White Privilege Transcript (021)

Unpacking White Privilege with Peggy McIntosh (5/25/19)

RAMONE ALEXANDER: Greetings everyone, and welcome to the Point of Learning with my good friend Peter Horn. I’m Ramone Alexander, and I serve as the Director of Inclusivity and Community Building at Nichols School in Buffalo, New York. I’m really excited about this conversation about unpacking privilege with Peggy McIntosh. Enjoy the show!

PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, Peggy McIntosh, who began to speak and write about the controversial concepts of male privilege and White privilege in the 1980s.

PEGGY McINTOSH: When I was first attacked by the Right Wing, I felt I just hadn’t played my cards right—and if I had played my cards right, I would never be attacked. So I read it as a failing, a shameful failing and bad strategy on my part! Now I think if you do the kind of work I’m doing, no matter how well you play your cards, you will be resisted and in my case vilified. That’s part of the commitment: to keep figuring out what you think is accurate. Continue to say it, no matter what they say about you.

[VO]: Over three decades later, her ideas still get people fired up.

McINTOSH: Some say, “Nobody ever gave me a damn thing! I grew up poor in Appalachia. White privilege doesn’t apply to me because I don't have any money.” I say, “To the cops, you’re White—even if you’re poor. That’s different from being seen as African American.”

[VO]: She’ll talk with us about coming to identify White privilege after experiencing male privilege first as a student, then as a professor.

McINTOSH: That man, like everybody on the face of the Earth, was born of a woman, and something has been done to his mind to make him think that she is extra to his existence! I began to wonder what had been done to his mind to make him think that half the world’s population is extra


[VO]: The U.S. cultivates a belief in meritocracy: People get what they deserve. Whatever we have, we earned. The problem, of course, is that it’s not true. One reason is that Americans born poor–or Black, or Muslim, or with a facial deformity–begin life with a distinct disadvantage as compared to those born middle-class, White and Presbyterian with average looks. The difference has nothing to do with what is deserved or earned; merit doesn’t enter into it. The accident of belonging to one category or another prompts people to regard you differently. Maybe they assume you’ll be make a better doctor, maybe they guess you’re likely to steal, maybe you’re better at math, maybe you’re a terrorist. Unearned advantage of this kind is often called privilege. On today’s show, I’m talking with Peggy McIntosh, the person who has done more than anyone else in the past 30 years to advance the concept of privilege as crucial for understanding and dismantling our pervasive myth of meritocracy. Whether you are skeptical of privilege—a term that McIntosh readily admits is not perfect, or you wholeheartedly endorse the concept as a way to describe part of our social reality, the notion of unearned advantages and disadvantages based on aspects of identity, like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, appearance, religion, physical ability, and so on, is part of our national conversation these days—certainly in schools and on college campuses and in politics, but elsewhere, too—so it’s worth slowing down a minute and thinking about what privilege is and is not. First, let’s meet Peggy!


[VO]: Peggy McIntosh is a feminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women. Over the past 50 years, she has taught English, American Studies, and Women’s Studies at the Brearley School, Harvard University, the University of Denver, Trinity College in D.C., Durham University in England, and Wellesley College. She has written on topics including curricular revision, feelings of fraudulence, and the professional development of teachers. Her new book, called On Privilege, Fraudulence, and Teaching as Learning will be published by Routledge in July 2019. In 1987 she launched the National SEED Project to confirm her belief that teachers could be leaders of their own professional development. The letters S-E-E-D stand for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. Over the past 32 years, the National SEED Project has trained nearly 3,000 K-12 and college teachers from 42 U.S. states and 15 other countries, engaging 30,000 teachers in SEED leaders’ schools, who in turn have influenced more than 3 million students through wider and deeper curricula, and more inclusive classrooms. If that sounds pretty amazing, I agree. I’ll be talking with Emily Style, the other longtime co-director of SEED on the next episode, and the National SEED Project is gonna get its own show later this summer. Today we’re focused on privilege. In 1988, Peggy published the groundbreaking essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” This analysis, and its shorter version, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” published in 1989, pioneered putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of power, gender, race, class and sexuality in the United States. More about that in just a minute! In addition to four honorary degrees, Dr. McIntosh is a recipient of the Klingenstein Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership from Columbia Teachers College. As a speaker, she has presented or co-presented at over 1,500 private and public institutions and organizations, including 26 campuses in Asia. So that’s a lot of things. However, when I asked Peggy which aspects of her biography she’d like me to play up or play down, she recalled the end of World War II. 

McINTOSH: I think my parents’ horror at the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their becoming Quakers and then sending me to Quaker school affected my life.

