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What’s In YOUR Invisible Knapsack?

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”           — Peggy McIntosh

During my Master’s program a few years ago, one of the articles we were assigned to read was “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.  Although this article is now over 20 years old, I have to admit, prior to this read and the dialogue that followed, I had often considered how some people face oppression but I have never looked at it from the angle of the advantages that I had as a heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, white male.

white privilege card

To get to where I am now, I have really had to overcome very little.  Things were not handed to me but in reflection, I now realize the many hurdles in life that I did NOT have to clear.

McIntosh’s article is a must read.  In addition to her list of 26 items (please read them) she has available in her knapsack, I have come up with an additional 15 that I see has given me advantages to get where I am.

    1. Very few jokes are targeted at my race, class, or sexual orientation.
    2. Very few people make fun of the way I talk or look.
    3. When my wife and I are in public, nobody questions our relationship.
    4. If I want to choose something (ie. a school for my child) I have the cultural capital (funding, knowledge, transportation, etc) to make and follow up on this decision.
    5. I have never had to overcome a physical first impression to earn respect.  I also have always had access to a wardrobe that is suitable (not top of the line) for any occasion and did not NEED to buy anything to make an impression (both as a child and as an adult).
    6. My Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with people of a similar race, class, and sexual orientation.
    7. I do not have to worry about a person intimidating me because of my race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.
    8. When I applied to rent and purchase homes and vehicles, nobody questioned me based on my physical appearance.
    9. I go through airport and border security without as many questions.
    10. If I want financial advice or support, I  have family members to go to.
    11. My parents were treated with respect in my school and had no problem entering the school to question or meet with my teachers.  They also trusted the system as they had a positive education experience.  My parents and relatives were not forced to attend a school to strip them of their culture.
    12. My parents were able to register me for any and every sport/club that I desired. I was able to attend any field trip or pay any school fee that was required. They were also able to send me to university without hesitation.
    13. When I attend PAC meetings, there are very few (sometime zero) people of a different race.
    14. I do not have to walk very far or look very hard to find an educator in my district with a similar race and background.
    15. There are no headlines stating the status of failure rate of my race/culture nor is their highly publicized alarming information about literacy and graduation rates of middle class white males (my class and race are not told over and over again how we are failing in schools).  How do we expect success if someone is told over and over again that they are a failure?


BONUS: although this did not give me a huge advantage, as a child I was able to choose “flesh” coloured crayons to colour pictures of my family.

I am so thankful for what my parents were and are able to provide for my family.  Both my parents worked extremely hard to get where they are today; too, I have worked my tail off to get to where I am.  However (and that is a big however), what I need to be aware that so many others are not provided with the same advantages in school and in life that I have.  Many, many others work just as hard as (or harder than) I do but are not provided with the same open doors as a result.  Before making any decisions at our school, I need to be careful of the lens I look through.  I must also truly listen to and value the needs and voices of others as their knapsack may be much emptier than mine; decisions that appear to be good for some may actually further marginalize others.

I could list many more items that provide me with advantages in life but instead, I ask you: What is in your invisible knapsack?

The goal of this post is not to create pity nor is it to further “otherize” but to encourage awareness and reflection of the current advantages that many of us have.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

26 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. It is important that we always remember that we carry different advantages and disadvantages.

  2. #15 definitely hits home for me. What must it be like to walk around and have those headlines in your face all the time? How does it affect your self-esteem?

  3. Powerful post Chris…

    It is most definitely difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of others, but it is absolutely crucial that we are able to see the world through several different types of “lenses.” As Educators, we are charged with the duty of educating, and in order to be successful we must recognize and be aware of the differences that exist. This post really has a strong message that is not just for Educators, but for all mankind.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Without giving credence to any recent headlines or research, I’m not sure #15 is as damaging as the low expectations / low results that precede the headlines. We have to be able to say ‘there is a challenge, and we can do better.’

  5. The white privilege theory is useful for highlighting how our society is not the meritocracy it claims to be, however, that is only half the equation. The harder question is how to disassemble the structures of racialized oppression that continue to award some privilege while marginalizing others. Awareness of one’s own privilege is a good first step in the right direction however Paul Gorski cautions people not to equate awareness with actual change. I wonder what dismantling the current power structures in a school by a principal looks like on the ground.

