
Fraud confirms elements of this narrative. Already in 1985, McIntosh was expressing substantial frustration with male faculty who balked at acknowledging that they did not deserve their present status.
But something important changed by 1988. Describing the disproportionate representation of men in positions of status (the vertical world), McIntosh now spoke of “unearned advantage” and being “over-privileged.”
For the earlier McIntosh, success in the vertical world was a set of fraudulent roles, and a trap not just for everyone else but for the “winners” as well, who, like the Wizard of Oz, would turn out to be just “the little shriveled man” if “wise” people looked “behind the screen.” She did not speak of high rank in that world as “advantage,” and if she had, it would have undercut the thrust of her argument.
McIntosh has explained that she was unwilling to “face” these new truths, because of her great attachment to “the myth of meritocracy.” We have seen that taking this account literally leads to problems – in fact, for at least three years before writing Privilege, McIntosh had no attachment to meritocracy and considered those who did to be prideful and absurd.
But if McIntosh did not renounce meritocracy in 1988, she had certainly renounced something.
Fraud discusses many examples of things people can do to help make the world livable: little things, like “patting the cat,” putting together “a good spaghetti sauce,” “answering the phone,” and being a “conversationalist.”
In Privilege, though, every time McIntosh says “I can,” it is evidence for her “conferred dominance.” It is therefore cause for “distress.”
It is in fact hard to find in Privilege even faint echoes of the lateral ideal she had set forth in Fraud. In many cases, she demonstrably turned her back on her earlier worldview.
What might have led to this rupture?
McIntosh states that she wanted for the men she encountered in the university to be “truly distressed.” The word “distress” implies suffering, while the word “true” implies that she was typically unsatisfied with the depth of suffering offered up to her.
Did she merely want them to be outraged at unfair systems and so motivated to change them? It went further than that – in Privilege she concluded that she (like all white people) was “justly seen as oppressive” and elsewhere implicitly applies the words “oppressor” and “racist” to herself. This is not the language one uses simply to express loathing of a system that hurts people.
If readers think of times when they have wanted very badly for someone to apologize, what picture comes to mind? Ideally, the person would not waste our time suggesting that he or she is, in spite of it all, a good person. At least during the apology, the person would act as if their whole being was embodied in their fault.
In Privilege, McIntosh modeled for others the distress she had wanted others to feel. In order for it to be true distress, it could not be marred by any protestation of innocence, or by attempts to mitigate her guilt by citing her good deeds “mending the social fabric.” The lateral world was in the way, and it had to go.
The enemy within
As McIntosh arrived at a self-understanding of herself as an oppressor, she would inevitably build images of the mindsets of oppressors and the oppressed. Where did these images come from?
It doesn’t sound like she formed her ideas about the disadvantages faced by black people by doing research in the ordinary sense of the world. She recalls:
And I asked my unconscious mind to answer my questions. And after three months, forty-six examples had swarmed up, most of them in the middle of the night.
Her concept of the oppressed was therefore formed by introspection; meanwhile, her concept of oppression came from thinking through men’s “oppressiveness” and their “unacknowledged male privilege.”
Summing up, McIntosh’s account indicates that she formed her new archetypes through a pair of analogies. On the one hand, her new self-image as an oppressor involved psychic fusion with precisely those men who had, up to then, most frustrated her. On the other, her new image of the disadvantages faced by black people owed a debt to her prior self-image as innocent and oppressed as a woman.
The resulting picture was brimming with schematic complexity, with race, gender, and McIntosh’s past and future selves all actively intersecting.
According to McIntosh, only after contemplating her white privilege did she realize that for men, “much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.” In other words, she had previously regarded men’s oppressiveness as fully conscious.
Her earlier attitude toward her whiteness was very different. She says that she barely thought about it; when racial questions came up, the white past McIntosh instinctively thought of herself (and other white women like her) as “nice people.” The female past McIntosh also saw herself as innocent (due to her powerlessness in the face of male oppressiveness), and so reinforced the self-understanding of the white past McIntosh.
There was therefore no commonality between the female past McIntosh’s idea of privilege as culpable and largely deliberate, on the one hand, and the white past McIntosh’s view of herself as innocent and “nice.” This conflict presented McIntosh with an opportunity: she could have posited a sort of reduced intentionality that would have harmonized the conviction of the white past McIntosh that her oppressiveness was largely unconscious, with the conviction of the female past McIntosh that male oppressiveness should be understandable in moral terms.
It seems, though, that McIntosh took a different route.
Consider, for example, the sentence:
I began to see why we [white women] are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way.