[VO]: When she attended George School in Bucks County, PA, Peggy experienced Quaker theology as essentially boiling down to: There is that of God in every person. She appreciated the simplicity of that. 

McINTOSH: And watching religious wars all over the place, I have decided the Quakers are really wise not to get into ritual, sacraments, sainthoods, and so on.

[VO]: A few years later, when she was about to choose a topic for her doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Peggy was struck by the power of a poet who, not unlike the Quakers, took an unorthodox approach to matters of the spirit. And when I say “struck,” listen to how Peggy describes encountering Emily Dickinson for the first time.

McINTOSH: I had been reading English writers, and Matthew Arnold interested me the most. I’d written my B.A. thesis on Matthew Arnold, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then in a course taught by Harold Martin of the English Department and the General Education Department, somebody handed out some purple dittoes, as we used to call them. And they included the poetry of Emily Dickinson. That’s all that was on this cluster of maybe three pages of poems—and the whole room disappeared—everything disappeared except those purple words on the page by this person I’d never heard of. So I decided to write my dissertation on her. The sensation of the environment completely dissipating and leaving me just with her words was very amazing to me.


[VO]: Okay, so here’s where we make the transition from background bio to full-blown academic badassery on the part of Peggy McIntosh. She’s fallen for a poet who, as Peggy later wrote, “created her own avenues of thought, refusing those offered by church, society, and existing language … a striking example of an alternative sensibility, a dissenting imagination, a re-creating mind” [from introductory essay in Selections from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: A Supplement to the Heath Anthology of American Literature by Peggy McIntosh and Ellen Louise Hart, D.C. Heath, 1990, p. 2840]. Problem is, this is Harvard in the early 1960s. 

McINTOSH: I had an interview with the head of the English Department and said, “I’ve found my topic. I would like to write on Emily Dickinson,” and his first response was, “Well, you can’t write your dissertation on Emily Dickinson.” I asked, “Why not?” And he said, “We don’t know her.” And then he said, “Besides, you’ve prepared in English literature and she’s American.” And I said, “Oh, I’ll do that too, then!” So I wrote on her anyway, by creating a committee that didn’t have on it anybody except the younger folks in the department. So I did an end run around him.

PETER: And of course, they would’ve all been males still because you were the first woman to be appointed as a T.A.

McINTOSH: One of the first two.


[VO]: Like most female students throughout history, McIntosh most often found school, especially college and grad school, to be a place where she studied ideas by men written in books by men that were published by men and taught by men. Then she got to write papers and exams that would be critiqued and graded … by men. Because I can almost hear some internet troll prepare to declare that all this is proof that men have better ideas, let’s consult the historical record. McIntosh is waging her Emily Dickinson battle in the 1960s, when the all-White male faculty she faced at Harvard was very much the norm. There had been a system-wide backlash against the women in the beginning of the 20th century who had fought their way into colleges and graduate programs across the country—some of the same troublemaking group who believed women should have the right to vote. As Jill Lepore relates in her incredible book The Secret History of Wonder Woman [p. 125], between 1900 and 1930 the percentage of PhDs awarded to women across the country actually doubled, but then, for three decades, that is to say, until the 1960s, the percentage steadily fell. Why? Because women who earned PhDs found that they were systematically barred from the top ranks of the academy. One study from 1929—just about the point when the upward PhD trend started reversing—quoted an associate professor who said that when “every president and head of department insists on having only men in higher positions, it seems to me idiotic to encourage women to take the higher degrees with the thought of getting anything like a fair deal” [p. 125]. However, if you don’t focus on these systemic facts—and of course, much of the power of systems is that we don’t usually notice them; they are the water we swim in—you are especially prone to accept all this as normal, just the way it is. It took Peggy a minute to recognize what was happening, which is why her story of facing White privilege always begins with noticing male privilege.

McINTOSH: I start with observing male privilege, which allowed me to step laterally and see— though I didn’t want to see it—White privilege. So I tell audiences about how I was leading a seminar on bringing women into the liberal arts curriculum and the faculty in the seminars were men and women, and we got along fine in a group of 22 of us professors. We got along fine from about September to March, and then in the spring suddenly the two groups didn’t want to have a meal together, didn’t want to address each other much. The men and the women had a sort of falling out, and I thought I had done something wrong in my facilitation of the seminar to make men and women not like each other! I wanted another grant, but I thought I had to confess to the foundation that I lacked some facilitation skills and I would work on them. So I’m going through my notes and I am reminded of what happened. Then I begin to see it wasn’t my fault; it was something structural in the minds of the men. The way it surfaced in my notes—and in those days I took a lot of notes—was that the women were calling for courses to do some teaching about women—women’s history, sociology, psychology—sooner than senior year. They began to ask, “Can’t we put women in at the beginning? All courses should reflect men’s and women’s existence.” I made a note of the comment by one man who explained to us why you couldn’t put women in at the beginning. He said, “When you’re laying the foundation blocks for knowledge in those first-year courses, you can’t put in soft stuff.” He’d been reading a lot of a hardback books and articles from refereed journals! I’m grateful to him because he tipped his hand and showed us that regardless of that scholarship, he still felt all the stuff on women was soft. And a couple of years later—

PETER: So was this in the mid-’80s, early ‘80s?

