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’.

11 thoughts on “The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part I: Racial Privilege”

  1. Disgusting and overblown SJW pandering,

    Your article is exactly what is WRONG with education today. Races and people should take PRIDE in their differences instead of apologizing for their perceived lack of agency. Differentiating humans into perceived unprivileged groups divides and weakens the common factors that make up the human learning spectrum. By teaching people that they should apologize for the factors that make up their unique place in this world, you are undermining the very thing that makes us excellent as a species……….our unique ways of understanding our place in this and other worlds. CELEBRATE your privilege (or lack thereof). Rome was what brought LIGHT to the dark places of the world in the ancient days……..and they didn’t apologize for civilizing savages into a better world. Your white, Christian, literate, economic businessmen (and women) are what has lifted the GDP of 3 Billion people out of their former, backward, illiterate and superstitious ways that kept the world in slumber for over 2000 years. Don’t ever apologize for who you are or where you come from. To do so is cultural marxism and the scourge of the Liberal, Left, SJW media imposed on the common man (and women) of today’s global village. Educators, break FREE of your PROGRAMMED guilt and apologies for being HUMAN! Teach your students to take PRIDE in who they are, and where they come from, no matter where it is. This includes the USA you hateful and repressive “educators”!!!

    1. Dear Martin,

      Thank you for your readership.

      Contributions to the economic sector are beyond the scope of my post; the focus is on privilege in international schools.

      I do agree that we should embrace our uniqueness, though I fear that context and social norms make this easier for some groups than others. I cannot celebrate my privilege while it disadvantages others.



      1. Very well then Emily,

        Enjoy your guilt and shame. Some groups will always enjoy advantages over others……you must not realize that the groups that can afford to send their children to international schools are part of the economic elite that dominate the poor countries they live in……….you are preaching to the choir my dear……….economics and anthropology 101…….go back to sleep

    2. Was any of that meant to sound intelligent, knowledgeable or not like weirdly garbled quasi religious ranting??? If so you’re a bit wide of the mark mate.

  2. Very insightful personal and professional reflection on the theme of ‘whiteness’ and ‘privilege’ within the International School sector. My research interests around the principles of cultural humility in the mental health and counselling sector, demonstrate these ideas providing a framework to enable dialogue at both a clinical individual level and at a broader organisational level, an area which often falls into the “too hard basket”.

    1. Dear Mayio,

      Thank you for your comments and your readership, particularly as a researcher in the field.

      If your research has turned up any recommended resources that schools may use to address the issue of invisible privilege, please feel free to leave them in the comments here, or pass them along to me and I will add them to the post.



  3. Oh my word, where to begin.

    Thank you Emily, for bringing up one of the most divisive, damaging and insidious problems facing the modern world today. The problem of race politics. It’s obvious to me that you’re young and have seen very little of the world now,even though you’ve lived over seas most of your life. You’ve seen what you’ve been instructed to see and the rest has flown past you. When you see the world exclusively through a racial lens, you miss so many things. You box in and categorize everything racially, you assume everything has a racial motivation and you ignore what is most important about people; their personality, their spirit, their own unique self.

    Your entire list of “privileges” is nothing more than a list of things that you either feel guilty about or things that you’ve been told are “bad”. Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?

