Stretching the Knapsack Metaphor To Its Full Bent (And Then Some)
November 21, 2007 23 Comments
On my baleeted blog, I was in the process of writing an in-depth analysis tying Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack to a relevant understanding of how privilege blinds and disenfranchises using current events as examples. But since I’m a real wiseacre I decided to try this during my first year of law school.
Trust me; it was not a good look.
So the other night, I was speaking to one of my favorite Asian anglers about white progressives and privilege and the dumbassed stories they write. Stories like “Err, racism and sexism are important pet issues and diversionary projects, y’know, but can us pleasen focus on ze Eeeerawk War?”
Never mind the fact that race and sex and gender play integral parts in who fights the Iraq War, who pays the highest human cost (and the number has grown from there), who gets violated, who has a say in the direction of Iraq — NOOOOOOOOOOOO. These hobby horses can be forgotten ’cause we need to leave the kiddie pool and get rollin’ in the sandbox. Never mind that there are people out there LIVING this shit. Mired in it. Burying loved ones. Tending to the newly raped. Worried about getting caught on the Metro with a brown face and a visible knapsack. No. Side projects. We have to stay focused on the real deal like what politician is lying about what socket A got ripped out of plug B and deal 1 about bomb 2 is being put on table X and meanwhile the soldier tally (people are dying) is rising!
So I talked to my friend, and I began thinking about this white progressive cry for focus. The hierarchy of needs climbed higher and higher in my mind until I reached the privileged tip. And then I had it! I knew what was hindering me from understanding why one issue had to replace the other in terms of focus. Privilege. And I took poor Kai down a rambling metaphorical journey, and now I’m forcing all of you to follow my rambles now. I’m going to take my thoughts from the conversation and make them coherent.
You know what? White progressivism is hobby-oriented. It centers on detachment and symbolism — no body shaking, ground moving shit. Just shit like t-shirts. And what white folks consider radical is leaving the house, hitting the pavement. Because when I look at things like this…
We all have our obsessions, our bugbears, our pet causes. And we should be careful not to assume that they always pertain to whatever question’s at hand. Doubly, we ought to avoid over-specialization, over-investment, and above all avoid the tendency to make a Unified Field Theory (incorporating our obsession to the point of ludicrous aggrandizement) and apply it to everything monomaniacally.
… it’s like he’s describing people who play too many video games. Not people’s LIVES, not as if it’s tied up with your own life or is relevant to your worldview. It’s bearing the onus of a worthy cause upon your back, without looking that cause in its eyes or really even touching it. Just finding a clever, cute Awareness Backpack for it. An invisible knapsack, if you will…
Okay, you know ze famous “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” thing for having white folks question band-aids as tools of oppression and shit. Well, okay. Many white progressives do unpack that knapsack. But then, they do a quick quick inventory and then REPACK the knapsack.
They don’t sit to investigate the contents and how they work.
They don’t look for the source of what’s inside the sack.
They don’t leave the backpack off or experiment with other ways to carry things.
They just look inside, say, “Oh hey, never thought I had one of those,” and maybe dust it off a little like a hobbyist. And then put it RIGHT BACK INSIDE THE KNAPSACK. Only now since they’ve emptied it once, it’s no longer invisible. Other people who haven’t unpacked their sacks notice them more and deride them. But nevertheless, to them, at that point, they’re done.
And so, our little pale hobby horses journey out into the world, visible knapsack on back, ignoring the nuances of the things they failed to investigate inside their knapsacks. And the things they DO recognize, they pin them up with what’s on inventory and do a grand gesture of pointing to it, pointing to their list, and patting their knapsacks. (But of course they don’t bother to open the sack again because they’ve done that before…one time’s a charm — not like they miscounted…)
And then, our backpacking heroes get pissed when the people surrounded by the contents of the sack, sitting mired in it, talk about it and live it and know it like they know breathing — they get mad when these people tell them they don’t know what the shit they’re talking about.
Really really mad sad.
And then they start complaining. They complain about their burdens not getting any lighter because of those whining folks in stuff they can’t remember without referring to the list. And do they even NEED a goddamned list? I mean, who’s counting all this shit anyway? Geez. Can they get a little credit for even trying to make a damned list?
…Besides, don’t you know how much their backs hurt? This fucking knapsack is HEAVY. Maybe they can take it off a little while, just a little while, and carry something lighter. Something a little less involved. Something that doesn’t cause them to sweat SO much. I mean, they’re not donkeys, y’know?
Meanwhile, the people with bridges called their backs, the people who lack the time to play around with inventory, the people who really would like those people who do have time to get a clue and talk to them like people, they’re too caught up in fighting wars, hugging victims, rebuilding lives, fighting for rights that are so wrapped up in those knapsacks that those white progressives take them for granted.
And the ones with time, they realize that the culture of white progressive politics is centered on this convenience, this grocery list of issues, and this detached and limited engagement fueled by academia to propel it along. Otherwise, there’d be no knapsacks, and all of us would be cleaning up together.