McINTOSH: Yes, 1982 to 1985. A couple of years later the women were again raising the question, “Can’t we put the materials on women in at the beginning?” And another very nice man explained to us that “That first year the student is choosing their major. Their major is their discipline. And if you want a student to think in a disciplined way, you can’t put in extras.” And none of us women said anything! We had no language, or maybe we had no sass, but we didn’t say what I later observed: that man, like everybody on the face of the Earth, was born of a woman, and something has been done to his mind to make him think that she is extra to his existence! I began to wonder what had been done to his mind to make him think that half the world’s population is extra … And I began to put together several unpleasant things. The women of the Combahee River Collective Statement had written that White women are—they didn’t put it in exactly these words, but they meant it—oppressive to work with.


[VO]: The Combahee River Collective, named after the only military campaign in U.S. history planned and led by a woman—in this case, Harriet Tubman—was a Black feminist lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. There’s a link to their statement on the show page.

McINTOSH: And I had begun to ask myself, “Are these men are oppressive, or are they nice?” I thought at that time I had to choose: either these are nice men are these are oppressive. And then when I remembered that we White women had been called oppressive, I remembered my first two responses to reading that. The first was “I don’t see how they can say that about us! I think we’re nice!” It was a kind of whining in me. The second response I had was outright racist. But this is where I was in 1980 when I read the Combahee River Collective Statement: “I especially think we’re nice if we work with them!” And then I thought, “Oh Lord, do I have to face this? Do I have to face what it’s really about—my oppressiveness because I’m born to an oppressing group?” Then mentally I let the men off the hook in this way: I said they are nice men, but they are very good students of what they have been taught, which is that men have knowledge, men make more knowledge, men profess knowledge as professors. Men run the big university presses and the best-known research universities, and they have taken in that men are knowers and knowledge itself is male. And I had taken it in too! After dithering for a couple of years, hoping that I had been so nice that the African American women hadn’t noticed how oppressive I was, I decided, yes. Of course, it did show up. I couldn’t disguise it. I had been a very good student of the ugly truth: that Whites have knowledge, Whites make more knowledge, Whites publish and profess knowledge as professors, Whites run the major university presses and the best-known research universities, and we have taken it that Whites are knowers and knowledge itself is White. And I hated thinking that way, but the evidence was against thinking my old way. So then I thought, “How can I get money from the foundations? Everybody I’ve ever dealt with at a foundation is White.” So the money system for what I want to do is on my side also. And these two things bothered me so much that I asked, “What else do I have, beside the knowledge system and the money system, that has been working for me?”—and my conscious mind would not answer. It blocked me. And I was in the habit of asking my mind questions and having it respond. I felt I was in a spiritual crisis over this, that my life wasn’t on a morally or ethically firm base. I’d been given stuff through being White. So one night before going to sleep, I did what I now called praying on it, but at the time it felt more like a desperate demand and the middle of night up swam an example. I flicked on the light and I wrote it down and I was very disappointed. I thought this was a bunch of nothing.

PETER: Do you recall what the first one was?

McINTOSH: Yes. What swam up became the first in a list of 46 ways in which I have unearned advantage through being White. It was, “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” I looked at it with disappointment and again in the morning I thought it was a bunch of nothing. I think I was looking for the Next Big Thing. I had the knowledge system and the money system worked out, and this was just about being with people? I thought it was trivial.