The final clause underscores the idea that there is no conscious ill will going on, just the presence of advantages. The opening clause, however, says that it is “just” to see her as “oppressive,” a word (compare “oppressor”) with active, conscious connotations. When McIntosh puts these two clauses into one sentence, she draws attention to our duty to take upon ourselves two apparently contradictory self-images: as fully culpable, even while being entirely innocent of any active or conscious participation. She does not attempt anything like a synthesis of personal, intentional guilt with collective, unintentional consequences. Instead, both old ideas continue to exist in their original forms, side by side.
The rhetoric of the Invisible Knapsack from time to time offers a succession of descriptions, each one featuring a different level of emotion, intentionality, and moral content. Only the weakest, most neutral description is defended; the stronger ones are grafted on by fiat.
To take one example, when discussing how some privileges are unambiguously negative, she says that they
give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.
Her narrative supports the idea that people with hidden advantages are often “ignorant” of them or “oblivious” to how they affect others. The word “arrogant” adds intentionality and ramps up the negative connotations. The word “destructive” comes out of nowhere.
The real world disadvantages faced by black people were not so hard for her to see – introspection by night sufficed to lay them bare to her. But McIntosh had now taken two steps: she had reversed the way she talked about disadvantages (so she now talked about advantages she enjoyed rather than disadvantages under which black people struggled) and then attached a moral valence to the resulting advantages. At this point, she could perceive a culpability of which she had not had any prior consciousness. Although it would be misleading to say that McIntosh had discovered hidden oppression, she had discovered invisible personal culpability in what had previously been considered something else.
This culpability was unstable, coexisting with innocence, so that it could be seen and also not seen, depending on the demands of the moment. The magic of the invisible knapsack was not so much its invisibility – it was its indeterminacy, and the invisibilty of its indeterminacy.
Persons of power and virtue
Before, McIntosh’s system came close to making virtue and power mutually exclusive. The powerless tended to be virtuous, while the powerful were typically not.
In her new system, McIntosh and those who follow her end up with a strikingly textured identity. The juxtaposition just described means that they contain within themselves a contradictory innocent oppressor, but also the potential for a more heroic role:
[…] there are pressing questions for me and I imagine for some others like me. […] What will we do with [the knowledge of our privilege]? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems […]
Is acknowledging one’s privilege therefore the precondition for having power and virtue together?
Compare Andrea Smith’s account of her experiences in anti-racism workshops:
[…] despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed on those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals [wherein people acknowledged their privilege] ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.
The oppressed upon a pedestal
Other people play less dynamic roles within the system. Men originally entered McIntosh’s system as targets, while black people entered it as raw material (for the gender/race analogy). Throughout the Invisible Knapsack, men do one thing – fail to acknowledge their privilege. Meanwhile, black people also do one thing – suffer from their lack of privilege.
According to Fraud, women and various minority communities do a disproportionate share of the activities that make life livable; they therefore constitute resources from which everyone could, if they choose to, draw insights about how to live life in a more sustainable way.
In Privilege, as the lateral ideal faded away, the spotlight shifted from what could be learned from the wisdom of minorities; the role of minorities was now what could be learned from their pain.
As mentioned above, it is plausible to suggest that McIntosh’s new image of oppressed black people was partially based on her earlier feminine self-image. In fact, an alternative analogy to Smith’s colonialization for the role of black and other oppressed people in privilege culture is chivalry – they are set upon a pedestal according to the type of ideal white femininity. Some features of chivalry that are relevant here is that women are presented as supremely sensitive to being wronged, and insults to their honor are the stereotypical justification for conflict and violence.
A model in which black and other oppressed people are treated with perpetual chivalry certainly leads to better behavior than some models, and being on the receiving end can at times feel like a shot of emotional oxygen. But whatever one thinks about desirable and undesirable gender roles, it seems like there are problems with a structure that promises its leaders that they can transcend gender, and meanwhile honors the oppressed with a normatively feminine role, complete with encouragements to value this role and protect it from those who might threaten it.
The privilege of privilege
McIntosh was very conscious of unwritten “maps, passports, codebooks, visas” that could make people of one group “confident” and “comfortable” while making others “inconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated.” Privilege discourse makes some people feel comfortable and others less comfortable – but whom?
When cracking down on problematic statements, common expedients at least superficially eschew conflict, from the menacing “I find it telling” to acknowledging one’s privilege in a way meant for someone else.
When having to backtrack, the culture favors people who can apologize without ultimately losing too much face.
When advancing one’s own views, it can be helpful to talk openly about one’s emotions and vulnerabilities in a way that others will respect.
We have just seen that people in the role of the oppressed will often become the object of a sort of chivalry.
These cultural practices are all compatible with very mainstream ideas about femininity. We could say that setting them up as norms “benefits women.” Which women, though? Women who are ideally placed to leverage a culturally privileged ideal of femininity – in a word, white upper-middle class femininity.
