A professor at Seattle Pacific University recently told me that she requires her students to read Peggy McIntosh’s
essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. My gut reaction was that of delight and satisfaction. A feeling of being glad that students in the very Caucasian northwest corner of the United States, at a college located in a particularly affluent area in town will be forced to realize, understand and then acknowledge that they have an unearned privilege because of their race. Through my pride I felt that perhaps I should give the article another read, as I’d read it so many times before.
Almost immediately I realized that the once very poignant words sounded differently than read them before. Perhaps it was Lauryn Hill’s song “Black Rage” playing on my speakers in the background that seeped in to my subconscious. Maybe the shift represented the change in the way I saw myself, moving from a youthful Black adoptee in a largely white smaller town, to a young Black women in a large American city. Whatever the reason, my gut told me that educating students cannot simply stop with an acknowledgment about the unearned advantages that Whites have, but educators must also provide a narrative from the opposite viewpoint and a history about what had to happen in order to allow for hierarchies and such privileges.
McIntosh’s infamous and well-written piece was published in 1989. In this 21st century, Black men and Black women are learning how to climb out of the deeply entrenched history of oppression simply while journeying through our everyday lives. By the time Black men get to their classroom, they have learned the correct way to walk the streets in order to avoid being accused of acting in a disruptive or frightening way. Black women, like myself, have exerted much work and effort in learning how to be proud being dark-skinned despite the defaming innuendos and sexual objectification of African-American females. This readily backed-up fact is a far cry from Ms. McIntosh’s account on her Whiteness:
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
It seems to me that Blacks have realized that many doors open for people most certainly due to virtues bestowed upon them before their birth. Peggy’s list contained 26 indisputable facts aiding in her unearned yet, more privileged life. I have realized that for me, a Black Women, my very visible black backpack can be summed up in one undeniable truth:
Ordinary privileges cannot be had for Blacks, without a fight as this country is founded upon a widespread enslavement and systemic genocidal dispossession of my entire race.
Only once we truly understand that the U.S. history of capitalism, followed soon thereafter by racism, aids in the privileges of Whites and fuels the angst of Blacks and our uphill battle. Once this knowledge is truly assimilated will we be able to move forward with peace and understanding around the continued oppression and denigration of Blacks. Coming to this realization may not stop the bloodshed or lessen the dormant fear others have of black men, nor should it lighten the feelings of white guilt and the desires for white folks to “rescue” or adopt black children. These truths will remain. Even under the leadership of the first Black president our country has ever been bold enough to elect. Even with the hiring of the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts (Cheryl Boone Isaacs). Even with the first African-American female four-star admiral (Michelle J. Howard). For as long as we enthusiastically salute African-American firsts as though we are babies moving into toddler-hood, I will know that racism and Black oppression is systemic. It is my hope that the confusion around with whom is oppressing whom is banished under the cloak and facts of our history. We must know that the reason behind the oppression goes much deeper than Mike Brown ever would’ve seen had he not died an early death because of his quite visible black backpack.