The Divided Psyche of Privilege

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.

The rupture

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?

True distress

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.

A crossroads

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.

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  1. Steve H.

    I ask a little patience here: hopefully this is not a derail.

    I’m part of a community theater that is changing from ‘just want to put on plays’ to being consistent, with a season. “It’s not that we have low standards, it’s that we have no standards.” The root principles to avoid ruin and do well seem to be “a safe and ethical workplace,” to which “kind” was added. Following the I-Ching and trying to be “simple and easy” led to analysis with “Laws of Form” and “Children’s Writer’s Word Book.” I’ll use parentheses as a mark of distinction, so that (A) translates to A-NOT.

    The prime root is existential and can be termed TRUE. If I am obliterated from existence, that counts as unsafe:
    (I) = UnSafe

    Ethical translated to ‘Right’ with three aspects: 1. True, factual, accurate; 2. Rights, particularly legal; and 3. Recognize and fix what’s wrong. Right_2 involves social relations:
    ((U)I) = You exist independently of me; You OREX Me.

    Kindness has a strong component of We:
    ((U)(I)) = You AND I make We.

    We’ve had situations where the use of ‘We’ broke down. In one case, it was noted that the person involved hit every mark on the Borderline Personality Disorder checklist. (I know, diagnosis at a distance, but that’s what happens when you put psych-unit professionals in a room together.) As long as the object of the We statement did not show independence, no problem, but when the object did not act as an agent of the individual, their value inverted:
    ( ((U)I) ) = You exist independently of me-NOT
    == (U) I = I exist You don’t.

    The point here is the identification with a We. That can be with another person, or with a group or class. McIntosh had identified with an oppressed class, women, in a binary relationship:
    (Women) Men = Women are dependent on Men, or Less Than, or Men are Dominant over Women.

    But when she applied another criteria, White/NotWhite, she found herself on the other side of an equation which did not fit her self-identity in power relationships. The cognitive dissonance cannot be resolved by an appeal to intersectionality, a weighting of who is more privileged or oppressed. Is an American Black Woman more oppressed than a Mayan Male in Yucatan, or an Iranian Christian? Think about the children, they’re SOL everywhere but don’t think about it the way adults do.

    I don’t think the solution is fractally reflecting infinite divisions. The solution is Universal. “All (men) are created equal.” McIntosh had a personal epiphany, but the emotional consequence led to rewriting her own history. She became internally inconsistent. “That way madness lies.”

    1. jonst

      I regret to write I find this–your comment–incomprehensible. Perhaps it is something lacking in me. Perhaps not. Perhap it it gibberish. Albeit hi sounding gibberish.

      1. Steve H.

        jonst, I regret not being more comprehensible. The symbolic logic part is simple in the way math is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy to follow. Let me try again.

        To be part of a group, a ‘We,’ feels good. But when that ‘We’ is defined by what ‘We’ are not, conflict is inevitable and cooperation becomes difficult. While the external, objective conflict draws the attention, the internal and subjective contradictions lead to inconsistency and perhaps hypocrisy.

        McIntosh caught a glimpse of her internal conflict, but doubled down on a divisive method of identity. Outis has documented how this leads to a loss of her credibility.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          For the record, I read your original comment (slowly) and was able to follow the thought there. Although I don’t know what OREX means.

          1. WobblyTelomeres

            I think he means exclusive-or, or, more typically, XOR.

            A or B but not A and B. One or the other but not both.

  2. Louis Fyne

    Modern privilege? Lets talk about the real privilege, it ain’t racial. it’s cash rules everything around me.

    I guess that’s why Asian-Americans are hit with an implicit, arguably explicit quotas, at many/nearly all? of the ultra selective universities. While alumni children, whether Obama’s kids or those of Charles Plymouth Mayflower XII, get a nice golden ticket.

    1. Wukchumni

      Lets talk about intellectual privilege…

      My ace in the hole was a good memory, a decided advantage in my line of employment when pitted against weaker minds with less storage space up top, before the turn of the century.

      My advantage was eroded away when I went up against wickedly quick computers that remembered everything, not only leveling the playing field, but actually giving the advantage oftentimes to the fastest typist, not the smartest.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        And if you could deliver that with a British accent, more privileges from that gift…

        Gifts and privileges, are the the same?

        1. Wukchumni

          My father graduated with a degree in Commercial Science & Economics @ the University of Lausanne, so the accent would differ.

          As I mentioned, an intellectual privilege.

          1. Wukchumni


            I’m not sure who my dad loathed more, Tricky Dick or his henchman Henry, but to his dying day, his accent was so similar to Kissinger, and people often remarked on it, which pissed him off.

                  1. Wukchumni

                    My dad was in the stock business which had little connection with politics back then, so i’d doubt there’d be much chance, but who knows.

                    The thing was, HK is German and my dad was Czech, but most Americans can’t discern an accent, and ex-pat Bohemians never lose their mother tongue in entirety in my experience, and it depended on whether you were a ’48 Czech’ or a ’68 Czech’ import model, as to how much accent you had. I remember family friends that were ’68 Czechs’ and in the later 1970’s, you’d watch em’ struggling still with the lingua franca of L.A., yikes.

