White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Published 12 May 2017

The essay describes the presence of a subtle form of discrimination prevalent in society today. The traditional concept of racism is one where a member of the dominantrace denies an individual from a minority group access to a right or privilege—be it approval of a housing application in a certain neighborhood or entry to a social group—or abused physically or otherwise because of the color of his or her skin. History has many records of such types of racism and society, through its laws and social norms, has conferred its disapproval to such acts. On a similar note, men and women grew up being taught that there are roles which are particular for each gender and society expects everyone to follow them. When a man or woman insists on taking what was traditionally the role of the other, it becomes news or subject for debate. As a result, many men and women grow up without consciously examining these roles.

In her essay, McIntosh points out that there exist “invisible systems conferring dominance” to males and white people. These systems are unacknowledged, meaning they have not been thoroughly challenged and questioned as much as the obvert forms of discriminations. The first system is that which promotes denial among men on their being the privileged sex compared to women. Men agree to increasing women’s rights and promoting equality but they would certainly not agree to lessen the advantages that they currently enjoy for women to catch up. The second system is that which promotes denial among white people on their being the privileged race compared to blacks and other minority groups. The bigger length of the essay focuses on this topic.

The writer is correct in her observations. It is human nature to like being respected, being allowed the advantage and opportunities in life. If one grows up to be either male or white, he does not mind having the advantages and opportunities and as a result, he does not realize those whose advantages and opportunities he could be taking them away from. The oppression is unconscious. When a man opens a door for a woman to enter first or pulls her chair for her, both think he is being chivalrous. This is what society thinks. It could, however, also be seen as another show of dominance by the man over the weaker sex who could not open the door or pull her chair for herself. When white people go into a neighborhood of predominantly blacks, they cannot shake off a nagging feeling of unease that just crops up unbidden. When some white people fight for equality with the black race in society, it is with the assumption that they are doing this because they want the blacks to be like them. These can be construed as unconscious forms of discrimination.

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McIntosh makes the reader think twice about something that society has been taking for granted for a long time. Maybe these systems arose out of the centuries-old conceptions of men being the more superior sex and of whites being the more superior race. It has not been such a long time since these ideas were accepted and regarded as norms. Civilization, through the years, has been shedding its old biases and it does take a long time for society to forget what it has been used to as much as it takes a while for people to change old habits. McIntosh’s analysis opens avenues by which humanity can move forward. Society has slowly erased overt evidences of inequality among races and genders. It is time to settle the issue on “invisible systems” that are being taken for granted just because they do not seem to be there.

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