Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Invisible Knapsack

Last semester I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar on white privilege. The presentation relied heavily on Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking The Knapsack. It wasn't the first time that I had 'unpacked the knapsack' before, but several of the participants seemed to be unfamiliar with it. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend that you do. It sets up the metaphor that being white equips me with an invisible knapsack of tools that I use to make my life easier. An example she gives is, "I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed." I think it is a great tool for introducing someone to white privilege, but our presenter used it to create suggestions for addressing the problems of racism. I don't think the metaphor can stretch that far.

It is the 'tools' in the knapsack that cause problems when we try to fix them. The metaphor of tools suites the privileges because it helps illustrate my involvement. I have and use these tools so racism is my issue even though I am white. Where it falls short is the active intentionality of using tools. Let me use one of the examples to illustrate my point. One of them is, "Whether I use check, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability." Stating this creates awareness that other races are assumed to have poor credit, but I do not 'count on my skin color' to convince any one of my good credit. Rather, this is a privilege given by the absence of race. Someone (who is also white) that I am interacting with is not going to think, "She's white; this check won't bounce." I'm not going to think, "Maybe since I'm white, he will not make me write my work phone number on here." Neither of us is thinking about my race because being white allows me to be raceless. Many of these privileges are not tools, but actually an absence of burden.

If they were tools, I could make a decision to stop using them or to work to provide them to others. As an absence of burden, the issue is more difficult to address. I can't decide to take on the burden the same way I can stop using the tool. Telling the cashier in the grocery store, "Just because I'm white doesn't mean I have good credit," isn't going to overcome the stereotype that certain minorities write bad checks. As an individual I can try to avoid making assumptions in hopes of not burdening others, but doing that would not be a helpful action. Instead of acting, I would be striving for an inaction, and my inaction will not relieve their burden because they have to assume that I am making the same assumptions as everyone else.
It is frustrating and upsetting, and it seems so much easier to just promise to stop using my tools, but it can't work that way. Being aware of the tools is the first step, and using them for good is a possible goal. Past that, a new plan and a new metaphor needed.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What's in a Name?

Since August, I've been working in our university's external grants office. I've seen the effort that both the faculty and our office put into grant proposals. Research is done to prove a need for their project. Seminars are attended to learn how to write a budget. Draft after draft is edited and rewritten. The campus is scoured to hunt down everyone who might have a stake in the project and get their signed approval. All of this is done with the pressure of knowing that there is only so much money and only a chance that this project will even be approved. I've submitted a social science proposal to a hard sciences funder. I know what it is like to worry that they just won't understand why my project should be important to them.

Like every other faculty member who has ever applied for an NSF grant Hillary Anger Elfenbein went through this too. She was also fortunate enough to go through the elation and relief of being funded. What she didn't realize was that Congress was going to see her project title, Accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions, and consider it silly. The merit of her project was brought before the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

So much of academia functions on peer review, but Congress can throw it all out the window and judge these projects by their titles? I understand that taxpayer monies fund NSF and that it is a government grant, but if Congress wants to have some oversight and involvement, their appropriate role would be to evaluate and asses the standards that NSF uses to make their decisions. John Campbell's response that these projects are, "raiding Social Security funds," is what I find silly. The government spends a lot of money on a lot of things, education and research are not the standards I want to cut. The time spent by Congress to review her proposal after it was already approved by NSF and after military officials commended it for the potential uses by soldiers in Iraq , was also funded by tax payers. Does that time, "rise to the standard of requiring expenditures of taxpayer funds in a time of deficits?"