        2. Will Shetterly

          Which British accent? When people talk about white accents being privileged, they invariably mean the upper class version of those accents. There’s no white trash accent privilege or chav accent privilege.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            That’s a good point.

            I notice that in a lot of fairy tale/fantasy movies, say ones about searching for a precious object or about slaying dragons, the weird, clownish or bad guys often speak with an Irish accent.

          2. anon

            Likely the MSN™ [Main Stream News, and yes I am sick to death of acronyms – anon] sort of ‘The Monarchy’s England’ class accent; an accent which became so predominant on US airwaves (as if US born news reporters were inferior to Tony Blair Bush/Cheney, et al, supporting news reporters), when George Bush Junior; Dick Cheney; and Tony Blair, et al, were bombing the f out of a sovereign country to access its riches.

  3. tokyodamage

    The whole ‘horizontal / vertical’ thing is corny.

    It’s the same as saying ‘i like it’ or ‘i don’t like it’, but it makes you sound smarter, and implies that whoever you’re disagreeing started slavery so they automatically lose.

    I can imagine two room-mates (you pick the race or gender):
    “You didn’t do the dishes even though it’s Tuesday! You’re being vertical!”

    “No, i’m tired! I’ll do them later! YOU’RE being vertical!”

    Then the third room-mate busts in: “Can you guys be more horizontal and keep it down? I’m trying to sleep.”

    Then there was the time that the DARN OLD VERTICAL RAIN ruined my picnic. Why does the weather support oppression?

    “Hey man! Do me a horizontal, and lend me $20.”

    “No can do homeboy I’m broke”

    “BS, man. you’re such a vertical since you got promoted to assistant shift manager!”

    It’s all a language game: its great as long as the other people don’t know how to play, your academic ass always wins. and as soon as the other person learns how to play too, then you declare those terms obsolete and invent a new game. Who among us NC readers hasn’t lived through several iterations of this?

    (however, to be clear: I’m not on an anti-identity-politics rant here. I’ve heard the same criticisms leveled at Occupy, by both people inside and outside that movement. It seems to me the bottom line is, both the ‘white privilege!” people and the Occupy leaders are college people so they like word games)

    1. Ted

      Not only do they like word games, but those word games can become the source of fame and personal profit, as the tale retold here clearly demonstrates.

      Being an academic in the humanities is a class position, as are other positions in academe, but unlike say science or social science, where fame and fortune rests in grantsmanship and the production of published research reports, in the humanities it is 100% about getting others to pick up your word games and sell them to others on your behalf.

      Sorry, these games in the academy are rarely about making the world a better place, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you either don’t know what academics actually do, or you aren’t paying close enough attention. It is 100% about academic entrepreneurship.

      1. m. sam

        So, in other words, “Only the most cynical, caustic, and insulting descriptions of ‘the humanities’ can possibly be accurate, and if you don’t agree then you are ignorant of empirical, proven facts.”

        Make no mistake, anti-intellectualism is just as ugly when one claims to support science as when one is a far right nut job or a christian extremist. You claim you have a point when standing among the most close-minded, but you really do not. Ignorance and divisiveness is just that, and nothing else.

      2. Darthbobber

        Not so much, from my perspective. There’s demanding and useful history, sociology and much else being written, and not in a purely arbitrary way. And then there are the academic cottage industries and brands, of which the worst of privilege theory is a subset.

        1. margret brady

          I find that privilege is not that easy to define. Is my privilege your privilege? Peace of mind? Financial security? Freedom from want? How do we judge?

    2. Samuel Conner

      I found the “horizontal”/”vertical” distinction to be helpful and clarifying.

      When I was younger and had larger hopes, I was distrustful of investments of time and money that had a primarily “maintenance” character (“creating and mending social fabric” in OP’s/PM’s terms); I wanted to make “strategic” investments that would (or showed some prospect or hope to) produce long term large-scale change for the better.

      I’m a lot older now and a bit wiser, and I see that “maintenance” is inescapable, is necessary and should not be deprecated. It would be a very harsh world in which everyone cared only about long-term change at the expense of short-term survival. That is not to deprecate “strategic”. Perhaps the saying “think globally; act locally” partially captures what I’m trying to say.

  4. Off The Street

    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.

    Aah, the delicious solipsism in that McIntosh quote. Meanwhile, other people get on living their lives, doing those activities that seem invisible or taken for granted, or just so incomprehensible in the ivory tower.

  5. flora

    I’m left with the impression that McIntosh discovering that she herself had privilege and unearned advantage over another group, race in this case, was an answer to her quest for an “equal-footing” of sorts with the men she accused of having unearned privilege in academia and her social class, a personal reassurance even if a guilty one. The will to power* is equally distributed in the human race.

    And so, I’m left with the impression (not a reasoned argument) that the utility of her definition of ‘white privilege’ is the feeling of power it gives to her . This is not to say that the advantage of being white in this country does not exist, or that racism does not exist, or that oppression whether racial or economic or educational does not exist.

    Thanks for the James Baldwin quote.


    You may commence throwing brickbats. ;)

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Within McIntosh’s pre-Privilege system, masculinity was typed as both oppressive in a way meriting remorse, but also as power. Her epiphany about privilege involved breaking down the boundaries between herself and how she had seen men. She emphasizes how this led her to feel remorse, but logically it would have also left her feeling more powerful.

