The Victory of Privilege

By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.

The notion of privilege has by now become entirely mainstream. Listening to someone discuss their privilege, watching as someone is told to check their privilege, hearing about someone acting in a typically privileged way… all of these experiences are by now familiar, especially in progressive circles. There is a network of activists who work as facilitators to raise public consciousness of privilege – one proud member of this group refers to himself, a bit tongue-in-cheek, as part of the “white privilege brigade.”

What does it mean, that privilege has become a preferred way to discuss structural unfairness? How does using its vocabulary affect the way social patterns are understood? How does it influence the way people talk to each other, and the way they treat each other?

The popularity of ideas can become a barrier to understanding them, as people become reluctant to ask questions about behavior that everyone else seems to find normal. In the case of privilege language, proponents consider it a straightforward description of injustices permeating society, while opponents may be able to articulate a critique but often seem simply irritated by it.

However, once one starts to think about it, very little about privilege is obvious.

A Story

Any history of the modern concept of privilege discusses a 1988 talk by Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (see here and here). According to McIntosh, she started brainstorming about ways she was unfairly advantaged by being white. She compiled a list of 50 things she could count on that she believed African-Americans she knew could not count on.

Reflecting on her “invisible knapsack of advantages” forced her to make painful psychological sacrifices – she now felt obligated to give up on the myth of meritocracy. She in fact concluded that it was appropriate for her to be seen as an oppressor. She went on to challenge her audience to use their unearned privileges to “reconstruct power systems on a broader basis.”

Tools for Understanding the World

McIntosh urges facilitators presenting her work to

help participants or students to think about what it is to see society systemically and structurally, rather than only in terms of individuals making individual choices.

Participants learn to think of oppression as not involving merely actively wronging others, but also as benefiting from advantages others do not enjoy – hence the slogan “privilege: the up-side of oppression and discrimination.”

The Problem of Definitions

Critics have responded that it is not clear what is and is not a “privilege.” Does the term include benefits enjoyed by any majority population, such as the ability to speak a language fluently? Does it include physical attractiveness? Does it include literacy? Does the term include advantages that are actually human rights that everyone should enjoy?

McIntosh does not reject such critiques. Already in 1988, she allowed that

[…] we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties [of privilege] are only what one would want for everyone in a just society [while others are more negative]

She has, however, not gotten around to carrying out this taxonomy herself.

When the blogger Will Shetterly made his own attempt to unpack the idea of privilege, he began by classifying McIntosh’s examples of white advantages into four categories:

1. Items that have some objective truth
2. Items that do not apply to the white working class
3. Items that were no longer true when McIntosh wrote
4. Items that are purely subjective

One might however wonder whether this nitpickiness is missing the point. After all, isn’t the important thing here a recognition that other people might suffer in ways that we don’t fully understand, partly due to benefits we unthinkingly take for granted? And that many social advantages are distributed in ways that are demonstrably unfair? Why get hung up on specific list items or on precise definitions? Isn’t the aim of all of this more heightening of moral sensitivity than carrying out careful sociology?

Privilege and Moral Reasoning

The Invisible Knapsack is in fact full of a sense of moral urgency. McIntosh expresses her disappointment in those who are not “truly distressed” about “conferred dominance,” alerting her audience to how certain privileges can “give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.” She instead encourages white people to realize that “we are justly seen as oppressive,” even though they are probably like her in that, before she constructed her privilege list, she “did not see myself as a racist.”

Should we then conclude that the Invisible Knapsack is more about fostering contrition and a consequent moral awakening than about descriptive precision? According to McIntosh, absolutely not:

My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.”

Instead, the goal is

observing, realizing, thinking systemically and personally.

It is to strengthen “intellectual muscles,” make “people smarter” and to foster “accurate thinking.”

At this point, we are going in circles.

If privilege is a language designed to help people acquire a deeper and more thorough understanding of the world, then whether or not its terms have a consistent meaning is important, and privilege lists should be designed to be as accurate, nuanced, balanced, and nonrepetitive as possible. If it is more about thinking systemically than about moralizing, it should eschew imprecise and tendentious language in favor of respectful clarity.

But if this is really not what privilege is – if it is more about inciting people to rise to a higher ethical standard of behavior – then why deny it so fiercely? And in any case, why would using charged terms in amorphous ways be more conducive to fostering good behavior than careful sincerity?

The Upside of Confusion

And yet, McIntosh herself seems to think that it is. In her 2010 instructions to facilitators, she describes precise definitions as a “trap”:

Do not get trapped in definitions of privilege and power. They lack nuances and flexibility.

What McIntosh means by “nuances” is not immediately obvious – it is difficult for an undefined, “flexible” concept to be “nuanced.” But McIntosh’s preferences here are at any rate consistent, going back decades.

Three years before writing the Invisible Knapsack (in Feeling Like a Fraud, 1985), McIntosh lamented the fact that the conventions of expository writing insist

that one make a case which is cohesive and clear, an argument which has no holes in it

and throughout that speech she used the word “clear” with negative connotations.

McIntosh appears to see a certain degree of conceptual confusion as a positive value. Applying this point to the edifice of privilege itself, we start to wonder if the curiously oscillatory ideas we find there might not be the result of enthusiastic carelessness so much as something else, something more akin to a modus operandi.

How This Could Work

The general system of the Invisible Knapsack starts by identifying things some people can do, including mundane ones, that other people cannot. Most of her list items begin with “I can,”and so highlight those who “cannot.”

Including an item on the list does not depend on an analysis of where the disparity comes from, only that a disparity exists. For example, the item “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race” might or might not be absurd if its message is that music by black people is disproportionately hard to come by. However, the general principle illustrated here is that if typical music stores have few selections that can be classified as of a given ethnic group, then that group should include this fact as an item on their list, without further ado.

It is in this sense that privilege discourse is non-moralistic and only about thinking and observing.

Lists are only made for groups, so the items on the list are generalizations rather than individual experiences. The most common group distinctions discussed remain race and gender, although sexual identities have become more frequent and other axes of distinctions can come up as well.

It is in this sense that privilege discourse is about seeing “society systemically and structurally,” although these words signify not that any structural analysis will take place but that the analysis will focus on groups of people.

Once the framework has been set up, key vocabulary words are attached to the possession of advantages on the lists: privilege, racism, oppression, and many others (unearned, unfair, discrimination, dominance, etc.).

These are of course not neutral, descriptive words – they connote injustice and many of them imply a high degree of intentionality.

Many people are willing to acknowledge that they enjoy advantages that others don’t, and that these advantages are not ideally distributed. Fewer are willing to proclaim that they consciously perpetrate injustice.

It is here that avoiding precise definitions can become highly functional. If “privilege” signifies – flexibly – anything from possession of advantages to deliberate oppression, then the person who gets to decide which it is holds a great deal of power.

What dynamics are possible within this structure? Here is one way things could play out:

Everyone in an “oppressive category” lives under the knife of responsibility for their privilege. But those who defer to privilege culture can still hope that their privilege will be considered largely formal. As they painfully acknowledge their privilege, describing their advantages as intentional faults for which they know they should make amends, others may (hopefully) see their privilege merely as advantages distributed by a flawed society, without this circumstance reflecting negatively upon them.

The ratchet is turned in the opposite direction for those who resist the premises of privilege culture. They are at the very least oblivious of their privilege and lack empathy for those hurt by societal injustices. If they do not desist, their oppression and racism will be treated with the full ordinary connotation of those terms: as callous and intentional infliction of wrongs upon the innocent.