  6. Chris,

    One word, Wow! Thanks for being so transparent. I often attend conferences and have to search long and hard for people that look like me. You raise some thought-provoking points that I’m sure every staff can discuss at length. Thank you!

    Be Great,

    Dwight

  7. Chris – I read that article by Peggy McIntosh about 15 years ago in grad school and it really hit home with me. This is the first I’ve heard anyone refer to it since then, which is what intrigued me to read your post. Your additions certainly resonate as well. Starleigh’s question above about what it looks like on the ground to dismantle current powers structures is one that has sat with me for a long time.

    Great, thought-provoking post!

    Jill

  8. Chris,
    Oh yes, oh yes, we are so very privileged – even as a woman I share many of those same privileges because I am white and semi-middleclass. A great book to read along these lines is Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty. i took the class on it and it really altered many ways I looked at my students and what I though they could do about their situations. keep these great thought provoking posts coming when you have time.

  9. Thank you for this post. As the only teacher of my race in my school and one of 9 in a district of 1000 teachers; I do have to walk pretty far to find someone who resembles me. This post hit home as I just taught Civil Rights and had a basic lesson on race and received such resistance and push back that it discouraged me about the progression of the racial discussion that this generation must move forward with. Your post gives me ideas for approaching this next year! Thank you again…

  10. Great post. When I was in the corporate world, my company was one of the first big ones to promote the idea of diversity in the workplace as tool for business. Everyone went to “diversity training” – it was enlightening. In a nutshell, it explained that you are either an insider (with privileges) or an outsider, depending on the particular situation. I try to remember that when I teach. Do my students see themselves as outsiders? And what can I do to change that?

  11. Ohhh, I so relate. I too was a lucky kid and faced just about nothing in that way. And I loved that article.

    Sometimes, when thinking at night about my poorest kids, or the unluckiest, or the most abused, or __________, I would cry, just wondering how they were doing at that particular moment, and knowing that lots of times it wouldn’t be good.

    The hardest was the child of color who saw his own father shot. Yet still he tried, he cared about school, he learned. Is strength within the individual, or from the family, from faith, all of the above, or???

    I have a big case of white guilt. But I was very fortunate that by caring, my students of other races didn’t hold me responsible, after a week of two of being myself. Dang, I loved those kids.

    Every one I ever had, whatever color, religion or place of birth: they were mine for that year. What a privilege. Sad that I can’t teach in schools anymore. But at least I can still do it online, no matter how my stupid back is doing!

    Thanks for a great post.

  12. This is a powerful list Chris. It sure causes me to think about those who are not afforded these many “privileges” that I’m ashamed to admit, I take for granted without giving a lot of thought to them.

    A soccer parent friend of mine and I had a conversation a few weeks back about many of these items. He comes from another culture and when I asked him if some of these things still happen today,(from his perspective) he replied, “Brad – you simply have no idea”.

    Thank you for raising these important points. You’ve given me a lot to reflect on tonight.

  13. Thanks for updating and personalizing this powerful list by Peggy McIntosh. As you point out, it’s white privilege, it’s middle-class privilege, it’s heterosexual privilege, and more. Here are a few that hit home with me:
    – When I go to work, no one thinks I don’t deserve to be here because of my color or my accent;
    – No one thinks that I am a terrorist because of my religion;

    Great post!

    Eileen Kugler
    author, “Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids”

  14. Thank you so much for this! Excellent posting that I’m going to share with my PLN!

    I am passionate about this subject – I grew up outside Washington DC in PG County a very culturally diverse neighborhood – so really, I didn’t encounter many cultural biases until I got to college & honestly, they floored me and frankly drew my ire. We also had a visible “out” population of LGBT students at my college with whom I was very close to (the punk rock era of the 80’s was AWEsome!) thus we were quite protective of our friends who got harassed by the “jocks” of the school.

    Even now, teaching in a very diverse district between Baltimore & DC, a gorgeous united nations cultural soup school (where I am most at home!) I feel insulated – as if all areas enjoy such diversity. So, when I travel to speak in other states it takes me by surprise when I look out into my audience and don’t see any people of colour or diversity. How difficult must it be to be the lone non-white in a district where you feel cultural isolation?

