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Unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s Knapsack

[White Privilege is] the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.

—Peggy McIntosh, quoted in the Racial Equity Resource Guide

The concept of ‘white privilege’ was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 paper written at Harvard University and titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack.” It was written as a personal, experiential essay, and it details 26 ways in which McIntosh’s skin color has been decisive in determining her life outcomes. This hugely influential paper has been responsible for the subsequent proliferation of a rigidly enforced theory of privilege throughout social movements and university classrooms. So central has this doctrine become to progressive politics, pedagogy, and activism, that to even question its validity is to invite the inquisitorial wrath of ‘social justice’ radicals. But it is for this very reason that it is important to subject McIntosh’s ideas to scrutiny. So let us return to the source and to first principles and unpack Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack…

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Peggy McIntosh was born Elisabeth Vance Means in 1934. She grew up in Summit, New Jersey where the median income is quadruple the American national average—that is to say that half the incomes there are more than four times the national average, some of them substantially so. McIntosh’s father was Winthrop J. Means, the head of Bell Laboratories electronic switching department during the late 1950s. At that time, Bell Labs were the world leaders in the nascent digital computing revolution. Means personally held—and sold patents on—many very lucrative technologies, including early magnetic Gyro-compass equipment (U.S. Patent #US2615961A) which now helps to guide nuclear missiles and commercial jets, and which keeps satellites in place so you can navigate with your phone and communicate with your Uber driver. Means is also recorded as the inventor of a patent held by Nokia Bell in 1959 known as the Information Storage Arrangement. This device is the direct progenitor of ROM computer memory, and is cited in the latter’s patent filed in 1965 for IBM. So, long before Peggy McIntosh wrote her paper, her family was already having an outsized effect on Western culture.

Elizabeth Vance Means then attended Radcliffe, a renowned finishing school for the daughters of America’s patrician elites, and continued her private education at the University of London (ranked in the top 50 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), before completing her English Doctorate at Harvard. Her engagement to Dr. Kenneth McIntosh was announced in the New York Times‘s social register on the same page as the wedding of Chicago’s Mayor Daley. McIntosh’s father, Dr. Rustin McIntosh, was Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Columbia University. His mother was President Emeritus of Barnard College, an institution in the opulent Morningside Heights district of Manhattan, famous since 1889 for providing the daughters of the wealthiest Americans with liberal arts degrees. This was once the stomping ground of American cultural luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cecil B. DeMille, and several Supreme Court Justices. Kenneth McIntosh was himself a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy, which boasted alumni including Daniel Webster, the sons of Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and a number of Rockefeller scions. He later completed his elite education at Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School. By the time of his marriage to Elizabeth, Kenneth McIntosh was a senior resident at the prestigious Brigham Hospital in Boston, founded by millionaire Peter Bent.

In other words, Peggy McIntosh was born into the very cream of America’s aristocratic elite, and has remained ensconced there ever since. Her ‘experiential’ list enumerating the ways in which she benefits from being born with white skin simply confuses racial privilege with the financial advantages she has always been fortunate enough to enjoy. Many of her points are demonstrably economic. One is left to wonder why, given her stated conviction that she has unfairly benefited from her skin color, there seems to be no record of her involvement in any charity or civil rights work. If she did take to the streets in support of some cause or other, she left no trace that I can see. Nor, as far as I can tell, has she spent any time teaching the underprivileged or working directly to better anyone’s condition but her own. Instead, she has contented herself with a generous six figure salary, and has not shown any particular eagerness to hand her position over to a more deserving person of color.

‘Vice’ headline, 2016

Very few of the people reading this article—whatever the color of their skin—will have even the vaguest idea of the comfort and privilege in which Peggy McIntosh grew up and to which she has since become accustomed. Nor will we have access to the world of opportunities that she has been fortunate enough to enjoy. But even though the lifetime of privilege McIntosh has experienced is almost certainly due to her wealth and not the colour of her skin, she nevertheless found a way to share this irksome burden with the illiterate children of Kentucky coal miners, the hopeless peasants of the Appalachians, poor single mothers struggling to make ends meet on welfare, and the vast majority of whites in the United States and throughout the world who never had the chance to attend Radcliffe or Harvard. She simply reclassified her manifest economic advantage as racial privilege and then dumped this newly discovered original sin onto every person who happens to share her skin color. Without, of course, actually redistributing any of the wealth that, by her own account, she had done nothing to deserve.