      There is actually some textual evidence for this. For example, at the beginning of Privilege, she recounts feeling frustrated and powerless, and by the end she is talking about what she and “others like [her]” can do.

      1. Lambert Strether

        “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” –Stokely Carmichael

        * * *

        To me, a demand that I feel a certain way (remorse, for example) is about as degrading and invasive as it is possible to be; the demand is pure power-tripping. I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” as Cordelia says. I may comply with a demand to act, but never with a demand to feel.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          The Lear analogy fits very well.

          There is something bottomless about a demand for someone to feel “true” (remorse, etc.). Given that it means “don’t just feel what I say, feel it in the way that I say,” it leaves complete discretion in the hands of the demander.

        2. Jessica

          Focusing attention on feelings and speech often functions to prevent attention to actions.
          I was at the commune shown in Wild, Wild Country. Most of the supervisors were women. They were much harder to deal with. The men were satisfied with external compliance. The women wanted your soul.

    2. Patricia

      Yah, the Baldwin quote in this post was a relief of clarity. Reading about neurotic minds is fatiguing. Lol

  6. The Rev Kev

    I’ve tried to follow McIntosh’s thoughts here as it evolves into an ever increasing baroque structure but I think that I am done. Finally, I had to pull back and ask the question of whether all this works towards a society where being male or female is irrelevant in the workplace and I have to say no, it does not. From my perch all this just feeds into what is called identity politics and third-wave feminism and both of these off-shoots have proven toxic to society as a whole.
    Instead of calling out the sort of crap bro-culture that has evolved in places like the tech industry, I see attempts to modify popular culture instead to satisfy the ideas of people like McIntosh which is blowing up in their collective faces. Instead of pushing for equality to all people whatever their sex or colour or culture, all I am seeing is an attempt to raise the privileges of that of a small subsection of the population which by happy coincidence with people like McIntire – consists of white, professional females. How about that.

    1. flora

      I don’t disagree. And in that, it is not much different from other personally advantageous arguments/belief systems that fail Kant’s categorical imperative.* Think of all the -isms down through the centuries. On the other hand, dismissing it (which you have not but I can imagine others doing) as a “proof” that ‘all females of a certain (enter variable of choice) think this way’ would be a mistake. imo. As I say, you haven’t done this, and nor do I think it implied in your comment. Thanks.


    2. Wukchumni

      My sister was in the right place at the right time in climbing the corporate ladder which she ascended to one of the upper rungs, and it simply wouldn’t have been possible had she been born a decade prior more than likely.

      She benefited from being the right age when we went from only needing 1 breadwinner per family to make it work, to the emancipation of women in the workforce as all of the sudden most everybody needed both spouses working, women being allowed to do a whole lot of things, an almost anything goes gig.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        It’s unfortunate that wages have been stagnant. The silver lining is that women can work in many fields, just like men (but not able to play in, say, the NFL, strong knees or otherwise).

        The chicken and egg question comes up here naturally – which came first, the need for two income earners or the victory of workplace liberation?

        1. Anonymous

          Doubling the labor pool by including women was great for women who wanted to work, and it was great for businesses who now had a much larger labor pool to select from in terms of acquiring talent and keeping wages down. The women it hurt were those who wanted to put their family first, as the “breadwinner” male they needed was now competing in a tighter labor market, and the two income households outcompeted them in income. A lot (but not all) of my older women friends now regret forgoing having a family because they chased a career.

          1. Wukchumni

            Yes, it was a age of change for women, in that in probably no other time in humanity were there so many 40 year old first time mothers, my sisters among them.

          2. Arizona Slim

            Key phrase: Women who wanted to work.

            Looking back over my working years, I encountered quite a few women who didn’t just want to work, they couldn’t wait for Monday. Matter of fact, they reveled in their work.

            Some of them also were parents, and you know what? For the most part, their kids turned out just fine.

            Then there were the women who, how to say this, would have been much better off if they had been able to stay home with the kids. They weren’t able to give their full attention to the job, what with all the calls home to the kids, the babysitter, or what-have-you.

            And I can’t leave this comment without mentioning the husband of one of my female bosses. Guy was a photographer and a very good one. Had his wife been in a better paying job, he could have been a stay-at-home dad, and he would have been a good one.

          3. jrs

            Isn’t reducing it to wanting to work pretty … reductive? What about the issue of wanting to marry and marrying? Some women never married, some of them may have wanted to but been unfortunate in that realm, some maybe never wanted to. Some women no doubt preferred being with other women just as some do now. Even talking about two income families outcompeting, ok but what about single women and how well they are able to support themselves? Isn’t this kind of important too, especially given as mentioned women who didn’t marry, two female partners etc.. I’m not sure how that has changed over time, but it’s silly to overlook it and assume everyone was married. This has never been the case.

    3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      That baroque structure is a reminder of the Zen saying that Zen is nothing more than ‘chopping wood and carrying water.’

      That was a response, I am guessing here, to intelligent people reacting intellectually to the very non-intellectual Zen koans. At some point, the old guy (but he did not call himself ‘master’) just hit the questioner with a stick.

