White-Skin Privilege Checklist

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College for Research on Women, penned the essay, White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (Andersen & Collins, 2013, pp. 49-53).  She stated that her work in women’s studies led her to realize that although men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, and that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.   This is when she considered how women of color stated that white women are oppressive, too.  This helped her to understand why white-skinned folks “are justly seen as oppressive, even when they don’t see themselves that way”.   She began to list the ways in which she enjoyed unearned white-skin privilege and had been “conditioned into oblivion about its existence”.

The following are the examples that Dr. McIntosh provided of the ways in which white-skinned folks like me have privilege simply because we have been born with white-skin.

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

2. 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.

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

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

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. 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.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

12. 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.

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

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

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

16. 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.

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

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

21. 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.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

25. If my day of the week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial undertones.

26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

Andersen, M. L., & Hill Collins, P. (2013). Race, class, and gender : An anthology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Privilege: The Choice to See or Not to See

For most of my life, I thought of myself as a typical or ‘average’ and ‘normal’ person.  I ‘fit in’ with most of the social norms that existed in the specific area in which I lived and also in the greater society in general.  For example, I grew up in a working middle-class family that lived in a working middle-class neighborhood that existed in a society that emphasized the importance of ‘middle-class’ social ideals.  I attended their schools and I participated in their customs and rituals.  One of their most important rituals was related to entertainment and consumption.  What I ate, what I wore on my body, the toys that I played with, and where my family vacationed, for example, were all a part of the customs and rituals that confirmed who I was in relation to the greater society in general.  If I did as they did, namely consume as they dictated and enjoyed the entertainments that they valued, by my actions I confirmed that I was one of them.

Fitting in with this social norm was the expected behavior, because doing as such was the best way to ensure one’s position of safety and security within this society, the one in which I was born.  So I did make myself fit in, or at least I attempted to.  My line of sight was narrowly focused on my own personal existence and my own survival.  I followed the number one rule, to work hard so that I might ‘get ahead’ in life.  From that vantage point I had never thought about the violent nature that is embedded in those strange notions.

I, at one time, had wanted to be just like them – ‘just-folks’.  Yet I simultaneously maintained contrary goals of wishing for great achievement, of getting ahead and of becoming the best I could be and of acquiring the most and the best of what the world had to offer.  I could  would see two (and only two) options – average and better.  Yet notions of comparison, such as typical, average, and normal also carry with them unstated assumptions that there also exists the less-than-average and the abnormal, and herein lies the root of the evil.  I was unwilling to see, to acknowledge, that in order for there to be an average, or middle-class, that by definition then, there must also necessarily be a less-than-average and a lower-class.  This situation is less-than-just, for sure.

I lived my life blind.  I used my language in a fashion that allowed me to frame my ideas in such a way that it permitted me to use myself as a point of (normal) reference.  Therefore, it was normal to live in a house with a car in the garage in the suburbs.  It was normal for the children to go to school each day, while the parents went to work.  It was normal to have ‘three square meals’ plus snacks each day.  Adults worked.  Children played.  This, to me, was normal.  These were things to which I was entitled and I could fairly expect that it would always happen this way.  The system was designed to meet my needs and I followed my roles and played the game.  From my limited experience and my clouded point of view, I wished to believe that ‘everyone’ lived this way.  I did not even consider that others may not enjoy this same entitlement.  My notions about my own normalcy and average-ness clouded my ability to see that, in reality, I lived with a great many privileges, advantages and opportunities, many of which I did not ‘earn’ and of which many, many ‘others’ were denied.

Of course, I was aware of the ‘others’ because I knew that there were poor people, but such thoughts are rather unpleasant and therefore I pushed those thoughts far, far away.  On a few occasions I chose to leave my secure little world.  These were the instances in which I sometimes found myself faced with the reality of people living less than exemplary lives.  One example is the time, when I was traveling on vacation.  I arose unusually early in the morning and left the hotel in search of my morning coffee.  To my surprise, I came upon people sleeping outdoors, seeking shelter in the doorways of public buildings.  When confronted with incidents such as this, I had a tendency to contemplate about what sort of choices it might have been that these folks must have made that resulted in their terrible circumstance and unfortunate quality of life outcome.  I might wonder about the possibility of drug and alcohol use, for example.  I still believed in the myth of the meritocracy, a philosophy which holds the belief that personal responsibility and personal choice are the sole determining factors of a person’s social standing.  I was young, and full of hope, and very, very naive.