We’re about to get to the personal examples that helped Dr. McIntosh to see how White privilege worked in her own life. Maybe it’s because I watched too many action movies growing up, but you know those scenes where Tom Cruise or somebody is trying to loot some vault protected by laser beams that are invisible to the naked eye? Nobody can see the lasers until they spray some powder in the air, then all of a sudden there’s this matrix of intersecting lines, any one of which will get you into trouble if you trip it? That’s how I think of Peggy’s examples of privilege—they are like the little particles that make an invisible system of fences visible. There are 46 of these examples in the first version of her article, and McIntosh is very clear about how she means them to be understood, calling them “ordinary and daily ways” in which she experienced having privilege, as contrasted with her African American colleagues. She emphasizes, and I quote, “This list is not intended to be generalizable. Others can make their own lists from within their own life circumstances” [“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” 1988, p. 2]. Later she writes, “I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though these other privileging factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my [African] American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.” [p. 4]


McINTOSH [reading selections from the list in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” 1989]: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race. I can do well on a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion. 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. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race won’t work against me. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in so-called “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones. [Commenting:] About the negative episodes and situations in our lives, most of us have, I think, some negative situations and episodes or impressions or emotions in the course of the day. I think it must be absolutely exhausting to have to ask of each of those whether one’s race has caused the situation. I sometimes wonder why my friends of color don’t go crazy from that stress, but I feel it as a female. The institutions of the culture, the behaviors and assumptions of the people I deal with are behaviors that favor men more than women, critique women more than men, impede women, don’t take women’s ideas seriously. The daily grind, though what I feel isn’t anything like what people of color feel, still wears me down, so I admire them that they keep going. The odds against people of color are so much worse than the odds against my having a good day.


PETER: Hand in hand with it being so popular for 30 years are people receiving it or half-receiving it, half-hearing the term “White privilege.” I wanted to ask what are the most common misunderstandings or false assumptions that you encounter about what people think you’re saying?

McINTOSH: Well, it’s very journalistic of you to ask first “What about reaction against it?” That’s a very journalistic impulse.

PETER [playfully]: You think I just like wearing headphones? I'm taking this seriously, ma’am!

McINTOSH: No! I just want to tell you journalists do this, they look for the pushback. They want you to describe your conflicts over it, because conflict is seen as news.

PETER: I appreciate that, but also what I’d like to do is to say that you’ve heard all this before, you know what people say. For example, I spent a fair amount of time—I try not to read comment threads cause that’s where the swamp creatures will hang out, especially if they can be anonymous. But there are people who make YouTube videos and articles and blog posts and even a kind of book, though it’s not available, with the title “Debunking White Privilege.” I mean people get very exercised about this, but I haven’t seen any evidence in any of those things that I’ve been able to find and take a look at that they were engaging seriously or fully with what you were actually saying. You’re used to this and so I wanted to ask, how do people tend to, in your experience, misunderstand what you’re actually saying, or if they react to it, in what way?

McINTOSH: Okay. Well, on my own track, I will first tell you what they like about it. I get two different kinds of thanks. From White people, especially older White people: “I never thought of any of this before. I never thought of any of this before.” From people of color: “Thank you. You gave me some language for what I experience. I knew there was something there working against me and it wasn’t explicit racism, but you gave me language to describe what it is. It’s White privilege. The objections to it come from many directions. Some people think my work is about blame, shame and guilt. It’s making Whites take a guilt trip. Some people say it’s self- hatred for you to write about White privilege as a bad thing. Some threaten. When I was first attacked by the Right Wing, I felt I just hadn’t played my cards right—and if I had played my cards right, I would never be attacked. So I read it as a failing, a shameful failing and bad strategy on my part! Now I think if you do the kind of work I’m doing, no matter how well you play your cards, you will be resisted and in my case vilified. That’s part of the commitment: to keep figuring out what you think is accurate. Continue to say it, no matter what they say about you. Some people think that I spoke for all White people, about all of their privileges, whereas in fact my list is autobiographical and it’s about my experience relative to just one group of people of color who are in my building or my line of work. I’m not writing for all Whites. And so I say, “This list is about my experience, not about yours.” Some think that this list should be lifted right out of the context of the essay around it and use it as a questionnaire or a checklist. That is another way of applying it to all Whites. Some say, “Nobody ever gave me a damn thing! I grew up poor in Appalachia. White privilege doesn’t apply to me because I don't have any money.” I say, “To the cops, you’re White—even if you’re poor. That’s different from being seen as African American.”

[VO]: In one of my first classes in grad school—it was the summer of 1999, so Peggy’s conception of White privilege had been buzzing around for over a decade, but I hadn’t yet encountered her work—I was sitting with an African American classmate who was telling a story about his senior year of high school, being accepted to an elite college and having his mother immediately buy the decal for that college to stick prominently on the rear window of the car. His mother [had no doubt] that the college decal would affect how cops saw her son when they pulled him over. I distinctly recall realizing in that moment that I had never thought about a college sticker in those terms, that I had never needed to. Item 15 on Peggy’s longer list is “I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection” [“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” 1988, p. 5]. We talked a little more about why it’s hard for us as individual people and societies more broadly to face systemic privilege.

