Liberal Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Valise

A Princeton freshman has sparked a heated, and, at times, nasty, debate over the notion of “white privilege.”  In an essay titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” Tal Fortgang writes that since descending on Princeton, he has been reprimanded several times by fellow students, who use the phrase “Check your privilege" as a “command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

This phrase, he argues, diminishes one personal’s accomplishments, tears down the concept of meritocracy, and promotes the idea that “our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.”  In part to rebut the assumptions underlying “white privilege,” he writes about his family’s history fleeing the Nazis, immigrating to America, and starting a basket business.  It’s an inspiring story.

He concludes:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.   My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting.  

Responses to Fortgang’s essay have been swift and ferocious.  Many of his critics adopt the smug, superior tone that Fortgang complains about in his piece.  In Time Magazine, Princeton freshman Briana Payton writes:

You.  Are.  Privileged.  It is OK to admit that.  You will not be struck down by lightning, I promise.  You will not be forced to repent for your “patron saint of white maleness” or for accepting your state of whiteness and maleness.

Clutch writer Jovanna Blaize calls Fortgang a “poster child for white male privilege” and says, “Must be nice to be white and delusional and privileged.”  Salon's Kate McDonough labels Fortgang a “jerk” and a racist, and describes his argument as "ridiculous baby tantrum thoughts."  In another viral piece, the writer calls Fortgang a “complete f**king a**hole” who “misses the point of everything.”

In the comments section, several readers complain that Fortgang doesn’t understand what “white privilege” means, as he hasn’t done his homework into the origin of the phrase.  A link takes one to an essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  The writer, Peggy McIntosh, is a feminist and “anti-racist activist” who works at Wellesley College.  Her essay is excerpted from a larger piece published in 1987.  While McIntosh didn’t invent the phrase “white privilege” (it actually has traveled a radical journey), her essay helped to popularize it. 

McIntosh argues that white privilege is “like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."

Her essay lists 50 statements, as might be spoken by a white person, that demonstrate the structural advantages of being white and suggest the structural disadvantages of being black.  One example: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

As I surveyed the items in this invisible knapsack, a thought occurred to me.  Were I to swap the words “political identity” or “political ideology” for “race” and “color,” much of the list could easily apply to conservatives.  Thus was born the notion “liberal privilege.”

With this in mind, I have created a knapsack of invisible items that make up liberal privilege – what I call the “invisible valise,” as it’s a little bit bigger and sturdier than a knapsack.  Don’t expect the phrase “liberal privilege” to catch on right away, but we can all dream about the day when students feel comfortable telling their peers, “Check your liberal privilege.”

  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people who think exactly like me most of the time.
  1. I can avoid spending time with people who think differently from me and whom I was trained to revile.
  1. On the campus of almost any college or university, I can be pretty sure of being in the political majority, and I don’t have to worry about being singled out or ridiculed because of my views.
  1. I can freely express my opinions on virtually any political issue, and I don’t have to worry about whether anything I say will be deemed offensive or uncomfortable to anyone around me. 
  1. I can remain ignorant of the thoughts, teachings, and philosophy of 50% of the country without paying any penalty for such ignorance.
  1. I can turn on the television news or view the front page of almost any newspaper and see people of my political persuasion widely represented.
  1. I can easily buy books, newspapers, and magazines featuring people who think like me and that rarely feature examples of my political opponents.
  1. I can be comfortable ignoring another person’s voice in a group in which he or she is the sole representative of an opposing political ideology.
  1. When I hear discussions about my cultural values, I can be pretty sure that the comments will be positive and even fawning, and I don’t have to worry that my values and cultural heritage will be degraded and disrespected. 
  1. Every time I meet someone new or attend a social gathering, I need not fear what will happen if my political identity becomes known.
  1. I can place political banners, bumper stickers, or posters in my car or house and not have to worry about vandalism or theft, or having someone flip the finger or shout at me.
  1. If I use vile language to criticize my political opponents and even lie about them, I can be pretty confident I will not suffer any negative consequences.  I may, in fact, become a media hero.
  1. I can feel confident that my children will not be given a bad grade or singled out by teachers because of their political identity. 
  1. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that reflect our family’s ideology and that ignore all other points of view. 
  1. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of the systemic bigotry and ridicule they face if their political identity becomes public.
  1. My children are given texts and classes that implicitly support our political choices and do not turn my children against those choices.
  1. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms.  My chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their political identity.
  1. I do not have to coach my children on how to disagree with teachers and fellow students on any number of topics without inviting snickers, sneers, or derision.
  1. I can send my children to a private school and I don’t have to apologize, explain, or feel embarrassed about this choice.
  1. I can drive an SUV, buy a huge second home, fly around the world on multiple vacations, and not have people question or criticize my huge carbon footprint. 
  1. If I am a celebrity or politician, I can hire a bodyguard who carries a gun, and I don’t have to apologize, explain, or feel embarrassed about this choice. 
  1. I can speak in public to any political group without putting my political ideology on trial.
  1. I am almost never asked to explain or defend accusations of hypocrisy by people of my political persuasion, and if challenged, I know I can pretty much change the subject.
  1. If someone asks me how I voted, I can be pretty sure that my answer will not elicit grasps, winces, snickers, or guffaws.
  1. I can criticize my government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as an “extremist.”
  1. If I want to apply for tax-exempt status for a political group I formed, I can be pretty sure I will be approved, without any delays or problems.
  1. If the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my political ideology.
  1. I can donate to almost any political cause without having to fear losing my job or my business, being boycotted, having my home picketed, or having my name disparaged on the nightly news.
  1. I can go home from most organizational meetings, feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or ridiculed.
  1. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of an opposing political ideology is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than mine.
  1. I know that I can get a majority of my colleagues to join me in a boycott, protest, or letter-writing campaign against any political opponent, and I don’t have to worry about negative repercussions.
  1. I can be pretty sure that if I’m not hired for a job, it wasn’t because of my politics. 
  1. I can post political rants on Twitter and Facebook and not have to worry about whether they will hurt my employment or professional status. 
  1. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives of people who disagree with me.
  1. I am not automatically assumed to be racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, or anti-anything else. 
  1. I can talk about racism without being seen as patronizing or phony, or fearing that anything I say will be labeled racist.
  1. I can usually get the media on my side, without having to bend over backwards to get fair coverage or worrying about being ambushed or stabbed in the back. 
  1. I don’t have to worry excessively about losing a friend or alienating a colleague because of my political beliefs. 
  1. I can be pretty sure of finding people in my workplace who will be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps and would not hold me back because of my politics.
  1. I can think over many options – social, political, imaginative, or professional – without wondering whether a person of my political ideology would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  1. I can speak out at a meeting or disagree with a proposal without having people dismiss me, ignore me, or attack me on a personal level.
  1. I can be sure that if I need legal or professional help, I won’t have to keep my political identity a secret.
  1. I can feel pretty confident I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my political ideology.
  1. If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my political identity is not the problem.
  1. I can easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of my political persuasion.
  1. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my political identity, and I don’t have to worry about my political identity being targeted for attack, ridicule, or outright distortion.
  1. I can be pretty sure of never having my point of view seriously challenged and never having to defend my views in any systematic, thoughtful way. 
  1. I can make jokes about political opponents freely and, even if the jokes aren’t especially funny, know that people will smile and nod in agreement.
  1. I have no difficulty finding associations or groups where people approve of my politics.
  1. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.