I had learned a rather mythical version of a patriotic U.S.A. and it’s history – the home of the brave and the land of the free, a place where it is believed that all men are created equal.  This myth is prevalent in mainstream U.S. culture.  It exists in the stories we pass from generation to generation.  We share these stories in many ways, such as by the celebration of our national holidays – Columbus Day, for example.  I was taught to be a patriotic citizen by celebrating Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America.  Yet, from a different perspective, it is perhaps more true that Native Americans discovered Columbus, who was lost at sea.  If I do choose to celebrate Columbus Day (and I do have that choice), I must likewise choose to ignore the reality of the rape and pillage of the American natives.  My community and my culture, has provided me with a convenient story, a myth if you will, that allows me the privilege to choose to only partially see.

Being a member of dominating groups that maintain the better part of unequal power distribution allows me to take advantage of many such privileges, that I previously did not see.  I receive benefits from the existence of ‘white privilege’ and also from the Christian right.  I benefit from systemic forms of racism, classism, ageism, and many other isms that provide special opportunities and privileges that it was especially convenient for me to simply choose not to see.  My special position in this social hierarchy allows me the choice to either see or not to see.

For example, my special position of privilege has now allowed me the opportunity to attend college.  There I began to learn of the many other stories and perspectives concerning the history of ‘America’.  I had only a very little knowledge of the ever-present oppression – the denial of choice, the denial of opportunity, the denial of meeting one’s basic needs – of women, of children, of people of color, of immigrants, of the aged, the disabled, and more.  I have learned of another ‘America’, one that sustains a system of structural violence.  Furthermore, once again, I have the privilege to choose if I wish to see.  I may, if I wish, choose to use this system to ‘get ahead’ or I may choose, if I wish, to ask myself, “Ahead of whom?” and “Why?”

I have come to understand that the manner in which I use my language is imbedded into my very culture, and because of that, I hardly notice it.  Yet my use of language structures what I have come to realize is a violent thought process.  I think perhaps, that I should enjoy learning a new way of using my language and a new way of structuring my ideas.  What a wonderful choice that would be.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thinking About Justice and Equality

Martha’s Minow’s discussion in her essay, Making all The Difference (Braveman, 1995, pp. 91-106) concerning the Pregnancy Discrimination Act sheds some light on our own thought processes that may either hinder or contribute to situations of justice.  In this essay, Minow noted the need for clear definitions of terms used and also the consideration of many perspectives when attempting to consider situations of justice/injustice.

Minow wrote that when considering how pregnancy relates to sex-discrimination in the workplace, debates arose over the definition of the term discrimination.  Was discrimination really differential treatment? If so, then favorable treatment toward pregnant women would be a form of discrimination, too. She explained that from one perspective, “any distinction on the basis of sex – would perpetuate the negative stereotypes long used to demean and exclude women” while another perspective considered was that “denying the facts of pregnancy and the needs of new mothers could only hurt women; treating women like men in the workplace violated demands of equality (Bender and Braveman, 1995, p. 96).”

This last statement concerning ‘violating demands of equality’ is another important aspect of justice that needs to be considered. What exactly does the term equality mean in a world that is filled with different people, all having different backgrounds, cultures and histories, and different body types, different experiences, and different ways of understanding their world, etc?

Perhaps when the term equality is used, there should also be a definition offered. Equality may be thought of in many different ways.  Conley (2011) described four standards of equality:

  • Ontological Equality, or ‘the notion that everyone is created equal in the eyes of God”
  • Equality of Condition, which is “the idea that everyone should have an equal starting point”
  • Equality of Opportunity, which is “the idea that inequality of condition is acceptable so long as the rules of the game, so to speak, remain fair”
  • Equality of Outcome, which is a “position that argues each player must end up with the same amount regardless of the fairness of the ‘game’ (pp. 234-238)”

When I consider the above definitions (and I know that there are many more), I am left wondering if ‘equality’ is even something that ought to be considered.  I think that perhaps, instead, the real issue at hand is one of justice – which is a completely different matter.

In her essay, Minow also described how California’s pregnancy disability leave statute addressed this issue as one of attempting to achieve justice – by using a different measure of ‘equality’ than what had previously been considered. Under this statute, men, as well as women, were extended (comparable) benefits following maternity or pregnancy leaves.  It was necessary to change one’s perspective and to use women as the reference to which ‘others’ were to be compared in order to resolve the conflict and achieve justice. (Thank you Justice Marshall!)

What I find most interesting in this story is that there existed an unstated assumption that women should be compared to men (but not the other way around), until Justice Marshall ruled otherwise.

Sometimes we may find it very difficult to even ‘see’ alternative ways of thinking.

Matthew 13:15
New American Standard Bible (NASB)

For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law : A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Pub. Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.

Conley, D. (2011). You may ask yourself : An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.