Soon after Peggy McIntosh published her paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack in 1988, the theory of White privilege grained traction and became popular in many academic circles. Today it is required reading for anyone studying race in America. It is probably popular for several reasons, including 1) it expresses the experiences many African Americans and other minorities have had in their daily lives in the US, including being carefully followed in department stores by store personnel, having police profile them while driving through upper-class neighborhoods, and experiencing unpleasant interactions in their workplace; 2) it neatly fits the very popular structuralist approach to deconstructing race and ethnicity and other forms of inequality promulgated by sociologists and other scholars throughout Western academia (Banks, 2013); and 3) it taps into a strong vein of White guilt that many White intellectuals carry with them.
But is it correct? And is it a helpful framework for understanding the dynamics of race and racism in this country and the world?
Central to this theory is a view that all White people carry within them what Ms. McIntosh calls White privilege. White privilege is essentially a cloak of favoritism and special provisions based on the White phenotype, what McIntosh calls unearned power and unearned dominance over people from other groups. The second concept of the theory is that most White people not only are totally unaware of this privilege and power, but will deny its existence if it is pointed out to them, while also being quick to point out specific privileges of other groups, such as those based on government policies, educational programs, or industry initiatives designed to increase diversity and to offset White privilege (McKinney, 2008). Ms. McIntosh also suggests that White people use this power deliberately and persistently against people of color.
Like all theories, there is some truth to the theory of White privilege, and some value in its application. Here is not the place to describe its benefits; needless to say, as I have already suggested, most academics are very aware of its value and its overall framework to deconstruct race and racial inequalities in contemporary America.
Problems with the Theory
There are three approaches that can be used in critiquing any theory: 1) deconstruct the theory itself, 2) examine the interpretations of the theory by academics, practitioners, and those who disseminate academic information (i.e. journal editors, book writers and publishers), and 3) examine how the theory is applied. However, it is usually extremely difficult to separate out these three areas, as the original theory is continually reinterpreted by various people with a variety of different perspectives and personal and political agendas, many of the people who interpret a theory are also involved in applying it, and the theory is used in a vast array of different forms, venues, and applications
As a teacher who discusses theories of human development and behavior continually in my own college classes, I have also found that it is very helpful to examine the life experiences of a theorist, as I believe each one of us is the product of our own social, historical, political, national, racial and socioeconomic contexts. Thus each person, including a theorist, views the world from his/her own unique, complex perspective. I do not know Ms. McIntosh, but I do know that she developed this theory while working for a very exclusive, elite New England woman’s college. Wellesley College clearly would not be a place where one would expect to find many poor white women who grew up in the valleys of West Virginia or Kentucky (or others who lack a certain education and social status). Thus the personal privileges Peggy McIntosh has experienced and writes about may be much more about her wealth, education, and social status, than her skin color (although admittedly they are connected in complex and dynamic ways).
However, like many other theories (Freud’s psychoanalytic theory comes to mind) (Freud, 1917), this theory is overly broad and overly broadly applied, and is easily manipulated by people with a vast array of political and academic agendas. Students of human behavior understand the dynamics and complexities of the human experience; unfortunately, a sociological analysis of the human experience tends to obliterate these complexities, assuming that group dynamics and group belonging must always supersede individual realities and unique individual identities. They don’t. Thus there are several major problems with this theory, including, 1) all privilege depends on the contexts of power, 2) the theory is often poorly and inappropriately applied, 3) according to the theory, people of different racial backgrounds can never be equal, even in intimate and personal contexts, 4) sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and 5) the theory can far too easily be used as a new and subtle way to accuse someone of being a racist.
The Contexts of Power
Power that is based on a person’s skin color, like other forms of power, is often situational. Over the years I have taught college-level classes in multiculturalism and diversity, both as ground classes and on-line (and yes in online classes students are very aware of each person’s race). Many of these classes are multiracial, and despite their double minority status of being both a female and African American, the female Black students in these classes are by far the most powerful and assertive members, to the extent that some are even rude and insensitive to students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. The reasons for their sense of power are not important here; simply, they clearly do not feel inferior, dominated, harmed, invisible, or lacking in advantage!
In 1976, I joined a caravan of motley individuals in St. Louis, Missouri, to embark on a long road trip in an old school bus to a small town high in the Highlands of Guatemala. I was part of a multiracial group that was sent to help Mayan indigenous people after a devastating earthquake that killed many people and destroyed many of their adobe homes. The group was comprised of Canadians, Mohawk Indians from upstate New York and Canada, Whites, Hispanics, Mexicans (from Mexico City), and Puerto Ricans. All were men except two young White women from the US (Wardle, 1976). Two sets of dynamics prevailed throughout the long trip and the subsequent six weeks of working in mountain villages in the Highlands of Guatemala: 1) the White Americans – including me – were outnumbered and out-powered, and 2) the two women announced – verbally and non-verbally – early on that they only had interest in the nonwhite men in the group.
