The Luxury of Invisible Privilege

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Jackie Summers examines the way racism reproduces – and how well-meaning people feed the disease by denying their privilege. 

“I’m no bully. I like niggers.”–JW Milam, acquitted murderer of Emmett Till

My grandfather was not a demonstrative man. When my father was a child, Granddad–a piano tuner by trade–sat my father down, and had a very somber conversation with him about how to avoid being lynched.

Likewise, my father was not given to words, or displays of affection. I was about 13 years old when my father–a professional jazz musician–had a similar conversation with me: how (not) to address officers of law, so as to avoid being shot.

I admit: when this generational rite of passage made its way to me, I didn’t fully understand the implications. The essence of this ritual can be distilled down to three basic precepts:

  • You’re a man now, and so responsible for your actions.
  • While other people are responsible for their actions, don’t give them any cause to justify their preconceptions about you.
  • Your mother and I don’t want to outlive you.

If you’ve never received a speech like this. If you’ve never felt compelled to teach your child he is perceived as a threat, regardless of his actions. If you believe the need for such things are outdated, hyperbole, or superfluous to the point of being overkill: Congratulations! You’re suffering from the luxury of invisible privilege.


Lisa Hickey is on record as saying she’d like to “solve racism.” A nobler sentiment you’d be hard pressed to find, but exactly how does one do this? What if racism, like most social ills, isn’t an equation that can solve for zero? While our progress as an ethical society can be argued for progress or regress, there is (at least) one place we can look historically and claim advancement: modern medicine. Whereas cases of polio and measles once decimated entire populations, we can unequivocally declare significant progress in curbing the spread of infectious disease.

So what happens if we treat racism like a disease?

To be clear, there is no cure for polio. Massive vaccination programs are responsible for containing the spread of the disease. We can gain some insight into how we might approach racism differently if we draw parallels.

A virus’s sole purpose is to reproduce, but it needs a host to do so. Pathogens require certain nutrients to grow. And you can’t spontaneously develop a viral infection; you have to catch it from someone.

The problem with many deadly viruses is diagnosis. Viruses can lay dormant for years. You can contract a disease and show no active symptoms. Here is where the real similarities between racism and infectious disease lie: instead of thinking of racism as a social construct–a system of group privilege which defends the advantaged–many people perceive racism as individual words and acts of race based bias. As long as individuals avoid committing these, they aren’t racist.

This is racism in its dormant viral state. By this standard, no one is racist anymore.


If reading this line of argument makes you feel a sense of discomfort, you are likely experiencing what is known as “cognitive dissonance.” People want to believe they’re good people. When something enters their psyche that might contradict this assurance, it is easier psychologically to construct a reality that suits your belief system, than to reexamine your beliefs. The logic goes something like this:

Racism is bad. I’m (or so-and-so is) a good person, so I (or they) can’t be racist. This is the kind of mental gymnastics that allowed the Founding Fathers to not only own slaves, but make constitutional concessions for such. This manner of thinking can be used to justify any action as righteous, no matter how horrific.

This is the social equivalent of ignoring an enormous cold sore. The virus is manifesting, so you cover it with make-up.


If mental constructs can prevent one from acknowledging the existence of social constructs, just how does one diagnose for racism? You look for symptoms of invisible privilege. A very handy guide for this is the manifesto Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.

In light of recent events, number 15–”I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection”–is of particular note.

This fairly comprehensive list tends to agitate individuals who’d prefer not to think of themselves as privileged. It impugns many essential, well protected beliefs about the self. So let’s try something a little more accessible.

Last week, two videos went viral on the internet. The first showed police arrest a man taking video of police activity. When the police approach him, he puts his dog into his car, and voluntarily puts his hands behind his back, submitting to arrest. When his dog jumps out of the open window of the car to protect him, the police shoot the dog.

It is incredibly telling that the outrage around this video focuses on the treatment of the dog, and not the human. If the obviously unjust killing of an innocent animal registers more deeply with your psyche than the unfair arrest of a black man, you might be showing signs of invisible privilege.

The second video shows a young man who’s stopped at a routine DUI checkpoint in Tennessee. He insists on his constitutional rights, much to the ire of the police officers present. If you watch this and believe he was completely within his rights, you’re correct. If you thought to yourself–as I did–that his actions violated everything my grandfather taught my father, that my father passed on to me, and had I done the same thing, I would likely have ended up in jail at best; at worst, dead–then you’re aware that while we are all promised certain inalienable rights, the extension of such rights is not, and has never been, equal.


Identifying invisible privilege as a symptom of the racism virus is important because it demonstrates how people who seemingly do no harm can still contribute to a harmful system. Curiously, people will more readily admit to having herpes than being racists, although the transmission of both diseases is social.

How ironic that the former carries less stigma than the latter.

Identifying privilege as a luxury is important, because luxuries are things that are enjoyed. If a virus actually benefits the host, what would be the motive for getting treatment? No one gives up luxuries voluntarily.

As with infectious disease, while you may never personally show symptoms or be impacted negatively, you can still spread the pathogen. In other words:

  • If you’re not racist but you’re a racist apologist, you’re part of the problem.
  • If you’re not racist but you’re racist tolerant, you’re part of the problem.
  • If all of your social interactions occur within the bubble of invisible privilege, and you genuinely believe your advantages are purely the result of meritocracy, you’re not a racist… You’re a carrier.

If you exist inside a system that benefits you to the detriment of others, and do nothing to challenge the status quo, you’re enforcing it. The antibody for racism is compassion.

About Jackie Summers

Jackie Summers is an author and entrepreneur. His blog F*cking in Brooklyn chronicles his quest to become a person worthy of love. His company, Jack From Brooklyn, Inc. houses his creative and entrepreneurial enterprises. Follow him on Twitter @jackfrombkln and friend him on Facebook


  1. Heartbreaking.

  2. Helen/Hawk says:

    I had to have “the talk” w/ my son. And I’m white female. This was in a post-Columbine world where a teen male can be assumed to be of danger. Not that I’m claiming it’s the same. It was revelatory to see that (and I’ve been aware of invisible privilege before).

  3. I am really disturbed by the number of “but what do we DO?” comments. It’s not the responsibility of the marginalized to offer up solutions; it is our responsibility to work together to create them. If someone says, “Hey, you’re standing on my foot!” we move. Granted, this is a big mess, but just like teaching your kid to clean a fantastically messy bedroom, we have to just pick a corner and get started. Do something that’s not hand-wringing. Talk is good, actions are even better. There’s more than enough opportunity everywhere to make an effort. While the end goal is to dramatically decrease racism the way we have other viruses, don’t expect success with your first, fourth, fortieth, or even four hundredth attempt in the anti-racism laboratory. We need to make a lot of mistakes to get better individually and as a society so we’d better get started. This is in-for-the-long-haul work but it’s some of the best work we can be doing. Pick something. Anything. Get going.

  4. TantraWoman says:

    Another well-written, thought provoking, articulate article. Thanks, Jackie for all the eye-opening messages. I’m still enthralled, and reveling in, your Exquisite Lover series. Like I said before, would love to see more of YOUR articles posted to The Good Men Project, but keep up the great work of making sure there are always good stories posted here.

  5. ogwriter says:

    Linda I wanted to add that it struck me that you seem to equate losing status and or privilege with possible solutions to this problem.I think many white people feel that way,underneath the facade of to being tolerant. They feel like if actually live in a more equal place,they will loose some of their power.

    • Helen/Hawk says:

      Some of this is contained in one’s model of the world/Universe. If the world/Universe is seen as a place of limited resources….then yes, equality means changing the sizes of the the piece each has (think of a pie). OTOH, if one views the world/Universe as one of abundance then equality doesn’t mean limits, there is room for all. This kind of belief/world view is foundational.

  6. Linda Hello.You have made an impressive start with the honesty of your admission.As one person color I couldn’t possibly have an adequate answer.I might suggest the step is develop your understanding of how some people of color are impacted historically.Then, simply live your life as if you know that your privilege relates to others.For me,living as a member of a conquered class of people,I must understand the values of the dominant culture or perish.Learn about the other and allow the knowledge to inform your thoughts and conversations.From there you will figure out what to do.Are you a feminist?

  7. I entirely agree with everything said in this article… but what are you proposing that we do? I am quite aware of the privilege I benefit from as a young white female- as a performer, this helps me IMMENSELY. But I’m not going to stop performing simply because I have the upper hand. Do I wish that the playing ground were more level? Of course. But I don’t feel that I’m contributing to the system that made it unfair in the first place… I know you don’t know me, so of course you can’t know the truth of that statement, but I genuinely want to be a part of the solution. I’m aware of my privilege, what’s next? (I’m already getting some ideas, but I’ll leave the question there and what other ideas people have.)

    • I echo your concerns about the article as well. I do think there is a lot of pointing to the problem, but I am interested in hearing about solutions. At the end of the article, the author offers this, “The antibody for racism is compassion,” which I look forward to hearing much more about. I hope there’s a part 2.

      I’m a white, educated male who has had the benefits of privilege, but what I find disturbing is the insistence that I “get it” or change in some way, and it’s very unclear to me what I’m being asked to do. I’ve also gotten into more than one Facebook fight from time to time because of what I perceive to be the insistence that I focus on what’s wrong with our culture or with my privilege, as if only doing that will change things.

      I understand my privilege allows me to move along unobstructed in ways that others are not. I know that privilege allows me to see the world a certain way, but what I’ve come to know is that if we never get out attention off the problem, we will only live in the problem.

      So, I’d like to be solution-oriented myself and say that compassion also means self-compassion – recognizing what is truly mine in this situation, because that is the only thing I can control. I also try not to take the pain, anguish or discomfort of others on as my own. Many white people are defensive about racism, our hackles come up, because it’s as if we are being asked to change – but I’m still not understanding the nature of the problem specifically. It it’s privilege, please be specific about what you believe me role is or should be going forward.


      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        Seeing it and talking about it with people is a part of the solution. You’re moving the Overton Window a little bit even in just that way.