The Balance

If verbal acknowledgements of the reality of oppression inherently represent progress, then the model of privilege discourse described above is undeniably effective at eliciting such acknowledgements. It is therefore a valuable strategic tool.

If we are concerned not just with words but the psychological state behind the words, the balance is less clearly positive. Participants in the system described above are punished when they try to attach a consistent meaning to words instead of following the cues of those already integrated into privilege culture. The incentive structure does not foster empathy for those with whom others don’t empathize, but tense conformism.

This is a model. Is it how privilege discourse is actually deployed in real life?

At least sometimes, it is. In its most methodical form, it becomes a sort of machine, with minimal thoughtful content, that seeks principally to replicate itself. It sets itself up as the way to talk about disadvantages faced by groups and defends this niche aggressively, training its adherents to treat dissenters without empathy.

Is this, then, all that privilege represents?

I will argue no. A strong case can be made that something else is going on here. The language of white privilege was born out of a set of sincere, deeply felt concerns, and echoes of these can still be discerned within the culture that has grown up around it.

As it happens, these concerns had nothing to do with empathy for black people.

This post is part of a series. The second part will appear tomorrow.

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  1. Prof. Thornberry

    Lack of oppression is not a privilege. That is utilizing the language of the oppressors to divide and conquer.

    If the cops don’t kill me. I am not privelged. I am lucky to be unoppressed.

    Lack of oppression would be freedom, but we’ve all but abandoned such lofty idealism.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I too have noticed that clever corruption of language. If the police brutality problem is a matter of “white privilege” . . . . then a perfectly reasonable way to solve it would be to raise the level of policefolk killing white people for “breathing while white” to the current level of killing black people for “breathing while black”. Perfect racial fairness would be restored and there would be no more “white privilege” overprotecting white citizens as against non-white citizens in citizen-police encounters.

      I imagine this outcome would be perfectly suitable and to-the-taste of our police-state limousine-liberal class.

      1. Tomonthebeach

        Privilege is being able to do something that other people cannot, like attending the Cannes Film Festival or dine at the Army/Navy Club. So also is growing up without oppression. Somebody needs to find their moral compass.

        Curious how most of us whities rankle at the notion that our individual achievements have been diminished by even the suggestion that our achievements and triumphs were not due to our personal sacrifice and hard work. All we had to do was coast, and we would have wound up successful anyway? Hardly.

        I am eager to read Part 2.

        1. nervos belli

          So also is growing up without oppression. Somebody needs to find their moral compass.

          No, growing up without oppression is a universal human right. Cannes Film Festival is a privilege: the hosts can deny you buying a ticket or whatever you need to attend. Human rights cannot be denied, or at least shouldn’t since we all know they are on a regular basis everywhere

        2. Jamie

          Privilege is being able to do something that other people cannot

          And right there is the problem, a definition of ‘privilege’ that confounds ‘special right’ and ‘talent’ or ‘competence’. The moral argument against “privilege” is not that one can do what others cannot, it is that one has been granted special rights. Understanding what privilege is, entails understanding that there is a granting authority with an agenda of its own and a means to enforce its policy. For the moral argument to have weight, it must be directed toward that authority, its agenda and its enforcement power.

          Redstockings pointed out in the ’70s that the concept of meritocracy is nothing more than patriarchal apologetics (and threads of the critique of the concept run throughout history back to the time of Plato). Every disaffected youth in the back of class knows meritocracy is a sham… a word that conflates virtue and obedience. One does not escape such deliberate confusion by sowing more confusion. Clear thought and expression are not the enemy.

  2. Alex morfesis

    The victory of money laundering in the foundation industry…

    Funder: Peggy… We have this little problem… Black folks have figured out we spend money in their name and get grants and tax write offs forming non profits with unmarked offices on the edges of urban areas the last census says they “used to” live in…we need a new way to get money in the hands of our friends without actually letting any of it actually get in the hands of any black people…

    Peggy: well we can’t have that…imagine if all the money we raise in the name of poor black people actually got into their greedy little hands…my God…most of them would no longer be poor…and then what would all our social studies and social worker friends be stuck doing…no we can’t have that…hmmm…

    Well…what if we talk about how gosh darn it…being white is just so tough we can’t even notice how we are really NIMBY closet racists…

    Funder: no one will buy that…

    Peggy: people think all of Congress is corrupt and corrupted except their own “special snowflake” Congress kritter who is juuuust an Angel…

    Funder: by golly this better work…now that people know how to read IRS 990 forms…it is hard to hide our contempt for those po’ po’ blakeez…

    Itzarakyt…our local hospital conversion foundation has brought in a bunch of these “facilitators” to help those who have laundered the 200 million dollars of taxpayer funds that was converted into the piggy bank of a small cadre here in St Pete…

    Itzarakyt…two decent sized hard working black dominated non profits here locally made a request for housing funds as a mental health issue since the “healthy foundation” has been attempting to fund non neighborhood controlled non profits who are trying to stigmatize local youth further by claiming all “inner city youth” must…(must…) Be PTSD due to the stress of being in the hood…

    It was pointed out that the lack of stable housing is a mental health issue…instead of funding the organizations…the foundation decided they now had a new and improved reason to spend money “analyzing” the issue…

    This whole Industry of helping foundations and funding sources money laundering taxpayer funded tax write offs has been sadly rolling along for too long…and the folks who are brought in to “discuss” the issues…even the few black faces for photo op purposes… These are all folks talking about talking about doing everything possible NOT to let money actually get to the person’s in whose name the funds are being raised…never but never must the funds actually get to people with actual needs…they may stop needing…

    And then those with white privilege won’t feel so privileged anymore…

    1. NotReallyHere

      @Alex Morfesis
      Excellent comment and right on all points. Add the drug addiction/ homeless non profits for working class white people and you have described the whole system.

  3. Louis Fyne

    the intent of bringing up ‘privilege’ was good, but in my opinion, as it’s turned out, it’s done more harm than good.

    The country desperately needs to build a trans-identity/trans-ethnic movement around economic issues and diverting cash from the full-spectrum global dominance military-security strategy of the powers in DC.

    Being economically exploited is not unique to one identity. See the Irish, crofters in Scotland, Russian peasants, Italian peasants, black and white sharecroppers in the South etc.

    “white privilege” has morphed into yet another identity politics jargon/shiny cat toy that is cleaving the bottom 99%. your mileage may vary.

    1. Arizona Slim

      A little over a decade ago, I worked on a community project with people from all walks of life.

      Let’s see, there was the transgender women who taught me how to do household electrical wiring, the very conservative Republican guy who baked the desserts for the rest of us volunteers and that was in addition to his leading a good part of the project, the gay guy who kept the rest of us entertained with stories from his fiendishly difficult science classes at our local community college, and I could go on.

      Where was this? Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, it was at a Habitat for Humanity build site less than two miles away from the Arizona Slim Ranch.

      We had diversity, all right. But we didn’t dwell on it. Because we had work to do.

      And, that, people, is how I think this stuff should work. Put a bunch of people from all walks of life to work on a big project, give them some deadlines, and watch the BS vanish.

      1. Enquiring Mind

        Those HforH projects are fun, too. Take the family when possible, as youngsters see and hear and even participate. My daughter has fond memories of her introduction to the program at age five!

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      I believe that was the sole and only intention of the White Privilege Diversion right from the start. Black lung coal miners should shut up about their working conditions. They are White Privilege Oppressors and not Woke enough to understand their White Privilege aggression and oppression.

      It serves the mine-explosion/cave-in dead white miners at Upper Big Branch and Crandall Canyon exactly right for their White Privilege to be dead in their mines.

