08/01/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Packing the Invisible Knapsack

The classic work Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh now holds a place in the modern liberal canon. The essay, published in 1988, likens the founding privileges upon which American institutions are built to an "invisible package of unearned assets" and unpacks those assets in terms of power, identity and self-image.

As an essay written by a white person on the topic of white privilege, McIntosh's work was ground-breaking. People of color had been talking and writing about white privilege for years, but when the emperor himself realizes he's naked, everyone checks their pants.

A quarter-century later, evaluations of progress vary. It was the status of women that led McIntosh to examine white privilege in the first place, and many would agree that advances have been made since 1988, when Women's Studies was still a relatively new area. But the status of people of color may not have improved to a comparable degree. And in spite of anecdotal evidence, casual observation and numerous blogs that support the widespread belief that white women have enjoyed the greatest benefit of affirmative action, even these many years later, there's nobody voluntarily peeking into the knapsack.

And no one seems to have noticed the other invisible knapsack.

McIntosh rightly observed that white persons -- indeed, everyone in American society -- are "conditioned into oblivion" about the existence of privilege in the United States. In the same way, people are socially conditioned not to recognize all the unearned disadvantages stuffed into the invisible knapsack carried by people of color. McIntosh lists her privileges, all expressed in terms of what she and people like her can do. Of the 26 items in her knapsack, 23 contain the phrase "I can," 2 contain "I am" and one contains the phrase "I need not." For example, she "can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority," and she can do so without penalty. She can find flesh-colored bandages.

As McIntosh unpacks her knapsack, I pack mine. I begin by placing McIntosh's positive statements in their opposite terms. Now my pack contains 23 statements that begin "I can't," 2 that say "I'm not," and one that begins "I need to." For example, I cannot remain unschooled in the language, customs, heroes, holidays, laws, rules, styles, values, religion, educational models, marriage rituals, birthing techniques, burial practices, gods, afterlife, heaven or hell of persons who dominate my world. I can't express what it means to know that the color of flesh is determined by someone whose privilege allows them that power.

After packing these 26 statements, there's room for more items in my pack.

1. Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people who do not look like me.
2. Authority most often rests in people who do not look like me.
3. My children and grandchildren are taught by white teachers.
4. People who are not of my culture are acknowledged experts of my culture.
5. People appropriate my identity and profit from describing their versions of my experience.
6. My children and grandchildren are likely to drop out of school.
7. My children and grandchildren are likely to be victims of violence.
8. My children and grandchildren are likely to suffer from tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, incarceration and poverty.

As McIntosh pointed out, these circumstances are not individual situations, but are defects of the systems and institutions with which we live. McIntosh listed conditions of unearned advantage in her daily experience, and she invited us to examine them when she unpacked them from her knapsack. I have listed conditions of unearned disadvantage of my daily experience. I invite you to examine and unpack the knapsack so it does not remain invisible.