Privilege Theory and the Delusion of American Exceptionalism

In 1988, when Peggy McIntosh penned her now-famous article -- "Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege" -- the United States was the world's beacon of freedom and social justice. If the world of 1988 were a high school, the American male would be not only valedictorian and quarterback, he would also be voted "most likely to succeed." 

In that long-ago epoch of cheap gas and cheap college degrees, McIntosh was able to begin her essay by claiming that white American males were "overprivileged" and unwilling to support the noble idea of "lessening" their own privilege. McIntosh saw whites as having it so good that she claimed they had an "invisible package of unearned assets" which they could "count on cashing in each day." McIntosh considered herself to be an "unfairly advantaged person" who was unaware of how her good life made her an "oppressor." It wasn't until she made a list of how good her life was, that Peggy finally understood how racist she was.

McIntosh gave 26 examples to bring the privilege theory into life, with the first being her ability to "arrange to be in the company of people of [her] race most of the time."

America today is no longer as white as it used to be, and it is certainly feasible for many groups to remain isolated within their own racial bubble. America will soon cease to be a white-majority nation, and in many states and regions whites will be a minority.

McIntosh's second argument in fleshing out the privilege theory centers around the belief that she could find housing in an area which she could afford and in which she wanted to live. Since the collapse of the housing market, it has become increasingly difficult for most Americans to find affordable housing. The American economic engine can no longer fuel the "privilege" of cheap, safe housing. In reality, housing should be considered something basic for all, yet is currently a difficult reality for most.

Third, and despite being a college-educated feminist, McIntosh believes that she can be guaranteed pleasant or neutral neighbors if she were to find the cheap, mythically safe housing that, according to her, so easily comes to most white Americans from, for example, conservative, rural areas. Peggy perhaps failed to predict the rise of Fox News, BET, and radical websites. 

Peggy did not foresee a nation more polarized than at any other time since the Civil War, and she also failed to foresee the rise of the internet, and of every citizen having the ability to select any media they wished. Peggy considered the media of the 1980s to confer on her privileges by virtue of whites being well-represented, privilege which according to her was "unearned" and "empowering."

Not only was Peggy the ideal target of the media in the 1980s, she and her white brethren were made to feel as the founders of American "civilization." I was last told that America was a Christian nation, and that it was intended to be a Christian nation. The person who told me that America was a Christian nation is also convinced that his faith is a privilege which will grant him the keys to the "Kingdom of Heaven."

The psychosis of religion seems to be as blinding as the psychosis of racial supremacy, and in a world with billions of websites, any group can convince itself of its own supremacy, and it can shelter itself within a restricted community. Though Peggy believed that her ability to publish her essay was a privilege in the 1980s, anyone can now reach a far more global audience through the internet than was possible for most any writer in the 80s.

Another privilege which Peggy enjoyed in the 80s was the ability to enter a record store and find music representative of her race. She could also enter a video store and download rent a film with actors representative of her race. However, the average elementary school student today has instant access to an exponentially higher number of songs and films than Peggy was likely to have come across over the course of her whole life up to the point of publishing her essay.

Another privilege which Peggy enjoyed last century -- and which surely forms the basis of privilege theory -- was her ability to not answer letters without having it held against her race as a sign of illiteracy. In today's world, the very fact that Peggy was receiving letters would be considered a privilege, and most anyone would be content with getting a short, acronym-loaded text message from her.

But Peggy enjoyed great privileges in the 1980s, nonetheless. She could criticize the government without having to worry about being seen as a cultural outsider, and she could rest easy in knowing that the IRS wasn't targeting her because of her race, but rather because of her criticizing the government. 

Though Peggy's life in the 1980s was privileged in comparison to most of the world's population, her life today would be considered substandard. America today is a carcass rotting under the tyranny of its own decadent overconsumption. The average American male enjoys about as much privilege as a dog in a Scandinavian country.

Peggy believed that people were racist not because of "individual acts of meanness," but rather because they were "empowered" by "invisible systems." America has the world's largest prison system, and it is highly visible. That system generally targets males, most of them non-violent, and many of them increasingly white, poor, and rural. 

After living in South Korea for a couple of years and getting to know some North Koreans, I have begun to see some of the same personality traits in modern American feminists that those North Koreans refugees saw in their own countrymen: the collectively-forced delusion that their inward-insulated society was somehow able to confer mass privilege. In many ways, the privilege theory is the easiest way for the American police state to maintain its white males under control. Even as society decays around them, white males are still expected to believe that their country is a land of privilege and opportunity.