The Socioeconomic Privilege Backpack, Because “Knapsack” Sounds Like a Rich Kid Thing
Thirty years ago, Peggy McIntosh wrote her now-famous essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Though the essay is three decades old and the conversation around privilege and oppression has advanced, it still rings true: she, like me, carries a sort of Bag of Holding every bit as imaginary yet helpful as one in a video game. I’m represented in art and media, security guards don’t follow me around retail stores, and I don’t have to worry about how my race will be perceived in a situation like giving a work presentation or job interview. More importantly: every single time I see a cop car, I feel grateful that I don’t have to be in actual mortal fear that they may pull me over. And, you know, shoot me. Like McIntosh, I also carry the weird intersection of being white but also a woman. I benefit from so many of the power structures and hierarchies on this planet, but I’m still constantly affected by patriarchal bullshit like my eroded reproductive rights and ever-present rape and diet cultures.
There’s another intersection to consider, however. Socioeconomic class is like the freeway that connects all of the other roads of privilege and oppression; it’s something that intersects with whoever you are, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or bodily health and function. I don’t know much about Ms. McIntosh’s socioeconomic background, but we have at least some similarities between where I am now and where she was back in 1989: she was a professor at Wellesley College, while I work in an office, but we are both very white-collar, educated women. My current income puts me in the middle class, and I’m sure at the time, hers did as well. (Peggy McIntosh is 84 now, so I hope very much that she is retired.) The whiteness of both our skin and our collars pack our privilege backpacks full of things that help us through the world.
The first and most obvious of the tools in that backpack is money. Money is both a passport through life and a lubricant to get through difficult spaces. Money is the most important aspect of socioeconomic class, but it comes with a paradox: being in a higher class is what helps you be in a higher class.
This isn’t just academic theory. I haven’t always been middle class. I grew up in a…