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White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

“Whiteness in a racist, corporate controlled society is like having the image of an American Express Card. . . . stamped on one’s face: immediately you are “universally accepted.”   — Manning Marable

 A while ago, my good friend and colleague, Di Harvey from the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak gave me a copy of an essay to read that she thought I would enjoy.  She was right – and like all good things that should be passed forward, I think that I should provide of a copy of this essay to you – but not yet!

The essay is entitled “Unpacking my knapsack of invisible white privilege” and was written by Peggy McIntosh.  Within this essay, Ms McIntosh delves into her “knapsack” to pull out and identify various aspects of her daily life where she enjoys certain “privileges” as a white woman living in America that are not available to indigenous or Black Americans.

Before reading those privileges declared by Ms McIntosh, it may be useful for the non-Indigenous readers of this post to similarly reflect on, identify and list those aspects of our daily lives where we enjoy certain privileges that are not readily accessible to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, friends and clients of our services.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers of this post will, no doubt, also be acutely aware of those privileges enjoyed by members of a dominant white culture that are not readily accessible to them and may also wish to record these from their perspective.

Ms McIntosh has listed 50 items.  Given that this represents the thoughts of one woman only, I would think that together, we should easily be able to identify and record at least 100 “privileges”.

To get the ball rolling, I have listed 5 of the “privileges” identified by Ms McIntosh within her essay.  Your challenge is to add to this list.  This may be as a result of your personal reflection or you may also wish to undertake this exercise as a workgroup within your respective organisations.

If you have not already lodged a pledge in support of the Combined Voices Initiative you may like to commit to undertaking this exercise as a part of your pledge.  Click Here

Periodically, we will re-visit the list that is being generated, provide you with a copy of Ms McIntosh‘s essay and encourage further reflection about any lessons being learned.  Here are the first five “privileges” identified by Ms McIntosh.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

Lindsay Wegener – Executive Director, PeakCare


UPDATE – 5th October 2011

So far, 16 statements have been added to the original 5, adding up to a total of 21 in all.  This is still a long way off 100!

The following lists a further 10 statements taken from Ms McIntosh’s essay.  This will raise the count to around 30 and leaves you with the job of identifying a further 70.

  1. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  2. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
  3. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  4. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  5. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  6. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  7. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  8. Whether I use cheques, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  9. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  10. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

Please add your reflections and list those aspects of your daily life where you enjoy certain privileges that are not readily accessible to your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, friends and clients of your service.

Lindsay Wegener – Executive Director, PeakCare


40 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tess #

    I can go out with a group of friends at night and no one will assume we are a gang and “up to no good”.

    August 24, 2011
  2. Andy #

    If I make a mistake its not because I am one of ‘those’ people.

    August 24, 2011
  3. I can let my kids run around, happily grubby in bare feet, and no one will think I am a bad parent.

    — Fiona

    August 24, 2011
  4. Sarah #

    I can have a few beers or glasses of wine when I’m out and no-one will think that I’m a public nuisance.

    I can go to the shops in my tracksuit pants and with messy hair and no shoes and can be pretty sure that the shop people will still serve me pleasantly.

    August 25, 2011
  5. Julie #

    I can have a few drinks without people thinking I am someone who cannot handle alcohol or am an alcoholic

    August 25, 2011
  6. Vanessa #

    1. My daughter can have a snotty nose and people will not judge me as a parent (they will assume she has a cold rather than being neglected!).

    2. I can enjoy alcohol without people assuming that I have an alcohol problem.

    3. I do not have to worry that I or my daughter is going to face racism or be judged because of our skin colour, rather it will be based on our behaviour.

    4. People do not ask me if I know someone because I have the same skin colour as that person.

    5. I can be employed by an organisation and feel confident that my role in the organisation is not tokenism.

    7. I am fairly confident that I could hail a cab late at night and it would stop to pick me up.

    8. Government policy in most instances benefits me and if I do not want to, I do not have to fight for my or my daughters basic human rights.

    I could go on and on 🙂

    August 25, 2011
  7. matt #

    Hey Lindsay,

    Another great blog. You are good at this.

    I can study at university without people questioning whether I deserve to be there or not.


    August 26, 2011
  8. Amanda #


    That we no longer label children on behaviours, but look at our behaviour towards them instead.

    August 30, 2011
  9. Robyn #

    I could read books at school and university and know they were designed just for my culture.

    September 17, 2011
  10. Julie Baker #

    If people are acting unusually towards me it doesn’t occur to me that it might be because of my skin colour or race.

    I can read a novel and assume the characters are white unless it is stated otherwise.

    When I go out in public I ‘blend in’ and am seen as ‘the norm’.

    October 5, 2011
  11. Danessa Willie-White #

    1. I can be sure to enjoy basic health care and not be treated as a number or a nuisance.
    2. I can enrol my children at a private school knowing that they’re interested in their education and future potential and not just the ATSI funding dollars attached to them.
    3. I can buy the right colour make up for my skin tone in most metropolitan and regional retail stores. Otherwise if I had dark to really dark skin tone I’d have to buy foundation on-line.
    4. I can buy the right colour of panty hose/stockings in any retail stores across Australia.
    5. I can practice my religion because mine wasn’t wiped out during and after colonisation of this country.
    6. My children don’t have to worry about stupid stereotypical comments at school in regard to sport or music.

    October 5, 2011
  12. Gayle Carr #

    I don’t have to go to a funeral every fortnight and bury my children

    October 6, 2011
  13. Lindsay Wegener #

    When I approach an organisation to enquire about something, I am not asked to identify my racial background without being told in what way my racial background has any relevance whatsover to my enquiry or to whom this information will be given.

