I have been having a lot of conversations about feminism in the last few months.
Like, a lot.
I have been a quiet feminist for a long time. I followed feminist instagram accounts and read feminist things, but I mostly kept my thoughts to myself. Then there was one little bump in the road, barely worth remembering, and it opened the floodgates.
I’m one of those on the internet: sharing feminist things, having debates, and being a little bit sassy.
One thing people ask about a lot is privilege: “I don’t feel like I have any privilege over anyone else.” Well, the very fact you don’t notice your privilege is privilege. Because, trust me, the people who don’t have that status do notice.
In 1988, in one of the first essays about privilege, Peggy McIntosh described it as a “package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day,” later describing it as an invisible knapsack:
White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes tools, and blank checks.Peggy mcintosh, “unpacking the invisible knapsack”
McIntosh spoke specifically about race and gender: the “advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages” but also the advantages of being born white. Now, privilege is recognized in many other realms: class, sexual orientation, religion, education, age, physical ability, etc.
Sometimes people argue against these ideas by saying that everyone is capable of making different choices, but this way of thinking fails to recognize the roadblocks in the way for some that simply do not exist for others. You may not recognize it, but we are all living in a damaged culture with systems designed to benefit certain groups of people – usually white men.
You didn’t do anything wrong by either being born into privilege or being born into oppression. That’s not the point. It’s what you do with it that matters: do you fight to maintain the status quo, or do you use your privilege to lift others up?
It’s also important to understand that this is not always on an individual, person-to-person level: it’s large scale, institutional, and systemic. “While individual experiences are important, we have to try to understand privilege in terms of systems and social patterns” (Privilege 101). So yes, while people may not recognize their own privilege on a personal and individual level, they benefit from a system and society that benefits them at the disadvantage of others. Look at the above privilege bingo. How many of those squares do you fit?
Intersectionality is the idea that different factors in discrimination can overlap with others. For example, as a white woman, I experience the systemic disadvantages of being a woman but also the privileges of being born white. I was able to go to university, my parents are still married, I identify as cisgender (the sex I was assigned at birth), and I am also heterosexual. Also, despite my constant complaints to the contrary, I am not poor. I am bad with my money but not poor.
All of these factors come together to create my lived experience of privilege alongside oppression. They do not cancel each other out. I can speak about the experience of being a woman but when it comes to speaking about racism or ableism or other -isms, it is important that I allow the people actually living with that oppression to speak.
There’s a lot of criticism in feminist circles about white women because they often show up in spaces for people of colour to say “we’re not all bad!” But that’s missing the point. I don’t take it as a personal attack when I hear things like that: I recognize my own privilege and do what I can do dismantle oppressive systems.
Peggy McIntosh concludes:
“I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. So one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them.”peggy mcintosh
There are ways to use your privilege in ways that help the “other.” But sitting on your hands, comfortable in the status quo, and saying, “not me!” is complicity. So, how do you use your privilege for good?
- Recognize and acknowledge your (white, male, heterosexual, etc) privilege.
- Speak out against (racism, sexism, oppression, discrimination) when you see it.
- Prepare to be uncomfortable. If it’s uncomfortable for you, imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for the people living it.
So we can sit around and pontificate about whether or not privilege exists, but that’s of real no benefit to anybody. Instead of crying “not all men!” or “not all white people!” channel that energy into actually doing something about it. Google is free, do your research.
Check your privilege, and ditch the knapsack.