    3. Skip Intro

      Well said, the id-privilege trope (i.e. white privilege) seems to be a framing that defines certain benefits and prerogatives in society as being unfairly granted or withheld based on a set of categories currently deemed to be somehow ‘merit’-neutral. It implicitly casts the predominant, class-based distribution of benefits as fair and natural.

    4. marym

      Non-class privileged white people supporting policies that disproportionately or exclusively oppress non-white people also cleaves the 99%. The politics of white grievance against the idea of white privilege is also a shiny object that obscures class interest.

  4. Wukchumni
    I love NZ and have been perhaps a dozen journeys to the land of the long white cloud, and have contemplated moving there many times since my first visit in 1981.

    One thing that the assortment of billionaires all counting on bolthole status in NZ, is perhaps they haven’t heard of the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, quite prevalent there.

    If push>meets<shove, privilege of the highest order might just run into a resentment unheard of in the USA, and not know how to react.

    1. Musicismath

      Ha! Yeah. See also the “Queen’s Chain.” New Zealanders really don’t respond well to things like private beaches. There’s a strong sense of egalitarianism and collectivity around access to land (expressed in different ways among Maori and Pakeha, but sincerely held by both groups) that acquisitive foreign billionaires simply have no clue about.

      1. Wukchumni

        Forgot about the ‘Queen’s Chain”, and oddly enough we have something along those lines, when it comes to the public having access to the 3 rivers here, in that they were for some absurd reason, deemed navigable (we have a whitewater rafting season that lasts about a month, and if you tried in a fixed boat, it’d be smashed against the rocks toot suite, and when that season is over, there’s a gajillion exposed boulders & rocks that would put the hurt on any vessel) and thus, if somebody walks along the river starting from a public area, they have every right to walk on private property (almost all riverfront property is private here) along the river.

        It’s not widespread knowledge among the public, but a number of people take advantage of it, usually when fishing.

  5. everydayjoe

    I write this as a person of color( not black) and a immigrant to the US. I have seen US become more nationalistic since 9.11 and articles like this reinforce my core belief that liberal western thought( which gives venue to the thoughts in this article) still thrive. The world needs liberal thought and Western civilizations should not shun this ideology.

  6. Mel

    “Do not get trapped in definitions of privilege and power. They lack nuances and flexibility.”
    Perhaps she means that it’s the definitions that lack nuances and flexibility. That sets us in a different direction.

    “McIntosh appears to see a certain degree of conceptual confusion as a positive value. ”
    More like the idea, expanded in Voltaire’s Bastards, that leaping to definitions in advance of comprehending a situation can lead to bad definitions and crazy logical conclusions.

    Taking on a question like “why aren’t those people living up to their possibilities?” could start with finding out what their possibilities actually are, with probing my own assumptions about what their possibilities are.
    There’s a joke about a canvasser trying to persuade a rich donor to give: “All around the world there are people who go to bed hungry.” “But why do they go to bed hungry? Why don’t they call room service?”

  7. FluffytheObeseCat

    No one should ever have to give a damn about how (genuinely) privileged ladies at Wellesley feel. Nor should anyone ever have to knuckle under to their blatantly self-serving, ever-changing definitions of what constitutes ‘right’ conduct. Privilege awareness is valuable, if taught with compassion and honesty. But, as a concept it has largely morphed into a tool used in malicious, elite parlor games. It’s also very useful to fake, sneering opponents on (i.e.) the Tucker Carlson show, who pretend it is a widely revered standard throughout academia that is key to “the Left’s assault” on “Western Civilization”.

    Nowadays, when the word ‘privilege’ shows up in discussion, it is a sign that you need to get the hell away from the creep that first uses it, PDQ. The term is a ‘tell”; you know you are about to be emotionally screwed with by some over-credentialed snot the minute it comes into use.

    1. jrs

      It is rational for anyone to maximize whatever privilege they have. If one is tall or good looking even to take advantage of that to the degree one is comfortable doing so and is able to.

      It is only at a rather extreme degree of economic privilege that maximizing whatever privilege one has isn’t absolutely necessary! Maybe it’s not necessary to play every card you’ve got if you have an Ivy league degree much less are an Ivy league professor with tenure. But that is a lofty height. Maybe a trust fund kid can get a low paid job and reject society (and if they want to join us at the barricades they can). But for everyone else … in an economic system that is destroying more and more people – play every last card you have, and it still might not be *enough*! In such a world where survival is at stake, how can you apologize for privilege?

      But you can want a more equal society and do what you can for it. You can be aware that you will personally use every last privilege and then some, but that it isn’t fair you have privileges others don’t (race, education, middle class upbringing etc. etc.) and the answer is sometimes correcting specific injustices (structural discrimination) but other times is just greater income equality period.

  8. Wukchumni

    All of my life, those with extreme wealth and privilege have been celebrated in these United States as essentially, our royalty.

    I feel it’s one of the main reasons the reign of error was elected, in that most every American has a queer respect for a round number followed by a length of zeroes an inch long, no matter how the gains were gotten.

    All throughout his campaign, that was one of the salient talking points, that he was so utterly rich, he couldn’t be bought off by lesser men, yes, he was one of us!

    Well, it’s not playing so well now, and I suspect comeuppance see him some time, in a rejection of riches as the bubbleconomy winds down, and homes fall greatly in value, rendering those that felt they were of means vis a vis their garage mahal, are suddenly on the outside looking in, and quite resentful of riches.

    It’ll be odd to watch wealth try and disguise itself, as it’s never had to heretofore.

  9. The Rev Kev

    I have a different take on privilege to that laid out in this article as it sounds too much like SJW fuel. What this article calls the Victory of Privilege an earlier generation would call a Defeat of Privilege. A few observations. You could classify privilege as inherited, acquired or natural. That is, you have those that are privileged because of the family that they were born to that let them start at the top and work their way up. John McCain and George Bush are examples here. Then you have those who have acquired their privileged position through working on their talents and athletes may be an example here. Then you have those that have natural talent which may be by being great at human relations, dancing ability, etc but the point is that they were born with these talents which lead them to a privileged position.
    Now here is where it gets interesting. There have always been people who were in privileged positions but they often viewed it as one half of their position which was paired with a responsibility to those less privileged than themselves. Not for nothing did the expression noblesse oblige come about which in essence said that privilege entails responsibility. Even the Gilded Age barons felt the need to endow libraries and the like to make themselves acceptable to society and honour this responsibility. And now? Under hyper-capitalism this responsibility has been abandoned for one of ‘I have mine, Jack!’ They do nothing for others unless there is something in it for themselves and maybe not even then. This is why I call this a Defeat of Privilege as earlier generations would recognize the failure in the characters of the newer privileged people of now. If you see people in a position of privilege that do not exercise responsibility to those without whether they be billionaires, athletes, ‘stars’ then it is a failure in that person. Just a personal opinion here mind.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      The article is about a specific use of the term “privilege” that has exploded in recent years, not about the ordinary meanings of the word before that time, which to some extent still endure. Some of these earlier uses are, like yours, interesting and don’t lead to serious conceptual elasticity. For example, I read an article at some point that asserted that the forerunner of the word “privilege,” Latin “privilegium,” refers to a legal right to be “outside the law,” i.e. not to have to observe strictures that bind others. This is certainly a thought-provoking concept, even though, etymologically, it seems to be slightly inaccurate – the Latin word originally meant “a law directed specifically at an individual” (in favor or against); later, it came to mean “a law in favor of an individual,” which (along the lines of the article mentioned above) can include various immunities from the law.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      That comment about an earlier generation sounds nostalgic and that recalls a recent comment about Toynbee, about different categories of people faced with change – one being those with nostalgia for the past, and a final group who offer new insights for the new world that comes after the change.