    One other thing I think we need to be aware of in our profession – the inherent bias in our leadership. According to a recent study, 25% of teachers in our profession are male. So, in a profession where men are in the minority – look at the lists of keynote and featured speakers at any conference. How many are women? How many are people of colour? Why does it seem that the cognoscenti in American education are still white men?
    I’m just sayin we need to be as diverse in our chosen leaders as we are in instilling leadership in ALL of our students. So that when our kids grow up & go to a conference there are not 5 white guys speaking and only one woman and one person of colour – that they can “see themselves” in the representation of voices of change.

    Recently, I was a honored to be invited as a featured speaker at an AWEsome conference and I was happily surprised I wasn’t the only chick! (yeah, I can say that) Out of 10 speakers there were 2 other women! This is progress! Conference planners – please take a chance on young, inspirational, radical, & daring new voices of women and people of colour! And women, people of colour, and LGBT folks – get out there & become visible and audible voices of change! Don’t wait for people to come & ask you to speak – seek out opportunities in your districts and your state where your opinions and ideas can be heard!
    We need more voices like danah boyd, Kenneth Shelton, Joyce Valenza, Aaron Tay’s, Lucy Gray, Joseph Sanchez, Bobbi Newman, Mario Armstrong, and Joquetta Johnson on our conference lists. Oh and me, too! Meek people seldom make history! And we need to listen to these new voices with an open heart, & mind. /rant
    Cheers!
    ~Gwyneth Jones
    The Daring Librarian

  15. The really frustrating thing, Chris, is the resistance that occurs when someone who isn’t white tries to speak up and educate on the topic of white privilege. I have found myself silenced many times on the issue and it is discouraging that that still happens. As such, I am always heartened to hear stories of developing awareness, but like Starleigh, I do ask, where do we go from here? I think there is reason for optimism however, in that we are able to have that conversation now, with a deeper understanding of where everyone is coming and what we are trying to accomplish when we advocate for our students. It is not just improving their success and opportunities but to transform the world around them so that they can be who they are and not have to fight for everything. I do believe #15 is very important, and, in referencing the FI report for a moment, while officially it may say that we are failing our students, it is still saying our students are failing. And while I can see we have challenges, what can we do, there is nowhere for the students to have a similar opportunity. So, thank you for highlighting that.

  16. awareness of privilege is a step. the problem is of course that recognizing privilege is different from owning that privilege and accepting that privilege is linked to the lack of privilege of others. asking what can I do to help is not where we need to go. people of colour do not need sympathy or concern, what is needed is for someone who owns their privilege to play the role of ally. follow the lead of the traditionally marginalized. they know what needs to be done- and have been working to do it for a long time.

  17. Thank you so much for all the comments as this really helps me more with my awareness. Awareness is only the first step for me. I love Nadia’s quote of being an ally – I look forward to using this to follow the lead of the traditionally marginalized!

  18. This was a refreshingly honest post. “Where do we go from here?” I think we make an effort to cross those invisible boundaries in our own lives. Form close friendships with folks of other races: real friendships, not *work relationships* or acquaintances. Find a place to worship where there is real diversity (or attend a place of worship where you are a minority). Just a few ideas on where to start. Loved this post.

  19. Aside from the excellent list of questions to ponder on, what I like about this is that you DID wonder about something that is invisible and rarely questioned.
    As for myself, I have my own “luggage” to carry – being Romanian I am always labeled through a minority (2% of country’s population), more specifically gypsies. Many of my interactions abroad as well as online were painful and sometimes downright embarrassing experiences due to the “tag”.

  20. A powerful and timely post, Chris, congratulations.

    On the topic of Equity and perspectives, I’ve just recently had my mind completely blown by seeing this 3-minute trailer for the film, “Schooling the world”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnzVNO_J6sk

    Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this, thanks for the post.

  21. Chris, thank you so much for having the honesty and humility to post on this extremely important topic. Growing up low to middle class with a white mother and a Mexican father I have seen both sides. Given my light skin and cultural capital I can share many of the “items” in your knapsack. On the other side of the coin I have heard the many stories of my Mexican grandparents who faced many of the discriminations I avoided. We all need to realize that privilege and power should not be presupposed because of socioeconomic or cultural determinants.

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