My Privilege Knapsack is Heavy

I have been wrestling with the concept of privilege and privilege guilt for quite some time. Growing up, I knew how well off I was. My dad has a great job that can support our whole family without my mother having to work, allowing my sister and me to grow up with a stay at home mom. She was always there, and I never had to fend for myself. We have a beautiful house and beautiful things, I even remember bragging in school about how “cool” my house was. My knapsack is full, and growing. I am white, I am healthy, I don’t live from paycheck to paycheck, I am getting an incredible education, my family takes a vacation every year, I can afford to waste entire days lounging around the house watching Netflix. As a got a little older, I was taught gratitude. I was taught to be thankful for all of the things in my life, for my family, for my home. My parents worked very hard to give our family a better life than what they had growing up, and their parents worked very hard to give them a better life. So here I am, with the “better life” my family worked for. In high school and through most of college I tried to project my family’s disadvantages and struggles onto my own life and experiences, in some ways trying to satiate the guilt I felt for my privilege. As mentioned in many of our readings this week, privilege is unearned, or achieved by luck. I wrestled with this privilege guilt especially during our leader retreat in the fall. After the privilege walk activity, I turned to Sam to reflect and we thought the statements were loaded, and that we were diverse and had our share of hardships and that the activity was not reflective of that. But there was the issue, right in front of us: I was trying to project disadvantages on my life to make myself feel better about my position in society. We did get a chance to participate in reflection and discussion about how we can use our place of privilege to work for social change and challenge systems of equality, but the discussion only made me feel slightly better. I have learned that the best way for me to navigate these feelings is to fill my heart with gratitude for my father for living in poverty and making the choice to get a college degree as an adult, gratitude to my mother for growing up in third world countries following her father’s assignments in the CIA, for my grandparents for fleeing communist Hungary, for everything my family has done to let me grow up as easily as I have.

The account of Kevin the trip leader in the essay “How White Privilege Shapes the US”, I saw many of my fears as a trip leader discussed. Can we actually unpack our ‘privilege knapsacks’ and use the contents to help communities? The most jarring is the question: why do we do service at all if it is not actually helping anyone? I really loved each of these readings because as I read, my fears were slightly addressed, and I realized that I need to flip how I have looked at service and service learning on its head. Effective service learning isn’t easy, and to actually serve a community in ways that will create a lasting impact or ways that will bring social equality will NOT happen in one week, or even one semester. It takes time, commitment, and the acknowledgement of your own identity, privilege and abilities to serve effectively. I feel confident that our class discussion and reflections will challenge every participant to step out of their comfort zone and accept the reality that personal growth and the amazing experience of this class and trip will only be ancillary benefits to something much bigger than any of us.



Uncovering My Privilege

“Differences in privilege are not made less by not engaging in service” 

– S. Mei-Yen Hui

Our class readings this week were all about white privilege as well as difficulties associated with service learning. After letting such eye-opening words marinate in my heart and in my head, I have to say it: HOLY EMOTIONS.

I am white. I am privileged. I have a pretty house in a quiet neighborhood. I have a happy home filled with love. I have access to a higher education at a great university. My skin color does not hinder me in anyway, if anything my white skin is an asset. It’s so incredibly hard to wrap my head around the concept of white privilege. I can pass judgments about almost anything and voice my opinions on these judgments and as McIntosh said, I still will not be seen as a cultural outsider.

In the article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh creates a list of observations concerning white privilege. This list of 26 simple worded conditions hit me hard.

21. “I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.”

Ouch. I feel angry and ashamed about these privileges I have been given. How does the color of my skin make my life more worthy than another’s?

Maybe this opportunity to work with the Lost Boys and Catholic Charities came about because I am white. So what? The heart, the most vital organ in the body is RED and this is true for all. This heart of mine pumps passion for helping others through my veins. My intentions are pure. No one has the right to question my motives for engaging in this service learning experience because although my skin is white, my heart is RED.

Despite my naivety, I do not posses some complex and believe that I can change the global dynamic of white privilege. However, I do think that by becoming aware on social issues and understanding my position to these issues I will be able to serve others and make a positive change. I promise to try to never judge any person on the basis of their race and I can only hope the same is reciprocated.


White, Black, and Mixed all over

I’m not sure how I would identify with the term “Whiteness.” An article written by Robert Jensen, titled White Privilege Shapes the U.S., mentions that white privilege is complex, and I couldn’t agree more. Maybe that is because I’m only half white. I know I’m privileged to an extent but sometimes I feel lost and confused because I’m not just one race. Only recently have standardized tests and surveys allowed me to choose more than one race as an option. When tests don’t have the option of choosing multiple races, I have two choices, pick “other” or identify with only one race. I always end up picking Black/African American, because my complexion is definitely not white and who wants to be put into an “other” category!