For some people, stringing together “white upper-middle class femininity” is meant as an immediate takedown. That is not the sense in which I am using the phrase. White upper-middle class female culture is a culture like other cultures, running a very wide gamut all the way from the charmingly idealized portrayal of Gilmore Girls to dystopian nightmares like Heathers or Courtney Summers’ novel Some Girls Are.
The issue, however, is that it isn’t the only culture besides white upper-middle class male culture. Do all white women find its norms easy to observe? Do black women? How about black men?
The indispensable McIntosh
According to white privilege facilitator Paul Gorski,
[…] “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. […] The white privilege concept wasn’t new, of course, nor was it uniquely Peggy’s, a fact that she has explained over and over with great humility through the years. Scores of People of Color […] had spoken about the concept of white privilege for generations before Peggy wrote […] Each, despite never using the term, wrote or spoke about white privilege before doing so was hip; when nobody grew wealthy writing and lecturing about white privilege […] Still – and this, in and of itself, is a marker of privilege – it took Peggy’s essay to plant the concept firmly into the mainstream “diversity” lexicon […]
Unease oozes from this paragraph – many white people are now writing and speaking about white privilege, it has become the “hip” thing to do, some of them are becoming “wealthy” doing so. The term itself was invented by the white McIntosh and her essay almost singlehandedly popularized the idea. Gorski attempts to quell the dissonance by claiming, with McIntosh, that the concept (if not the term) was invented by authentic People of Color, that McIntosh merely publicized it, and even there she didn’t do anything particularly special – consistent with the privilege narrative, her success should be attributed to privileges afforded by her whiteness.
Is any of this convincing, though? Let us quote James Baldwin (from The Fire Next Time), one of the writers whom Gorski claims spoke about white privilege before McIntosh:
There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
There are no invisible hidden systems here, just not being beaten over the head. There is no wish for whites to acknowledge their privilege; Baldwin thinks that whites might be better off if they would just work at loving themselves. The only sense in which Baldwin and McIntosh are talking about the same universe is that they both refer to black people as being in some way disadvantaged.
And even without discussing the other supposed intellectual progenitors of McIntosh, we have hopefully made a plausible case that the specific concept of white privilege that has become “hip” is so thoroughly interwoven with specific aspects of McIntosh’s spirit and will, as to raise serious doubts about whether it could have been “discovered” by anyone else.
Unasked questions about privilege
If we consider modern privilege discourse as a sort of semi-animate entity, a part of its genius lies in its ability to convince its adherents that questioning it means claiming that no disadvantages distributed unfairly according to collective patterns exist.
Or that questioning it means denying the existence of subtle conventions that make certain people feel unwelcome in certain settings.
Or, closer to home, that critiquing McIntosh’s œuvre means dismissing all of her ideas.
I believe, on the contrary, that there are important questions that should be asked about all of these topics. Privilege discourse doesn’t exactly encourage asking them, but that doesn’t need to stop us.
First, the lateral/vertical world distinction is worth thinking about. The way in which the distinction is partially overlaid on gender in McIntosh isn’t really essential, even to her own treatment of the idea.
Real questions arise at this point. To what extent can things smacking of meritocracy be done away with? To what extent can the vertical world be marginalized?
To what extent can people, even well-meaning people working towards similar goals, discuss ideas without sometimes tearing the social fabric?
The lateral world seems less uncomplicatedly good than McIntosh suggests. The secretary praised by her for “keeping everything going” might be working for an elementary school, but might instead be working for an arms dealer. In a case like the latter, the lateral world’s relationship with the vertical world is not conflictual but symbiotic.
One thought I’ve had is that I think people respond better if treated as individuals who are potentially involved in larger group patterns, rather than as exemplars of groups, fighting an uphill battle in any effort to be seen as single people.
One way in which privilege discourse has been “efficient” is by separating the process of classification of something as a privilege from the process of assigning it a moral charge. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with trying to look at advantages as a single large category. But from this starting point, it seems clearly important to make distinctions about where these advantages come from, what they signify, and what can be done about them.
In the spirit of McIntosh’s vertical/lateral distinction, we could make a (not at all hard and fast) distinction between “vertical” and “lateral” advantages. Vertical advantages would include things like money, where people generally feel like having more is preferable. Lateral advantages would include things like speaking French versus speaking English, where either one can be preferable, depending on the milieu.
One problem, in fact, with classifying lateral advantages as “privileges” (and therefore presumptively bad) is that they are more or less coterminous with culture. If the goal is to make it so there are no environments where some people are more confident and others less confident, I don’t see how to do this without leveling all cultural distinctions. After all, one name for a place where a particular group of people feel disproportionately comfortable is home.
And there are many more questions that can be asked – but at this point, in the spirit of Fraud, I will “postulate reader response” and turn the floor over to you to continue the discussion.