      1. The Rev Kev

        There is also another way that Michael John Greer talks about where you regard the past as a sort of resource that you can extract value from. Paper-based votes counted in public is a past practice in large tracts of the US but bringing it back would not be a matter of nostalgia. Nor is imprisonment of business executives as seen during the saving and loans crisis a matter of nostalgia. Both are examples of the way that stuff that was done in the past that could be imported into the future to strengthen society without having to reinvent the wheel here and get Silicon Valley shoving their way in to become a technological middleman.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I feel nostalgic for when people would write paper-based letters to keep in touch with each other.

  10. John M

    Peggy McIntosh’s work is starting point, not a primer on privilege. Its a beginning to conversation using process, systemic thought and larger structures.

    It was one of the first academic arguments introducing a new concepts while challenging larger systems of white supremacy, economic power, and structural/institutional inequality — which have historically been denied or avoided.

    McIntosh is in bind to discuss this — as it applies to individuals, but the operating systems are larger and institutionalized. And she quickly realizes how easy it is to degrade the ideas of the personal and systemic — so that the ideas become staid tropes or an uninformed jargon.

    For me, her work has been useful during the neoliberal period, where we were sold a bill of goods around conspicuous consumption, fraud, deregulation/privatization/oligopoly. It reminds the professional class that they are complicit in this as much as the elites — as the benefits are often unearned or earned off of the exploitation of “others”. Not that many will do the requisite work for self-examination.

    Privilege to even have this conversation online is something to consider. And the work of Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, Agnotology – is relevant here as well. How does one come know ideas that they do not know previously?

    Our culture shames those who do not know — often times sending the message of ignorance (like the Doctor in Texas, Gary Tigges, who thinks he was so smart to tell women they deserve less compensation using racist and misogynist slurs in the Dallas Business Journal. There is no amount of privilege examination that will result in some people’s education, but we all can work on navigating our own personal interactions to see how we contribute to unearned privilege… just like climate change, or resource renewal or in treating people in your life with care and empathy.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      In your third paragraph, you seem to suggest that McIntosh realizes the dangers inherent in confusion between individual behavior and morality and broader systems. However, there is not a lot of evidence to show that her teaching materials attempt to help people to navigate this confusion, and there is instead substantial evidence that they help to foster it (let me know if you would like to see examples).

      If her work has been useful to you in navigating myths around conspicuous consumption, fraud, etc., then that’s great. Those aren’t however themes she discusses much.

      The statement “privilege to even have this conversation online is something to consider” falls into the dynamics described in the article. Are you saying that every time people read anything online or comment on anything online they should stop and contemplate their privilege? What are you saying, exactly?

      I became still more confused approaching your final paragraph. You cite several thinkers who describe agnotology as systemically produced ignorance, and criticize how “our culture shames those who do not know.” Presumably you mean that it doesn’t make sense to shame people for ignorance when their ignorance might be produced by capitalism as part of various strategies. However, then you go on to shame the doctor you cite for his ignorance, and you then write off “some people” for being incorrigibly ignorant: “There’s no amount of privilege examination that will result in some people‘s education.”

      1. jrs

        homeless in the library can read stuff online. And that’s the most extreme case of people lacking privilege. So I’d say reading stuff online is a pretty poor correlate for privilege of any sort.

        1. John M

          The point is there are probably many people who could contribute to this debate, with salience and personal experience but would have to navigate all kinds of systemic obstacles just to get here: this is an institutional criticism not an individual one. There are all kinds of unearned privileges — seeking them out and how one benefits from them is the work.

          And let me be the first one here to say that I have not earned the right here to post — it is a privilege unearned. It just so happens that like many of you, I am disgusted with the way things are going for most in this country.

        2. Yves Smith

          This is disingenuous. “Privilege” as used in academic and elite professional circles refers to race and secondarily to gender. White men are the most privileged in this taxonomy. It only peripherally if at all refers to class/economic stratification.

          1. John M

            I worked in an academic setting for a decade (and the concentration on race and gender in the late 80’s was warranted initially, but also known to be just a beginning).

            The fact an analysis of class, economic stratification is on the periphery has a lot more to do with evolution of the corporate university (i.e. the corporatization of profits, the rise of the administrative academic, and the fall of certain fields like human ecology, family consumer sciences etc.. traditionally fields where female academics were in positions of departmental power. Ellen Shrecker, Alan Ginsburg, Henry Giroux’s work are relevant here.

            In Family Therapy training, it is required work to examine oneself — privileges and all. Access to certain resources over long periods of time could be considered a privilege, but the question of computer access is a digression from the process of considering how much unearned privilege one has acquired through no inherent skills of their own but instead bestowed by larger cultural institutions.

    2. Will Shetterly

      Her work was not opposed to neoliberalism; it came from the same things that gave birth to neoliberalism. Privilege theory is very compatible with neoliberalism, as was noted by David Harvey in his book on neoliberalism. That’s why you hear people like Hillary Clinton and her defenders talking about intersectionality.

      1. John M


        My comments were about my personal experience with teaching McIntosh during the Neoliberal Era – not that there is perfect alignment between her work and any specific theory.

        And in terms of David Harvey, whom I enjoy, Phillip Mirowski (Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste or Road to Mt Pelerin) is probably a better communicator of the neoliberal era than Harvey (although, I have read Harvey’s book).

        And most things the Clinton’s say are a watered down, bastardization of the actual idea — often focus group tested and used in a certain way. Co-opting ideas like intersectionality and using them for new purposes has been their game for both the left and right (dog whistles and distortions).

        1. Will Shetterly

          This is what Harvey said, which I agree with:

          “Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.”


          “Civil rights were an issue, and questions of sexuality and of reproductive rights were very much in play. For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation; hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interest could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as a both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s.”

          I agree that Clinton gave a watered down version, but I’d love to know who Kimberle Crenshaw supported in 2016. I do know that when she and Derrick Bell were developing left identitarianism, they were rejecting the anti-capitalism of King and Malcolm X. They wanted a form of privilege that would not hurt their privilege in the original sense of the word.

          1. John M

            Outstanding reply!

            I think it supports your initial point very well. As someone who abhors the Neoliberal era and practitioners, I think there is a fracture from which Neoliberals exploit to score divisive points with their base. I should have give this notion more credit in my earlier reply.

            However, though, I do think there is something useful, not quite yet teased out, in the self-examination of unearned privilege. Or maybe we could call out other language?

            Let me provide you a personal example from my background. Our family accumulated modest wealth from owning bank stocks (small rural banks that got bought out again and again). A family was on the board of small bank in the Midwest, and the bank was bought out 5 times by the end of the decade by a regional bank power.

            This wealth was largely accumulated on paper, coming from the profits from financialization, the advent of the credit card, and changes in how debt was solicited to consumers over the 1980’s. This resource for our family grew 8 fold during this ten year period. While this family did take on the risk of owning stock, and accumulating shares over time with low basis — the magnitude of the wealth created was not a function of ordinary bank business but of a macro-change in our culture — pushing debt onto Americans as “a good”, and early buyout binges hurtling towards 2000’s + financial oligopolies and Gramm Leach Bliley finale.

            Now this does not inspire guilt or remorse in very many. But if one did a forensic analysis of household wealth in families like mine and in those who were taking on debt that was unsustainable (not even talking about the onset of payday lending predators starting in the early 90’s), it is not hard to see how our wealth was created, is it?