We worked with local Mayan families and their leaders in villages scattered throughout the area. During this six-week experience, many of the minority members of the group often choose to leave the work site and go to Guatemala City and other places for entrainment, while the White members of the group remained in the poor mountain villages, living with the local Mayan villagers and working on a variety of key projects, including building houses and creating a fresh water system for an isolated village. I even had to take over as the group’s photographer because the official photographer was more interested in the city lights than taking pictures. This was fine with me, because I enjoyed living and working in the Highlands of Guatemala and learning about the families, their culture, and the education of their children (Wardle, 1976). I also was not really interested in dating at that time in my life, so the behaviors of the women in our group did not bother me. However, it was pretty clear to all of us who actually had the power in the group!
Later in my life, while living in Denver, I was very good friends with a young lady who worked very consciously both with the Denver NAACP and La Raza. She was a single mother struggling to make financial ends meet, but she believed in social justice and was very committed to helping both of these communities. However, she often bitterly complained to me that, as a young Jewish woman, she had absolutely no power in either of these organizations, which was a shame because she had a lot to offer them. Certainly she had White privilege when she went to the local 7-11 to buy a piece of candy, or to Sears to buy some clothes, but while working within these two groups, she had none.
Who has Power? Misapplication of the Theory
It is too easy and simplistic to automatically assign power and domination to the White person in a multiracial group. Some examples where a White person has no power include:
• A white person with a gun pointed at his or her head by a another person obviously has no power;
• When I visit my friends in the Taos Pueblo Indian Reservation they are happy I am interested in their culture (and in giving them my money); but I have absolutely no power – no should I have power – on their Indian reservation. I am not even protected by the local town police.
• When my Black female friend and I visited a local bar as a send-off for her working for me, we entered an all- Black bar, and I have never in my life experienced such intense and hateful stares! To say I had any power or privilege in that particular context is simply ridiculous!
In another article on this website I mentioned a confrontation between a Black female diversity consultant and the White mother of a biracial child at a local school in Denver. The mother wanted to make sure the school-sponsored diversity support group would address some of her child’s struggles in the school. Her child had been a student in the district for several years, and had experienced some harassment and many challenges. Quite frankly this child was struggling in school. However, before the mother could finish asking her first question, the consultant cut her off, saying the group would not listen to someone with White privilege. Clearly this response was totally inappropriate and completely out of line, because:
• In this case the Black consultant had the power and privilege because she was the official leader of the group, and because she was the official representative of the school district;
• The White mother lacked privilege and power because she had for years fought with the school district to try to get them to respond to the unique and unmet needs of her biracial daughter -and other biracial students in the district – and she was now desperately trying to find solutions for her child’s lack of success in the school;
• The single-race minority parents in the group had privilege because the group officially represented single-race minority families in the school district, and did not include any interracial families with biracial children.
In this case the person interpreting White privilege got it all wrong, and quite frankly not only made a fool of herself, but also poorly represented the school district. The Black consultant had all of the power and privilege; the White mother had no power and no privilege. As a consequence of this confrontation, and her lack of power in the school district, the mother pulled her biracial daughter out of the school to home-school her.
People of Different Racial Backgrounds can Never be Equal
One of the central dilemmas with the White privilege theory is that it makes any equal relationship between people from different racial background impossible. Thus my marriage of over 30 years must be built on an unequal relationship. I have the power and dominate my wife; she has no power and is subservient to me. This is obviously stupid. Yes, all sorts of issues must be continually faced in any intimate relationship, and, in a country fixated on racial inequalities, race can increase the stress. But an equal relationship is very possible, and exists in many personal and professional relationships.
This situation is similar to the belief by many feminists, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and supported by some today, that a true feminist cannot have an equal relationship with a man, and therefore must be in a lesbian relationship. It also fits the narrative that there is something inherently wrong and unhealthy with an interracial relationship.
The White privilege theory also reinforces the bitter view expressed by segregationists (on both sides) that the only reason a Black person marries a white person is to give their children some White privilege. (It’s interesting to note that at the same time these detractors do not explain the motivation of the White partner for marrying a Black person). This view also justifies the mean harassment of multiracial children by Black peers who accuse them of trying to be White and trying to be better – privileged – than them. Often the Black peers insist that these multiracial children must prove their Blackness.
