White Privilege Unpacking The Invisible Backpack Essay Format

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, visited Vanderbilt and gave a series of presentations, including the Women’s Center’s annual Margaret Cuninggim Lecture, on Feb. 28 and 29, under the partial sponsorship of the Center for Teaching.

In her article entitled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (© 1988) McIntosh explains how we are often blind to the ways we are privileged in comparison to others. She states:

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

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. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

McIntosh distributes only paper copies of this article as she uses the copyright fees to support the SEED project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). If you are interested in receiving a copy of the full article or in supporting SEED, please contact McIntosh’s assistant, Marguerite Rupp, at mrupp@wellesley.edu.

Peggy McIntosh

Peggy McIntosh

BornMargaret Vance Means
(1934-11-07) November 7, 1934 (age 83)
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Alma materRadcliffe College, BA
Harvard University, MA and PhD
OccupationSenior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women
Founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity)
Director of the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project
Co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute
Consulting Editor to Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women
EmployerWellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College
Known forWriting on white and male privilege, privilege systems, five interactive phases of curricular revision, and feelings of fraudulence
WebsiteWCW BioSEED Bio

Peggy McIntosh (born November 7, 1934) is an Americanfeminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is the founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).[1] She and Emily Style co-directed SEED for its first twenty-five years. She has written on curricular revision, feelings of fraudulence, and professional development of teachers.

In 1988, she published the article White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work on Women's Studies.[2] This analysis, and its 1989 shorter form White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,[2] pioneered putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of power, gender, race, class and sexuality in the United States. The papers rely on personal examples of unearned advantage that McIntosh says she experienced in her lifetime, especially from 1970 to 1988. McIntosh encourages individuals to reflect on and recognize their own unearned advantages and disadvantages as parts of immense and overlapping systems of power. Her better known works include Feeling Like a Fraud Parts I-III (1985, 1989, 2000); Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective (1983); Interactive Phases of Curricular and Personal Re-Vision with Regard to Race (1990).[3]

Education and teaching career[edit]

McIntosh was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in New Jersey, where she attended public schools in Ridgewood and Summit, where she spent one year at Kent Place School, before attending George School in Newtown, PA. After studying English at Radcliffe College and at University College, London, she became a teacher at Brearley, an all-girls school in New York City, where she taught an "all-male curriculum". McIntosh went on to receive her PhD at Harvard University, where she wrote her dissertation on Emily Dickinson's "Poems about Pain".[4] She has held teaching positions at what was then Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) in Washington, D.C., University of Durham in England and the University of Denver, where she was tenured and experimented with "radical teaching methods in English, American Studies, and Women's Studies." With Dr. Nancy Hill, McIntosh cofounded The Rocky Mountain Women's Institute, which, for thirty five years, annually gave "money and a room of one's own" to ten women who were not supported by other institutions and were working on projects in the arts and many other fields.

McIntosh has worked at what is now the Wellesley Centers for Women since 1979. In 1986, she founded SEED, which became the nation’s largest peer-led professional development project that helps faculty to create curricula, teaching methods, and classroom climates that are multicultural, gender-fair, and inclusive of all students regardless of their backgrounds.[5] McIntosh currently serves as a Senior Research Associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women.[6] She directs the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project, which provides workshops on privilege systems, feelings of fraudulence, and diversifying workplaces, curricula, and teaching methods.[7]

McIntosh was featured in "Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible",[8] a documentary film produced by World Trust, revealing "what is often required [of people] to move through the stages of denial, defensiveness, guilt, fear, and shame into making a solid commitment to ending racial injustice."[9]

As a speaker, McIntosh has presented or co-presented at over 1,500 private and public institutions and organizations, including 26 campuses located in Asia.