    The reason that you can wear clothing from your home country is because the rest of the world has adopted western fashion. This isn’t anyones fault. People have agency and will make choices for themselves. This is not a reason to feel guilty. This has nothing to do with you or me. This is simply people choosing one form of dress over another. To give you an example, my sister used to work for General Motors and was highly placed in their international division where part of her responsibilities was to work on African projects. GM was going to build a new manufacturing plant somewhere in West Africa. Noted black celebrities from the United States insisted on being present at the negotiations of different African national delegations as they presented arguments to GM to put the plant in their respective countries. The black Americans (I won’t call them African Americans because they are about as African as I am Irish) were dressed in traditional West African clothing. The African delegates were aghast. The sentiment of the African delegations was one of outrage that these American blacks had shown up dressed as peasants and were intentionally trying to embarrass the African delegates by their dress, as if they were uneducated people from the fields. People have agency. Let individuals dress the way they wish. If something is seen as exotic it’s because it is rarely seen. Don’t put race into something where it doesn’t belong.
    Nobody thinks like this. NOBODY. Unless, of course you see race as the root cause for everything, in which case you will see racism as the cause of EVERYTHING.
    If a school is going to have a Western curriculum, where do you think they will draw the leadership from? White people make up the majority of Western cultures. What do you think the majority of leadership will look like? Once again we see that you feel that race should trump all other considerations. Shouldn’t the best qualified person be hired for the job? Why should race factor into such decisions?
    If you never had to explain the contents of your lunch box at school or work you were living in a very, VERY insular bubble. That is no ones fault but your own. When I owned my businesses in China and Russia I had to explain my lunch almost daily because I made a point of eating with the people that worked for me. Peanut butter confuses people all over the world.
    Nobody thinks like this. NOBODY.
    I’ll guess you’re from the United States. This country is the most powerful nation, both militarily and economically on the planet. Do you wonder why everyone knows where it is? If you were Croatian, I’ll bet you wouldn’t say this. This has nothing to do with ethnicity, it has to do with importance.
    English is the dominant language world wide because of several factors. This was not the case 80 years ago when French was the international language. Why is this a privilege? Wouldn’t it be better if you spoke a different language? Do you speak a different language? The world speaking English is an advantage to the native speakers of English but it isn’t a “privilege”. It simply is.
    If you were never labeled as “The American” kid then you didn’t get out enough. Kids in particular will focus in on the differences in other kids. In Latin America I’ve always been the gringo. In China I was the Laowai. In Russia I was the innistranits. So what? It doesn’t give an advantage to be American or to not be called “the American”. If you didn’t get out into the host country enough to be called “other” then that’s on you.
    What difference does it make if the part was played by someone of your race? Who cares? Was the part played well, believably and with genuine emotion? This is how you judge a role, not by something as unimportant as skin color.
    You’ve obviously missed everything important about great literature. Literature speaks to that which resides in all of us. Are you implying that I could more easily empathize with Hamlet because he’s white? That I wouldn’t be able to empathize with Othello because he’s black? That is such a simplistic view of the world that I have a hard time believing that someone would have that opinion in the 21st century. People look at great characters in books because of their personal qualities, their strengths, the things that make them great. Only if someone is a racial ideologue will they look at race to find qualities in a literary figure that they identify with. People will 99.9% of the time look at personality similarities for self validation. As it should be.

    If you only see the world as groups of people that share similar quantities of melanin in their skin then there is very little hope for you. All of these people have free agency. If you choose to examine the world through the filter of identity politics then you’ve really missed the point. The only advantages one ethnic group has over another are the advantages that individuals in that group give themselves. MLK is rolling over in his grave right now because of the toxic levels of identity politics that have been injected into the body politic of the West today, and that goes for education too. How about we give up on the divisive ideas of identity politics and judge people by what they do and what they are capable of. There is no such thing as ethnic privilege.

    1. Dear Randy,

      Thank you for your readership. I am pleased that my writing got you thinking, and that it connected us in conversation, despite our differing opinions.

      To quickly answer one of your questions, I do speak French (lived in France for several years), and was actually called “La petite americaine” amongst my local friends outside of campus. My post, however, was on the topic of invisible privilege in international schools, where Americans (or English-speakers) are often the majority.

      You end your comments with the statement that, “There is no such thing as ethnic privilege”. I wholeheartedly disagree. While the point is not necessarily to assign blame or guilt, I do believe that my privilege put me at an unfair advantage to others as a student. This is harmful to minority groups, and acknowledging the problem is a step toward the solution.

      In terms of seeing the world only in terms of race, I do agree with you there: there are all sorts of minorities who do not have access to the same privilege as more dominant groups. You’ll look forward to Part II of this blog, where I delve into heterosexual and cisgender privilege.



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