      Perhaps a similar impasse was reached in the Catholic Church when someone first asked, ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ Centuries later, Tolstoy wrote a short story called “the Three Hermits.” I think that was his Zen-like answer.

    4. XFR

      Nearly a generation ago I read about a study concerning the effectiveness of “anti-racist” education. It concluded that people were overall more likely to harbor racist attitudes after being subjected to it than they were beforehand.

      The question is, do whatever powers that started pushing this drivel of late see that as a bug, or a feature?

  7. Jessica

    Anything that deals with specific inequalities but does not explicitly try to spread out the power concentrated in the hands of our elites will be put to use in service of those elites.
    It is discouraging to think that many people believe in this kind of classist and neurotically individualist discourse about privilege.

  8. Tomonthebeach

    One curious aspect of “lateral privilege” is that is can stymie vertical ascent. During my career I was fascinated by late-bloomers – colleagues whose careers did not start until their mid to late 30s. I eventually would approach them with the same question, which always elicited a similar life story.

    “How old were you when you realized your were smart?” The answer generally included reference to status culture “I came from working class people, who actively mocked college kids.” “I was taught that real people made a living with their hands; not their brains. The latter being for elite snobs.” This was often followed by some tail of taking a junior college class to qualify for a promotion and acing the course, or finding education fascinating – nothing like high school.

    Eventually, they wound up in grad school. Some shared storied of familial rejection while others expressed surprise that their parents began boasting of their academic success. Odd that the discussion so far has not touched on lateral privilege.

  9. Spartacus

    Shamelessly stealing this from the Hotel Concierge :

    So who has more privilege, a cis-white-hetero billionaire with full-checklist depression or an unemployed transgender black woman who, despite this, is basically content? Either the billionaire has less privilege, in which case “privilege” is a Harrison Bergeron happiness tax, or the suicidal person has more privilege, in which case, how much does “privilege” matter, really.

    I don’t think anyone disagrees that some groups are advantaged over others, it’s just a debate about what groups have advantages and what the effect is. I’m sincere in a desire to understand this, but aren’t class issues the most apparent in America and shouldn’t they be prioritized?

    1. Darthbobber

      But its easy to disagree with the illegitimate transference of statistical differences between broad (and often overlapping) groups to statements about the individuals within the groups. Ceteris paribus, do men as a group have historically a broad range of advantages over women as a group, and still today some very significant advantages? Absolutely. Does this make me more privileged than Paris Hilton? Only if that pesky ol’ vertical dimension didn’t exist.

  10. das monde

    Like Thoreau said, most men are living lives of quiet desperation rather than privilege. To a large extent, women choose those (rather few) who get ample patriarchal privileges, while the rest receive trash talk… about privilege. There is nothing new here. Particularly, most young men have (and always had) much difficulty in gaining social status, while young girls generally enjoy social power without much effort.

    Tell a young East-European guy how privileged he is.

  11. Unna

    Interesting article in the Guardian on one Sarah Smarsh’s experience with privilege, meaning, her lack of it.

    What it’s like to grow up poor white rural and then go to college. And not the college where McIntosh taught. A Midwestern school. Certainly not a school that would gain much respect from those who sat at McIntosh’s feet learning about privilege for the first time in their lives. This woman, Sarah Smarsh, has a book coming out and has written other things for the Guardian.

    As for McIntosh. Much of the stuff in this genre seems like so much verbal performance art.

    1. The Beeman

      Read her article – quite a story. Made me smile – she comes across as a well rounded person with a good head on her shoulders, a great uplifting attitude, an awesome work ethic and a keen eye for observation. More like her please. Thanks Unna. B

  12. Darthbobber

    Lateral Vs vertical is just so Newtonian. And when used in social “theory” it can also be prone to arbitrary assignment of elements to one axis or another depending on the point to be proved.

    Good thing she confined herself to gender and race. Once you add in ableist privilege, cisprivilege, good looks privilege, extrovert privilege, usw, usw, there’s scarcely a non-oppressor left above ground.

    Of course, the fact that major corporations, nonprofits and academic institutions will compensate the better raconteurs of this reasoning pretty well to deliver such screeds to a captive audience is seen by some as indicative of how system-threatening it all is.

    A politics that seems to exhaust itself in sermons of sin and partial redemption is scarcely a politics at all, but a substitute for one.

  13. knowbuddhau

    Thanks, a nice deep dive into a topic I’ve never thought about.

    Rather shocked that her whole research method was instrospection. Not a very balanced way to gather data. How is it portrayed in media? Any social science lit to review? What do colleagues and the general public think?

    This made me sit straight up:

    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.

    Just so happened to be exactly my thinking – about 30-odd years ago. I was researching stereotypes, both pejorative and sensory-perceptual, influenced by Yevgeny Sokolov’s discovery of neuronal models of stimuli (esp. concerning the Orienting Reflex, a short-term period of super-sensory perception). One of them, you’d think, has to be a self. Even cells know themselves, as in the immune system.

    I’ve been wondering these things all this time: What’s a self? How is represented psychophysiologically? And how does it interact with empathy and altrusim?

    Concerning your question, it’s not that straight forward. Greater individuation can also mean a defrocking, a loss of standing, etc. It can mean you as you are being singled out, denied membership in any group at all.