        • Eduardo García says:

          I agree with Joanna,

          The first step to solving a problem is admitting to it.

          Many people avoid thinking that they are privileged, because they would have to admit some of their success is the result of being simply born within a Social Class, Gender, Race, or Ethnicity. Nothing sickens me more than seeing someone high-horse themselves, stating that if they can do it, anyone can with the same hard work. They forget to mention just how much easier it was for them because they were born into it.

  8. The First Joe says:

    I realised today why I find this perjorative use of the word “privelege”* as promulagated by PC / feminism so infuriating. Because it promotes the idea that things such as: e.g. having people respect your right NOT to be groped / harrassed are somehow special priveleges, rather than being basic considerations that everyone should be afforded.

    The whole debate that demands the “priveleged” “give up” these things is back-to-front. What needs to happen is that everyone is raised up to the basic level of the so called “priveleged” in terms of how they’re treated in society.

    Two e.g.s:
    No-one deserves to be sexually harrassed.
    No-one deserves to be slapped / punched / hit / kicked.

    Neither of these “negative rights” should be considered “priveleges” and it hampers debate that it’s so often parsed that way.

    *as opposes to the correct use, when applied to the money / power class (the 1%).

  9. auntikrist says:

    What is that awful picture at the top of the page for? How does it have anything to do with the article? It looks like a carcinoma on someone’s lower lip. I don’t get why it is at the head of your essay (which is quite good, by the way).

  10. ogwriter says:

    Mike First, I would caution you against defining for the victim of your ignorance how it should be percieved.Secondly,It appears to me that the focus of your concerns,which lean towards protecting the power rather than protecting the powerless,is in desperate need of serious re-evaluation.Why should someone be expected to pay all of that money and invest all of that time to be put down by a small-minded “intellectual” ?Thank you so much for trying not to express ignorant racist sentiments in the future.Your efforts are greatly appreciated.Good lord?!

  11. It should be OK for people to acknowledge that they have racist beliefs, provided that they intend to change them.

    For example when I was a graduate student I did a racist thing.

    I was organizing a graduate student networking group in my department, but there was no central list of graduate students, so I spent an afternoon going to all of the research groups and I introduced myself to the students.

    There was one student who was a black man in his twenties, On hearing him say that he was a student I did a double take and said “You’re a PhD student?” Then I gave him the same spiel about the group that I gave to all of the other students.

    I wasn’t surprised at the female students, or the Chinese students, but I was surprised at the black student. I was contributing to the micro-aggressions that black people are subject to in our society, and I have tried not to do this again.

    The first step to stopping a behavior is to admit that you have it.

  12. Comparing the shooting of an animal to the (often inherent) racism of the police force is bizarre, the former is obviously more shocking than the latter. Not because they aren’t both shocking, they both are but in entirely different ways. One is a visceral almost primeval response to a violent shocking event (at least for me as a vegetarian lol), the other effects an entierly different area of the brain, it needs to be thought through & absorbed conciously but to juxtapose the two entirely separate issues & then claim that if your first thought is for the dog that means you have some form of subconscious racism I say is nonsense. It’s like having a conversation with someone about forcefeeding prisoners when suddenly someone bursts a balloon. You’ll probably remember the balloon & not the conversation about something equally unpleasant.

    • i'mjustsayin says:

      except that mr. summers’ didn’t point out which you may have reacted to first or which you’re going to remember. he specifically stated that if you’re more deeply affected by the shooting of an animal than you are by the unjust and unfair treatment of a person by people in authority–law enforcement, specifically.
      i’m a true animal lover and a dog ‘owner’. but i’m very clear about which of the two i’m more deeply affected by, and it’s not the dog.

      • Mostly_123 says:

        If I follow your meaning- it’s important to understand & appreciate the nature, depth, and (social & racial) connotations of that particular human indignity; compared to the relative indignity (though mortal) visited upon an animal. On a visceral level, I can understand that someone could view one action as irrevocable, and other as not – but that would be to overlook the social, racial, and human connotations of that situation, and that was the whole point.

  13. ogwriter says:

    wellokthen I don’t fucking get it?!What is so goddamn difficult to understand?!Screw theories.It is simple.If one has white skin,in many clearly substantive ways:getting and keeping a good job,getting a loan for a house or to start a business,living with less stress,not being profiled and so on is made better if one is white.This devil’s advocate card is utter garbage.I could give a rat’s ass about having ad nauseum sudo intellectual discussions about theories.As if a flaw in the theory renders privilege to the point of being ineffectual.I can respect you or someone else who says,yeah I got it better than those folks over there,good for me bad for them.I may not like it,but at least it’s honest. And in the next line you will write about some hidden privilege women have over men.Fucking priceless!Even though I know that all men share some of the same disadvantages,why would I deny those centered around race to associate with a more inclusive message? Even I,a poor blackman, have some relative privileges.You want to mince and parse words as if we are sitting in a debate class,this is not a game.

    • @ogwriter, it’s easy to see white privilege I agree. Male-female privilege is a much trickier issue, but I don’t see how someone could deny white privilege.

    • wellokaythen says:

      When it comes to questions of privilege, I like to apply what I call the Envy Test: if you could snap your fingers and trade places with that more privileged person, would you do it? If not, then why not?

      (For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume you have the option of swapping back. You wouldn’t have to switch places forever; you could try it on for a while.)

      [The following “you” is not a reference to anyone in particular, by the way, just a general “you.”]
      So, if white people have more privilege, and you’re not a white person, would you be willing to become one if you could?

      I’ve asked the same thing to men who think that women have more privileges than men, and I’ve asked people who thought homosexuals had more rights than heterosexuals. So far no responses. I know the test is not conclusive of anything, but it can still be quite revealing.

      When I’ve applied the test to myself, I can say I definitely envy people with more money than I have, and I definitely envy people who have younger, healthier bodies than I have. I envy people who have more natural social grace and charisma than I do. I can see real privilege in those things, and I would probably trade places if I could. That’s about it, though. Whatever part of me thinks that maybe women and some ethnic groups get “too much extra consideration” nowadays, that part is nowhere big enough that I want to trade places with them. There’s a much larger part of me that thinks that in the grand scheme of things I’m more fortunate in a lot of ways.

      • Would I change to be a woman? Depends, is it wartime? in peacetime where I am men n women are pretty neck n neck with their privileges, one gender gets better business life and less sexual abuse but far far more physical violence, the other gets a better home/family life with more sexual abuse and less physical abuse. In wartime I’d definitely prefer being a woman since being male will most likely mean it’s me off to the frontlines against my will…although recently may mean both genders are conscripted.

    • wellokaythen says:

      How odd. I try to suggest that white privilege may be overdiagnosed sometimes, and that means that I don’t think white privilege exists? I have to request some clarification here on the logic of that.

  14. I’ll cop to it. Being shown my invisible privilege has not really had the intended effect, at least on me. Maybe it’s a question of personality or maybe it’s being a product of ingrained racism or some sort of subconscious sense of entitlement. In my case, seeing my privilege mostly just makes me grateful that I have it. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

    I think to myself: thank God I wasn’t born black or poor or [insert disadvantaged characteristic here]. Man, those people have sucky lives. My sympathies. Whew, dodged a bullet there. I should probably keep my distance from those poor sods or else I’ll come across as an ignorant entitled asshole. Thank goodness I see my ignorance so I don’t step in it by accident. Maybe now I can more successfully avoid saying anything offensive or doing any other sort of social faux pas. Thank you, social and cultural awareness!

    Is anyone else thinking things like this? I honestly have no idea.

    I’m also wondering how privilege relates to the idea of strength through adversity. How do disadvantaged people feel about being told that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? (Besides the obvious point that sometimes racism does in fact kill people.) Logically, if adversity makes you stronger, then the more disadvantaged one is, the more strength one has developed, and the more privileged one is the weaker one is. Meanwhile, if invisible privilege keeps privileged people ignorant and underprivileged people understand reality better, then that means the people with the most power in our society are the people who are the most ignorant and the weakest.

    (BTW, I don’t buy the idea that adversity makes you stronger or God would never give you a test you couldn’t pass. Utter rubbish.)

  15. ogwriter says:

    WOK Your third point has some truth,but is not absolute.We are talking about degrees that are impacted by race.Yes,in general men are more feared than women. Poor white men are more feared than wealthy white men.Blackmen,no matter the status are equally feared.

  16. Scott Heathcote says:

    “If you’ve never received a speech like this. If you’ve never felt compelled to teach your child he is perceived as a threat, regardless of his actions. If you believe the need for such things are outdated, hyperbole, or superfluous to the point of being overkill: Congratulations! You’re suffering from the luxury of invisible privilege.”

    All males have been informed that they are perceived as a threat regardless of their actions. If you disagree consider a man trying to work in a daycare.

    Ladies, congratulations on your invisible privilege.

    • wellokaythen says:

      This is one of the problems with the way that “privilege” gets analyzed today. The way that it’s defined, for example as “being ignorant of the ways you’re better off than some other people,” means that everywhere you look for it you will find it. There is no way to test for privilege and get a negative test result — it’s the pregnancy test that always says ‘pregnant’ no matter what. This to me suggests that the theory needs some refinement.

    • i'mjustsayin says:

      i find these kinds of responses extremely annoying.

      why is it that when someone writes an intelligent, critical piece on ONE topic, there are people compelled to point out, “i’m affected by this too”? but in a dismissive, self-congratulatory, “get over it” way…

      my theory is that it gives a person permission to move on from the topic and return to the relative comfort of his or her life–now that’s a luxury. getting to pretend this doesn’t exist.

      the writer never claimed that whites are the only ones enjoying privilege in this country, so stop dismissing people’s experiences by claiming that because they’re not singular, they aren’t valid. and if you’re going to attempt to paint white men (as a broad generalization) as the victims in American society today, please go back to the drawing board, as a more privileged demographic does. not. exist.

        • wellokaythen says:

          I can’t say one way or another what the intent was of Scott Heathcote’s message here. Nowhere does the message say that white privilege does not exist, and nowhere does it say that female privilege is more powerful than white privilege. Nowhere does it say that someone should have less sympathy for one group and more sympathy for another. Seems like there’s a lot of reading between the lines here.

          Maybe he was attempting some sort of derailment or misdirection. Maybe he was simply suggesting that racial privilege is similar to other forms of privilege. Maybe the article reminded him of this other thing he’s been thinking about. I can’t claim to be psychic or telepathic. All arguments about motive are purely speculative or at best educated guesses.

    • There are many kinds of privileges that everyone benefits from living in a rich Western country such as the US. I don’t think comparing the privileges is the point of the article and seems in and of itself to be an attempt at ‘derailment’ and ‘misdirection’.

  17. Good read. I’m not sure if racism can be cured but I do believe it can be disarmed. The reason I believe it might not be curable lies in the fact that America is the product of racism. So, in a sense, we as a nation was built on the devastating effects that has flowed within society from Day One. To be perfectly honest, I have witnessed and experienced racism for so long that it doesn’t necessarily bother me if the next man or woman feels a certain negative way about me based on my skin color and/ or culture. But please don’t shoot and kill me as a result of those feelings.

  18. wellokaythen says:

    I sympathize with this article, and I think the idea of racism as a virus is an intriguing one. I like to think I’m astute or self-aware enough that I would never say that I’m not racist. It’s quite amazing to me how deeply ingrained it is to think of racism as a bad thing. Even people who are clearly, overtly racist, like KKK leaders, get offended when they’re called racists.

    Some points of curiosity:

    1. Presumably there’s a difference between racism that’s invisible and racism that’s nonexistent. Is it possible in a particular case to suspect racism when racism was not a factor? I’ve read far too many similar articles that tend to find racism everywhere, and they tend to use lack of evidence as evidence of its existence. Seeing racism everywhere (I don’t think you do) is not much more useful than seeing it nowhere.

    2. If racism is like polio, then anyone of any race can catch it. Presumably that means that people without white privilege can be racist, and perhaps even be ignorant of their own racism. Racism isn’t just passed on from white people to white people.

    3. In terms of trying not to get shot by police, how much of that is race and how much of that is gender? I suspect that our society’s targeting and stereotyping of black men has as much to do with demonizing men as it does with demonizing African Americans in general. No doubt African American women face their own history of dangerous cops, but I wonder in this case if black men have more in common with white men (particularly poor white men) than they do with black women.

  19. Danielle Kail says:

    Can anyone suggest to me how to keep a cool head when I becomes my job ( who’s job is it not who witnessess a wrong) to confront prejudice? If someone is ignorant how can I help them to knowledge instead of making an enemy? I have bitten off way more than I can chew time and time again. How does can I stay unruffled and pick the battle thats the right size for me? Seems that the reason people get angry about being challenged on a racist or sexist comment has nothing to do with right or wrong and everything to do with getting called on it.

  20. Yann Hiver says:

    It’s a tough nut to crack, this.

    The source of the problem is exactly what you said: it’s horrible to suddenly have to hear that you’re a racist when you’ve never really been aware of the problem. You might object “but I didn’t make a concious choice to be racist”! It’s terrifying to folks that see themselves as socially liberal; a label like “racist” can make you an instant paraiah in some circles (never mind the fact that it’s only about lip service paid by those rejecting you).

    People do things that harm others all the time, without being aware of the harm they inflict. Racism is a pretty damn big elephant in this room but there are others too. Harm can be very indirect (e.g. doing nothing when genocide is going on in another country; rich countries setting up trade barriers that make it impossible for farmers from poor countries to compete; the list goes on).

    I have no solutions of my own, only approaches tried by others: create as much empathy as possible for those being harmed and then show how that harm is caused by someone that the privileged can identify with. Wish I could offer something better but as I said, it’s a tough problem.

  21. Hello everyone,

    my mother has found a racist, homophobic, nazi website on the internet which is unfortunately very popular in my country. Since then she has been expressing racist thoughts, and we got into numerous arguments. I know she’s heavily influenced by these nazis and the ideas she expressed are not her own, but there are always some things I just cannot prove that are not true. I would like to educate myself on black history, how black people became an opressed part of society and why the problem still exist. I was wondering if someone could recommend me some useful website that talks about this thing (I’m not sure I can afford books right now). I would like to educate myself so I can come up with better comebacks than “racism is wrong”.

  22. Mostly_123 says:

    “Identifying privilege as a luxury is important, because luxuries are things that are enjoyed.” 

    About privilege, in a broader sense, I would be inclined to add a caveat (or at least, an observation) – Privilege is very much associated with luxury. More specifically; unmerited luxury that is detrimental because of its exclusivity, which is where the problem lies; in its isolated extravagance, arrogance, lack of introspection, wisdom & empathy. Many people DO tend to equate ‘privilege’ with ‘luxury’, ‘impunity’, and ‘arbitrary’ power (undeserved or deserved). 

