Invisible Knapsacks

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Framing Material


This discussion-based activity guides students in understanding privilege as a concept and recognizing the ways their own privileges benefit them and impacts daily life. If you as an instructor need a refresher or introduction to privilege before leading this activity, please review “An Instructor’s Guide to Understanding Privilege.” All other necessary materials are linked as PDF’s below.


  • To help students understand various kinds of privilege
  • To prompt students to recognize and reflect on their own privilege
  • To begin to illuminate the larger impact of privilege on daily life and how it relates to oppression


This activity can be implemented at any point in the semester. It is especially useful as a primer to help students understand privilege before approaching course material that may require students to grapple with aspects of identity.


  • This activity assumes that all students are able to move easily around the room. If you have a classroom space that limits movement or you have students whose movement is limited, you will need to adapt to accommodate those constraints.
  • The small group discussion portion asks students to pick a privilege that they have. While most students will have one on the 6 privileged identities, it is possible that a student will not experience any of the available forms of privilege. Another possibility is that a group may only have one person in it. If this happens, you can meet with any excluded students in a one-on-one discussion of privilege, perhaps finding an area that they do experience privilege (for example: thin privilege, English language fluency privilege, heterosexual privilege), or you could begin discussing privilege in a more nuanced way with them (for example: how does context impact their experience of oppression and privilege?).
  • Discussing privilege often makes students defensive. While this activity is designed to be comfortable (or at least as comfortable as confronting privilege can be), be prepared for some resistance, claims of so-called “reverse” discrimination, and dialogue blockers.

Other Associated Material

Invisible Knapsacks Activity Facilitation Guide

Time Needed: 1.5-2 hours

Optimal Group Size: 20-30 (can be modified for smaller or larger groups)

Learning Goals: This activity is prompts all students to explore the manifestations of White privilege, as well as the manifestations of one additional kind of privilege they themselves hold. At the end of the activity, students should be able to identify multiple examples of how privilege influences daily life and offer examples from their own experiences. They should also have a greater understanding of the pervasiveness of privilege and the need for individuals to engage in allyhood behaviors.

Importantly, the activity allows students to learn about one of their privileged identities in a small group with other students who share that privilege. The rationale is twofold: First, students read lists of privilege examples and therefore avoid relying on members of the oppressed group to educate them in this instance. Second, they have the opportunity to share comments or questions that they may be too afraid or embarrassed to ask in the presence of oppressed group members.


  • Excerpts of Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (enough copies for everyone + facilitators)
  • Lists of privilege examples (5-7 copies)
    • Ability privilege
    • Christian privilege in the US
    • Cisgender privilege
    • (Mostly cisgender) man privilege  
    • Socioeconomic status privilege
    • US citizenship privilege
  • Small group discussion questions (12 slips, or two per group)

Facilitation and Discussion Prompts

  1. Ask all students to read an excerpt1 from Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1989). (10 minutes)
  1. Lead a large group conversation to process the excerpt and how it relates to students’ own experiences. (15-20 minutes)
    • What caught your attention or surprised you in this article?
    • Did anything on the list relate to your personal experiences?
    • Did anything in the excerpt raises questions for you?
    • What does McIntosh say is necessary to redesign social systems? What do you think of this?
  1. Frame the activity and give instructions (5-10 minutes)
    • McIntosh’s list is really helpful for White people to imagine specific examples of oppression they don’t experience based on skin color. Inspired by McIntosh, other people created similar lists of other types of privilege examples.
    • We have six privilege lists today: ability, Christian in the US, cisgender, (mostly cisgender) man, socioeconomic status, and US citizenship privilege.
    • Each of you will join a small group that will explore one of these privileges. You must choose a privilege that you yourself hold.
    • Can someone provide a definition of cisgender? (Or provide one for them to ensure everyone knows this term. Ask if there are any other questions about those terms.)
    • In order to get the most out of this activity, you are strongly encouraged to choose the privileged identity that makes you the most uncomfortable and/or that you have had the least opportunity to think about.
    • Listen carefully again to the six privilege lists we have and think about which one you would like to focus on.
  1. Assign locations around the room for each small group according to privilege list.
  1. Allow students to self-select, but check in with each group – does everyone in the group hold the privilege explored by their list?
  1. Distribute small-group questions to each small group and ask students to read the lists before discussing the prompts. (15-20 minutes)
  1. Lead a large group debrief conversation (20-30 minutes)
    • What did it feel like to read the list?
    • What is something you learned about yourself from the small group activity?
    • Did anyone discover areas of implicit bias? Hopefully all of you!
    • Why is it important to be aware of privilege and how can we use our privilege to create positive change?
  1. Closing comment (facilitator’s choice). Example: Thinking about privilege can bring up many unpleasant emotions such as guilt, anger, fear of making mistakes, sadness, and so on. It is important to exercise self-compassion and know that we all have privileges that we did not choose. However, because these privileges influence every aspect of life, we must also remind ourselves that unacknowledged privilege often prevents us from exercising important values such as equality, fairness, justice, and even kindness. We encourage you to continue learning about privilege and how you can harness it to create a more just world.


Developed by Ashley Wiseman, Global Scholars Program, 2017