Unpacking Peggy McIntosh

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About a year and a half ago, I wrote one of my favorite pieces in the history of this blog – Unpacking the Invisible NPR Tote Bag, which spelled out the ideal of “Urban Progressive Privilege.

I described the phenomenon if “Urban Progressive Privilege” by tracing a line from the document from which the term “White Privilege” sprang – Unpacking the Invisible Knapsackby one Peggy McIntosh:

Urban Progressive Privilege is like an invisible weightless NPR tote bag of special permissions, immunities, secret handshakes, Whole Foods gift cards, a virtual echo chamber accompanying everyone who has that privilege, filtering out almost all cognitive dissonance about political, social or moral questions, and a virtual “cone of silence” immunizing them from liability for anything they say or do that contradicts the group’s stated principles. As we in Human studies work to reveal Urban Progressive Privilege and ask urban progressives to become aware of their power, so one who writes about havingUrban Progressive Privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

It was, to a degree, satire – and, like a lot of satire, it was simultaneously journalism. Privilege does exist in our society – but social, economic, educational and geographic class at the end of the day count for (I’ll be charitable) every bit as much as race. Can anyone say that Clarence Thomas is held in lower regard (by people other than Ryan Winkler, anyway) than John Roberts?

I wrote the piece originally because the ideal that “whiteness” – whatever that means, as if a “race” that simultaneously includes Norwegians and Armenians, Slavs and Spaniards, has any actual ethnic meaning – conveys so much privilege by itself that a white house painter in Spooner Wisconsin has social, cultural, financial and legal advantage over Oprah Winfrey or Sarah Jeong is so comically absurd.

So absurd, I thought, that it had to have been written by someone who was so detached by class privilege that they hadn’t the foggiest idea what life was like outside of their class bubble.

Lo and behold, I was right.

William Ray digs into Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack in this brightly illuminating piece in Quillette.

When I say “I was right” – well, I was being modest:

Peggy McIntosh was born Elisabeth Vance Means in 1934. She grew up in Summit, New Jersey where the median income is quadruple the American national average—that is to say that half the incomes there are more than four times the national average, some of them substantially so. McIntosh’s father was Winthrop J. Means, the head of Bell Laboratories electronic switching department during the late 1950s. At that time, Bell Labs were the world leaders in the nascent digital computing revolution. Means personally held—and sold patents on—many very lucrative technologies, including early magnetic Gyro-compass equipment (U.S. Patent #US2615961A) which now helps to guide nuclear missiles and commercial jets, and which keeps satellites in place so you can navigate with your phone and communicate with your Uber driver. Means is also recorded as the inventor of a patent held by Nokia Bell in 1959 known as the Information Storage Arrangement. This device is the direct progenitor of ROM computer memory, and is cited in the latter’s patent filed in 1965 for IBM. So, long before Peggy McIntosh wrote her paper, her family was already having an outsized effect on Western culture.

Elizabeth Vance Means then attended Radcliffe, a renowned finishing school for the daughters of America’s patrician elites, and continued her private education at the University of London (ranked in the top 50 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), before completing her English Doctorate at Harvard. Her engagement to Dr. Kenneth McIntosh was announced in the New York Times‘s social register on the same page as the wedding of Chicago’s Mayor Daley. McIntosh’s father, Dr. Rustin McIntosh, was Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Columbia University. His mother was President Emeritus of Barnard College, an institution in the opulent Morningside Heights district of Manhattan, famous since 1889 for providing the daughters of the wealthiest Americans with liberal arts degrees…[husband] Kenneth McIntosh was himself a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy, which boasted alumni including Daniel Webster, the sons of Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and a number of Rockefeller scions. He later completed his elite education at Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School. By the time of his marriage to Elizabeth, Kenneth McIntosh was a senior resident at the prestigious Brigham Hospital in Boston, founded by millionaire Peter Bent.

In other words, Peggy McIntosh was born into the very cream of America’s aristocratic elite, and has remained ensconced there ever since.

So Peggy McIntosh is the scion – scienne? Scionette? – of a family that is in the top fraction of the top 1% of people in this country in terms of social, educational (or at least “Educational Affiliation”), financial and cultural stature.

And this leads up to a summation that could soon become a Berg’s 7th Law corollary:

Her ‘experiential’ list enumerating the ways in which she benefits from being born with white skin simply confuses racial privilege with the financial advantages she has always been fortunate enough to enjoy.

And – I’d add, from my position as an observer – it provided cover for the vastly more toxic “Urban Progressive Privilege”. Ray says nearly as much:

All of which means that pretty much anything you read about ‘white privilege’ is traceable to an ‘experiential’ essay written by a woman who benefitted from massive wealth, a panoply of aristocratic connections, and absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. This alone calls into question the seriousness and scholarly validity of the derivative works, since they are all the fruit of a poisonous tree. But McIntosh’s hypothesis was eagerly embraced nonetheless, because it served a particular purpose—it helped to mainstream a bitter zero-sum politics of guilt and identity. This dark epistemology has quietly percolated through the universities and the wider culture for two decades now. It has had the effect of draining attention from a massive and growing wealth gap and it has pitted the poor against one another in public spectacles of acrimony and even violence.

“Progressivism” has ended up on the “wrong” side of the class war it has always espoused: they are the patricians, and have been for over a century now.

Idenitymongering – and the firehose of “privilege” allegations that are one of its weapons – is one way of dividing the unruly plebes against each other, as Ray points out:

A school board in British Columbia even thought it would be a good idea to greet its poor and working class white middle school students with this poster reminding them of the guilty burden they bear on account of their skin:

No, it’s not a flyer for a community theater production of “1984”. Yet.

I grew up a very poor white kid. By which I mean, single-mother-on-welfare-in-Alberta poor. As a child, I remember feeling utterly hopeless about ever making any sort of life for myself. If I were at school in British Columbia today, I would now have to deal with seeing this admonition every morning as well. One wonders why Teresa Downs doesn’t simply step down from her $200,000 a year job and pass it to a person of colour since she acquired it unfairly. Is her public declaration of culpability supposed to be compensation enough? Presumably, like Peggy McIntosh, she has convinced herself that human well-being will be better served by shaming the children of people whose average annual income is around $23,000.

I suggest you read the whole thing; as much as I pullquoted, there is so much more.