            And when one realizes that one families’ wealth is tied directly to thousands of families poverty or near poverty, then we should be looking at the systems involved from the personal, familial, community, financial, federal and capitalistic systems operating to make it this way.

            The system is working how it was designed to work, in other words. And when people realized this, that often it is an unearned good ole boys club where like for like is rewarded and different is punished — some self-reflection is required to consider how one might participate without contributing to the s**tshow.

            1. Will Shetterly

              I completely agree. My main complaint with privilege theorists is they take the original concept of “private law” and broaden it to include groups that no one would say were privileged in the original sense of the word. Where’s the privilege in being male and homeless or white and unable to afford healthcare? The language of modern privilege theory erases the idea that anyone has rights: either you’re privileged or oppressed.

              1. JBird

                Yes, everything else being equal, being white or male or straight gives you privilege and makes living easier. Racism is very alive still ruins lives and probably kills in someway single everyday.

                Still, telling the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, and the hopeless that they have “privilege” because of their race or sex is…an insult? Perhaps a mockery of what being privileged actually is.

                1. jrs

                  I think that many whites (and homeless whites might actually be excluded from this) have the privilege of not being likely to be killed by cops. And yes that’s structural. There are of course other structural privileges like this. So all well and good to notice these things.

                  But from a personal perspective it doesn’t mean much to tell poor and unemployed whites this. It’s about like telling someone complaining of lyme disease: at least you don’t have MS, MS would be worse! It’s irrelevant and a non-sequitur.

                  1. jrs

                    And to build on the metaphor: at a certain point can’t we start just treating people’s darn diseases, not giving them philosophy when they need medicine.

                  2. Amfortas the Hippie

                    aye! I didn’t feel all that privileged when the zealot (mostly white) cops had their guns at my (white) head(long story, involving a girl and her Important Daddy.)
                    As many have said…considering one’s own unearned privilege is a good idea. It’s always a good idea to engage in rigorous self-examination…and we should all endeavor to do more of it.
                    Similarly, any enhanced compassion for others is also a good thing, and should be on everyone’s personal agenda.
                    However, in the same manner that “Intersectionality” has been taken and weaponised by the Powers, this has been morphed into something ugly…for the same reasons. Namely, to obscure any consideration of Class.
                    This has been painfully obvious since 2015 or so…when I insist that “I don’t care what’s between Her legs, I care about Her Policy Stance, as indicated by Her own words and actions and associations over many years”…I am met by “Misogynist!”…which negates any non-gendered criticism, no matter the merits of such criticism.
                    “privilege” has become just another weapon in the war against dissent…which is sad and depressing…because as originally formulated(like Intersectionality), it could have been a means of overcoming so many of the divisions(including numerous artificial ones) that prevent us little people from getting together to enact/demand meaningful change.
                    In this, Marx was spot on…”Class Consciousness” is what keeps the Bosses up at night.

                  3. Will Shetterly

                    The racial statistics for US poverty and police killings are identical: there are twice as many white people in poverty as black, and there there are twice as many white people killed by the police. Since most people killed by the police are poor, the problem has to be class, not race.

                    However, that does not mean racism is not a factor elsewhere. It’s just not a statistical factor in police killings.

                    1. Will Shetterly

                      If you’re wanting to point out that a larger percentage of the black population is poor, I assume everyone knows that. What the hard numbers for police killings say is that poor black and white people are killed in proportion to their absolute numbers in poverty. When poor black and white people are treated equally badly, the problem is class, not race.

                      Or to put it another way, there is no white privilege in police killings. Poor black and white people are equally likely to be killed, and rich black and white people are equally unlikely to be killed.

                      This study notes that the police show racial bias in some areas, but not in their killings:

                2. Will Shetterly

                  The problem with privilege theory is everything is not equal. If intersectionality was used meaningfully, it would acknowledge that class trumps race in modern capitalism, so a poor white man has far less privilege than a rich black woman.

          2. Alex morfesis

            The anti capitalism of mlk and Malcolm X ?? Where did you get the notion these two garveyites were anticapitalist ?? In mlk’s last article in look magazine that hardly anyone read since he got pink misted…he went deep into garveyism and Malcolm’s father and mother were both garveyites…

            1. Will Shetterly

              A few King quotes:

              “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”

              “Privileged classes do not give up their privileges voluntarily.” (Note: King used “privilege” in its pre-identitarian sense.)

              “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.”

              “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

              “And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?”

              “Today the poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our consciences by being branded as inferior or incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty. The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

              “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

              “We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.”

              “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

              1. Alex morfesis

                On mlk…pretty sure that Look magazine article moi refers to is inconvenient for most who want to bathe themselves in their own version of mlk…but he was working on his poor peoples campaign and he discussed reduced consumerism and people Not expecting anything from big business or government and a need for what I like to call collective capitalism which is what Marcus Garvey was about…it is not easy to link to the handwritten notes and final article but you can search the mlk center website and it will find you…please read it and accept where his mind was at the end of his journey…his journey began when a fiesty young girl of 15 years of age in Montgomery refused to give up her seat on a bus…she forced those local revz to do something… It was from there mlk got funding from the same OSS krewe that funded Sal alinsky…and another set of persons tied to the old OSS would get him funding in early 1963 for the march on Washington and gather together corporate donations to smooth over the ruffled feathers at the NAACP and urban league who were not too happy with this upstart getting attention and funding… That is until his patron was accidented over a us naval base in January of 1967…

                The truth is much more complicated than many want to accept…mlk wanted black folks to get their fair and reasonable share of federal reserve notes…to suggest otherwise is to deny the man he had become…

            2. Will Shetterly

              “You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy.” —Malcolm X

              “We are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” —Malcolm X

              “It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck.” —Malcolm X

              “Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.” —Malcolm X

  11. HotFlash

    Privilege awareness is valuable, if taught with compassion and honesty. But, as a concept it has largely morphed into a tool used in malicious, elite parlor games.

    Thank you for this, M Fluffy. I do some work in a “safe space” (recently I was told we can only aspire to be a “safer” space”. I find that the wrangles and dictates concerning ‘privilege’ are distracting, divisive and dishonest. I see that the persons ‘calling out’ privilege are most often the most privileged in the group. Treating every white male as a de facto oppressor is not conducive to ending injustice, which, I believe, is better served by dialogue. And I must observe that naming/blaming/shaming (ie, oppressing) people for being in the perceived oppressor class, absent any oppressive behaviour, is prejudiced and oppressive.

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        yeah. I avoid such places,lol.
        every time i blunder into being flamed for my insensitivity or incorrect pronounage, I’m reminded of the first, singular experience with that sort of person: 1993, remnant hippie commune outside Austin where I had crashed off and on in my travels.
        Last visit, some of the kids that had grown up there were home from college…with the fire of inquisition in their eyes.
        Young woman lambasted me for introducing my wife of the time as “my wife”—patriarchy, you know…was I also a rapist?
        Oh, and you eat dead animals, too?!(eye rolling as post-liberal analog of the sign of the cross). we, and our host(my ex), tried to walk away, but were pursued through the scrub oak forest..interrogated and reprimanded for our* backwardsness and unrepentant insistence on continuing in our* habits of oppressing young women like her who somehow went from poor as dirt hippie commune in Texas to Oberlin.
        (* meaning me, as the only male of the species(through no fault of my own, I might add) present at that time…my ex(the host) and my then-current wife were, I guess, thought of as victims of my oppressive maleness.)

        almost 30 years ago…and I didn’t suspect then that this anti-oppression oppression would become such a big deal in the more rarefied spaces of liberal america.
        Like you indicate, it’s no way to get together to change things…more attuned to separating us into smaller and smaller constituencies…until there’s 300 million constituencies of One, who can’t do anything.
        My oft repeated Rule #2 to my boys: “don’t be a dick”– plus much exposition and discussion, repeated whenever I have them as a captive audience….is a much better recipe for what these folks say they want, than becoming what they behold.

