“How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion”: Peggy McIntosh at TEDxTimberlaneSchools


Translator: Cissy Yun
Reviewer: TED Translators admin (Music) (Applause) I imagine a hypothetical
line of social justice. A hypothetical line —
an imaginary line of social justice that
is parallel to the floor, also parallel to the Earth. And on this imaginary
line of social justice, things feel fair. Below it, one can be pushed down either as a member of a group
or an individual, through bullying, teasing, being
stereotyped, having prejudices against one or one’s group, being a survivor of genocide,
being a scapegoat, being a discarded person. What I study, is what happens
above the hypothetical line of social justice. And in school, I was never
taught to even notice this realm. Above the hypothetical line,
one can be pushed up, believed, thought worthy of responsibility, considered to be
responsible with money, considered to be capable
of doing the school work, or any other kind of work. One can be seen as
representative of the best. That’s privilege. Above the hypothetical line of justice, one has more than one deserved because of circumstances of
birth and other people’s positive projections onto one. And below it is disadvantage. That is unearned disadvantage. And I believe everybody in this room has a combination of both experiences. Having more than
we actually earned, and having less than
we’ve actually earned. And I didn’t used to think this way. I was raised, as many of you have been, on the myth of meritocracy, which is,
the unit of society is the individual. And whatever the individual
ends up with at death, is what that individual worked for
and earned and deserved and wanted. Well, it isn’t true. These privileged
systems which locate us above and below the hypothetical
line of social justice were invented, and we were born into them. And we all know both sides. And that’s a reason for compassion
about the sadness of having been born into systems that gave us such — and here I quote the
poet Adrienne Rich, such different politics of location. I came to notice privilege because
I noticed male privilege. And then I noticed, in parallel
fashion, white privilege. And both of these things
were very distressing. I hated learning about
privilege systems. But I found I had to,
to explain my life. Three years in a row, men and
women in a seminar I was leading at Wellesley College,
Wellesley Centers for Women, got into a bad relation with each
other in the spring of each year. We had monthly seminars.
They were great. The men and the women were all
professors from different colleges in New York, New Jersey,
Connecticut, and New England. And we were talking about quite
a difficult subject, but fascinating. How to bring materials
on women into all the liberal arts curriculum,
in every field? So how to bring women’s
history into political science, economics, sociology,
psychology, literature, music, art, PT, all of the
technical fields as well. And the men were our allies.
They were very brave. They had taken a fair amount of flak on their campuses for
coming to a women’s college to talk about women’s
studies, and bringing it to the main curriculum,
not keeping it isolated. These were great men.
And very nice men. And yet, three years running
with different groups of men, there was a falling out that I realized
as I looked through my notes, took this form as a natural
occurrence in the spring. Toward the spring of the year
in these monthly seminars, once we all trusted
each other pretty well, the women would just
raise this question. “Can’t we do some of this teaching about
women in the introductory courses that the students take first year
in college, the freshman courses?” And the men, to a person,
every year, said, “We’re sorry. You know, this is a great seminar,
we love doing this work, but you can’t put anything on
women into the freshman courses.” I was a prodigious note taker,
and I found in my notes one man had said, “When you’re trying to lay the
foundation blocks for knowledge in those introductory courses,
you can’t put in soft stuff.” Well, thanks a lot. (Laughter) And I remember my first thought was,
he doesn’t understand labor pains. (Laughter) But also, let me ask you, exactly who here
has a truly soft mother? (Laughter) And in that comment, he was
including women in general. But he was a very nice man. I had a comment written
down from another year when the women also asked,
how can we get this material into the first year courses? And a very, very nice man said, in an explanatory way,
“See, that first year, the students are trying to figure out what will be
their major. That’s their discipline. And if you want students to
think in a disciplined way, you can’t put in extras.” Now every one of these very
nice men is born of a woman. And she has become extra in his head. Together with, lots of them
were married to women. His wife, his daughter, his sisters,
and his cousins, and his aunts, they’ve all become extra. And I’m wondering, how have they become extra,
and this is such a nice man? And then I was rescued from my
dilemma, which was, I had to choose. I had to choose whether
these are nice men, and I knew they were, and brave.