    It’s certainly seems inarguable that it would be better to be individuated than treated as repping most any pejorative stereotype. Then again, sometimes it’s good to be bad. I can be a real bastard, sometimes. I mean, bad ass. Baddest damn janitor in the whole damn town.

    Shorter: it’s complicated.

  14. Darthbobber

    Puts me in mind of thatline from Dylan’s Only a Pawn in Their Game:
    “The south politician preaches to the poor white man, you got more than the blacks don’t complain.”

    And weirdly enough, the ostensibly liberal message delivered through the language of privilege is… That same message again.

    Of course reactionaries used this message because it reliably summoned poor white males to defend the existing hierarchy in return for a relatively privileged position at the near bottom.

    And as long as class and capitalism get left out of the equation, those honkie guys near the bottom of the ladder are more likely to respond to the explicitly reactionary version of the pitch. Because if these advantages are really as overdetermining as all that, and you can barely keep your head above water with them, why precisely would you voluntarily surrender them.

    Once the discussion includes the possibility of gains as a class, and the ways in which policing the bounds of your relative advantage within a subaltern class helps foreclose that possibility we have the possibility of motivation via perceived competence self-interest rather than noblesse oblige. Though for this to become a real thing the fighting of the class struggle also has to be a real thing, and a practical thing.

    This also requires contact (and argument) within the class on race, gender and other issues. As opposed to listening to sermons by Bryn Near and Swarthmore grads from 6 rungs above you on the ladder.

  15. Jeremy Grimm

    Outis Philalithopoulos is a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas and among those ideas Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible “knapsack of advantages”. [I would prefer if she had called it her invisible “knapsack of privileges” as that somehow more favorably slides off the tongue and rings in the ears.] Most commenters, myself included, have already dismissed the language and content of this political idea as not especially useful as a tool for sociological analysis. But let’s return to the question of how a vague — and in my opinion at best a “quasi” political idea — achieved its wide influence on our political discourse? It has to be one of the most divisive tools ever applied to what there was of “liberal” [whatever that meant or might mean now] politics.

    I remember watching the Democratic Convention where George McGovern was nominated. What I remember best from that convention was the chaos of a party “badly split ideologically” [a WIKI characterization]. I liked McGovern very much and still greatly respect him and I am very much NOT a Republican and no fan of Dick Nixon but I voted for Nixon in the forlorn hope he would and could actually end the war in Vietnam. I doubted McGovern’s team could get sufficiently organized to accomplish much of anything. The noise of too many echoing rainbows was already dismantling the Democratic Party. Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack came out in 1988 long after McGovern’s demise, but is it so unkind to suggest all she did was to repackage ideas already in play into a nice bundle with the proper imprimaturs?

    But how did this bundle of ideas become such a force among political ideas? In my opinion it has neither weight nor breadth, nor depth of concept. It is very divisive. It can and I believe has been used as a hand-grenade effectively used to derail the machinery of the Democratic Party. Why and how has that been possible?

    This series is ended — but I think the originating question remains. What explains the mysterious origin and remarkably long legs of Peggy McIntosh’s invisible “knapsack of advantages”?

    1. John M

      Well, if you have not guessed by now, then its been a matter of reacting to the words written with too much negativity or not understanding to the extent to which Outis is communicating them.

      Oppressive Structure leads to myths about meritocracy
      Individuals contribute both in linear/exponential ways to reinforce one structure while tearing at Other
      Groups of people (categories) reinforce this structure with both earned and unearned privilege
      Some groups of people do not want or cannot bring themselves to discuss how they contribute to above
      Ultimately, PM concludes that this does not work for anyone in either structure – regardless of group

      Points to consider?
      1. Self-reflection: how do I contribute to the problems either unconsciously or overtly aware
      2. How to connect with each person’s sense of the social fabric – instead of fragmenting groups
      3. The lateral benefits of maintenance, care, empathy and E Goffman’s “every day life” notion
      4. Awareness of the larger vertical recipe structure for oppression (potential and actuality)
      5. Reminder: there is no vertical ascendance without some level of lateral complicity

      How might this be useful in our current milieu? Well, we have a ticking clock near environmental midnight full of oligopoly obstacles, crapified crony capitalists stringing out the world’s resources, and about 1000 different turf wars, everything from herbicides to genocides.

      Maybe just freaking maybe a bit of our collective work here is figure out a way to destabilize what most might agree is an unhealthy vertical system while finding a process to avoid the inevitable fracture or tear in the public’s fabric?