  12. Newton Finn

    Jesus had a simple, direct answer to the core problem of privilege. He told the rich to sell what they had (or at least a large portion of what they had) and to give their excess wealth to the poor. He further stated that whether or not one did this had eternal consequences. Because most of us no longer believe in such consequences, few of us are willing to even consider making the sacrifice he called for. Why would anyone give up even the tiniest bit of their privilege, instead of enjoying it and exploiting it, when life is merely a cosmic accident that gives us, at best, 70 or 80 years of conscious existence before oblivion?

    1. LyonNightroad

      It’s exciting to me when people start to gently embrace nihilism or at least catch a glimpse of it.

      Absurd as it is, nihilism opens up infinite options. However, most people use this new insight for little more than hedonism. Out of the infinite behaviors available to them, they simply choose to pursue pleasure and avoid pain?

      How utterly uninteresting and disappointing to me.

      If you live that way, you might as well be dead already. Just a simple machine following simple logic with an elaborate narrative (consciousness) to deceive yourself into thinking it is anything else.

      There is no shortage of disappointment for me in this culture.

      1. Buckeye

        Of course people choose pleasure over pain. It’s a biological fact seen in the simplest organisms, like amoebas and insects. Any organism with a simple nervous system will
        move toward rewarding stimuli and move away from harmful stimuli. The highly developed
        human brain can create massive complexity, but is still governed by biology.

        Of COURSE people will sell-out and worship the money tyrants. They want to be the next money tyrant. Remember this political truth: “People would rather believe the lie that they will one day be rich, than accept the truth that they are poor.”

        1. Wukchumni

          I tend to combine pleasure & pain in the guise of a 35 pound backpack creeping along my spine. It’s especially so when walking for a week or more, and you can get all the pain you’d desire on the High Sierra Trail, as there is approx 25,000 feet of elevation change in 72 miles, tempered by the pleasure of a movable feast in terms of scenery along the way and the canvas is always readjusting itself to your corneas, and there’ll be alpenglow during the magic hour from around 6-7 pm, typically.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I try to come up with alternatives to the hedonistic response to nihilism, and I come up with Buddhists’ ‘all is empty,’ though we find that emptiness (or sunyata) as used here is often misunderstood.

        One result (because the word means variously, depending on the context), based on that, leads to the opposite of pursuing pleasure, but to the embracing of non-attachment.

        I don’t know if you mean something else, but that’s what I got.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      To a neutral Martian observer, the following question is asked:

      “Do humans only behave when there are eternal consequences?”

          1. Wukchumni

            Well if it must be known, if it wasn’t for Mars Air going out of business after I took the red-eye to your orb, i’d have returned to my planet with no muss-no fuss.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      ” Sell what they had” . . . but to whom? Only other rich people would have the money to buy “what they had” . It sounds like he offered a path to personal displacement of the “riches” problem from rich wannabe-followers of Jesus to other rich non-followers.

  13. Shawn

    White privilege has nothing to do with the ills of minority people. RICH white hegemony has everything to do with the societal ills of marginalized people. Whiteness is a consequence of having built generational wealth; which has made it impossible for marginalized people to ever overcome. I agree that people need to start viewing society in structural and systematic ways but it doesn’t come about by “…Unpacking an Invisible Knapsack.” It comes about by getting rid of systems that hurt an entire society, not just portions of society. Tim Wise makes the best arguments about the creation of white and black. They are constructs meant to divide. I don’t need to understand my white privilege to know that I too am getting screwed by other RICH white people. Understanding my whiteness, or how much more privilege I have, won’t change the fact I still have limited social mobility. Finding and understanding commonalities with minority people in this class war is the only way to take down oppressive systems. This is a class war! We aren’t starting a class war; we have always been in one. We need to find ways to bind us, not divide us; and making it about white vs black/brown is a joke of infantile proportions. The type of academic masturbation that keeps people constantly debating useless topics for cash. The poor need to stand with the poor regardless of race and take down the oppressive rich.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      You may well have been screwed over by pro-rich Black people like Barack Obama and Eric Holder.

  14. Lee

    I’m sure the 1% and their highly paid facilitators agonize day and night over all that privilege they enjoy. Once they have a proportionate number of women and minorities represented within their ranks, their profound moral suffering will be allayed and all will be right with the world.

  15. John M

    In your third paragraph, you seem to suggest that McIntosh realizes the dangers inherent in confusion between individual behavior and morality and broader systems. However, there is not a lot of evidence to show that her teaching materials attempt to help people to navigate this confusion, and there is instead substantial evidence that they help to foster it (let me know if you would like to see examples). If her work has been useful to you in navigating myths around conspicuous consumption, fraud, etc., then that’s great. Those aren’t however themes she discusses much. The statement “privilege to even have this conversation online is something to consider” falls into the dynamics described in the article. Are you saying that every time people read anything online or comment on anything online they should stop and contemplate their privilege? What are you saying, exactly? I became still more confused approaching your final paragraph. You cite several thinkers who describe agnotology as systemically produced ignorance, and criticize how “our culture shames those who do not know.” Presumably you mean that it doesn’t make sense to shame people for ignorance when their ignorance might be produced by capitalism as part of various strategies. However, then you go on to shame the doctor you cite for his ignorance, and you then write off “some people” for being incorrigibly ignorant: “There’s no amount of privilege examination that will result in some people‘s education.”


    Thank you for this article.

    First, you should know that I am third generation user of the McIntosh content (academically speaking) with my mentor and her mentor using her work in our own coursework. So, I am not a lay person just beginning to contemplate privilege. Also, I would say that I am biased in this need for this kind of content, but I will consider your responses with rigor (so as not to waste your time).

    Second, the evidence of her approach working is not my main concern. It is the organic conversation that comes from it. As I poorly tried to convey in my initial post, I think her work is incomplete, a beginning conversation that can go in many directions — often necessary to analyze systems (individual, familial, community, regional, economic, institutional and global power structures). I take this position, because I have seen evidence of the ideas being considered or not in class — so this type of criticism does not hold as much water for me (i.e. formalized list or evidence of efficacy type stuff). This is not an NIH grant submission, its messy and the conversation is not meant to meet everyone at the same point — its like the national freeway system (some will get off at exits while other keep driving across country).

    You are correct that the themes I use her content for are not the places she tends to go, but again, I think her work is incomplete — and I prefer to look at the concept of “unearned privilege” versus the jargon you mention eloquently.

    Thirdly, my point about examining all sorts of privilege are helpful. Not everyone is able to get online or have this kind of conversation — it is a reminder that we have work to do with all the various audiences versus just those who are most inclined to listen. It was not a critique of internet message boards. For example, I referenced the work of Proctor/Shiebinger in the study of ignorance (Agnotology), and they make the point quite persuasively that “how we come to know, what it is we do not know” is just as important as the content. This involves a great deal of unearned privilege.

    It means accepting that I do not know as much I as think I do
    It means I have to confront my own ideas with the same vigor as I do alternatives from others
    It means most knowledge is incomplete and unknown, or evolving
    It means that my certainty has less merit than the process of uncovering new information

    To get to these positions, I have to overcome my own shame in not knowing. Not easy for most in our consumption based society, as is confronting one’s current ideas with some rigor. Also, I have to accept that larger systems do not always know the answers — that more is not known than known and the reasons why things happen are due to larger economic systems. Do you know how many resources were put into this education of mine? Six figure plus — definitely an unearned privilege if you knew me.

