In Shakti Butler's documentary film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Peggy McIntosh recalls the genesis of her groundbreaking essay on white privilege:
In 1980, I had read two essays by black women who had laid it out just like a given: "White women are oppressive to work with."
And I remember reading those two essays with astonishment. They were so factual about it: “White women are oppressive to work with. And I had two thoughts, in 1980, and I still remember them.
One was, “I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice!”
And the second, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980, “I especially think we're nice if we work with them.”
Then I thought, “Did we fill the reading lists, and the programs, and Women’s Studies, with white people’s stuff?”
And at first I said, “maybe,” and then I said, “yes.”
And then I asked myself, “If I have anything I didn’t earn, by contrast with my African American friends in this building, show me.”
And I had to pray on it, and I asked my unconscious mind to answer my question. And after three months, forty-six examples had swum up, most of them in the middle of the night.
And if I didn’t flick on a light and write them down, they’d be gone by morning, because I didn’t want to know them. They were messing up my view of myself as a person who’d earned everything I had.
I first read Peggy McIntosh’s essay about a dozen years ago, and I’ve been trying to keep my own white privilege in mind ever since. As McIntosh says in her essay, though, it’s a “fugitive and elusive subject,” and keeping an awareness of white privilege up front in one’s consciousness throughout the day can be difficult. White-majority environments discourage that kind of self-awareness.
I also find it difficult to remember specific examples of my own white privilege, and so like Peggy McIntosh, I write them down.
I’ll end this post with some examples from my recent life—from today, actually—and then with the trailer from Shakti Butler’s lucid and moving film.
- As I walked around in several stores today, I never felt self-conscious about my race.
- I never felt outnumbered by people of a different race.
- As I drove down the highway at my usual ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I never worried that my race could make me a more likely target for a ticket.
- As I drove through small towns on my lengthy commute to work, I never felt a need to remind myself that some of them were, until quite recently, sundown towns, and that most or all of them still weren’t exactly welcoming to people who are not the same color as me.
- When I cut my finger while cooking tonight, the bandages that I’d hastily grabbed from a grocery store shelf pretty much matched the color of my skin.
- When I spoke with a white colleague about the extra and excessive scrutiny that a recent black job candidate had received compared to the white ones, my claims were met with skepticism, but I never felt that my own race further discredited what I was saying. I realized that instead, it did the opposite.
- As I thought about the conversation afterward, I realized that I have never faced the many stress-inducing trials that a successful black job candidate would face in my workplace—and that in fact, my whiteness continually paves a smoother, less stressful path before me as I navigate that workplace.
- Throughout the day and into the evening, no negative incidents occurred that made me wonder if what happened had something to do with my race.
- When I had dinner at a multiracial gathering, I never felt self-conscious in racial terms about which foods I should eat.
- When I arrived late for that gathering, I didn’t worry about whether my lateness was a bad reflection on me in terms of my racial status.
- As I conversed with my friends, I never worried if anything about my manner of speaking or the words and phrases that I used might reflect badly on me in terms of race.
- As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, waiting for some friends to emerge from a house, I never worried that my race could make me a potential target for harassment by police.
- As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, I realized that if I had encountered the police at any point during the day, the law enforcement official would probably have been a member of my own race. Even if he or she had not been, I would be likely to trust that person to deal with me fairly and respectfully, and I would not have worried in either case that my race would put me at risk in the encounter.
- As I now head for bed, I realize that I’ll probably sleep better than I would if I were not white, having had that much less of a stressful day.
[Here's another video that combines McIntosh's interview, quoted above, with her list of forty-six examples of white privilege from her own life.]