Debunking a Sacred Text in the Church of Identitarianism

I have written about the problem of “white privilege” rhetoric before. I want to review two errors committed by Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which has become something of a sacred text in Church of Identiarianism. I have covered both in some fashion on this blog, but I want to go a little deeper into them here.

I am inspired to do this by the almost unquestioned assumption across higher education and the Democratic Party that this rhetoric is valid and useful. It is neither. Indeed, the rhetoric of white privilege and the framework in which it operates is harmful to liberty and democracy. (For my past writings on this see “The Rhetoric of White Privilege: Progressivism’s Play for Political Paralysis,” “You are Broken. We Will Fix You,” “Race and Democracy,” and “Demographics and People.”)

Peggy McIntosh, author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1989)

The first error is McIntosh’s neglect of demographic information and ignorance of facts to make claims about the underrepresentation of minority wants and needs in capitalist markets. For example, accepting the premise of the following item for a moment, if I, as a white person “can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race,” how much does this have to do with the simple fact that 80 percent of the U.S. population was white when McIntosh penned her essay (three-quarters of the population today)? White people prefer to purchase culturally familiar items. There are more white people in American than nonwhites (who we will assume do not want or need the products white people use). It makes sense that the items would be readily available in a society where the vast majority of people are white. One can consider this apart from race. Halal foods are not readily available in the United States. Is this “Christian privilege”? (What does the abundance of Kosher products tell us?) My musical tastes are not well represented at Walmart. What sort of privilege is this? A great deal of her essay depends upon this faulty logic.

But it’s worse than that. The premise of McIntosh’s example isn’t really even true. For decades, capitalists have been keen on tapping the African-American market. Capitalist firms have an army of designers and marketers to develop, engineering, and push products for black Americans. They cultivate consumers and advertise specifically to them. It’s a vast industry. When I was a kid (a long time ago) there was a television show called Soul Train that was a vehicle for products that my family would never use (I watched it for the “black music,” which was, and still is, oddly, ubiquitous in American culture). Remember Afro Sheen products? They were available at the department stores in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Some of my white friends in high school in the 1970s wore afros. They bought these products. They carried black power hair picks in their back pockets. They were cool. Blacks represent more than a tenth of the United States population. And blacks are not evenly distributed throughout the country. Half of all blacks live in the South. Capitalists aren’t stupid. So maybe McIntosh is not very culturally savvy. That’s the kindest thing I can say about this aspect of her essay.

The second error is McIntosh’s systematic misuse of language and meaning, specifically the deployment of linguistic tricks that work to manufacture the perception of a reality with a different set of rules (these tricks are central to the reality manufactured by critical race theorists). McIntosh writes that “not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging.” For example, “the expectation…that your race will not count against you in court should be the norm in a just society.” She describes the “privilege” of being treated in a racially-neutral fashion in court as an “unearned entitlement” that, because “only a few have it” (presumably she wrote that in error, since whites are a majority and all whites are privileged), “is an unearned advantage.”

But the expectation that one’s race will not be used against them in police stops or court rooms (or college admissions) is not a privilege. That’s the wrong word. As I have explained before on my blog, a privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of persons. It is illegal to grant or make available on a racial basis special rights, advantages or immunities in the United States of America. What she is talking about is not privilege but right. It is an individual right in the form of equal treatment before the law to not have one’s race uses against him in a court of law. When that expectation is not met, then discrimination is suspected. 

My son is white. He is not regularly stopped by the police when he is out in the neighborhood doing nothing wrong. That’s not a privilege. Cops are not instructed to avoid stopping him because he is white. Think about how absurd this notion is. Then think about how an entire nation is in the thrall of such an absurd notion. (Stop laughing at the 43 percent of Americans who believe in demons. Or the 64 percent who believe in angels.) My son enjoys a right to go about his daily affairs unmolested by the state. Read the U.S. Bill of Rights to understand this right. If my son were stopped by the police because he is white, then his rights would be violated. 

I will give you a real-world example disproving McIntosh’s claim: “If a traffic cop pulls me over…, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.” My cousin and I were driving through a black-majority neighborhood in Miami because it was the shortest route to our destination. When the cops stopped us, I asked them why. They said, “Because you’re white boys driving through a black neighborhood.” So? I asked. “White people don’t ordinarily drive through this neighborhood unless they’re buying drugs.” I asserted my rights. They laughed at me and proceeded to take my car apart. Literally. Parts were strewn all over the sidewalk and the road. Finding nothing, they left us to put my car back together. We were late for our appointment. My rights were violated on the basis of race. That was the only reason they stopped us. We were racially profiled. Had this not happened it would not have indicated white privilege. It would merely would have meant that our right to travel unmolested by the state would have been observed.

McIntosh’s argument simply doesn’t work. It’s nonsense. Absent a system of segregation where institutions are legally permitted to exclude black people, the entire white privilege fleet crashes on these shores. In his essay “Critical Reflections on Three Popular Tropes in the Study of Whiteness” (from George Yancy’s What White Looks Like), Lewis Gordon writes, “A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things?” We hear all the time that if we are going to have racial equality whites need to “check their privilege.” But they’re talking about our rights. And we aren’t going to check them. We are going to keep and assert them. 

Lewis Gordon, American philosopher

Despite the absurdity of her argument, McIntosh’s essay is used in universities across the country to accuse white students of enjoying “white skin privilege,” a term developed in the 1960s by labor activist Theodore Allen (Allen writes that for justice to occur white Americans must “begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges”) and embraced by the New Left, many of whom went into academia and became teachers. When white students resist the accusation, they’re accused of a second offense, something resembling a psychiatric disorder, something called “white fragility.” So, either they confess to having something they cannot possibly have that makes them inherently racist—an original sin that birthed them broken—or they are in denial about being a racist—and can never be a proper “ally.” Of course, an ally is the best whites can ever be because there is no escaping the privilege they are born with by virtue of their skin color. They are, therefore, permanently morally inferior. (At least they have access to a psychological wage by virtue signaling.)

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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