The idea of “privilege”—that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory —has a pretty long history. In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” No. 24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”) Those examples have since been read by countless schoolkids and college students—including, perhaps, Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman whose recent article, “Checking My Privilege,” has been widely debated.
McIntosh is now seventy-nine. She still works at Wellesley, where she is the founder and associate director of the SEED Project, which works with teachers and professors to make school curricula more “gender fair, multiculturally equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed.” (SEED stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity.) In the next few months, she’ll give talks about privilege to groups at the American Society for Engineering Education, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, the Ontario Nurses Association, and NASA’s Goddard Space Center. McIntosh was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, and went to a Quaker boarding school. She attended Radcliffe and got a Ph.D. in English from Harvard. (Her thesis was on Emily Dickinson.) With privilege so often in the news lately—there’s even a BuzzFeed quiz called “How Privileged Are You?”—I thought I’d ask McIntosh what she thinks about the current debates about privilege, and how they compare with the ones of past decades.
How did you come to write about privilege?
In those days, I worked at what was called the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. I was hired to conduct and administer a monthly seminar for college faculty members on new research on women, and how it might be brought into the academic disciplines. I led that seminar for seven years, and it was always expanding. Eventually, it expanded to twenty-two faculty from places like New York, New Jersey, and New England. We were asking, What are the framing dimensions of every discipline, and how could they be changed by the recognition that women are half the world’s population, and have had half the world’s lived experience?
I noticed that, three years in a row, men and women in the seminar who had been real colleagues and friends for the first several months had a kind of intellectual and emotional falling out. There was an uncomfortable feeling at the end of those three years. I decided to go back through all my notes, and I found that at a certain point the women would ask, “Couldn’t we get these materials on women into the freshman courses?” And, to a person, the men would say, “Well, we’re sorry, we love this seminar, but the fact is that the syllabus is full.” One year, a man said—I wrote it down—“When you are trying to lay the foundation blocks of knowledge, you can’t put in the soft stuff.”
This is when you came up with the forty-six examples of white privilege?
I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
How did people respond?
Well, at first, the most common responses were from white people. Their most common response was “I never thought about this before.” After a couple of years, that was accompanied by “You changed my life.” From people of color, from the beginning, it was “You showed me I’m not crazy.” And if they said more than that it was along the lines of “I knew there was something out there working against me.”
But there was a negative reaction to it, too.
The right wing wanted to paint it as craziness. But there were so many people saying it wasn’t crazy that I was able to put them aside. David Horowitz named me one of America’s ten wackiest feminists; that used to get to me. Now I think, If you’re going to do work for racial justice, you’re going to get attacked.
You can read the entire interview here . Peggy McIntosh’s original 1988 paper on privilege can be read here and follow this link for the more popular excerpted version called ‘White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack‘