While I was reading these articles I kept trying to think if there is some sort of spectrum or criteria for Whiteness. What do other people think? If you are half White do you still get Whiteness privileges? My answer to the question is sometimes. I think it all depends where I am. I look around in my classrooms here at JMU and in most classes I’m the only person with a natural tan year round, everyone else is White. When I share experiences I’ve had with discrimination and racism there is always a hand full of people who are like the “Torpefieds” in John T. Warren and Kathy Hytten’s article, The Faces of Whiteness: Pitfalls and the Critical Democrat, who can’t believe that racism is still active and powerful. Before I came to JMU I didn’t think much about Whiteness privilege because I come from a diverse area at home. I’m right in between Baltimore and Washington D.C. so it’s always been a melting pot for me. Then when I came here I started to have a feeling like Wendy in the Wizard of Oz, where I wasn’t at home anymore. Everyone is segregated for the most part, you see mostly Black people hanging out with other Black people and White with White, Asian with Asian and so on.

When I go to where my mom is from, about 25 minutes from JMU, and I catch people looking at me like I’m from a different planet! Then when they find out who I am they’re like “Ohhh you’re her daughter.” Her meaning my white mom, then suddenly I don’t get as many looks. I’ve never asked anyone but I guess I don’t get the looks because they find out who I am or what I’m mixed with then suddenly I’m labeled “safe” or something? I see that as White privilege.


Color Brave

While I was reading this week’s articles a quote stood out to me and it changed the way I was going to write this blog. So I am going to share it with you all. “ Differences in Privilege are not made less by engaging in service” (Hui). When I first read this quote I thought to myself that it make sense. However when I got to a higher level of thinking I realized service is not the only thing that goes into changing privilege. In my post last week I discussed how what I expect out of this trip and how I want to partake in learning- service. I cannot be a true steward of this until I discus the privileges I have been given and how that will affect my experiences on this trip.

I am a white female who is majoring in Communication Studies at James Madison University. I grew up in a town that lacked diversity. College was the first time I was exposed to true diversity. When I am in the classroom, teachers have never asked me to speak on behalf of my race. But I have seen it happen. I have white privilege. I have the invisible knapsack of maps, checks and tools to get me where I am today. I have never been made aware that I have this invisible knapsack until this year. If you asked me in high school if I had white privilege I would have denied this power and stated everyone is equal. I feel as thought this is the problem.

As students we learn about other races as history, “Attention students its black history month”, we have all heard this over the loud speakers of our high school. This affects the way we view each other. We see the identity of other races as a history and not as a culture. We end up oppressing other cultures. We ask questions like “ why do we even have a black history month?” and “ why is there not a white history month isn’t that reverse racism? “ I once watched a documentary that hit the nail on the head in answering these questions. In the documentary, White Like Me, Tim Wise talks about what it is like to grow up privileged and how he used his power to change the lives of others. He talks about how students have this idea of reverse racism. However that could never exist because we have never been oppressed as people of privilege. We can never speak the truth of someone of color because we will never understand the position they are in.

While I was watching that documentary and reading the articles, I started to think critically about situations I have been in and the conversations I have had with people about white privilege. The more people I talk to about this the more I realize white people deny that they have this invisible privilege or they are unaware of it entirely. The way to change this is to have more open dialogue about white privilege, to admit that that white privilege exists.

During the Alternative Spring Break Retreat for Trip Leaders we completed a privilege walk in which we were read statements that applied to people of privilege and people who lacked privilege. These statements never mentioned color, race, gender, or sexuality. Everyone started on the same spot on the line and based on the statements you moved forward or backward. An example of a statement that was read to move forward was “ if you have had over 50 books in your house growing up”. An example of a statement that was read to move backward was “ if you have ever been scared to walk to your car alone at night”.

I had no expectations before the privilege walk because I was unaware of my privilege. Once the privilege walk was completed I was at the far end of the line, leading towards most privileged. I was shocked. Where I come from I never thought of myself as privileged. Until that moment I thought the privileged people had a Mercedes -Benz and a large house. Once I found out how privileged I was and how unprivileged some of the other students I go to school with were, some of my friends even, extreme guilt over took me. I think this is also part of the problem. Once people recognize white privilege, they feel guilty and feel it is easier to ignore that white privilege exists. If we can over come the initial guilt we can move on to make a change and empower others.

The biggest thing I took away from the reading is not to be colorblind but to be color brave. Start recognizing people for their color and their privilege.

