Peggy McIntosh
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(Music) (Applause) I imagine a hypothetical line of social justice. A hypothetical line — an imaginary line of social justice that is parallel to the floor, also parallel to the Earth. And on this imaginary line of social justice, things feel fair. Below it, one can be pushed down either as a member of a group or an individual, through bullying, teasing, being stereotyped, having prejudices against one or one's group, being a survivor of genocide, being a scapegoat, being a discarded person. What I study, is what happens above the hypothetical line of social justice. And in school, I was never taught to even notice this realm. Above the hypothetical line, one can be pushed up, believed, thought worthy of responsibility, considered to be responsible with money, considered to be capable of doing the school work, or any other kind of work. One can be seen as representative of the best. That's privilege. Above the hypothetical line of justice, one has more than one deserved because of circumstances of birth and other people's positive projections onto one. And below it is disadvantage. That is unearned disadvantage. And I believe everybody in this room has a combination of both experiences. Having more than we actually earned, and having less than we've actually earned. And I didn't used to think this way. I was raised, as many of you have been, on the myth of meritocracy, which is, the unit of society is the individual. And whatever the individual ends up with at death, is what that individual worked for and earned and deserved and wanted. Well, it isn't true. These privileged systems which locate us above and below the hypothetical line of social justice were invented, and we were born into them. And we all know both sides. And that's a reason for compassion about the sadness of having been born into systems that gave us such — and here I quote the poet Adrienne Rich, such different politics of location. I came to notice privilege because I noticed male privilege. And then I noticed, in parallel fashion, white privilege. And both of these things were very distressing. I hated learning about privilege systems. But I found I had to, to explain my life. Three years in a row, men and women in a seminar I was leading at Wellesley College, Wellesley Centers for Women, got into a bad relation with each other in the spring of each year. We had monthly seminars. They were great. The men and the women were all professors from different colleges in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New England. And we were talking about quite a difficult subject, but fascinating. How to bring materials on women into all the liberal arts curriculum, in every field? So how to bring women's history into political science, economics, sociology, psychology, literature, music, art, PT, all of the technical fields as well. And the men were our allies. They were very brave. They had taken a fair amount of flak on their campuses for coming to a women's college to talk about women's studies, and bringing it to the main curriculum, not keeping it isolated. These were great men. And very nice men. And yet, three years running with different groups of men, there was a falling out that I realized as I looked through my notes, took this form as a natural occurrence in the spring. Toward the spring of the year in these monthly seminars, once we all trusted each other pretty well, the women would just raise this question. "Can't we do some of this teaching about women in the introductory courses that the students take first year in college, the freshman courses?" And the men, to a person, every year, said, "We're sorry. You know, this is a great seminar, we love doing this work, but you can't put anything on women into the freshman courses." I was a prodigious note taker, and I found in my notes one man had said, "When you're trying to lay the foundation blocks for knowledge in those introductory courses, you can't put in soft stuff." Well, thanks a lot. (Laughter) And I remember my first thought was, he doesn't understand labor pains. (Laughter) But also, let me ask you, exactly who here has a truly soft mother? (Laughter) And in that comment, he was including women in general. But he was a very nice man. I had a comment written down from another year when the women also asked, how can we get this material into the first year courses? And a very, very nice man said, in an explanatory way, "See, that first year, the students are trying to figure out what will be their major. That's their discipline. And if you want students to think in a disciplined way, you can't put in extras." Now every one of these very nice men is born of a woman. And she has become extra in his head. Together with, lots of them were married to women. His wife, his daughter, his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts, they've all become extra. And I'm wondering, how have they become extra, and this is such a nice man? And then I was rescued from my dilemma, which was, I had to choose. I had to choose whether these are nice men, and I knew they were, and brave. Or whether they were oppressive. And I was experiencing them as oppressive. And in the dilemma of thinking I had to choose, I was rescued by remembering that, back in 1980, black women in the Boston area had written a number of essays to the effect that white women are oppressive to work with. Not just some white women. White women were oppressive to work with. I thought, oh dear. Now, I remember how I responded to those essays. My first response, the "oh dear" response was "I don't see how they can say that about us! I think we're nice." (Laughter) And my second response, which is mortifying to admit, but this is how racist I was in 1980. I thought, I especially think we're nice if we work with them. You can hear the white superiority there. And as I recalled my responses to reading those essays — by now it was six years later — I thought, oh, I hope my attitudes didn't show. I hope I was so nice I covered them over. But after struggling with that for a couple of years, I said yes, I was oppressive to work with. And my niceness didn't cover my basic racial superiority assumption. And then I thought, maybe niceness has nothing to do with it. And that's what I believe today. Niceness has nothing at all to do with this whole matter