      Just like Peggy, maybe we have had enough self recrimination, blame and pure s**tshow to go around? I mean all I want to do right now is use words to demonstrate how frustrated I am with our culture — so I begin to externalize on every issue under the sun like this:

      1. Supreme Court helps Bush get elected
      2. US officials lying again over weapons of mass destruction
      3. Regime changes in Honduras and murders of indigenous leaders like Berta Caceres
      4. Citizen’s United & Revolving Door of Corruption
      5. Responses to Katrina, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Fukishima
      6. War on public television, radio, and media blackouts/blacklists
      7. Koch’s, Mercers, and the old John Birch Society members rebrand for Charlottesville et al.
      8. Ferguson and Flint – public systems of oppression, debt and death
      9. Frequency of Mass School shootings
      10. Betsy freaking DeVos and the death knell for public education
      11. The last two years of oxygen expended upon Donald Trump coverage
      12. Predation, Robo-signing, and Large pension theft
      13. One party system with two brands — calling itself a democracy
      14. Precarious laternity (fentanyl laced heroine, daily family based homocides, and shitty healthcare)
      15. Deteriorating infrastructure, unprepared communities for climate change, and slabs of denial

      Ironically, I think this kind of thinking/self-righteous divides more than we know or realize. Truly, I love thinking about all those “other” vertical people who have unearned privilege, taking from Other. And, it sure feels good to put down, while my unconscious get to unload a bit of emotional waste. Nevertheless, the more sage McIntosh would consul me to consider that very few people benefit from our current relationship (and the divisive style of engagement) only sets this in concrete. Many on the list I compiled quickly do not fall easily into prescribed categories or Axiom consumer profiles. We have to be different — than vertical structure in form, content, and process.

      Getting back to Jeremy, truth be told, we were divided long before Peggy McIntosh was involved. The material is the material — and while we all have our biases, the work she sets out (which is a good idea mind you) is how can we find a way to repair the conscious and unconscious tears we make in the lives (social fabric) of the people we care about without getting stuck in the messy divisions? And how can lateral collective awareness drive useful changes in process as well as vertical structure going forward?

      This is where I think Outis wants to get to. But in McIntoshian style, we should ask him ourselves and make room for answers that could make us more uncomfortable than we already are — since acting like a professional academic in this conversation actually holds little value!

      No meritocracy here. Where to next?

      1. Fiery Hunt


        Nothing in the last 2 years is different than the previous 40 years. If you’re just noticing the sh*tshow, well…welcome to the party! Methinks ya got a nice big word salad going there…but maybe I can help simplify it for you.

        We need less navel-gazing and pontifications from the “privileged” CLASS and more respect for the working class (just about every one else). Eliminate the power-reinforcing political and economic policies and maybe, just frickin’ maybe, hold the 10% accountable for their greed and hubris. Add in a good dose of reverence for Mother Nature and I think we’d be good to go.

        Too simple?

    2. jrs

      I do often suspect all the splintering of the left into identity politics and in-fighting was CIA etc.

      I don’t blame intellectuals, and I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate issues sometimes with some legitimate resistance (black lives matter for awhile there seemed to be making a real impact). However the left is largely powerless, the average person in a world of economic hurt and wreckage, the world in shambles including environmental ruin, and no useful way to address any of it …. no I have never seen proof but help me if I don’t suspect what remained of the left was sabotaged from within.

      1. JBird

        no I have never seen proof but help me if I don’t suspect what remained of the left was sabotaged from within.

        You ain’t crazy. There is information out there and a good start is Finks: how the CIA tricked the world’s best writers by Joel Whitney.

  16. John

    Her knapsack of advantages can contain a lot of things, but a good amount of the “green and ready” probably confers the most privilege. You can talk about all the guilt, shame, pain, and privilege, but mention of the privilege of money is the last great taboo. Harvard and Wellsley won’t tolerate that conversation. That’s also probably the source of her feeling of fraud. She’s probably never ever had to think about money in the sense of buying food or paying the rent.

  17. Darthbobber

    The group of academics and acolytes who engage in this particular path of dealing with social issues (to the extent that actually is what they are attempting to do), seem to me to fall into a long established tradition.

    But it isn’t the tradition of serious intellectual workers studying a problem, or, God forbid, commiting the dread sin of empiricism.

    Its the tradition that harks back to Luther fighting his nighttime battles with the devil (usually while insomniacally sitting on the privy, which seems to have been the Medieval version of battling with your subconscious and getting your answers in your sleep.) The sermon is akin to Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”, but with the theme secularized for this profane age. (Edwards would have used prayer and fasting, rather than interrogating and battling his subconscious, but intellectually the one’s as good or bad as the other.)

    There is no one righteous, no not one. And no salvation through works, because the sin is original, and was contracted in the womb.

    And like the sacred version, the key point in the profane version is not the tangible acts that flow from being baptized with the fire of wokeness, nor their effectiveness in actually benefiting anybody. The important thing is the ritual protestation of the new faith. And the humility that comes with acknowledging the sinful nature.

    Could be a big AA meeting, except somebody forgot to hang a dozen (or any) practical steps on the wall.

    The good thing is that baptized in the new faith, as a student from an elite school, you can move towards your predestined position in the upper ranks of a rapacious and predatory capitalism secure in the knowledge that all you do is as sanctified as anybody’s deeds can hope to be.

    1. witters

      I think you might like Michael Dibdin’s “Dark Spetcre.” Not a good blurb, but still:

      “What is it that binds together a series of violent murders across America and the long-lost Secret of the Templars?

      The killings always take place in the home, usually in broad daylight, in towns and cities all over America. The victims are of every age and background; they have been bound and gagged and shot in the head at close range. The crimes appear to be random and motiveless and no one has claimed responsibility.

      So what connects the killings to an obscure religious sect operating from an island in the Pacific North-West? And what clues lie hidden in the Secret of the Templars?”

