There can be pushback when it comes to talking about white privilege. White folks seem to get agitated when it’s suggested that we, as a people, enjoy a wide array of advantages based solely on our skin color. This knee-jerk denial seems rooted in the message we’ve had drilled into us since birth – our hard work got us to where we are today, not our lack of melanin – so being told we’re handed something is offensive. Getting past the knee-jerk reaction is the first step.
Today I’ll guide part of the “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” activity¹. This is a good way to focus on everyday benefits white skin brings to the table. So grab a pen and paper. Now, as you read through these items, mark each one that applies to you.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
- I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.
How many did you check? The only one I didn’t check was #7 – all the rest were a litany of “well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that one, too.”
The Knapsack exercise isn’t about shame or guilt. It’s about seeing how many ways our skin color affects our lives. It’s about starting to understand the different realities Americans face each day.
¹ “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA.