White Privilege Unpacking The Invisible Backpack Essay Definition

Peggy McIntosh. (July/August, 1989). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom.


It is easy for me to walk into a stationery store and find a greeting card appropriate for my family or most of my friends. But recently, my wife and I wanted to send a card to dear friends who just had a baby girl. But we had a challenging experience finding the right card. The problem was not in the lack of congratulatory messages, but in the lack of cards which properly identify with our friends. Our friends are African American. It is also heartbreaking to notice that their birth announcement portrays a sketch of a white baby; they, too, had a hard time finding an appropriate greeting.

This is white privilege.

According to Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, “white privilege” is “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” This discovery came as she was preparing a research article concerning male privilege in America. Her studies in this field were rooted in findings of men’s unwillingness to acknowledge their over-privileged status, though they would admit the disadvantaged state of women. These denials, in essence, protected male privilege from being acknowledged, decreased, or curtailed. Calling out this unacknowledged male privilege phenomenon, McIntosh knew that since hierarchies in the society of the United States were interlocking, her finding of unattended white privilege might be a key to racism as well. She realized that while she was under the dominance of males, she had dominance over other women who were of another ethnic origin, particularly black women.

For McIntosh, racism is taught as something which puts another at a disadvantage. In light of the preceding, she realized an erroneous omission in the teaching of racism: if some are disadvantaged, a significant corollary must be that another is placed in a position of advantage. Specifically, white privilege must be the translated position of advantage.

McIntosh finds that whites are taught “to think of their lives as a morally neutral, normative, and average ideal, so that when [we] work to benefit others, it’s seen as work allowing “them” to be more like “us.” This kind of teaching establishes a silent, but strong belief that the white is superior, even deserving our advantages.

McIntosh describes white privilege vividly and powerfully as the idea of an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions and more. In other words, a white person in the United States has on his or her back an invisible weightless knapsack granting favored positions, status, acceptance, and more.


In wading through the disillusionment the reality of realized white privilege brings upon one’s life, McIntosh understood that it then made one newly accountable. McIntosh began working through this issue first in herself through accountability in counting the ways in which she enjoyed “unearned skin privilege;” possibly even more grievous, she noted that she had been conditioned into oblivion of its existence.  Likely, many whites operate in such oblivion.

Here are some of the items that she found to compose an invisible white knapsack:

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  3. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  4. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  5. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  6. 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 …
  7. 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.
  8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  9. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  10. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  11. 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.
  12. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.
  13. 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.
  14. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  15. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

These few components of the invisible white knapsack encompass social, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of one’s life. This means, therefore, that the invisible white knapsack serves holistically for the unearned privilege of one, and contributes towards holistic injustice of another.


After “unpacking the invisible knapsack” with this list, McIntosh outlines why she believes that “privilege” is too soft a word. She asserts that “dominance” is more appropriate; the mental control that a particular race has over another is a sort of dominance. We are really talking about power. The conditions above allow for the systematic over-empowerment of certain groups. In short, such privilege “confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.” Such dominance, whether intentional or unintentional, is embedded in white privilege. McIntosh suggests that no longer are the chains of power made of metal; rather, they are made of mental control devises such as the ones listed. But no one is held responsible because of the oblivious nature of the whole thing. She believes that it is perhaps as damaging as slavery.

McIntosh goes on to say that disapproving of racist systems will not be enough to change them. However, systemic change can begin with the acknowledgment, identification of, and teaching of white privilege for oneself and then others. Individuals must understand what is happening and then make others aware. Once everyone understands white privilege, the issues of control can be addressed and eradicated. Only after such persistent and patient work, may one hope for system changes.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you agree with McIntosh about the concept, and reality, of the ‘invisible knapsack?’ Do you see how this invisible knapsack can also express itself in terms of religion or age? If not, how would you interpret her findings? Do you think this is a specifically American phenomenon or is it an international one?
  2. Have you listened to the stories of people of color disadvantaged when they drive, when they go into a store, and in many other daily experiences? How do they feel about “white privilege”?
  3. How does the matter of an unfair playing field make you feel if you are a ‘wearer’ of such a ‘knapsack’ – Distressed? Outraged? Indifferent? Hopeless in bringing change? If you are one oppressed by the ‘knapsack’ others seem to have, what are your feelings: – Angry? Saddened? Justified? More isolated?
  4. What are some things you can add to McIntosh’s list as examples of your own ‘invisible knapsack’ if you believe yourself to wear one? Do you unintentionally perpetuate white privilege—how?
  5. How were you taught about racism, through your family, peers, media and educational system?
  6. What can you do to lessen the effect or remove the ‘invisible knapsack’ if you believe yourself to wear one? Will you continue to identify how unearned race advantage and conferred dominance affects your daily life if you are in such the position of ‘favor?’ What can you do to end “white privilege”?
  7. Do you think others in your surrounding sphere understand this view of racism? Are there positive ways you can discuss it with them?