    But privilege (that privilege which is worthy of being extended to all, rather than that which should be abrogated & abolished by all) should also connotate ‘responsibility’ as much, or more, than ‘luxury’ – and the onus to use (or to decline to use) power (any power) responsibly, constructively, & mindfully; not parceled out along static, arbitrary lines, or based on arbitrary characteristics, or other subjectivities.    

    That also begs the notions: Is privilege (generally) to be abolished or extended? Granted, one could argue that when privilege is universal it loses its claim to exclusivity, and so it isn’t really privilege any more if everyone’s got it. But if THAT is so, is the sole value/detriment to privilege only in its exclusivity, even when it’s not exercised or it’s invisible? Doesn’t it have some more intrinsic worth, desirability and common potential for good besides exclusivity? Luxury is difficult to give up, yes, but it can also give us joy, pleasure, and satisfaction to share; it’s rooted in empathy, and there’s something inherently more satisfying in sharing with someone who has less than ourselves, than with someone who has as much, or more. Since the dawn of mathematics we’ve been able to recognize equal and unequal. Human beings (optimistically) are as accommodative as they are confrontational.  

    It’s a liability to have worry about discrimination. But is it a privilege NOT to have to worry about it, or is it the natural end-state; one that has yet to be fully achieved and extended to all? Is equality about extending the burdens of ‘liability’ to all, or extending the luxury (and benefit, and responsibility) of privilege to all? 

    • Mostly, you raise valid points. It is a particular kind of luxury to, generationally, not have to train your children to fear authority figures, as it might earn a premature death. I submit true freedom is when the same privileges are extended to all, regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference.


      • ogwriter says:

        I am sure that Lisa won’t be surprised to know that I completely disagree with the idea that if one doesn’t give the talk to their sons,they are white and privileged.I am the not the former and I do possess a smattering of the latter. I am also black,male and I have helped raise two sons in Oakland, Ca.I received the talk at 12 years old,right around the time white America began to demonstrate its unreasonable fear of all things black and male towards me.The talk neither saved my life nor did it stop cops from harrassing me. What it did do was teach me how to be a cowering,fearful person. The talk was given to me 46 years ago and things don’t seem to have changed much.Which is,at the end of the day,THE point.The belief in the power of the talk to save lives is a false assumption based on hope,not facts.It is a reaction that has encouraged dependence and docility among African Americans.By the time I was15 I was angry because I felt disarmed by my mother and my community. I couldn’t understand why blacks would sit on their butts and on bended knees praying to a white God for salvation while children like myself had to confront grown men armed with weapons and the power of the state?!If God was with me during those moments I was harrassed,he certainly never made his presence felt.Neither was my mother or the local pastor present.It was just me,a child trying to cope. So, now we are upset. In the 46 years since I was given the talk there have been countless Trayvon Martins. Blackmen have been put in jail in record numbers and the criminal justice system is more racist than ever.The talk has failed miserably.I never gave my sons the talk,they are strong,well educated and grew up far less fearful and inauthentic than I.

  23. Mostly_123 says:

    “A social construct–a system of group privilege which defends the advantaged.”

    This seems to be a very-one way dynamic; almost stringent. As such, would you apply it (or hesitate to apply it) interchangeably and open-endedly substituting ‘racism’ with ‘sexism’ (or ‘misogyny’)? What gives me pause is that power, privilege, and liability cross many axes, usually traveling in both directions (sometimes, both at the same time).

    • Mostly_123 says:

      Re: ‘liability’ as in terms of the opposite of a privilege or asset (cost, weight, debt, or detriment) – NOT ‘liability’ in the sense of ‘liable for’, ‘the responsibility’, or ‘bound to cause’

    • Mostly,

      It absolutely is a very one-way dynamic. While sexism and misogyny are both reprehensible, neither have been responsible for the level of genocide racism has.

      May we rid the earth of them all.

      • Danielle Kail says:

        Sexism and mysogny are multi- cultural and so in my opinion just as large a problem. Women have been in slavery many centuries and make up eighty percent of those sexually trafficked today. While the n word is not exceptable on television and shouldn’t be, you can call a women the b word and many other gender slurs are common as dust on tv. While an overexadurated charicature of a black man will not be seen on a magazine rack today many such misreprisentive charicature of women’s face, bodies and culture can be found on the selfs of any supermarket. Nearly every music video. I’m not minimizing racial prejudice. Just I can never know what it is like to be of color, you can never know what it is like to be a women. Please don’t marginalized me.

        • ogwriter says:

          Danielle Kall I gotta say that your response is indicative of why I seldom,if ever, align myself with feminists.Feminists and feminism have a long well documented history of racism that they are constantly attempting to deal with. For you to equate the power of a privileged Cody Stanton,who refused to allow black women seeking the vote to march with or be a part her white feminists allies,with that of a slave is strange and untrue. I can’t find a single instance in her life where she was shackled,whipped or otherwise lived her life consistent with the conditions of a slave.You pretend that Ms.Stanton and her ilk were only victims,instead of racists themselves. Furthermore,you speak of all women as being the same and of having had the same experiences.Are you kidding?! Really? Privileged white feminists who feel this way are not helping.