    Lastly, on the Dr. Tigges piece, shame is embedded in the capitalist system. It is deeply rooted in it, from haves, have nots, and have yachts. And the work of Edward Bernays is relevant here, constructing the good consumer. Top-down shame purposefully built for ulterior motives by PR firms with access to resources is much different than an organic bottom-up internet meme shaming response to a person just understanding his ignorance. In one case, we have millions of people who are subjected to systems in which are designed to exploit them in a predatory type of capitalism. In the other, we have individual white male who appears to have absorbed a meme of ignorance around women in medicine.

    In my view, it is not remotely comparable, but I appreciate your comment and will think more about this.


    I am pointing out that “unearned privilege”

    1. jrs

      How little we know about other people’s experience can maybe be pointed out.

      I think how little we know personally (and how we don’t know as much as we think we do) is often taught to us by the school of hard knocks and maybe not instantly. Like one plans many things (a career say, or buying a house when mortgage fraud was rampant) and has the @$#@ knocked out them by it not working out, to the degree that they are praying to avoid living in their car …. Ok the former case is just capitalism, and the latter case fraud. But it’s how humility in what we think we know, is often taught to those without frankly quite enough privilege to escape that particular school of hard knocks lesson plan. I will check out the resources on agnotology, interesting stuff.

    2. Lambert Strether

      > the evidence of her approach working is not my main concern. It is the organic conversation that comes from it.

      Throwing aside the liberal Democrat-inflected “conversation,” the question is not whether McIntosh’s approach works, but what work it does. The post provides a clue:

      It is here that avoiding precise definitions can become highly functional. If “privilege” signifies – flexibly – anything from possession of advantages to deliberate oppression, then the person who gets to decide which it is holds a great deal of power.

      See, e.g., Matt 25:31.

  16. Patricia

    Seems to me that, from the beginning, McIntosh conflated race with class and that reduced its effectiveness out the gate.

    Further, as Outis ably wrote, she didn’t clarify between ethics and observation, instead actually avoiding broader ethical discussion even while heavily pushing a kind of sunk guilt-moralism.

    But biggest issue, imo, is that theres been very little offered on what to do about it. It’s like the empty proposal that we get rid of racism before we try for medicare-for-all. Huh?

    Since it’s foggy, delivered with under-handed guilt, and there’s no recourse, self-righteous people use it as a hammer and the most of the rest turn away with an annoyed shrug. It ends up functioning similarly to the doctrine of total depravity.

    Which is too bad because it has some value in a larger necessary conversation.

  17. John M

    One last post here:

    We should distinguish between privilege, white privilege, white male privilege etc…

    And “unearned privilege”

    The latter being a better construct from which to build knowledge.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Thanks for your comment aimed at fleshing out your position above.

      It’s true that a concept of “unearned privilege” could potentially have certain analytical advantages, but it very directly places the concept of “earning” – i.e. meritocracy – front and center. Apart from the irony of a theory initially centered around opposition to meritocracy developing in such a way as to focus on what is and is not “deserved,” this would also lead to a system that is structurally very compatible with neoliberalism (and I’m not saying that it isn’t already, per other commenters above).

  18. John M

    Maybe we could write to Peggy and see if she can help clarify some of these criticisms?

    I think there would be some progression beyond just the problems she did not identify — and I think it helps to involve the person being criticized, although I do think Outis was fair in criticisms in the above article.

  19. Musicismath

    We could certainly try to trace the genealogy of privilege in American progressive discourse. That’s an entirely legitimate project and I’m looking forward to reading the other instalments in this series.

    But the social function of privilege now is something else. I’ve written before on this site about the legacies of Puritanism and the deeply Calvinist logic that underlies a great deal of the Anglo-American academy. I think those who equate current academic and para-academic usages of privilege and white privilege with older ideas of sin and original sin are onto something. Although most progressives won’t want to hear this, because it sounds too much like The Cathedral, and as we all know that’s alt-right and therefore impure and dangerous and automatically wrong. Whether it’s accurate (and I think it is in important respects) is rather quaintly beside the point.

    But I think the accusation of privilege goes beyond secularised Puritanism and is starting to function more like a purely coercive linguistic technology of the kind found in the more pitiless and abusive cults. The privileged (and suitably abjected and ashamed) white body would seem to me exist in a similar relation to the lower-level Scientology recruit. There’s the same expectation of brokenness (which in practical terms is simply an invitation to and excuse for moral castigation and contempt), which can only be “solved” over a long period of time by complete abjection in front of a self-appointed technocratic class. Supposedly. In practical terms, though, the only way to escape abuse is to give in and become a technocrat and abuser oneself. A multilevel system of social control, which exists to shield actual systems of power from any critique and scrutiny; a form of morally coercive liberal individualism masquerading as a systemic critique, that’s what I think privilege language has become.

    1. Musicismath

      Damn! Sorry about the three posts! The first tries didn’t show up immediately and I thought they’d been eaten because they were too long. But apparently not …

  20. PKMKII

    A unique critique I read of the concept of white privilege, says it suffers from a Big Bang Theory problem. For those who don’t know, the term “Big Bang” was not coined by those who came up with the idea, but rather by one of the idea’s detractors who thought it patently ridiculous. They thought by sarcastically referring to it as the big bang, people would find the idea ridiculous as well. Except, Big Bang sounds really, really cool and instead sold the public on the theory.

    Likewise, presenting these racial disparities in the frame of “privilege” can cause certain white people to think, if the social construct of whiteness gives me privileges, then we better keep that construct strong as to guarantee myself those privileges. If the ultimate goal is to tear down the construct of racial hierarchy, it’s doing the opposite. The framing should really be about artificial versus real interests.

  21. Robin Kash

    According to the article: “Many people are willing to acknowledge that they enjoy advantages that others don’t, and that these advantages are not ideally distributed. Fewer are willing to proclaim that they consciously perpetrate injustice.”
    Isn’t this precisely the point of the analysis? The enjoyment of privilege is practiced unawares by the dominant population, or a dominant group within a population. Empathy for black people is an entirely different move, spiritually, intellectually, socially, and even psychologically. The analysis of privilege necessarily focuses on the privileged. Those among the unprivileged/underprivileged/oppressed by the privileged are there mainly to make the point, and are not a focus for empathy. Besides, the whole notion of “empathy” seems weirdly neoliberal.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I disagree with your claim that empathy is a neoliberal notion. I do agree that much analysis of privilege tends to “focus on the privileged” and that the “unprivileged” are “there mainly to make the point.”

      Your opening remarks do not respond to the article as written.

      The paragraph you cite explains that people typically respond differently to “consciously perpetrating injustice” versus “enjoying advantages that are not ideally distributed.” If one simultaneously implies that injustice is being consciously perpetrated and that it is “practiced unawares,” then this blurring has the potential to gaslight people.

  22. Big Tap

    I watched this several months ago on C-Span (Book TV). His presentation is at times scrambled and there is profanity at times. His spin on privilege and police shootings is different than you normally hear on television. As a disclaimer I don’t know if his stats are accurate and I don’t agree with all his comments. Specifically just watch between 19.30 to 26.00 minutes. The book is called “Shi*show!”