All of which means that pretty much anything you read about ‘white privilege’ is traceable to an ‘experiential’ essay written by a woman who benefitted from massive wealth, a panoply of aristocratic connections, and absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. This alone calls into question the seriousness and scholarly validity of the derivative works, since they are all the fruit of a poisonous tree. But McIntosh’s hypothesis was eagerly embraced nonetheless, because it served a particular purpose—it helped to mainstream a bitter zero-sum politics of guilt and identity. This dark epistemology has quietly percolated through the universities and the wider culture for two decades now. It has had the effect of draining attention from a massive and growing wealth gap and it has pitted the poor against one another in public spectacles of acrimony and even violence. Even so, it was readily embraced by progressively-minded professors who might otherwise have had trouble squaring their thirst for social justice with their high six figure salaries. In the last decade, this dogma has come screaming out of the nation’s august halls of learning and into mainstream civil discourse (although to call most of what passes for discourse today ‘civil’ somewhat labours the definition). And, still, we are endlessly and forcefully reminded that to question this concept in any way is, in and of itself, racist.

The apostles of this ludicrous doctrine cherry-pick narrow snippets of history and count on the decline of classical education and the meretricious imprimatur of obscurantist pseudo-scientific jargon to ensure the doctrine is never carefully examined. The fact that progressives are so heavily over-represented within the humanities and social sciences naturally helps their cause a great deal. Universities now have exacting strategies in place to enforce doctrinal compliance should the reluctant require encouragement. In one Ontario middle school, class students were instructed to fill out a questionnaire and then physically line up in order of their ‘white privilege.’ Amazingly, not even physics now escapes the iron grip of this dogma. But to resist this nonsense is to bring the nine plagues of political correctness down upon one’s own head. A school board in British Columbia even thought it would be a good idea to greet its poor and working class white middle school students with this poster reminding them of the guilty burden they bear on account of their skin:

I grew up a very poor white kid. By which I mean, single-mother-on-welfare-in-Alberta poor. As a child, I remember feeling utterly hopeless about ever making any sort of life for myself. If I were at school in British Columbia today, I would now have to deal with seeing this admonition every morning as well. One wonders why Teresa Downs doesn’t simply step down from her $200,000 a year job and pass it to a person of colour since she acquired it unfairly. Is her public declaration of culpability supposed to be compensation enough? Presumably, like Peggy McIntosh, she has convinced herself that human well-being will be better served by shaming the children of people whose average annual income is around $23,000.

And all of this has created the societal conditions in which a spoiled racist like Sarah Jeong—another hyper-privileged Harvard graduate and member of a population group far more statistically favored by rates of wealth, education, and incarceration than whites—can send countless tweets denigrating white people, and then have the validity of those ugly sentiments defended by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the progressive consensus. Dozens of articles suddenly proliferated patiently explaining that we just don’t get it, that only whites can be racist, that only whites have privilege, and that anyone who disagrees is almost certainly a racist.

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result. Every work and every action is now scrutinized for micro-aggressions and the “invisible package of unearned assets” benefitting anyone not deemed to be sufficiently ‘marginal.’ No one, it seems, is interested in questioning the wealth gap anymore. Those of us on the Left who still care about social justice are now expected to devote the limited resource of our attention bandwidth to the cultural appropriateness of cafeteria food. And, all the while, the emphasis on divisive racial categories and the arrogant dismissal of debate has handed the radical Right the best recruiting tool it has ever had.

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But then what do I—a person privileged by accidents of race and gender—know about ‘identity politics,’ that Peggy McIntosh does not? Well, I can share at least one lesson drawn from my own ‘lived experience.’ The year I turned 25, I was serving as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia. My unit engaged the Croatian Army in what would come to be known as the Battle of Medak Pocket. Eventually, we halted the enemy’s advance and pushed them back.

