Against the Privilege Walk

Against the Privilege Walk

Today’s privilege politics is preoccupied with calculating the relative degrees of social advantage among people who share the same broad goals.

A woman holds a “white privilege” sign at a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2020. (Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

A few years ago, a friend reported that her children’s progressive summer camp had introduced a new activity. The campers were accustomed to lining up every night for a tick check; now they were also lining up for a nightly privilege check.

Another friend thought it sounded like a good idea—and was disappointed when he realized she was joking.

Those of us who are on the left love to talk about privilege. We check it, examine it, admit it, and apologize for it. Yet, even though we talk about it all the time, it’s not clear that we agree on what it means.

The idea of privilege received its most influential contemporary expression in a 1989 essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by the professor and activist Peggy McIntosh. Describing privilege as a “knapsack” of advantages that white people carry around, even if they’re unaware of it, McIntosh offered a list you could consult to figure out if you benefited from white privilege:

If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

Her list had twenty-six items. In other essays, she expanded it to forty-six items, and then to fifty, including some puzzling ones—“I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color”—but the spirit of the list remained the same.

McIntosh’s ideas were among the inspirations for the “privilege walk” workshops now popular in schools and nonprofit organizations across the country, in which participants are asked to line up side by side and given instructions like these:

If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.

If either of your parents graduated from college, take one step forward.

If you are a white male, take one step forward.

If you have ever felt passed over for an employment position based on your gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, take one step backward.

At the end of the exercise, participants are asked to look around the room and take note of the unequal degrees of privilege they possess.