    October 7, 2011
  14. Lindsay Wegener #

    If I happened to find myself sprawled out on a footpath unconscious one day, I think that I can be reasonably sure that a passer-by will check to see if I was okay or maybe phone for an ambulance.

    October 7, 2011
    • Gayle Carr #

      Hi Lindsay

      I am guessing that you are referring to one of the darkest days in QLD’s history when 62 year old, Aboriginal opera singer, Delmae Barton, suffered a stroke and collapsed at a bus stop at Griffith University and no one checked to see if she was OK for 5 hours! I have included a link to a newspaper article from 2006 in case others want to read about it.

      October 7, 2011
      • Lindsay Wegener #

        Hi Gayle
        Yes I did have that in mind. Thanks for adding the link – helps to make it “real”!

        October 7, 2011
  15. Lindsay Wegener #

    If I decide to declare my German ancestry, it’s not likely that Andrew Bolt will write a newspaper column disputing this on the basis that my eyes are not blue enough and my hair isn’t blonde.

    October 7, 2011
  16. Tess #

    I can visit a toy store and buy my child a doll that represents her skin, eye and hair colour.

    October 11, 2011
  17. Here are another ten statements.
    Come on folks – we are now at 55. That’s still a long way off 100!

    1. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

    2. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

    3. 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.

    4. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

    5. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

    6. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

    7. 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.

    8. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

    9. 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.

    10. 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.

    October 11, 2011
  18. Jim #

    If I decide to pay for something using a credit card, I can be confident in most intances that my signature will not be looked at very closely.

    October 16, 2011
  19. chris #

    If I am waiting to be served at a shop counter, I can be pretty sure that otheres who have waited less time than me will not be served first.

    October 16, 2011
  20. Jim #

    I don’t wake up very morning wondering which Government departments I will be dealing with during the course of the day.

    October 16, 2011
  21. Jim #

    If I were to be publiicly acknowledged as being very good at something, my racial background isn’t mentioned as some kind of statement that qualifies or limits my achievement in comparison to my peers.

    October 16, 2011
  22. Chris #

    I don’t feel uncomfortable walkng into an expensive restaurant

    October 16, 2011
  23. tim #

    I can be pretty sure i can go to a park with friends and family to celebrate a birthday and have a beer and not be moved on by police.

    I can be pretty sure that if I needed to access health services for myself or my family I would not be prejudged on the reasons why we needed them

    I can take my child to A&E for treatment and be fairly certain i will not be refered to child safety

    October 18, 2011
  24. Helen #

    If I am working as a qualified Social Worker, I am unlikely to have a boss who thinks that I am only able to work with people who are Anglo-Saxon.

    October 18, 2011
  25. Jeremy #

    I am not likely to come across people who think that because I was born in Europe, it makes no difference whether I am French, German, Italian or whatever – all Europeans share the same cultural beliefs, traditions and practices.

    October 18, 2011
  26. Lindsay Wegener #

    I am very likely to have read stories and watched movies about people who were involved in the European resistance during World War 11 and been taught to regard these people as heroes. It’s not likely that I will have even heard of Pemulwuy and Tedbury, much less been educated to regard them as heroes.

    October 18, 2011
  27. gary #

    i have no stories to relay about my parents or grandparents being made to sit at the back of the bus

    being white and male, i have always had the right to vote

    i have never been someone else’s property and neither have any of my descendants

    October 18, 2011
  28. gary #

    d’oh! and by descendants i mean ancestors.

    October 18, 2011
  29. Jim #

    Based on the life expectancy of non-Indigenous Australians, I can look foward to a reasonably long retirement in comparison with my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends.

    October 18, 2011
  30. Tony #

    Given the fact that my culture is now the dominant one, I don’t need to worry about whether those people who arrived on the First Fleet should have been processed on-shore or off-shore.

    October 19, 2011
  31. Sam #

    I can go to a meeting and agree with something that has been said without people thinking that the only reason that I am agreeing is because I’m white.

    October 19, 2011
  32. Sam #

    I can go to a meeting and disagree with something that has been said without people thinking that the only reason that I am disagreeing is because I’m white.

    October 19, 2011
  33. Peter #

    I can read a newspaper story about someone having committed a crime without worrying that the person who committed the cime might be white and if they are, how this will confirm the stereotypical views about white people held in many people’s minds

    October 19, 2011
  34. Christina #

    I don’t feel compelled to wait at the end of the line when I am waiting to catch a bus.

    October 19, 2011
  35. John #

    I don’t lie in bed at night wondering how long it will be before the English language has been forgotten along with other key elements of my culture.

    October 19, 2011
  36. Lorraine #

    Has anyone ever asked if you can prove you are ‘white’?

    November 11, 2011
  37. When my hands are full…people will go out of their way to open a door for me…

    January 7, 2012
  38. Every day actions are one thing – the actual power structure of Australia is everything. Fancy a good bloke James Cook sailing around for the British Navy, meeting a group of Aboriginal peoples around what is now Cooktown in 1770 – living with then for about 8 weeks and enjoying their hospitality and it has to be said their way of life – even stating it was more authentic than the stultifying class system back home (entry deleted) in his journal and then a few miles north actually having not negotiated with the inhabitants as he was instructed by the crown declaring “Terra Nullius” – he will never know the debiliating effects that his silly act has had on his wonderful hosts!

    BTW I am told “kangaroo” is a response to Joseph Banks by local people – he said – what is that and the reply of course was – kangaroo – animal of this country. Love it!

    The power to define.

    January 27, 2012

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