The (other) invisible knapsack

When I wrote my last entry on being “poor in spirit,” I planned to follow it with a comparison of Jesus’ experience with our society’s “poor in cash.” I still plan to get to that discussion. But before I do, I am taking a detour, with an invisible knapsack on my back.

Those of you who are anti-racist activists will already be familiar with the “invisible knapsack.” It is the packet of unearned privileges that white Canadians like me carry. I know, for example, that when makeup is advertised as “flesh coloured,” it means the colour of my flesh. When I am late for a meeting, my tardiness is not attributed to my race. The list goes on and on.

Many years ago, I discovered I carried another invisible knapsack  — the privilege of class. I had been babysitting the children of a friend who was on welfare. On her dining room table was a report from her social worker, discussing her continued eligibility for assistance. Embedded in this report was this stunning sentence: “Ms. Smith seems to actually be quite intelligent.” It’s the “actually” that got me. I marched home, and came up with a list of privileges I carried – not because I had more money, although that is a privilege of its own – but simply because my money as a stay-at-home mom came from my husband and a part-time job instead of the welfare office.

Here’s my starter list. It could be much longer.

  1. When I make an intelligent remark, no-one acts surprised.
  2. No-one gives me homemaking, financial, parenting or relationship advice unless I ask for it.
  3. I can make a bad financial decision, and nothing bad happens to me.
  4. No-one asks me to describe how I spend my money.
  5. I can get credit on demand.
  6. I can give money away and be admired for it.
  7. I can go on holidays.
  8. No-one suggests I don’t deserve the money I receive.
  9. I have many choices about the place I live, the foods I eat, the clothes I wear.
  10. If I look scruffy, people think I’m an intellectual or spiritual person.
  11. The police come when I call. I demand public services as a right.
  12. If I’m in a public argument with a person on welfare, people will think I’m the reasonable one.
  13. If I spend an entire day in my dressing gown, my peers congratulate me on “taking care of myself.”
  14. My child’s teacher, nurse, doctor, school counselor, principal, and psychologist acknowledge me as their peer – as do all professionals that serve me.
  15. If I am murdered on the street, my picture will be on the front page of the newspapers, and the public will be outraged.
  16. Most newspapers and magazines write for, and about, people like me.
  17. When I describe my ambitions, no-one smiles condescendingly.
  18. When strangers ask what I do, I have an answer that draws respect.
  19. I can live in my home as long as I want to.
  20. I am not afraid that my children will be taken away from me.
  21. My anger is seen as righteous.
  22. I can acquire property and assets without threatening my income.
  23. I can describe myself as “a homeowner and a taxpayer” and people think my views on public life are more credible because of this.
  24. If I’m stopped for a traffic violation, the police see it as a trivial matter. I’ve been stopped three times. Twice, the officer apologized.
  25. Store clerks are nice to me.
  26. I am offered free trips and discounts.
  27. I can give presents without the recipient telling me I should have saved my money.
  28. When I show off a new purchase, no-one exclaims, “Geez. How did you afford that?”
  29. All levels of government put my interests first. Any government that fails to do so is generally defeated in the next election.
  30. I know I am good enough.

Friends, tell me: what else do you see in my invisible knapsack? Or do you look at things entirely differently?

And for those who would like to see Peggy McIntosh’s original “invisible knapsack,” here’s the article.



Filed under Joy's entries

6 responses to “The (other) invisible knapsack

  1. The Dondi Project

    Joy, thanks for this, i’m about to go preach about how we are anointed to “bring good news to the poor”

    Just noticing how priviledge works, i believe, is good news for the poor. Noticing where the lines are in our days and what divides us – and naming those divisions is a powerful thing.

    Number ten made me laugh.
    Number fifteen made me cry.

    i might add “i can stand up in church and speak about my spiritual poverty and it costs very little”

  2. Rhonda

    Hi Joy!

    Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts and provoking conversation. I’m hoping my comments come across in the loving spirit with which they’re intended – loving but challenging.

    I think being aware of our privilege and that others may not share it is crucial, particularly in the very specific way that you have undertaken. However, I also have to ask what that means for our day to day interactions with people. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of “white guilt.” I think people affected by racism or poverty (or any of the other isms) often don’t care that we are aware of our privilege and don’t want to hear hand-wringing about it. After all, how does that awareness change their lives? Now, in addition to bearing the day-to-day burden of oppression, do they have to spare us some concern because we feel so terrible for how the world has been constructed? We have to be careful that this analysis doesn’t bring the focus back to us (people with privilege) and how we feel. Unfortunately I have met people who use the backpack analogy to prove that they’re not racists (classists, homophobes, whatever label you wish to insert), that they’re really very nice people because they have thought about their privilege and feel quite bad about it. It is not enough to be aware of this and share our awareness with others (although that is indeed important). We also need to talk about where this understanding leads us.

    I guess I’m thinking of this now moreso than ever because of the earthquake in Chile. Linked up by the internet, I heard about the earthquake shortly after it happened and knew that people across the South Pacific were waiting to see the results of a possibly devastating tsunami. I empathized with these people, but wondered what my empathy was worth. Did it make a difference that I was fretting for the people who would be impacted? My concern would not change their experience in any way, unless I used it to take some concrete action of support. Same thing for our analysis of privilege. Now that we acknowledge the unfair advantages we get from being white, able-bodied, straight, reasonably well-off, etc. what are we going to do about it? Responding to a natural disaster is comparatively straightforward. Responding to entrenched oppression is more challenging, but eminently possible.

    • THANK YOU, Rhonda, for this meaty response.
      Well, friends, how would you respond to Rhonda’s challenge: “Now that we acknowledge the unfair advantages we get . . . what ARE we going to do about it?

  3. The only answer I have to Rhonda’s question is for us who are privileged to immerse ourselves in the life and world of the not so privileged – the ones Jesus refers to as ‘the least’.
    In that milieu we will inadvertently offend, repent, offend again, repent again and so on, until the line is crossed where we are considered by the least to be ‘one of them’. What a happy day that is!
    Philippians 2:6-8 gives us a detailed map of the route Christ took as the pre-eminent ‘privileged one’ to become the least ‘privileged’ of all.
    Hard route no doubt, but oh the joy we get to share when we take it

  4. Hamish Robertson

    Only one, very short, response: who sez your privileges are unearned? Somebody struggled for them, studied, worked, strived to ascend into the middle class: if not you personally then your father or grandfather or mother or grandmother. Which doesn’t mean to say you should take them for granted, but there is a limit to the extent to which you can/ should beat yourself up over it.

    • Rhonda

      Hi Hamish,

      I agree that it is futile to “beat ourselves up” over privilege, however we must acknowledge how we are given advantages that others don’t have based on criteria that have nothing to do with talent or effort. There are people who work as hard as (if not harder) than our parents and grandparents, and yet they can’t reach a decent standard of living merely because of their race, disability or where they were born. I’m oversimplifying a bit, I think it is usually an intersection of systemic “isms” and other factors. Feeling bad about this accomplishes nothing, unless it drives us to find ways to break down the barriers that stop others from achieving what they want – whether it is a middle class life or something else…

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