        • @Danielle Kail As woman of color I’ve experienced the indignities of both racism and sexism. Racism trumps sexism every time.

        • And for the record, Ms. Kail, you are marginalizing racial prejudice by bringing up and comparing it to another social political issue rather than identifying and actually discussing racial prejudice as a problem that needs to be addressed (which is the issue that is being discussed here). Your statement has a tone of defensiveness and self-rightousness that as a woman, I cannot agree with.

    • ogwriter says:

      Mostly_123 Yeah,you are right in that many aspects of privilege run up and downstream simultaneously.The difference is power.

  24. Mostly_123 says:

    “To be clear, there is no cure for polio. Massive vaccination programs are responsible for containing the spread of the disease. We can gain some insight into how we might approach racism differently if we draw parallels.”

    That’s a powerful metaphor: We often talk off-handedly about how we’ve licked polio decades ago. But you’re right- that conception is not accurate: We never actually “cured” it in the sense that we had the medical knowledge & skill to UNDO the damages in people who were already affected by it (my pediatrician, the kindly, gentle man who administered my polio inoculation to me when I was a toddler, eventually died in his early 60s, due to extended complications from the polio he had had as a child). Our remedy is that we have the knowledge & power to prevent new cases, until one day it hopefully fade into complete extinction: That’s our ‘cure’ or resolution- it’s the prevention.  

    And maybe that’s a ‘cure’ for racism too- if we can find a way to inoculate as many people as we can, as young as we can, before the disease takes hold and does the damage it does. Like I’m told, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’  

    • Mostly,

      As the song says, you’ve got to be carefully taught.


      • I have been dragging that song out for people for the last 12 months. For racism for homophobia all of it. I grew up believing I was a first generation Australian girl and that the experiences of my newly arrived parents would never be mine. However in the wake of Sept 11 being any type of mixed race is fraught with issues. As an actor I have always been awake of my race but it has now bled into my life that I am now experiencing new forms of racism. Going through the airport, meeting new people and even when serving tables in the restaurant I work in. A hundred times a day I am asked ‘ where are you from? If I answer ‘here, Melbourne’ I get the – don’t-be- cute face. So I have to haul out my race, if I answer too simply they make assumptions the oh yeah i know you. So I get cross and correct them by being more specific and more often than not get shouted down and corrected about my heritage.
        It hurts and makes me angry in ways I cannot explain. I’m almost 40 and this has been building for over 10 years, if I had grown up like this I think I might have put a bullet in my own head. Or maybe every one else’s.
        My nonno used to say he wasn’t rascist he hated everyone equally, unless they were from his home town. Probably not the best way to be but at least he was honest. The most interesting side effect I have noticed is I no longer identify with my own country men. I see myself as migrant stock even though my mother was here from the age of 2.
        Sorry, this has gotten very long winded but I am still trying to understand why my country turned on my.

        • You and I are the same age and I lived in Melbourne in 1989 as an exchange student and it was there that I learned about the pervasiveness and complexity of racism. I am a white American woman from the western U.S. and so racism (until then) was an abstraction–all I had ever known were the Skinheads and their nonsense. What I observed was how real it is, how casual, how far ranging and constant. You are on the receiving end, and all I can ever say (and hope that it helps) is that it is real, it is happening, and it’s f***ed up. Just a reality check. You’re not wrong.

          • Yeah I guess I pushed it to the back for so very long I get a little cranky around the edges. Interestingly I was living in New York in 1987 with my family and I saw what I thought was a much more inclusive society oin Rego Park, Queens. Maybe I should have stayed.

            • @Melissa—

              I grew up in Woodside, Queens and enjoyed a multicultural neighborhood and schools…although there were racial tensions, of course…it was so important to me to have people who looked like me getting through the same bullish-t everyday….

              Of what I know about Asian friends and relatives who live in Australia, the milieu seems more hostile to Asians (I guess people fear that their jobs will be taken away by a lower paid Asian)….

          • ogwriter says:

            Slyvia I live in the western Us.How is it you were never aware of the pervasiveness of racism until you moved to another country?I would imagine you knew of sexism while you lived in the western US.

      • Mostly_123 says:


        Thank you, JFB.
        I don’t have much in wisdom in return, but I’ll send you this one (at the very least, I loved this scene as a teen) :

        As an adult, I wish we all lived in this world that Paul Newman is talking about there- it’s hard to say to yourself (and even harder say it to somebody else) ‘have faith, be the change, do what’s right’ that sort of thing, when there is so much wrong. I just hope it doesn’t ring shallow. I know that we all need more than just good intentions.

        • Mostly_123 says:

          ” this world that Paul Newman is talking about there”
          -clarification – at the END of the monologue, where’s he talking idealistically how we can all act with justice; with all having the power & will to do so.

  25. So beautifully written — with one GLARING exception:

    “It is incredibly telling that the outrage around this video focuses on the treatment of the dog, and not the human. If the obviously unjust killing of an innocent animal registers more deeply with your psyche than the unfair arrest of a black man, you might be showing signs of invisible privilege.”