Conversely this theory is also used by some to justify the peculiarly American one-drop rule approach to defining race. After all, if White skin gives someone an automatic privilege and a sense of undeserved and unearned power, then anyone with skin that is no pure White lacks this power and privilege. Thus they must be Black!
And finally this view presents a sticky political and social question that Critical Race Theory also supports: if White people are automatically and consistently privileged compared to Black people, we then must create public policies, procedures, laws and approaches to education, employment, and other social issues to rectify this problem. In other words, we now must create specific policies, laws, and approaches that give Black people – and other minorities – an advantage, to balance the scales and to offset White privilege.
Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
One of my psychology students commented to me how she enjoyed my class on human growth and development. She complained that her previous teacher, a devout Freudian, had psychoanalyzed every student in the class, and how this made many of the students feel very uncomfortable. One of the most frequent criticisms of Freud’s theory is that it can be applied – and misapplied – to almost every human behavior, even the most benign and normal. Even Freud said that sometimes a cigar is simply a cigar (as opposed to a phallic symbol or the expression of a deep psychological trauma). Sometimes people can simply interact together as equals, without having to resort to an interpretation of White privilege (and other forms of repression and domination). Not every interaction between people of different races is an exercise in power; it is very possible to over-complicate things, and to see privilege and oppression where it does not exist.
I remember an incident a few years ago when Oprah Winfrey was upset that she was thrown out of an upscale Paris department store because it was close to closing time. She and others claimed racism. However, according to my two children who lived in Paris at the time, this was simply the typical behavior of French workers, who do not care who they are serving if it is time to close. (French workers generally do not get tips and therefore care little about customer service). Race and White privilege had absolutely nothing to do with the incident!
Just as J. Edgar Hoover saw a communist under every bed, this theory supports the idea that all White people are continually and unconsciously motivated to suppress minorities, and to distort the humanity of people from minority groups (McIntosh, 1989). People with this perspective can take the joy and richness out of the human experience, and negate the wonderful experiences people from different backgrounds can have when enjoying each others’ company (Wardle, 2013).
A New Way to Accuse Someone of Racism
One of the things that I have recently discovered is that academics are loath to call each other racists, but they often believe they are. So they resort to suggesting they are using White privilege logic and thinking, or interpreting a problem from a White privilege perspective. This is a extremely dangerous practice, because it allows them to accuse anyone with whom they disagree of racism, and can be intellectually lazy. For example, in discussing affirmative action in a university, a person who supports affirmative action can quickly argue that someone who does not support affirmative action is using a White privilege argument, because the White privilege theory claims that meritocracy is not real, because Whites and Blacks never compete on a level playing field. The person who does not support affirmative action may have wanted to point out that statistics show that many minority students are academically unprepared to be successful in college, especially in large, high-powered institutions, and therefore should be allowed to take an alternative, less successful route to a college degree. But because White privilege is automatically thrown into the argument, a serious debate never occurs.
Any interaction that stifles debate is negative; in a world where we are continually and even aggressively urged to talk about race, this kind of illogical and absolute accusation is much too easy, unhelpful and unproductive. Like Freudian psychoanalytic theory, White privilege is often misused to interpret a situation that is more complex and nuanced, and requires deeper and more circumspect intellectual debate.
Ever since the publication of the paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, by Peggy McIntosh (1988), the White privilege theory has been embraced by Americans academics who study and teach about race. Its principles ring true for many who have experienced racism in this country, and it can be a helpful framework to deconstruct race and racism. However, as with other theories of human behavior, this theory is overly broad, and uncritically applied. There are several major problems with this theory, which include, 1) privilege depends on the contexts of power, 2) the theory is often misapplied, 3) according to the theory, people of different backgrounds can never be equal, 4) sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and 5) the theory is now being used as a new and subtle way to accuse someone of being a racist. Scholars and practitioners who have little understanding of the complex dynamics of human behavior continue to interpret the theory in ways that are not only unhelpful, but that are very destructive to any discussion of the complex issues of race and racial inequality in contemporary society.
Banks, J. A. (2013). Multicultural education: Characteristics and goals. In J. A. Banks & C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (8th ed., pp. 3-25). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Freud, S. (1917). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible backpack. Wellesley MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
McKinney, K. D. (2008). Confronting young people’s perceptions of Whiteness: Privilege or liability? Race and Society, 6. 39-55.
Wardle, F. (1976, November). A first look at education of Guatemalan Indians in post-earthquake Guatemala. New Schools Exchange Newsletter, 136, 12-15
Wardle, F. (2013). Human relationships and learning in the multicultural environment. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.