On My Mixed Experience with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
I have this peculiar, twofold, scrambled-egg relationship with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the oft-quoted, seminal article written by Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s.
That is to say, I have been a student in college classes where McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed, classes in which I was perceived and treated as a white male oppressor. Conversely, I have assigned or cited McIntosh’s article in classes where most of my students perceived and treated me as nonwhite, classes in which I identified myself as mixed race and a person of color—Mexican, Italian, White, Native American.
“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege” (McIntosh).
You should know that I exist phenotypically somewhere in a range between olive and brown. So much about my look depends on the season, how much sun I have been exposed to, the length of my hair, lighting, and place—whether I’m in Los Angeles, Indiana, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oklahoma, or Seattle–whether I’m talking academic, street, or just standing around.
You should also know that I grew up hopeful, angry, and comparatively poor in the middle class racist culture of my Los Angeles east valley suburban town. Growing up in the 1980s I was exposed to a typical All-American medley of racist, sexist, and homophobic shit that circulated in the schools, in the streets, and on the playgrounds…
Spic, beaner, wetback, greaser, fag, monkey, chief, nigger, cholo, pussy, jap, chink, redneck, blackie, ornamental, wop…Is your dad in the mafia? Did your granddad swim across the Rio Grande? Do you eat Spaghettios for dinner every night?
I learned to throw a potent left-right combo in response to blatant racist remarks directed at me and at friends, but by high school I had become a lone sponge on the sidelines that listened, observed, took mental notes, walked away from fights, disengaged socially, and raged internally afterwards for days, weeks, and years.
Some of you might assume then that my initial encounters in college with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” must have been revelatory and life changing. The answer is yes with the proviso that my education about race, white supremacy, and white privilege actually started in high school while watching Charlie Rose interview activists, politicians, and scholars very late at night.
I first became acquainted with Peggy McIntosh in the early 1990s. I was an English major at CSULA who believed that the world could be changed for the better through ideas, art, and literature. Admittedly, I was more than a little naïve and idealistic…even volunteered for the “We the People” campaign believing that Jerry Brown was going to beat Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr.
“I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make” (McIntosh).
At CSULA I took more than a few general education and English classes in which McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed. White privilege, patriarchy, multiculturalism, postmodernism, literary theory, Eurocentrism, and dead white males were hot topics of discussion back then, and most humanities professors were more than happy to express their opinions about them.
These lectures and discussions helped me make better sense of my own experiences with race, white privilege, and white supremacy growing up. But, I was usually a quiet participant, especially in classes where I was perceived and encouraged to come out as white by overzealous, self-proclaimed white progressive professors and students:
“Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way” (McIntosh).
In the context of most of these discussions, and in the larger political context of CSULA in the 1990s, to be Mexican, Italian, White and a person of color at the same time was wrongheaded. Put differently, CSULA was not a nurturing social environment for Mexican Italians, Mexican Whites, political nonconformists, and brown cosmopolites.
“Professor X is white man with a Hispanic last name. We tried to tell the hiring committee that there are white people from Mexico. They said that hiring a Hispanic medievalist who works in Old English was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We should have hired someone else. He doesn’t really fit in here.”
“Richard Rodriguez is a whitewashed coconut. It’s even more of a shame that as a homosexual he chooses not to help that community either.”
Within this particular academic environment, I felt too intimidated and insecure to speak out in public about my mixed background and experiences. It was far easier to conform to the wishes of the professor: listen, observe, nod in agreement, take mental notes, and do whatever was required to pass the class with a good grade.
To be fair, I’m talking about CSULA in the 1990s—and my name on the official roster did signify in the era of Clinton multiculturalism descendant of European-American male oppressors, and still does. The academic culture wars were national and omnipresent. Multiculturalism had become synonymous with cultural group identity politics. Talk of the mixed experience was nascent and indistinct.
