White Privilege in the Age of Ferguson

Protesters march to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse on August 10, 2015, in St. Louis, Missouri.

This week marks one year since then-Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot recent high school graduate Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, touching off widespread nationwide protests calling for criminal justice reform.

The events surrounding Brown’s death—and other similarly suspect deaths at the hands of police or while in police custody, ranging from the cases of Eric Garner to Tamir Rice to Sandra Bland—have sparked renewed conversation about the role that race plays in this country. From newsrooms to classrooms to living rooms, discussions about race that previously flew under the radar in many white-dominated circles have come to the forefront of the nation’s social discourse. Over the past year, the number of conversations about race and racism in my Facebook news feed—which consists mostly of other white, progressive, 20-somethings—has skyrocketed. As Khaled A Beydoun wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, “Michael Brown’s death birthed more than just a movement: It shifted the epistemology and outlook of an entire generation.”

While most white Americans learned about the horrors of slavery and its follow-up act, Jim Crow, in school and can easily recognize the racist intent behind overt racial slurs, a more nuanced conception of systemic racism often remains elusive. For those of us who do delve deeper, our first exposure to the idea of our own white privilege typically comes through Peggy McIntosh’s often-quoted 1988 essay on “unpacking the invisible knapsack of white privilege.” McIntosh’s seminal work lists 40-some ways that the author experiences privilege, detailing the ways in which the color of her skin provides “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day.”

As an impressionable white teenager attending an anti-racism training, reading McIntosh’s essay was an awakening for me. I had observed racial disparities in my Midwestern hometown but had not yet conceived of the systems that operated around me as racist—for example, the fact that my diverse high school’s advanced placement classes were almost entirely made up of white faces even though the halls and cafeteria were filled with black and Latino ones. Finally, I had language to frame and articulate my observations, and I started to see my privilege reflected everywhere.

But once I began to identify and come to terms with my relative position of privilege in society, I was at a loss for where to go from there. I could see the privilege and systems of oppression around me, but other than recognizing the unfairness and apologizing for it, what more could I do to begin dismantling those systems?

So I was relieved to come across an article voicing the same stalled feeling in the Harvard Educational Review written by members of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective—a group of educators, researchers, and activists dedicated to promoting anti-racism in educational spaces. Their analysis both acknowledges the important role that McIntosh’s essay has played and calls for us to move the conversation beyond her nearly 30-year-old conception of what it means to be white in America.

The Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective authors identify a “paralysis that seemed to accompany our reading of [McIntosh’s] work” and argue that “white privilege pedagogy”—as exemplified by McIntosh’s knapsack article—demands confession, which is “a dead end for antiracist action.” Focusing on privilege at the individual level, they write, “seems to equate individual white people coming to understand their white privilege with overcoming systems of racial oppression.”

In response to this paralysis, the authors propose an important transformation of framing for how white Americans can engage on issues of race and racism:

Suppose we shift from the question, ‘How can I divest myself of White privilege in my own life?’ to the quite different question, ‘What can I do to make my society more racially just?’ That question can lead down very different paths, and lead to quite different antiracist projects that have a different kind of meaning to students who engage in them.

Recent interviews with McIntosh seem to reveal her own recognition that individual experience must be considered within a wider context. As she told New Yorker reporter Joshua Rothman last year, “It has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you … and seeing the big patterns in the rest of society, while keeping a balance and really respecting your experience.”

Nevertheless, as the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective authors write, “Acknowledging the initial fruitfulness of McIntosh’s ideas, it is time for us to move to more complex treatments of working with white people on questions of race, white supremacy, and antiracism.” I could not agree more.

While the year since the initial explosion of protests in Ferguson has brought many positive changes, in terms of both discourse and policy, much remains to be done. On the eve of the Ferguson anniversary, reporters have published a number of investigative pieces showing, for example, that the city of Ferguson still relies on issuing arrest warrants for its black citizens to pay its bills. Others have detailed the racist backlash that ensued when Missouri’s Normandy School District—where Michael Brown attended—lost its accreditation and the housing segregation that persists in the St. Louis metro area.

Those of you would-be white allies who have stopped short of true action, who are stalled amid confessions of white privilege—now is the time to take action. As St. Louis-area Hands Up United activist Tara Thompson said in a recent Colorlines interview:

What you should take away from [the Ferguson anniversary] is that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do and that you need to get active. This is not a problem that’s going to resolve itself or go away with complacency. If you have not moved in the last year, I’m not really sure what you’re waiting for. It’s a year later and we still don’t have [justice], so here’s your cue. It’s time now.

Thompson goes on to note that getting active “doesn’t mean that you have to go out in the street and yell at the police.” If that’s not your style, there are other ways to get involved. For white allies, that could mean engaging other white folks in important and honest conversations about race and racism, doing research that supports the Black Lives Matter movement, or asking tough questions of elected officials about the impact of their policies. Activist @LeslieMac offers a number of suggestions that provide a great place to start.

I’m ready to get to work. Will you join me?

Meredith Lukow is the Assistant Managing Editor at the Center for American Progress.