RISD LEADS - Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey
Mar 11, 2016 by Annarose Zelano
On Monday March 7, RISD LEADS welcomed Peggy McIntosh for a special session titled Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey. McIntosh is best known for authoring the groundbreaking article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1989), which has been instrumental in putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of gender, race, and sexuality. She spent the day at RISD speaking with faculty, staff, and students about the importance of recognizing your own privileges and acting as an advocate and ally.
Throughout the course of history, there has been massive amounts of research, writings, and publications written about oppression that has occurred but nothing about what it is like to be exempt from it, what it’s like to have privilege. McIntosh spent the evening sharing her story of how she came to the realization that she herself had white skin privilege.
She shared her story of years ago when she was hired at Harvard University when Affirmative Action had been put into place. Because this system had been put into place, women were required to be hired in institutions that were previously male dominated. During her time working in a mostly male dominated setting, Peggy realized that she did not have male privilege. Through realizing the privilege she did not have, as well as seeing how women of color were treated, she also realized the privilege she did have, white skin privilege.
For years she struggled with the concept of someone who is very nice and has the right intentions but also has privilege and is being oppressive. An example she used was when she asked men in the education system their thoughts on implementing more topics of women’s studies in earlier grades. She was shocked by their responses and confused as to how such nice people could be so oppressive at the same time. She also touched on how in 1989 black women protested and claimed that “white women are oppressive to them” and her struggle with understanding why they thought that way.
After a lot of self reflection and thought, Peggy soon realized that a person is not one or the other, very nice or oppressive, it’s just that they are good students in a society where they have privilege. This didn’t sit well with Peggy, as she stayed up thinking about it and asking herself what else does she have working for her that her black friends do not. This is when she started to write her now famous article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, which includes 26 personal examples of her white privilege.
Peggy McIntosh ended her session having audience members pair up and share times they have experienced unearned advantages, privilege, and unearned disadvantages, oppression, without argumentation and opinions, just sharing what they have experienced and know. This led to her final thought that we all have experienced both oppression and privilege to a certain degree and that it is up to us to trust our own subconscious and psyche to advocate for ourselves and others.