  18. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for these articles, its good to see a deep dive into something which (thankfully), I haven’t had to think about too much, as this particular framing isn’t so strong on this side of the Atlantic (although we definitely get the backwash). I find quite compelling the theory that the popularity of this idea is precisely due to its value in allowing the elites to acknowledge their sins and then forgive themselves while carrying on as before, precisely the role establishment religions have performed for millennia.

    Perhaps those who’ve read more deeply into the theory can correct me on this, but it seems to me that a fundamental epistemological flaw in a ‘privilege’ framing is that it assumes some sort of commensurability in ones lack of privilege. If you take it logically, then there is an ideal ‘person of privilege’ – presumably (in the US context) a WASP male from a sufficiently wealthy background to afford good schools and college and those vacation trips where you get to meet future rulers of the universe, along with no genetic or epigenetic problems that may interfere with your purity of privilege. From here down, do we have a hierarchy of unprivileged, with the mythical disabled black lesbian at the bottom? Or do we assume that all the ones below this WASP are entirely equal in their unprivileged state? Or do we score them, so we can calculate whether a working class white Jewish female is supposed to be more or less privileged than a male Cuban American with rich parents and a congenital limp?

    I find the whole framing and conception utterly useless, which, given its popularity and importance, leads me to believe it must be very useful to someone.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe your observation that
      ” … the popularity of this idea is precisely due to its value in allowing the elites to acknowledge their sins and then forgive themselves while carrying on as before, precisely the role establishment religions have performed for millennia.”
      captures the essence of how and why an invisible “knapsack of advantages” found a place in the realm of politics. I also believe making the acknowledgement public as part of a political statement helps convince others to forgive the sinner. In that moment of forgiveness the sinner may propose a remedy for the suffering of the flock … something like ending welfare as we know it. It also makes a nice brush to use for tarring opponents who refuse to play along with the idea.

  19. Darthbobber

    Gosh, I’m loquacious tonight. My off-the-cuff take is that while McIntosh thought she was using the conscious mind to correct the failings of the subconscious, it was the subconscious that actually won the battle. The conscious mind eventually took her (via a rather tortured, earnest path) to where the core personality wanted to go all along. It is a chastening thing to realize that you are not, indeed, unambiguously on the side of the angels on all possible issues, and that you do not in fact have a pure place on which to stand that is not to some extent implicated in whatever system you propose to criticize. When I had that annoying epiphany, I drew other conclusions than hers, perhaps because somehow recapturing a “pure” stance wasn’t that important to me. But clearly it is important to some.

  20. Darthbobber

    Old (1976) piece addressing some of these issues from a different perspective. From Zerowork during the brief heyday of autonomism. I still use portions of it to start discussions among fellow workers, because dated as some of it is, its more effective among those I commonly encounter than the jargon-laced prose of some of the wokies could ever hope to be.

    1. jrs

      good stuff.

      To bring things into the present it reminds me in some ways of the folks at Redneck Revolt, that is very radically left with a strong anarchist streak, and for the white working class (and by being *radically* (not reactionary) so, for everyone else as well).

  21. abynormal

    Funny how Baldwin understood the heaviest work was/is internal.

    Bumped into this last week…

    “You will quite likely encounter the notion that we create our own reality. This can be an empowering idea and true in so many ways.
    But it is also entitled and arrogant and quickly move into a dangerous form of gaslighting.
    When this happens it is an act of shaming and a violence done. Because fucked up violent things happen.
    And to say that we create the entirety of our own realities is a way this world will have people… especially marginalized group’s of people- hold responsible for circumstances in which they were without power.

    Guard yourself against perpetuating this, and hold yourself tenderly and solidly if it is ever pushed upon you.”

    Jeanette LeBlanc

    1. Matt

      “When this happens it is an act of shaming and a violence done”

      Saying “we create our own reality” is not just a stupid thing to say, it is now an act of “violence.” I wish words meant what I thought they meant.

      1. JBird

        People, like the wealthy, the fortunate, or the police create their own reality to not only explain, but also f@@@ing justify the poverty, homelessness, and abuse being suffered by the poor or unfortunate frequently caused by the actions of those reality creators. That enables the abusers to continue abusing.

        One’s own reality often really does determines one’s success, but honestly, the effort made, the mental contortions, the self deception by so many to not see that the reality called “life” will stomp some people into the ground no matter what they do, is really interesting.

  22. rps

    McIntosh’s 1989 essay reminded me of 2 college theory courses- women’s gender and practical criticism in literature. As an example, she writes about unconscious/conscious white privilege, drawing “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,” I’d say this is part of Freud’s heimlich/unheimlich- uncanny theory.

    Next, the vertical/lateral advantage argument points to a combination of literary, and feminist theories of the time. McIntosh’s vertical distinction/advantage is based on phallogocentrism. A term first coined by Jacques Derrida- known for his philosophy of deconstructionism and a fundamental part of the discourse of postmodernism. Phallogocentrism or as McIntosh redefines as vertical advantage, signifies the privileging of the masculine (phallus) and assigning masculine meaning to the world through social and organizational constructs; one is either going up or down, climbing the ladder and so forth in seeking the highest level- the apex/climax.

