The Origins of “Privilege”

The Origins of “Privilege”

The New Yorker

Joshua Rothman, Archive Editor

The idea of “privilege”—that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory —has a pretty long history. In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” No. 24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”) Those examples have since been read by countless schoolkids and college students—including, perhaps, Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman whose recent article, “Checking My Privilege,” has been widely debated.

McIntosh is now seventy-nine. She still works at Wellesley, where she is the founder and associate director of the SEED Project, which works with teachers and professors to make school curricula more “gender fair, multiculturally equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed.” (SEED stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity.) In the next few months, she’ll give talks about privilege to groups at the American Society for Engineering Education, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, the Ontario Nurses Association, and NASA’s Goddard Space Center. McIntosh was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, and went to a Quaker boarding school. She attended Radcliffe and got a Ph.D. in English from Harvard. (Her thesis was on Emily Dickinson.) With privilege so often in the news lately—there’s even a BuzzFeed quiz called “How Privileged Are You?”—I thought I’d ask McIntosh what she thinks about the current debates about privilege, and how they compare with the ones of past decades.

How did you come to write about privilege?

In those days, I worked at what was called the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. I was hired to conduct and administer a monthly seminar for college faculty members on new research on women, and how it might be brought into the academic disciplines. I led that seminar for seven years, and it was always expanding. Eventually, it expanded to twenty-two faculty from places like New York, New Jersey, and New England. We were asking, What are the framing dimensions of every discipline, and how could they be changed by the recognition that women are half the world’s population, and have had half the world’s lived experience?…

Read the entire interview here.

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