Furthermore, most English professors had bifurcated themselves into two opposing camps: the dinosaurs or traditional humanist liberal types; and the new professors or progressive cultural pluralist types. Too many in both camps were second raters who wasted time, taxpayer money, and alienated students by hurling labels and insults at each other in front of captive student audiences…
…whitewashed, balkanist, humanist, deconstructionist, imperialist, feminist, sexist, nihilist, dead white male, cultural separatist, American exceptionalist, hypocrite, romanticist, postmodernist, elitist, anti-foundationalist, Eurocentric, anti-individualist, racist, ghettoizer, discursive colonialist, relativist…
Different Modes of Racial Perception and Performance: West Lafayette, Indiana
I want to be absolutely clear here that I firmly believe that we need to continue to educate the public about race, racism, and white privilege. I also believe that citizens need to know that color blindness is a pernicious myth rather than an ideal, and that race–though an utterly bogus and unhealthy concept– will continue to be relevant into the unforeseeable future given the democratic-free-market right of social groups, businesses, and corporations to utilize concepts of race and ethnicity when they conclude that it is in their collective best interest to do so.
It should come as no surprise then that I have assigned or cited “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in various college classes that I have taught over the years, and particularly in classes that I taught as a doctoral student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
At Purdue, I was perceived and treated as nonwhite by most of my white students, many of whom can be fairly described as future neoconservatives on training wheels, future supporters of Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, students who resented being asked to talk about race and white privilege.
“Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the US think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity” (McIntosh).
I thought that it was a good idea for my students—like it or not–to read, discuss, and respond in writing to a few articles each semester that pertained to race, white privilege, and white supremacy–given Purdue’s history of institutional racism. Typical responses…
“We already have diversity here in Indiana. How is this discussion going to make me a better writer or critical thinker? Why do so many liberals hate white men? This is reverse discrimination. How am I responsible for what happened before I was born?”
Within this longstanding white/black social environment, I quickly came to see most of the students before me as white, black or international. Racially and ethnically ambiguous students, who might have identified as mixed in their private lives, were lost in a sea of white faces juxtaposed against an archipelago of black bodies–especially if these students were taciturn and had white names.
For instance, I recall one of my seemingly white male students who came up to me at the Viena Coffee House wanting to talk. He wanted to tell me that he not only liked my literature class, but that he was also part Mexican like me, and thought it was so cool that I had talked about my mixed race background in front of the class.
This incident gave me pause in 2000 and still does today in that I was thoughtlessly certain that this student was just another Indiana white boy until he reached out to me in private to tell me otherwise. He was actually an Indiana Mexican white boy with a white name, a reality that hit very close to home for me.
I continued to exchange emails with this student for a few years after I left Purdue to finish writing my dissertation in absentia back in Los Angeles. I learned that besides being mixed and partly-assimilated like me, he was from a poor family and had to drop out of Purdue and work full time. In his last email, he stated that he was working the graveyard shift in a bottling factory, trying to save up enough money to return to college.
That I first perceived him as a typical Indiana white boy had much to do with the white/black social environment at Purdue, as well as with my efforts at the time to see and identify myself and others in racial and ethnic terms. Put differently, while at Purdue I tended to see students before me more as representatives of racial and ethnic groups rather than as individuals with unique personal stories.
However, it was also the case that my relationship with this student unfolded in the way that it did because I had become resolved at that point in my life to identity myself as mixed and mixed race and to talk openly to my students and to others about my mixed experiences with race, class, multiculturalism, and white privilege.
In closing, I want to repeat the point that the task of educating students and citizens at large about race, racism, and white privilege is crucial for the development of American democracy–so much so that I believe that we need to reconsider the ways in which these topics have been typically taught. Accordingly, in a subsequent piece I want to mull over the following question: How can we teach students about race and white privilege without ascribing established racial and/or ethnic identities to them?
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Thanks for your comment Rachel. I do not disagree with what you say.
Thank you for an insightful article. The self reflection at the end about the “typical Indiana white boy” is an especially poignant reminder of our vulnerabilities and potential for growth.
One of the ways we can teach cultural competency to students is to talk about broad concepts like fairness, resistance, and social justice and then to use examples that do involve certain ethnic groups and the history of our own country. Many white people I know love to say this when I tell them I write about racism: “Slavery has been around a long time.” Indeed it has, but that does not change the fact that slavery encoded a peculiar DNA in this country and its legacy continues. There are many ways to teach about social justice without making in a black/white issue, but the truth is that despite having a Cuban father and being raised Jewish in this country, my skin is white and I pass, much like your student passed. That doesn’t mean that my father’s accent wasn’t an obstacle and it doesn’t mean that a swastika wasn’t painted on our garage and our dog shot because our neighbors did not want Jews living on their block, but it does mean I could choose to speak openly about my ethnicity or not on any given day.