– Sam Shepherd

‘You Never Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone’

I am a white female. I started dating my boyfriend about a year ago and it really gave me a new perspective on what white privilege is. My boyfriend is black. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very diverse area and it never really occurred to me before then that dating someone of a different race would turn heads. Just a few days ago my boyfriend and I went bowling (in Harrisonburg). We arrived just the two of us and planned to meet up with friends, at first everything seemed normal but then I realized that it seemed like people were staring at us. As usual, my boyfriend is the only black person in the entire place; this is definitely not the first time this has happened, people have stared, pointed, taken pictures, granted not all the time but enough to matter. These articles really made me think because I can see and understand what it feels like to be looked at and treated differently and wonder, “Is it because my boyfriend is black?” When I’m not with my boyfriend, no one stares. When I’m not with my boyfriend, I don’t have to wonder why someone is looking at me, but he will always be black, so things like that are always in the back of his mind. It’s actually kind of funny because I remember early on in our relationship my boyfriend and I were out somewhere and I said to him I keep catching everyone’s eye. My first thought was is there something on my face or toilet paper on my shoe, but when I mentioned it to my boyfriend he said its probably because we are an interracial couple. This was crazy to me. That is white privilege; being white, I’ve never had to wonder if the way I was being treated or the way I was looked at was because of my skin color. Even things like considering where to live. With graduation approaching my boyfriend and I have spent a lot of time deciding on places where we want to look for jobs and I suggested some southern states like Alabama and Georgia. My boyfriend said he did not want to live in the south because he didn’t want to risk discrimination. That is white privilege. Being white, I never think twice about the states where I can live in and not be discriminated against. Being white, I’ve never had to wonder if people were looking at me or treating me different because of my race.

This week our readings focused on white privilege and the perks that being white has. A few of these readings I have read back in high school and they did not have the impact they have on me today. As a white person, it’s really easy to read these articles and become defensive, but white privilege is not something we are aware of. It’s like the saying ‘you never know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’. Not in the sense that I have lost white privilege, but in the sense that unless you’re are not white, you don’t know the experiences that others without white privilege face daily.

Institutionalized White Privilege

What I find most interesting about the concept of Whiteness is that it’s not necessarily about race. White is a part of an individual’s identity…Whiteness is about the power hierarchy of privilege and superiority. While these articles brought these concepts to my attention, they also made me reflect critically upon my upbringing. It’s not about the fact that I am a white female that makes me superior to anyone. It is the privilege I receive from being a white female that has allowed me to have a comfortable life. Something that I picked up from the “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” article is that there are aspects of life that allow whiteness to prevail in society. For example, in that article, Author Peggy McIntosh states how something as simple as buying a bandaid that matches the color of white skin is something no one reflects critically on from day to day, but it is simply something we see as a way of life. Yet, this is one example of whiteness reflected in society. It allows those who are white to be supreme to others and position themselves in power. Yes bandaid colors do not represent power, but this is one example of many in our culture in which those who are white are given privilege. Although that might seem like a silly example, it is far from silly that many do not understand this concept.

Exposure to this theory is something that many of my peers will never understand. Yet, exposure and understanding is the first step to solving this problem. Once it is recognized, we can take steps to advocate against the institutionalized behaviors that allow some to rise up, and others to be oppressed. Whiteness is not about racial identity as much as it is simply about behaviors and using behaviors to establish equality. Bringing these “invisible privileges” to the attention of those who may not understand it, allows for the critical reflection of our own behaviors. From there, it is important to teach those how to, “balance their own relationship with or investment with Whiteness — that is, they must not obsess about their own actions, ending up with a worldview that starts and ends with them while keeping their own implication in the perpetuation of racism in play.” This quote came directly from the article titled, “I am also in the position to use my whiteness to help them out”: The Communication of Whiteness in Service Learning. While it is important for us to critically reflect on our own behaviors, it cannot about how our privilege is beneficial or harmful to others. But how can we change our own behaviors in relation to Whiteness?

That is a question I hope to discover in my own reflection of this journey.


“There is no such thing as a small act of kindness”

After reading various articles on the idea of white privilege, it truly made me think back on my life and examine areas that I have more than likely had “perks.” It is tough for anyone to acknowledge the idea that they have received any “upper hand” when working towards their goals, especially unknowingly. I felt a range of emotions when reading about the idea of white privilege, from anger, embarrassment, defensive, and sad. However, when applying this to the idea of service learning, I am angry by it. Why on earth should my skin color play a role in giving back to others? My whole life I have been taught to always give more than I receive, to put others before myself, and always take the time to make someone’s day a little bit better. Now, as a 21 year old I finally am making a real, adult decision to devote time to work with The Lost Boys and Catholic Charities, only to be criticized by almost every reading I come across. Yes, it is apparent I was born white and have been so very lucky, by why should this interfere with helping others? Why not use my resources to, hopefully, make a difference in society and advocate for a wonderful group of people who need to be acknowledged.

The society we have grown up in is unfair and down right cruel for some, but there is always hope. If we can work together to erase all ideas of inequality it would create a wonderful environment to live in. However, to do so we NEED TO COMMUNICATE! One of the best ways to do this would be through service learning, it is such an amazing way to learn first hand to allow you to speak with your own knowledge. We cannot educate anyone on these ideas without communication. Teach your children, speak to your families, utilize social media, and give yourself a voice. Just talk! Spread the word and we can all become aware of the harsh realities that need to be erased.