of being oppressive to others. I found that now I went back to the men, these are nice men, but they were very good students of what they were taught, and what I was taught also. Which is men have knowledge, men make more knowledge, men publish knowledge, men profess knowledge as professors. Men run all the major research universities, and men run all of the university presses. And they have taken in, as I had, too, the idea that knowledge is male, and men are knowers. And then I realized why my husband has trouble asking for directions when we're lost. (Laughter) It's the identity he was taught is that he is a knower. And I thought, in parallel fashion, and this is sickening to realize, it's messing up my world picture that I deserved everything I've got. Now, I was taught that whites have knowledge. Whites make more knowledge, whites publish knowledge, and whites profess knowledge as professors. And whites run the big research universities. And whites run the university presses. And I drank in the idea that knowledge is white, and white people are knowers. And to this day, in my major project, the SEED project, whose core staff is nine people of color and five whites, I will, unless I check myself, second guess, and doubt, and judge everything said — every sentence, every word, said by my colleagues of color. I will do it because my hard drive is wired with the white privilege that I am a knower. And among my nine colleagues of color, the level of knowledge and understanding, and intelligence isn't as high as it is in me. But, luckily I have alternative software I can install. And when I install the alternative software, I realize these people have been my major teachers. And I have so much to learn from them. They are not defective variants of whites. They are my major teachers. So once I began to see that, it was churning my stomach to realize that I had white privilege that I hadn't earned, but it was putting me ahead. Then I realized why, at the Wellesley Centers for Women, I could get big grants my colleagues of color couldn't. Because I had the knowledge system on my side as a white person. And I realized also the foundations which gave us money, or the federal government, it was then — they still are in general — run by whites. And I was trusted, then, with money — with big pots of money, because I was white. Not because I had earned that trust. So having seen those things, I asked myself, what else do I have that I didn't earn because I'm white, when I compare myself with African-American colleagues here in my building at Wellesley Centers for Women. And my conscious mind said, nothing. So I asked again, on a daily basis, what do I get, beside the money system and the knowledge system helping me out, that my colleagues of color can't count on? And once again, my mind, with the three degrees, and the good grades, it said, nothing. But I couldn't believe it. I thought I'd seen something huge and began to name it white privilege. Unearned advantage that came because of my racial/ethnic status or projected worth. So I decided I had to pray on it. And I went to sleep one night — angrily, really. It wasn't the usual prayer in which you ask for something, I was demanding. I said, if I have anything I didn't earn by contrast of my black friends, except the money system and the knowledge system, show me. And in the middle of the night, along came an example. I switched on the light — it woke me up of course — and I wrote it down. And over the next three months, 46 elements of unearned advantage came to me. And they're in my paper, "White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," and my paper, "White Privilege and Male Privilege," a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. And then I decided, because this work was spreading in many places, I needed to help with the matter of white guilt. I don't believe we can be guilty, or ashamed, or blamed for being born into systems both above and below the hypothetical line of social justice. They're arbitrary. They have to do with projections onto us, owing to our neighborhood, or our parents' relation to money, or our body type, or our hair, or our language of origin. They have to do with our region of the country — these projections that are put on to us, and the rewards or punishments relate to our sex, to our gender, to our sexual orientation, to our race, to our ethnicity, to our parents' reputation, to stereotypes people may have about the kinds of group we were born into. I don't think blame, shame, or guilt are relevant to the arbitrariness of our placement in privilege systems. But I decided, beside the metaphor I originally used of white privilege as an invisible knapsack I can't see or feel on my back, but it's filled with assets that I can count on cashing in each day — beside that, and the assets include the equivalent of freeze-dried food, emergency blanket, flashlight, maps, code books, guide books, letters of introduction, even, maybe, blank checks. But beside that, I decided to put a second metaphor. And that's the metaphor of white privilege as a bank account that I was given. I didn't ask for it, and I can't be blamed for it, but I can decide to put it in the service of weakening the system of white privilege. That is my energy. That is my financial commitment. That is my daily life. And it's been transformative to use my bank account of white privilege to weaken the system of white privilege. It has absolutely transformed my life to be in work that feels right. And it's not based on guilt. I don't know exactly the wording for it, but I I found that, when I put my white privilege in this service of weakening white privilege, the bank account keeps refilling, because I get the benefit of the doubt. So the cops arresting me for speeding tend to let me off. I get the benefit of the doubt because I'm a little old lady with white hair. (Laughter) And my papers are in order, and my voice is soft. So I get let off. It's not fair. But I don't want to say, "Officer, officer, arrest me!" (Laughter) Because that'll put our insurance up. (Laughter) But every day in every way, bank account of white privilege refills, and I get the benefit of the doubt. It has been transformative to use the power I did not know, I was never taught that I had, in the service of kinder, fairer, and more compassionate life for everyone. Thank you. (Applause)