Clearing a house after the fighting, we discovered the contorted and charred bodies of two young women tied to chairs. One was estimated to be in her early 30s, the other in her late teens. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police techs who processed the scene for the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague confirmed what we could tell just by looking at the corpses: the exaggerated arching of the backs, the screams of agony that still seemed ready to burst from what remained of their gaping mouths, the fingernails embedded in the wood of the chair arm—these two young women had still been alive when they were dowsed in gasoline and set alight. But then the tech added a detail that was not readily apparent. His tests appeared to confirm that they were almost certainly already dead when the Croatian Army rolled into town. That meant they had been burned alive by their neighbours. People they had lived beside and gone to school with.

The area that the Croatian army had briefly overrun had been mixed Croatian and Serbian farming villages. These people had lived together for half a century. They had intermarried, lived in the same streets, eaten the same food, and attended the same social events. But slowly, starting in the 1980s, political leaders and demagogues of various stripes had started using a politics of identity to solidify their social and political power. Each side’s citizens were repeatedly told by respected academic figures that they were being robbed, and that the ‘other’ was exploiting unearned ‘social privilege’ granted by their ethnic status. Children were taught this in school as received truth and ostracized if they dared to question it. Slowly, this curated resentment built into hatred. From there, events developed according to an inescapable logic. Sometimes, soldiers on one side of the ethnic conflict would ask us for news of a high school sweetheart or friend across the lines. But identity allegiance remained paramount. To those who respond with the fatuous claim that this was simply a ‘white-on-white issue,’ I will only note that, as I was fighting for my life in Eastern Europe, the same divisive hatreds were being broadcast across Rwanda by Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. Tribal hatreds are not a white or a black problem, they are a human problem.

Every time identity politics has been used by any faction in human history for any reason violence eventually follows. No matter how detailed and intricate the justification, no matter how reasonable it can be made to sound as a way to correct for unequal social conditions and historical injustice, it always ends in the same foul basement of mutual fear, loathing, and depravity. It is past time to consign this foul epistemology to the trashcan of self serving debasements and return our attention to the real causes of ‘privilege’; the growing disparities of wealth that divide us, whatever the color of our skin.


William Ray is a decorated former Canadian Peacekeeper now working as a Journalist, Documentary Film-maker, and very substandard handyman. He is active in advancing Press Freedom in Montréal. You can follow him on Twitter @billyray105


  1. Small quibble: A mixture of privilege and being the local majority- items like the local newspaper reflecting her race is a product of being a majority population, it has nothing to do with privilege.

  2. Peggy should have left her knapsack strapped down and locked. Identity politics is toxic.

  3. I’ve long suspected that, considering that progressives are disproportionately from a high socio-economic background, white privilege was a way for the children of the wealthy to assuage their guilt over their fortunate circumstances. This is the unvarnished proof.

  4. There is something in what you say. But what I’ve found, moving amongst the rich and privileged as I do, is that the progressives are usually themselves nouveaus and the wannabes or the children of nouveaus and wannabes.

  5. Fantastic article. It’s also great to have an article from someone outside the narrow confines of academia, and I say so as an academic myself.

    The point you make about Rwanda, however brief, is crucial. I think we should talk about it a great deal more, because if you ever needed proof that racism isn’t just white on black, there you have it.

  6. Her father produced inventions that have an incalculable value. I dare anyone to calculate how much is made from the technology he was the father of. Yet the author acts as if this was some grand conspiracy. He held and sold patents. Oh my God! A dastardly man! Pray tell how he got those patents. My guess is (I had two inventors in my family) is that he got a sliver of that value for his work. My first wife’s father, Maurice Olfman, sold a patent. It was a way of coding 36 different signals and decoding them on the other end. Unscrambling. The cable box. He got $1M and bought a home across the street from the San Diego zoo so he could visit his beloved Gibbons daily. My own uncle, Rudy Sonmor, born into poverty, invented, patented, and sold the technology used today to lift baggage on and off airplanes. He left $1M to each of his three children because he worked very hard. Those are personal fortunes but still a tiny sliver of the income that they generate or save those who use them every day. There is no aristocracy in America. 90% of inherited wealth is lost in 3 generations.

