Originally published at Everyday Feminism.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” —Lilla Watson, Australian Aboriginal activist
A few years ago, I attended a workshop facilitated by Peggy McIntosh at the annual White Privilege Conference. In the workshop, McIntosh explained that she wished she could go back and rewrite the introduction of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” her seminal piece on White privilege.
The problem, she explained, is that people tend to treat her piece as a checklist of privileges that every White person experiences – but it’s not. The piece describes the context of herWhite privilege as a White woman with wealth privilege in an institution of higher education.
But privilege doesn’t function as a monolith; White privilege isn’t the same for every White individual and doesn’t function in the same way, to the same degree, for all White people.
However, all White people experience racial privilege. Full stop.
Our privileges, though, are complicated by other aspects of our identity that intersect with our Whiteness.
Intersectionality is a complex idea, but part of it means that when we are discussing someone’s class or ableist oppression, we must consider those things in the context of other areas where they might be marginalized as well as where they might be privileged.
Almost forty years ago, Derrick Bell wrote of the “interest convergence dilemma,” whereby institutional change toward ending racial oppression doesn’t often take place until White people see it in their best interest despite the incredible work of activists of Color.
As a White activist who sees the liberation of those I love, as well as my own liberation, as tied up in realizing intersectional racial justice, what Bell’s work says to me is that I have a responsibility to find new ways of engaging White people, of helping White people understand our own interests in realizing racial justice and in divesting from Whiteness.
And that’s the idea of collective liberation! Everyone with privilege has a choice to divest from systems of privilege and to join movements led by oppressed and marginalized people.
When those movements are intersectional, then working in concert with others means that we are also working for our own liberation.
So toward that end, I want to complicate some of the items from McIntosh’s list, highlighting how those items exist at intersections of identity that mean different things to different White people.
Hopefully this can help us break through some of the defensiveness that comes up in conversations about privilege. Namely, when White folks deflect to aspects of our identity that are marginalized rather than being accountable to our privilege.
Before proceeding, though, I want to briefly note the irony of White people (myself and McIntosh) being centered in conversations about the privileges that are the result of oppression.
If we as White people listened to people of Color, articles like this one simply wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, though, often we as White folks aren’t the best at listening to people of Color, but maybe we will hear things differently from a fellow White person.
Thus, if you’re White, I can’t stress enough how important it is for us to diversify our media consumption to learn from people of Color. But if it helps you to hear me complicate our conversation about privilege, then I hope it inspires you to continue along the path toward more anti-racist ways of being.