Tag Archives: Peggy McIntosh

The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part I: Racial Privilege

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Almost three decades ago, Peggy McIntosh published her now-legendary piece on White Privilege[1]. McIntosh likened white privilege to an invisible knapsack of advantages that white people carry with them, revealing a selection of everyday rights withheld from people of colour. For example: #34) I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking. Or #41) If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem. A few of McIntosh’s items in the knapsack have to do explicitly with school: #8) I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race, and #44) I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race. Unfortunately, the concept of the invisible knapsack is as relevant today as it was in 1988. This post is the first of two parts, in honour of McIntosh’s birthday this month.

I grew up in international schools. I am white, and carry a number of other privileges: U.S. nationality, English as a first language, cisgender, socio-economic status, typically-developing[2], to name a few; the road to my academic goals has been paved with advantages. In the spirit of cultural humility, I am reflecting on some of the ways that I benefitted from my invisible knapsack of racial privilege as a student in international schools:

  1. I could wear clothing from my home country without being referred to as ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’.
  2. If my parents missed a meeting or arrived late for a school function, I could be sure that it would not be attributed to their cultural background.
  3. Regardless of the demographics of the host country, I could count on seeing my race represented in school leadership figures.
  4. I did not have to explain the contents of my lunch box to anybody.
  5. If I had difficulty understanding an academic concept, I could be sure that my teacher would not attribute this to a work ethic stereotypically associated with my race or heritage.
  6. I never had to explain where my country was located, what language we speak there, or what it is like where I come from.
  7. I could speak my home language to anybody on campus and assume they would understand or try to understand me.
  8. I was never labeled solely by my nationality (i.e. the American kid).
  9. When I auditioned for school theatre productions, I could be sure that most people had already seen the leading parts played by somebody of my race.
  10. A wide selection of books at the library reflected and validated people who resembled me.

How do you address ethnic privilege in international schools today?

[1] McIntosh, P. (1988). Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P.S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States, p. 165-169. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

[2] This two-part post will not address the privilege that comes with being typically-developing in international schools, as this type of exclusion is often overt rather than ‘invisible’.