October 23 – Western Privilege


In my last blog post, I mentioned the notion of Western privilege. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, the Associate Director of the Wellesley Centres for Women wrote a seminal article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. I read this article in a second year course during my undergraduate course taught by an amazing professor (Dr. Cristabel Sethna) on Power, Race and Gender. Reading that article as part of that course opened my eyes to a new way of conceptualizing and recognizing the power and privilege that I, as a white person, experience in the world.

McIntosh did not use the word “invisible” lightly – to me, it is the defining feature of privilege. Often people who experience (unearned) privilege are unaware of the “social, legal and economic constructs of how race benefits white people in their daily lives”. This is not because people don’t care, but because, coming from the dominant culture/class/gender/religion/country, these privileges are unacknowledged (unaware/naturalized/unintentional). While people often don’t see the privilege they experience, they also don’t see the systems of oppression/discrimination because oppression rears its head in the form of micro-aggressions or everyday forms of sexism/racism, etc. For the dominant group, privilege is often naturalized, which means that those from the dominant group don’t see it, or they are able to gloss over it.

McIntosh lists 50 different examples of how white racial superiority is structurally enforced within American (and Western) society. Interestingly, basically every single item on the list, created in the 1980s, is still relevant today. In the list, the most poignant examples of white privilege for me are:

  • I can be pretty sure that if I talk to the ‘person in charge’, I will be facing a person of my own race (this exists also largely with male privilege – “I will be facing person of the same gender”),
  • I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group, and,
  • when I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is (this also extends to male privilege – “I am shown that people of my gender made it what it is).

If your first response to these examples is anger or “that’s not true”, sit with that feeling for a moment. Try adding to the beginning “On average…”. Sometimes the response to knowing that we are perpetuating discrimination is to say “it’s not my fault”, or “I’m not a bad person”. No one is saying that. But it is important to expand the voices you listen to, to acknowledge other people’s experiences and realities, and to realize that your experience is not universal.

The list from McIntosh and her colleagues goes on and on. What it taught me was that most of the oppression/violence/trauma experienced by people remain micro moments…it’s difficult to recognize unearned privilege until you no longer experience it or until it is pointed out to you. I thought, when I started university, that I was a very open-minded and culturally sensitive person that was invested in social justice. But I was completely unaware of the unearned privilege that I experienced, based on my skin colour, and how I unknowingly contributed to systemic oppression. Systemic oppression for many is invisible until you engage in introspection and listen to different voices.

McIntosh’s list demonstrates how broader structures of oppression are experienced in small but very real, daily ways by people. These are small enough that often they go un-verbalized. Discussing them daily would be too time consuming, or too painful, especially if the response from sharing is to be told that you are too sensitive, too politically correct, no one listens, or nothing changes. However, while finding “skin tone” Band-Aids that don’t match YOUR skin tone (another example) may not be a life or death moment, collectively, these small moments have a big impact.

Privilege is not just experienced by men, or by white people. It is also experienced by societies and countries. While in Uganda, I have been contemplating the unearned privilege I have, given that I come from Canada. While intersectionality means that not everyone everywhere experiences privilege in the same way (based on ones’ gender/religion/race/socioeconomic status/sexual orientation/etc), this is a list of things that many people living in Western countries experience:

  1. I can apply for a visa and, if denied, I know it is not because of the country I come from.
  2. People from my country travel to other countries to do voluntourism.
  3. People from my country travel to other countries to do mission work, to ‘save’ people.
  4. I can easily access news about my country from abroad.
  5. I am never labelled as ‘backwards’, ‘cultural’, ‘helpless’, or ‘irrational’.
  6. I can access relatively affordable communication technology and stay in touch with family and friends around the world.
  7. My country participated in, or benefited from, colonialism.
  8. Most educational degrees received from my country are recognized by foreign institutions or are easily transferable to other countries.
  9. I can choose to learn, or not learn, about other places around the world. My choice will not have a bearing on people’s opinion of me and will not affect my opportunities.
  10. I have relatively easy access to credit and banking.
  11. I have relatively easy access to different means of transportation.
  12. I’ve never had to consistently ask family/friends/co-workers/community for money.
  13. When I travel, I don’t have to explain where I come from.
  14. No one assumes/thinks/worries that I will seek asylum/refugee status when I travel.
  15. Policies made in my country have an impact in other countries. I don’t have to worry about food and products being dumped into my country.
  16. Good quality primary and secondary education are free where I come from.
  17. Whether I use them or not, I have relatively more access to opportunities.
  18. I can move to another country and be called an expatriate, instead of an immigrant.
  19. The currency of my country is relatively strong. Moving to another country will likely make purchasing/buying things easier, not harder.

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