Or whether they were oppressive. And I was experiencing
them as oppressive. And in the dilemma of
thinking I had to choose, I was rescued by remembering
that, back in 1980, black women in the Boston area
had written a number of essays to the effect that white women
are oppressive to work with. Not just some white women. White women were
oppressive to work with. I thought, oh dear. Now, I remember how I
responded to those essays. My first response,
the “oh dear” response was “I don’t see how they
can say that about us! I think we’re nice.” (Laughter) And my second response,
which is mortifying to admit, but this is how racist I was in 1980. I thought, I especially think we’re
nice if we work with them. You can hear the white superiority there. And as I recalled my responses
to reading those essays — by now it was six years later — I thought, oh, I hope my attitudes didn’t show. I hope
I was so nice I covered them over. But after struggling with
that for a couple of years, I said yes, I was oppressive
to work with. And my niceness didn’t cover
my basic racial superiority assumption. And then I thought, maybe
niceness has nothing to do with it. And that’s what I believe today. Niceness has nothing at all
to do with this whole matter of being oppressive to others. I found that now I went back
to the men, these are nice men, but they were very good students
of what they were taught, and what I was taught also. Which is men have knowledge,
men make more knowledge, men publish knowledge, men
profess knowledge as professors. Men run all the major
research universities, and men run all of the
university presses. And they have taken in,
as I had, too, the idea that knowledge is male,
and men are knowers. And then I realized why my
husband has trouble asking for directions when we’re lost. (Laughter) It’s the identity he was
taught is that he is a knower. And I thought, in parallel fashion,
and this is sickening to realize, it’s messing up my world picture
that I deserved everything I’ve got. Now, I was taught that
whites have knowledge. Whites make more knowledge,
whites publish knowledge, and whites profess
knowledge as professors. And whites run the big
research universities. And whites run the
university presses. And I drank in the idea
that knowledge is white, and white people are knowers. And to this day, in my major project,
the SEED project, whose core staff is nine people of color and five whites, I will, unless I check myself,
second guess, and doubt, and judge everything said —
every sentence, every word, said by my colleagues of color. I will do it because my hard drive is wired with the white
privilege that I am a knower. And among my nine colleagues of color, the level of knowledge and
understanding, and intelligence isn’t as high as it is in me. But, luckily I have alternative
software I can install. And when I install the
alternative software, I realize these people have
been my major teachers. And I have so much to learn from them. They are not defective variants of whites. They are my major teachers. So once I began to see that,
it was churning my stomach to realize that I had white privilege
that I hadn’t earned, but it was putting me ahead. Then I realized why, at the
Wellesley Centers for Women, I could get big grants my
colleagues of color couldn’t. Because I had the knowledge system
on my side as a white person. And I realized also the
foundations which gave us money, or the federal government, it was then — they still are in general —
run by whites. And I was trusted, then, with
money — with big pots of money, because I was white. Not because I had
earned that trust. So having seen those
things, I asked myself, what else do I have that I
didn’t earn because I’m white, when I compare myself with
African-American colleagues here in my building at
Wellesley Centers for Women. And my conscious mind said, nothing. So I asked again, on a
daily basis, what do I get, beside the money system and
the knowledge system helping me out, that my colleagues
of color can’t count on? And once again, my mind,
with the three degrees, and the good grades,
it said, nothing. But I couldn’t believe it.
I thought I’d seen something huge and began to name it
white privilege. Unearned advantage
that came because of my racial/ethnic
status or projected worth. So I decided I had to pray on it. And I went to sleep one night
— angrily, really. It wasn’t the usual prayer in
which you ask for something, I was demanding. I said, if I have anything I didn’t earn by contrast of my black friends, except the money system and the
knowledge system, show me. And in the middle of the
night, along came an example. I switched on the light —
it woke me up of course — and I wrote it down. And over the next three months, 46 elements of unearned
advantage came to me. And they’re in my paper,
“White Privilege, Unpacking the
Invisible Knapsack,” and my paper, “White
Privilege and Male Privilege,” a personal account of coming
to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. And then I decided, because
this work was spreading in many places, I needed to help
with the matter of white guilt. I don’t believe we can
be guilty, or ashamed, or blamed for being born
into systems both above and below the hypothetical
line of social justice. They’re arbitrary. They have to do with
projections onto us, owing to our neighborhood,
or our parents’ relation to money, or our body type, or our hair,
or our language of origin. They have to do with our
region of the country — these projections that are
put on to us, and the rewards or punishments relate to
our sex, to our gender, to our sexual orientation,
to our race, to our ethnicity, to our parents’ reputation,
to stereotypes people may have about the kinds of group
we were born into. I don’t think blame, shame,
or guilt are relevant to the arbitrariness of our placement
in privilege systems. But I decided, beside the metaphor
I originally used of white privilege as an invisible knapsack
I can’t see or feel on my back, but it’s filled with assets that I can
count on cashing in each day — beside that, and the assets include
the equivalent of freeze-dried food, emergency blanket, flashlight,
maps, code books, guide books, letters of introduction,
even, maybe, blank checks. But beside that, I decided
to put a second metaphor. And that’s the metaphor
of white privilege as a bank account
that I was given. I didn’t ask for it, and
I can’t be blamed for it, but I can decide to put it
in the service of weakening the system of white privilege. That is my energy. That is my financial commitment.
That is my daily life. And it’s been transformative to use
my bank account of white privilege to weaken the system
of white privilege. It has absolutely transformed
my life to be in work that feels right. And it’s not based on guilt.
I don’t know exactly the wording for it, but I I found that, when I put
my white privilege in this service of weakening white privilege,
the bank account keeps refilling, because I get the
benefit of the doubt. So the cops arresting me for
speeding tend to let me off. I get the benefit of the doubt
because I’m a little old lady with white hair. (Laughter) And my papers are in order,
and my voice is soft. So I get let off.
It’s not fair. But I don’t want to say,
“Officer, officer, arrest me!” (Laughter) Because that’ll put
our insurance up. (Laughter) But every day in every way, bank account of white privilege refills,
and I get the benefit of the doubt. It has been transformative to use the power I did not know,
I was never taught that I had, in the service of kinder, fairer,
and more compassionate life for everyone. Thank you. (Applause)

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