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McIntosh examines oppression

Mandi Stirone | Monday, March 5, 2007

For Peggy McIntosh, the prevalence of racism was not something she was taught to see.Speaking to 300 participants in the Carroll Auditorium Saturday, McIntosh, assistant director of Wellesley College’s Center for Women, highlighted her experiences studying white oppression of blacks – something that she, as an upper class white woman, had initially been hesitant to believe.During her keynote speech for the Diverse Students’ Leadership Conference, McIntosh said she had been taught that “knowledge is white” and that she was “superior to her colleagues of color.”The oppressiveness, she said, is ingrained in a person’s upbringing through the “myth of meritocracy” – something she said she experienced. McIntosh uses the “myth of meritocracy” to describe the way whites and males are raised to believe that they had earned and deserved everything they had, something she said is not entirely true. “[We are] born into the system that preceded us,” she said. “We didn’t construct this. We can’t be blamed for it.”This system, however, wasn’t limited to race and can be applied similarly to gender stereotypes, she said.McIntosh said she first came to understand the oppressive system in place at a conference she chaired about feminism in education. The men at the conference were “nice” and “pretty brave for attending,” she said, but had been taught “knowledge is male.”Such oppressiveness, McIntosh said, had been taught to men and was a subconscious action. “It’s not their fault,” she said.  The message of this discussion was that those with positions of privilege should use it to undermine the oppressive system they lived in. In her own life, McIntosh said once realized she had this privilege, she spent three months trying to to see if she really did have unearned advantages as a result of being white. After those three months, she said she found 46 examples, which she wrote about in her paper “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Word in Women’s Studies.” One example in her paper, she said, was that she could be pulled over for speeding and be fairly sure of getting off with a warning because she was an elderly Caucasian woman “with my hair in a bun.” Realizing that she had advantage wasn’t enough for McIntosh, who took action by writing to companies like Crayola demanding that they produce more skin-toned crayons, and to different supermarkets to insist that they include “soul food” in the shelves. In an attempt to demonstrate that everyone in the room had been oppressed in some way or another, McIntosh then paired audience members together to talk about instances where they had unearned disadvantages and advantages.