  23. Jeremy Grimm

    I am amazed at how much mileage there is in discussion of McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack of advantages”. One corollary(?)/proposition(?) of the knapsack theory noted near the end of this post — that everyone in an “oppressive category” has some obscure “responsibility for their privilege” such that “those who resist the premises of privilege culture” and carry on are “callous” and guilty of “intentional infliction of wrongs upon the innocent.” — strikes me as some truly divisive hogwash. It transforms the sword of social critique into a thousand pointed sticks of dueling privileges. Is this the well-spring of theories of microagressions? — the driving animus of the DNC identity politics?

    I adhere with the observations elsewhere in this post:
    “However, once one starts to think about it, very little about privilege is obvious.”
    “Isn’t the aim of all of this more heightening of moral sensitivity than carrying out careful sociology?”
    This last observation is my take-away from this post. I’ll stick with Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and Domhoff for my sociology.

    Let the ladies at Wellesley and the past graduates from that school dwell on the “invisible knapsacks of advantages” they carry and those around them carry … and let the rest of us use more effective levers to push for a return to progressive income tax and inheritance taxes, universal healthcare, state and federal support for public education at all levels, an end to economic policy based on Neoliberal baloney … and a thorough deconstruction of the Neoliberal Market rot that infects the body politic.

    1. phaedras

      I find the comment “Let the ladies at Wellesley and the past graduates from that school dwell on the “invisible knapsacks of advantages” they carry and those around them carry … and let the rest of us ..” implies that their gender renders their analytics less relevant rather than critiquing the argument based on its validity or lack there of fairly telling and indicative of why a way to discuss deeply held assumptions and “privileges” is needed.

      1. William Shetterly

        I find it interesting that you read something about a school for the most privileged women in America, a school where left identitarianism is especially popular, and assume it’s about gender.

      2. Fiery Hunt

        Wellesley is an all female school, no? Private and very expensive, no?

        Mr Grimm’s comment speaks far more to me about the EXCLUSIVE CLASS of those students (and their privileges!) than as some dismissive sexism. I guess how one identifies dictates how one perceives , eh? I dated a high school teacher, white chick (but with American Indian heritage)…this “white privilege” nonsense was used to debase and degrade her, regardless of her “unprivileged” poverty and 15 years of hard work.

        I, for one, am in total agreement with Mr. Grimm…

        1. Eclair

          Ummm, “white chick?”

          I will assume you use this unflattering (to us ‘white chicks’) term in a gently teasing manner, as an example of how language can be used by the dominant social group as a tool to disparage a subordinate group.

          Because I cannot imagine you would ever refer to , or even think of, our Yves as a ‘white chick.’

          1. Fiery Hunt

            Good grief.

            As I do not know Ms. Smith on a personal level, of course I would not refer to her as “white chick” (unless it was somehow relevant). In the CONTEXT of my comment, “white chick” was both important and non-disparaging (as the woman is white and has used the term self-reverently.)

            Sooo, to summarize… my comment is not an example of how language can be used to disparage a subordinate group. Your comment on the other hand does show how meaning and validity can be ignored by those who wish to weaponize “privilege” to further distract from the real power divisions in society.

            It’s all buzzwords and dog-whistles, ain’t it?

            1. ChiGal in Carolina

              Specious. Just because a woman raised in the patriarchy reFerred to herself following the usage common at the time doesn’t invalidate the critique.

              I also found the term jarring when I first read your comment using it here and now.

              1. Fiery Hunt


                My apologies for the unintended offense to all.

                I would note this quote by unknown Internet voice…
                “Context and intent are enormous – they preceded language as we know it now, and without them language is a sad, lost servant with no master.”

                1. Wukchumni

                  Words can cause mental anguish, if they aren’t the right version we all somehow agree upon as being apt.

                  1. Fiery Hunt

                    I would say that’s exactly what I take as the point of this series of posts by Outis…what words mean and who gets to decide.

                    For a comment about a woman being “oppressed” based on her race and sex to be dismissed as sexist because of an informal descriptive phrase… My insensitive (reiterating my apologies here!) phrase became the focus while the disparagement of a woman in her place of work based on her race and sex is ignored. Nothing is addressed to raise the woman out of her “oppressed” situation while I am rebuked for a well-intentioned illustration.

                    It seems we’re no longer talking about conditions of real world equality but of “equality” as defined by the rules of the academically and economically privileged.

                    1. Jeremy Grimm

                      I appreciate your earlier defense. I am adamantly opposed to what passes for “women’s liberation”. It has contributed little to its own cause beyond confusion. While women rail against the glass ceilings that hold back the female elite they too quickly, too easily, and too conveniently forget the class differences that mean the ceiling blocks not only upper crust women but a greater populace of us lumpen proletariat work for a dollar MEN and women.

      3. Jeremy Grimm

        Here is a critique of the argument such as it is — “invisible knapsacks of advantages” don’t present much content to argue with. I have already noted the observation Outis Philalithopoulos made in the post: “Isn’t the aim of all of this [the “invisible knapsacks of advantages”] more heightening of moral sensitivity than carrying out careful sociology?” There are plenty of comments arguing knapsack issues above my comment. What does the moral sensitivity accruing from “invisible knapsacks of advantages” mean beyond feeling our pain?

        I am a Bernie Sanders backer and was less than pleased by the exercise of “invisible knapsacks of advantages” exercised by a certain alumni of Wellesley during the last Presidential race.

  24. flora

    If nothing is forbidden – in the name of freedom and liberty – then all is permitted: It is permitted to ignore drinking water poisoned with lead (in the name of money); it is permitted to loot public pensions; it is permitted to ignore financial safety regulations; etc. Where there are no internal lines that cannot be crossed without breaking social taboos, there is no society. Talking about ‘privilege’ or ‘knapsack of advantages’ can be as much about tearing down society into no-compromise, atomized each-against-all as it is about building a cohesive society with many layers.

  25. Daniel F.

    I’d like to start with the disclaimer that none of the sociology courses I had the pleasure of attending during my studies dealt with privilege – the “perks” of being Central European, I suppose – so I’m self-informed and self-taught in these matters.

    If I recall correctly, I first met this aspect of racial division in a YouTube video uploaded by a young African-American (is that term still acceptable?). His story, in short, was about how he was looking for a nice, new home for his beloved mother in a classy neighbourhood, and how the inhabitants called the cops on him.
    He told his story through tears, and closed it with a statement, something like (it’s been a couple of years) “And this is why a homeless white person is more privileged than I will ever be.”
    Sitting on a nice couch, in a nicely furnished room, wearing expensive-looking “trendy” clothes and a golden wristwatch. Telling a story why he could not buy a new home for his beloved mother, which he could certainly more than afford – he made enough on YouTube.

    I’m not trying to deny racism still being alive, and I’m not trying to deny it possibly being systemic. But this closing was a very bold statement indeed, considering how the first counter-argument of social justice warriors seems to be “Those with privilege are usually blind to it”.

    What I correctly remember is reading a transccript of a round-table discussion (sadly, it’s in my native language, so no point in hotlinking) titled “Is the Gender Revolution being devoured by its children?”.
    In a very small nutshell, it was about how the old, established concepts of gender, sex, privilege, et cetera were being changed in both (western) activism and (western) academia – how gender studies, which examined gender dynamics, how the historic gender roles defined and hurt both men and women, were co-opted by radicals from every side possible. “The difference between intersectional-queer feminism and radical feminism became a very typical rift in the activist scene”. How they, social scientists, researching and documenting legitimate issues were being shoved into a box labeled “gender loonies” with, uh, “omnisexual demigender foxkin, pronouns xhe/xher/xhem” (apparently, they exist) types from Tumblr.

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