PETER: You talk about different kinds of privilege. But for a White person to talk about White privilege, one of rules that it violates is White people don’t talk about Whiteness or it begins to lose some of its power, right?


McINTOSH: Well, men don’t talk about male privilege—

PETER: Most men don’t!

McINTOSH: —that is also a pretty taboo subject. And heterosexuals don’t usually talk about their privilege and colonizers don’t talk about their unearned advantage over the colonized. So I think it is a rule of thumb that if you have power, you do not talk about what it’s like to have it. You could be Machiavelli and write The Prince and say how you got it and teach others how to, but that’s very unusual. It’s like evading something in which you’re not standing firmly on the power you have. You have power you didn’t earn in any one of these categories, and there was force that gave you that power. It was force. It’s Whites’ force against people of color. So it’s as though that is intuitively understood, even if you’re not living in a meritocracy or a society claiming democracy. It’s as though you intuitively know that the ground you’re standing on isn’t your own ground. I’m interested in what makes us know that. What made all these subjects taboo? Even in Brahmin India, Brahmins don’t talk about what it’s like to be Brahmin. I think they also intuit it’s not theirs. It’s as though they know there’s a great systemic placement of them. It’s as though it doesn’t quite feel right. And at heart, they know that they’re putting on an act that has to do with their place in the power structure. There is a sense of pride in a nation or a church or a family, and discussing privilege is very embarrassing to those structures you’ve been basing on pride, because the discussion of privilege shows treating other people as if they had the value that you yourself have is very hard on the ego. And in Asia, it’s not so much the ego, but the sense of loyalty to Confucius or Allah. It’s a spiritual matter to take on the discussion of unequal concentration of power. It’s a spiritual discussion, it takes a lot of guts. It’ll interfere with your view of God. It’ll interfere with your view of your neighbor. It’ll interfere with your feeling about your family. It’ll interfere with your relation to teachers. It interferes with all the structures to posit that there may be basic inequality in the way human beings have decided to behave with each other and the structures we have chosen to build. This is what I feel about the biological thing. There is a biological tendency to make and live in pecking orders; there is also a biological tendency to make and live in symbiotic, interrelated frameworks. Western culture stresses the first: Life is war. Pecking orders are natural. Trying to be nice isn’t natural. Most of the people in the United States have become persuaded that life is war. And Trump of course, intensifies that conviction that life is war.

[VO]: As the basis for this episode (and one coming this summer all about The National SEED Project), Peggy generously spent several hours in conversation with me, two off the record last fall, and three more on the record in late winter. Because I wanted to proceed in order of urgency, this show has necessarily focused on White privilege, but she offered many other gems as we talked. I’ll close with just a couple. 


McINTOSH: I think that education, “higher education,” as it calls itself, trains you to make an argument and defend the argument, as though knowledge is a matter of warfare. And that’s a useful skill, but it’s not the only skill. And you, your parents and other funders may be spending $60,000-$70,000 a year to give you that skill, and it may help you to fight the economic war and make a living. But when I meet people I really like, there’s a lot more to them than the ability to make an argument or make a living. Social climbing and intellectual climbing and economic climbing is not the only activity of life, not the only worthy activity—but rather, laterally relating to other people and also in an inward way, relating to one’s alternative thoughts, whatever they are. And children who’ve been allowed that latitude to connect are pretty well anchored to make us a future that serves not just them, but everybody.

[VO]: That’s it for today’s show. My great thanks to Peggy McIntosh for taking the time to speak with us about her important work. Links to her White privilege pieces may be found on the show page, but keep an eye out starting in July for her book On Privilege, Fraudulence, and Teaching as Learning. Because I wanted especially fierce and beautiful music to underscore this conversation, I turned to Shayfer James, composer of our regular intro and outro, who graciously permitted use of instrumental tracks for several songs from his latest album Hope and a Hand Grenade, namely “Day of Reckoning,” “Boots Worn Through,” and “Ophelia.” If the music haunted you, wait till you hear him sing lyrics! Head on down to shayferjames.com and see what I mean. Shayfer and his collaborator Kate Douglas will be performing their song cycle based on Beowulf called “The Ninth Hour” at the Met Cloisters in New York City on June 28th, 2019—hope to see you there! Thank you for your curiosity about what and how and why we learn, and for your support of this show. I appreciate your subscribing, rating, and reviewing, because that really does help other people find us. If you know even just one other person who would dig it, please let them know, because it will mean most coming from you. Point of Learning is written, recorded, edited, and mixed by me, and it’s produced in sunny Buffalo, NY. Back just as soon as I can to check windows and mirrors with Emily Style!  

Peter Horn