Though outright racism still exists, it occurs to a lesser degree—or perhaps just slightly different forms—than it did even thirty years ago. The experiences of people of color deny any “end of racism” that some may claim. Though there are no longer U.S. slaves, people with light skin still dominate dark-skinned people in the mental obstacles that are ignorantly positioned. As a light skinned American, it’s easy to believe that anyone can achieve whatever they desire-and if they don’t, it’s their own fault because they didn’t try hard enough.

When one recognizes the inherent advantages of being fair-skinned, one must adjust his or her thinking. But don’t assume that race-based hiring is the immediate solution. If this age and society continues to prevent dark-skinned people from having a fair chance, then no government program will solve the deeper problem. However, if popular media and teachers join forces, then those in power will be forced to address their method of control, and the barriers may begin to crumble.

Here are several suggestions:

  • The language of white privilege must be included in any education on racism. Without understanding the underlying barriers, no one can address the real concerns. Few people will openly admit racist attitudes, but everyone with fair skin should at least admit that they have a privilege and consider relinquishing that privilege in the marketplace of ideas and money.
  • Media personalities can lead in the breaking down of racial stereotypes. Racial identity may be an important factor for people, but perpetuating negative stereotypes does not break down walls. If media personalities such as TV and movie stars and respected news anchors and talk show hosts begin to address issues of white privilege, the masses will learn about the issues. This will allow us, as a society, to effectively deal with the problem of racism.
  • Difficult as it may be, we deal best with racism and other kinds of discrimination by listening and responding to one another.

Shelly E. Bland and Matthew Furr

© 2018 CYS
Peggy McIntosh

Peggy McIntosh

BornMargaret Vance Means
(1934-11-07) November 7, 1934 (age 83)
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Alma materRadcliffe College, BA
Harvard University, MA and PhD
OccupationSenior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women
Founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity)
Director of the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project
Co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute
Consulting Editor to Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women
EmployerWellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College
Known forWriting on white and male privilege, privilege systems, five interactive phases of curricular revision, and feelings of fraudulence
WebsiteWCW BioSEED Bio

Peggy McIntosh (born November 7, 1934) is an Americanfeminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is the founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).[1] She and Emily Style co-directed SEED for its first twenty-five years. She has written on curricular revision, feelings of fraudulence, and professional development of teachers.

In 1988, she published the article White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work on Women's Studies.[2] This analysis, and its 1989 shorter form White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,[2] pioneered putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of power, gender, race, class and sexuality in the United States. The papers rely on personal examples of unearned advantage that McIntosh says she experienced in her lifetime, especially from 1970 to 1988. McIntosh encourages individuals to reflect on and recognize their own unearned advantages and disadvantages as parts of immense and overlapping systems of power. Her better known works include Feeling Like a Fraud Parts I-III (1985, 1989, 2000); Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective (1983); Interactive Phases of Curricular and Personal Re-Vision with Regard to Race (1990).[3]

Education and teaching career[edit]

McIntosh was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in New Jersey, where she attended public schools in Ridgewood and Summit, where she spent one year at Kent Place School, before attending George School in Newtown, PA. After studying English at Radcliffe College and at University College, London, she became a teacher at Brearley, an all-girls school in New York City, where she taught an "all-male curriculum". McIntosh went on to receive her PhD at Harvard University, where she wrote her dissertation on Emily Dickinson's "Poems about Pain".[4] She has held teaching positions at what was then Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) in Washington, D.C., University of Durham in England and the University of Denver, where she was tenured and experimented with "radical teaching methods in English, American Studies, and Women's Studies." With Dr. Nancy Hill, McIntosh cofounded The Rocky Mountain Women's Institute, which, for thirty five years, annually gave "money and a room of one's own" to ten women who were not supported by other institutions and were working on projects in the arts and many other fields.

McIntosh has worked at what is now the Wellesley Centers for Women since 1979. In 1986, she founded SEED, which became the nation’s largest peer-led professional development project that helps faculty to create curricula, teaching methods, and classroom climates that are multicultural, gender-fair, and inclusive of all students regardless of their backgrounds.[5] McIntosh currently serves as a Senior Research Associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women.[6] She directs the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project, which provides workshops on privilege systems, feelings of fraudulence, and diversifying workplaces, curricula, and teaching methods.[7]

McIntosh was featured in "Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible",[8] a documentary film produced by World Trust, revealing "what is often required [of people] to move through the stages of denial, defensiveness, guilt, fear, and shame into making a solid commitment to ending racial injustice."[9]

As a speaker, McIntosh has presented or co-presented at over 1,500 private and public institutions and organizations, including 26 campuses located in Asia.