    French feminist Hélène Cixous appears in McIntosh’s theoretical musings. A lifelong friend and academic co-writer of Derrida’s, Cixous is considered one of the mothers of poststructuralist feminist theory. In her writings, Cixous deconstructs conventional binaries through feminine analysis of sexual differences. She argues language that is based on opposition (male/female, presence/absence, penis/hole), produces a patriarchy that places the feminine as subordinate to the masculine.

    McIntosh inculcates Cixous’s binary theory; the vertical as the masculine and the horizontal signifying feminine though she chooses the term “lateral” and add-on of the implicit ‘advantage.’ I’d say McIntosh encapsulates feminist theories within a postmodernism context along with language theorists including Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan and Foucault. “White Privilege… Invisible Knapsack” contextually engages postmodernism whilst examining her inner self experiences through psychoanalytic lenses of Freud, Lacan and Foucault.

    Simply, the knapsack was the sign of the times in academia. The unjust hegemony or as in McIntosh’s essay the unconscious white privilege awakened (Freud anyone?) is literally strip mined from notable feminists, literary theorist, stylized in a postmodernism critique about 20th century western society also known as identity politics. Like postmodernism discourse, she questions how established discourses came to be established in the first place and become part of the prevailing worldview of the modern era. How societies reflect the interests and values of dominant or elite groups and why were they adopted or developed, whereas others were not? Academia has dined decades upon postmodernism, post structuralism, western feminism etc..

    In the end, are we truly able to wear someone’s shoes and claim to consciously understand their culture, struggles, historical lineage selectively labelled and categorized into a societal framework in the determination of economic privileges or not? I think McIntosh may have over-estimated her ability of imagining her white privileged advantaged self-guilt into other peoples living experiences. 1970’s Feminist such as Bell Hooks and Elizabeth Martinez pointed to the academic ‘bourgeois white women’s’ hegemonic dominance as part of the problem. Or as Bell Hooks said, “the personal is political.” Eastern feminism often complained about the privileged western feminist academic dominance in feminist theory.

    I too grapple with McIntosh’s fictional academic hypothesizing about particular group(s) and the presumptive-self racial profiling of white persons as if we are homogeneous, thereby dismissing cultural attachments, ancestry, tribal rituals, religious affiliations and so forth. It has been surmised in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion the elitist were in fear of a united effort to overthrow them and thus the mythmaking of race differences became the new narrative. Prior to the rebellion the European settlers discriminated by culture, country of origin, religion, class, etc…

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Wow. I think I am glad I avoided getting too deep into the liberal arts. Some cans of worms are just cans of worms and no elaborate analysis of the worm wanderings yield much insight or knowledge. Mcintosh’s knapsack, is a knapsack o’ worms and chasing down their wanderings yields little insight or knowledge and a great deal of confusion and divisive politics. Best to bury the knapsack and its worms and hope that combined with a little manure they might improve the soil for other purposes.

  23. Fiery Hunt

    Note to Outis…

    Very, very nicely done. Interesting, informed, insightful and provocative in the best ways.
    Thank you.

  24. Sound of the Suburbs

    In the UK, the privileged class would be white, male and privately educated (in the US – white, male and Ivy League college educated).

    4% (approx.) are struggling to keep control, and dividing the 96% up with identity politics is the best idea they ever had.

    1. Alfred

      That’s true. Their idea of democracy looked promising for a while, but when they saw what the masses could actually do with it, it had to be reconsidered.

  25. JTMcPhee

    More BS, Piled Higher and Deeper. All about ways to gain ascendancy in the constant search for MOAR than others, in pursuit of the pleasure and domination goals of the limbic system.

    Good to see that “womyn” have managed claims adroitly to obtain a legislative mandate in California requiring more Xchroms on corporate boards. Too bad similar efforts were not applied to getting legislative mandates in place to remove the frailties of relying on the “victories” of Griswold and Roe v.Wade. But then privileged womyn will always have access to reproductiv-choice services, and it is to be deplored that their mope sisters may not.

    Maybe getting more Xchroms in the legislatures would help? Er, Pelosi, etc? How about governors, like Lurleen Wallace maybe? Judges? PRESIDENTS, even, like a recent option?

    Comity and commensalism? Hahaha.

    Struggle and competition and war. Seeking advantage as against categorizable others. That’s what it’s all about — the Hokey-Pokey World.

  26. aboynamedstue

    This is my first comment to Naked Capitalism, though I’ve been reading for years, so props for causing that.

    I’ve been yearning for smart, deep critiques of “privilege politics” and “identity politics” from the left for a few years and it seems like they’re finally starting to take shape or at least come across my radars. These three posts seem to fit in well. The most powerful critiques I’ve found have come from Asad Haider, and are crystallized in his recently published book Mistaken Identity. It’s short, deep but not too jargon-y, and pulls from a lot of threads and recent history. I can not recommend it enough to people who are thinking about and wrestling with “identity” and “privilege” politics.

    Here’s an article called White Purity where he traces some of the history of white (skin) privilege terminology, including both McIntosh and Allen & Ignatiev, and it’s also super good.

    And here’s a link to the book from Verso Books

    Haider has done a bunch of interviews and podcasts recently too, and they’ve all been fairly decent.

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