Invisible knapsack[edit]

In her 1988 essay, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,[10] McIntosh describes her understanding of "white privilege" (unearned advantage based on race) which can be observed both systemically and individually, like all unearned privileges in society (e.g. privilege related to class, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability). After observing and investigating what she calls "unacknowledged male privilege," held unconsciously by men, McIntosh concluded that since hierarchies in society are interlocking, she probably experienced a "white privilege" analogous to male privilege. McIntosh used the metaphor of white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks".[10]:2

In her original 1988 essay, McIntosh listed forty-six of her own everyday advantages, such as "I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed", "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race", and "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."[10]:3

McIntosh has stated that in order to study systems of advantage and disadvantage as they impact individuals, "Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one's place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents' places of origin, or your parents' relationship to education, to money, or to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background."[11] She believes that all people in the U.S. have a combination of systemic, unearned advantage and disadvantage. She feels it is not possible to do work against racism without doing work against white privilege anymore than it is possible to do work against sexism without doing work against male privilege.

In 1989, the original White Privilege and Male Privilege essay was edited down to 3 pages, by Roberta Spivek for Peace and Freedom, the magazine of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. It was titled White Privilege:Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.[12] This short piece has been included in K-12 and higher education course materials and cited as an influence for many later generations of social justice commentators.[13][14][15]

McIntosh has written other articles on white privilege, including White Privilege: Color and Crime[16];White Privilege, An Account to Spend[17]; and White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place.[18]

SEED Project[edit]

McIntosh founded the National SEED Project ("Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity") in 1986. Emily Style, as founding co-director, parterned with McIntosh for the SEED Project's first twenty-five years. From 2001 until 2011, Brenda Flyswithhawks joined them as the third co-director. SEED has become the largest peer-led faculty development project in the US. McIntosh believed that teachers were capable of being the leaders of their own adult development with regard to teaching equitably. Monthly peer-led SEED seminars are designed as round table testimonies about teachers' past and present experiences in life and in schooling. Seminar members, including parents and community members, become more aware of their experiences of systemic oppression associated with their gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, inside and outside of the structures of schooling. The discussions help teachers to develop ways of implementing gender-fair and globally-informed curricula for students.

Since the first SEED Project meeting in 1987, SEED has trained 2,200 K-16 teachers in 40 states and 14 countries, indirectly impacting millions of students. The SEED Project has been funded by private donors, local school support, and 15 foundations, including the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In 2011, McIntosh stepped down as the project's co-director.


  1. ^SEED Project website, at Wellesley Centers for Women.
  2. ^ ab"National SEED Project - Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege Papers". National SEED Project. Wellesley Centers for Women. Retrieved 16 March 2017. 
  3. ^"Publication Peggy McIntosh Wellesley Centers for Women". www.wcwonline.org. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  4. ^With Ellen Hart, she co-wrote the Introduction to Dickinson in The Heath Anthology of American Literature.https://college.cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/early_nineteenth/dickinson_em.html
  5. ^“About Us.” National SEED Project. National SEED Project, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, 2013–2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. Nationalseedproject.org
  6. ^WCW Researchers.” Wellesley College. Trustees of Wellesley College. Web. 16 March 2017. Wellesley.edu
  7. ^"Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education". wcwonline. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  8. ^"Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible". WorldCat. OCLC Online Computer Library Center. Retrieved 19 November 2016. 
  9. ^"Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible". World Trust. World Trust Educational Services. Retrieved 19 November 2016. 
  10. ^ abcMcIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies". Wellesley: Center for Research on Women," 1988. Working paper 189. Print.
  11. ^Rothman, Joshua (13 May 2014). "The Origins of "Privilege"". The New Yorker. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  12. ^Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack 16 March 2017
  13. ^Crosley-Corcoran, Gina (May 8, 2014). "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  14. ^Weinburg, Cory (May 28, 2014). "The White Privilege Moment". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  15. ^Solomona, R. P., Portelli, J. P., Daniel, B. J., & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of denial: How white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege’. Race ethnicity and education, 8(2), 147–169.
  16. ^McIntosh, Peggy (1998). "White Privilege, Color, and Crime: A Personal Account". In Mann, Coramae Richey. Images of Color, Images of Crime. Roxbury Publishing. 
  17. ^McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege, An Account to Spend." The Saint Paul Foundation. St Paul, Minnesota. 2009
  18. ^McIntosh, Peggy. "White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place." The Saint Paul Foundation. St Paul, Minnesota. 2009

External links[edit]


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