    One more thought about inventions. Consider the shovel, the wheel, and the wheelbarrow. Whoever made the first of these probably got wealthy from all the labor saved. But tote up the value in foot-pounds of pressure (the unit that measures work) and you have incalculable wealth. And human wealth too. How many died building St. Petersburg with stones in their shirts who could have lived with a shovel and a wheelbarrow? Now consider the tractor, the dump truck, and so on. Welath creation takes nothing from anyone and gives to all, including laborers.

    The gap between the richest and poorest is one of the things the left gets wrong and which the right borrows just to seem less shameful. But in any world where there is real freedom, the sky is the limit for creation, accomplishment, and wealth creation. Wealth creators are the riches people. Wealth is not accomplished by taking if from the poor. Real wealth, worldwide, grows all the time. That’s because freedom is a feeling that demands the best of each person to achieve their highest goals and aspirations. “To fulfill men’s basic needs” is a race to the bottom. To fulfill the highest aspirations subsumes that and that has been the history of humankind.

    The left, by maintaining the misunderstanding of wealth creation, plays into the hands of the postmodern neo-Marxist picture of the world. It merely shifts the focus from race to class, class to race, inheritance to… you get the picture. It’s a shell game.

    As long as the poor are free to advance and aren’t hungry, there is no meaningful wealth gap not stirred up by envy. Envy was what stirred the first human being to murder his brother. When I read articles like this, correct in their assumption that the academics are dead wrong, wrong in their understanding of why they are wrong, I despair that Spengler’s theory that Socialism will be the last idea of the West and that, no matter how hard one struggles against it, one will be a socialist in the end, either on the red or blue team. His two-volume tome was prophetic as national socialism battled international socialism a generation later.

    But liberalism won the day in the end and liberalism must be protected from socialism. There is not such thing as an aristocracy in a free market system.

    OK. Ready for the guffaws. Bring on the Marxist BS. I used to be one so I know all the tricks. Oh. Please save the appeals to authority. They might convince you but they won’t convince me. Talk common sense from your own mind and experience. And consider one thing. What is the greatest single source of capital? Hint: it’s free.

  7. I abso-bloody-lutely agree. I think it substituted the notion of “luck” in a less superstitious age.

  8. One wonders if Albino Africans (terribly abused) have heard of white privilege.

  9. The Marxists failed with Class War once many white people moved out of poverty in the late 20th century so they moved onto Race War. No matter where a man goes or how much money he gets, he can’t change his skin colour. Marxists all over the place say “gotcha!”

  10. NEVER under-estimate the resentment of the children of largely self made, intelligent - often technical - parents, who can’t quite cut the snuff. The coasts are full of these kids. Parents were very talented, not old money, but made their way in medicine, science, business and could afford the best schools. Some kids get the smarts, some don’t. Those who don’t may side step into softer disciplines…

    It must be as oppressive as hell to feel that 'ol “imposter syndrome” we hear so much about.

    As always, when the BLM crowd talks about something “out there”, they are talking about themselves. In this case, the white privileged girl didn’t get the bump she had assumed she would get. She seems to resent that white privilege didn’t work out for her, rather than that it exists.

  11. Democracy and free markets have this annoying habit of improving people’s standard of living, especially for those beloved refugees from Communist regimes. That’s why Cubans and Russians are very pro-Trump.

    A persistent tell of racism on the left is their inability to distinguish refugees from Communist regimes vs. those from Fascist regimes (can’t think of many since the Portenos returned to Argentina) but they, following CRT classify immigrants and refugees by skin color and, perhaps slightly more accurately in terms of analysis, by culture. Better yet, look what they are fleeing and what they are here for.

  12. In fact they are hunted down, and limbs are sold for potions.

    But racism only operates from whites upon Blacks.

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