Invisible knapsack[edit]

In her 1988 essay, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,[10] McIntosh describes her understanding of "white privilege" (unearned advantage based on race) which can be observed both systemically and individually, like all unearned privileges in society (e.g. privilege related to class, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability). After observing and investigating what she calls "unacknowledged male privilege," held unconsciously by men, McIntosh concluded that since hierarchies in society are interlocking, she probably experienced a "white privilege" analogous to male privilege. McIntosh used the metaphor of white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks".[10]:2

In her original 1988 essay, McIntosh listed forty-six of her own everyday advantages, such as "I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed", "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race", and "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."[10]:3

McIntosh has stated that in order to study systems of advantage and disadvantage as they impact individuals, "Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one's place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents' places of origin, or your parents' relationship to education, to money, or to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background."[11] She believes that all people in the U.S. have a combination of systemic, unearned advantage and disadvantage. She feels it is not possible to do work against racism without doing work against white privilege anymore than it is possible to do work against sexism without doing work against male privilege.

In 1989, the original White Privilege and Male Privilege essay was edited down to 3 pages, by Roberta Spivek for Peace and Freedom, the magazine of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. It was titled White Privilege:Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.[12] This short piece has been included in K-12 and higher education course materials and cited as an influence for many later generations of social justice commentators.[13][14][15]

McIntosh has written other articles on white privilege, including White Privilege: Color and Crime[16];White Privilege, An Account to Spend[17]; and White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place.[18]

SEED Project[edit]

McIntosh founded the National SEED Project ("Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity") in 1986. Emily Style, as founding co-director, parterned with McIntosh for the SEED Project's first twenty-five years. From 2001 until 2011, Brenda Flyswithhawks joined them as the third co-director. SEED has become the largest peer-led faculty development project in the US. McIntosh believed that teachers were capable of being the leaders of their own adult development with regard to teaching equitably. Monthly peer-led SEED seminars are designed as round table testimonies about teachers' past and present experiences in life and in schooling. Seminar members, including parents and community members, become more aware of their experiences of systemic oppression associated with their gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, inside and outside of the structures of schooling. The discussions help teachers to develop ways of implementing gender-fair and globally-informed curricula for students.

Since the first SEED Project meeting in 1987, SEED has trained 2,200 K-16 teachers in 40 states and 14 countries, indirectly impacting millions of students. The SEED Project has been funded by private donors, local school support, and 15 foundations, including the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In 2011, McIntosh stepped down as the project's co-director.


  1. ^SEED Project website, at Wellesley Centers for Women.
  2. ^ ab"National SEED Project - Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege Papers". National SEED Project. Wellesley Centers for Women. Retrieved 16 March 2017. 
  3. ^"Publication Peggy McIntosh Wellesley Centers for Women". www.wcwonline.org. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  4. ^With Ellen Hart, she co-wrote the Introduction to Dickinson in The Heath Anthology of American Literature.https://college.cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/early_nineteenth/dickinson_em.html
  5. ^“About Us.” National SEED Project. National SEED Project, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, 2013–2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. Nationalseedproject.org
  6. ^WCW Researchers.” Wellesley College. Trustees of Wellesley College. Web. 16 March 2017. Wellesley.edu
  7. ^"Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education". wcwonline. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  8. ^"Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible". WorldCat. OCLC Online Computer Library Center. Retrieved 19 November 2016. 
  9. ^"Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible". World Trust. World Trust Educational Services. Retrieved 19 November 2016. 
  10. ^ abcMcIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies". Wellesley: Center for Research on Women," 1988. Working paper 189. Print.
  11. ^Rothman, Joshua (13 May 2014). "The Origins of "Privilege"". The New Yorker. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  12. ^Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack 16 March 2017
  13. ^Crosley-Corcoran, Gina (May 8, 2014). "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  14. ^Weinburg, Cory (May 28, 2014). "The White Privilege Moment". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  15. ^Solomona, R. P., Portelli, J. P., Daniel, B. J., & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of denial: How white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege’. Race ethnicity and education, 8(2), 147–169.
  16. ^McIntosh, Peggy (1998). "White Privilege, Color, and Crime: A Personal Account". In Mann, Coramae Richey. Images of Color, Images of Crime. Roxbury Publishing. 
  17. ^McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege, An Account to Spend." The Saint Paul Foundation. St Paul, Minnesota. 2009
  18. ^McIntosh, Peggy. "White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place." The Saint Paul Foundation. St Paul, Minnesota. 2009

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