    Why? For if the unfair arrest of anyone registers more deeply than the unjust killing of anyone/anything, it is you who might be showing signs of invisible privilege, my friend: the privilege of being human in a (Western) culture where humankind believes it is its god-given right to subordinate/exploit/tame/kill the rest of Creation at any cost.

    This is a privilege not much different than white privilege, or male privilege, or heterosexual privilege. Your remark reveals that perhaps another “Unpacking the Invisible Napsack” is called for.

    • Nick,

      No one who is cruel to animals can make a claim on goodness. However this discussion is about racism. If you’d like to contribute an essay on animal rights, I’m certain it’d be welcomed here. Please contact lisa @ goodmenproject . com


      • Nick:

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        Please see the official GMP commenting policy.

      • Mark Neil says:

        But you’re setting an expectation that an unreasonable (even unlawful) arrest should take precedent over the tacking of a life because the one arrested was black and the one killed wasn’t human, you are setting this expectation with the statement Nick quoted, objecting to the outrage over taking a life. I think pointing out you deem a black persons time and dignity are above the life of an animal is a relevant point, and dismissing it to some other discussion is just that, dismissing it. Do you feel the taking of an animals life should be given less than a person being wrongfully arrested (I say person because, as Archy noted, there are many examples of police overstepping their authority when people of any color record them, or is it just because he’s black that we should be outraged?)?

        • You have it a little turned around IMO.

          That the man was arrested was unfair.
          That the dog was shot was unfair and tragic.

          But caring more about the dog than the man is coming across like a contribution to racism often made: black people are not really human. Hence why it distresses people to see more outrage for the dog, who had a person, than for a person who likely has a family. Not that the dog’s death wasn’t tragic, but that a dog is more important than a person of color.

          If the man had been white, outrage would likely have been for both him and his dog. But not putting the dog’s fate first.

          • I was more outraged over the shooting of the dog, and so was the dog’s owner. My heart broke for him, he obviously saw his dog as a family member, and watching a family member get gunned downed and killed in front of his eyes hurt him FAR more than being unfairly arrested did. But other than that one sentence, I loved this article, well written and thought out. I just think the author could have come up with a better example. A lot of us were more outraged over the killing of the dog than the arrest of the man because the killing of the dog did far more harm to that particular man than the arrest did. We felt empathy for the both members of the man’s family; himself and his dog.

      • Charlie Ward says:


    • The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

    • Jodi Rives says:

      @Nick–if the pervasive racism which led to the unfair arrest of the owner didn’t exist, the arrest doesn’t happen and, thus, the dog never even enters the picture. Racism is the bigger problem–because it is more pervasive and far-reaching.

  26. “It is incredibly telling that the outrage around this video focuses on the treatment of the dog, and not the human. If the obviously unjust killing of an innocent animal registers more deeply with your psyche than the unfair arrest of a black man, you might be showing signs of invisible privilege.”
    I think both are fucked up but in this particular case the more shocking part (not necessarily the worst) is the dog being shot. The arrest can hopefully be overturned, fixed, the action on the dog however is done and not able to be undone. Was he arrested for being black or for recording police? I may be naive here but I have seen quite a lot of white and other races get arrested or at least threatened by police for recording them. It’s very rare to hear of a dog being shot by police, hence the shocking part.

    • Hi Archy,

      You’re right, both situations are awful. The key, as you rightly point out, is shock. It is a particular kind of testament to how broken the system is when no one expresses outrage over police misuse of public trust, because it’s become just that commonplace.


      • Indeed. From what I can understand based of news stories I’ve seen before, that quite a few others have been arrested for recording a police officer (as they don’t all know the law themselves) and some have been white. That’s what makes me wonder if this case is a racial issue, or an issue with recording the police. There were others recording, not sure of their race though. The part that makes me curious is he put his hands behind his back, did the police say that or did he do it himself? If I was the police and saw someone do that I would be very curious as to if this person is guilty of something and submitting to the police.

        The dog situation was handled bad, just uncuff him and let him secure the damn dog. You had an MP5, I doubt he’s gonna do a runner!

  27. Ken, bruder, you have my sword and shield.

  28. Brother Jackie —

    Solid. Timely. Honest. Heartfelt. True.

    For anyone who has not heard a speech like the first paragraph referenced above, I suggest they laminate it and carry it in their wallet.

    To know it is to be there, but we can have empathy, if we choose to listen and embrace.

    Your voice, with me every moment!

    With you, arm in arm —


  1. How I Relate says:

    […] Jackie Summers talks about The Luxury of Invisible Privilege. […]

  2. […] This comment is by i’mjustsayin on the post The Luxury of Invisible Privilege […]

  3. […] comment by Don was on the post “The Luxury of Invisible Privilege” by Jackie […]

  4. […] The luxury of invisible privilege. The Good Men Project, Jackie Summers. How do you know if you’re living a life of invisible privilege or subtle racism? Ask these questions of yourself to find the answers.  […]

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