The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack.

Samantha Bee won Twitter yesterday.

In case you missed it: Vanity Fair published an article titled “Why Late-Night TV Is Better Than Ever.” It features a slick, well-lit photograph of some of my favorite things: handsome, funny men wearing well-tailored suits.

Former Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee had an amendment:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 10.37.35 AM

I got into a debate about this with some friends last night, one of those conversations where all of a sudden it’s been two hours since I looked at the time and did we drink all the beers and seriously I can’t believe you just said that and I think you’re deliberately misunderstanding what I have to say and WHY IS MY VOICE SO LOUD ALL OF A SUDDEN? 

We were talking about the new Colbert show. And how much we love Colbert. And how smart and funny and incredible The Colbert Report was, how we’re excited to see what the new show brings. And how much we loved that piece he wrote for Glamour Magazine about how much he loves women and how there’s a gender bias in comedy.

And the fact that he hired nineteen writers for “The Late Show.” Seventeen are men. Two are women. All are white.

Here’s a bit from that Glamour article:

Sure, the other hosts bring the eye candy. Jimmy Fallon has a boyish charm, and for the ladies who are into ladies, if you squint, Jimmy Kimmel kind of looks like a rugged Mila Kunis. But female viewers need more than a pretty face. They need someone who will represent their voice. And I think this essay has proved that I have an authentic female perspective, because most of it was written by two female writers on my staff.

Point is, I’m here for you, and that means I’m going to do my best to create a Late Show that not only appeals to women but also celebrates their voices. These days TV would have you believe that being a woman means sensually eating yogurt, looking for ways to feel confident on heavy days, and hunting for houses. But I’m going to make a show that truly respects women, because I know that there’s more than one way to be one.

19 writers. 17 men. 2 women. All white.


Have you ever heard the phrase “The Invisible Knapsack”? 

It was coined by a woman named Peggy McIntosh during the late 1980’s. It’s a phrase that she uses to explain white privilege: that on any given day, there are countless ways in which white people are afforded an extra set of assets and benefits, and are oblivious that this is the case.

Here are her fifty examples of what the “Invisible Knapsack” looks like, her take on what she, as a white person, is afforded in a society that a black person is not. This is not a comprehensive list, and there are more examples. But here they are. Her fifty.


1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.

29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.


This list was created in 1988.

And this list still gives me immense pause in 2015.

I am white. And my world doesn’t look “easy” or “advantaged” or “privileged.” It just looks like the world to me.

But it is advantaged and it is privileged. It is, for all of the reasons listed above. It’s just that most of the time, I can’t see it. It’s invisible. These things are hidden from my view, and it takes a great deal of reminding, even persuading, before I can remember that the invisible backpack exists, that I’m carrying it around with me, always.


I’m drinking a beer by a campfire last night, listening to friends argue that Colbert is an outspoken feminist, that comedy writing skews notoriously male and that perhaps in this case the men were simply better for the job. Surely a feminist wouldn’t knowingly perpetuate an all-boys club unless he had extremely good reason to do so? Is it so beyond the realm of possibility that, in this one case, all of the men and women were interviewed, and given equal consideration, and the seventeen men that made the cut were simply the seventeen best for the job? And perhaps, since there are more men in comedy than women, women and writers of color simply weren’t applying for this job in the first place?


Or perhaps Colbert doesn’t see it as a “boy’s club.” He just sees it as a “writer’s room.”

Invisible Knapsack Writer’s Room.

Perhaps, if you substitute “gender” for “race” on that list of fifty things, some — not all, but some — explain a lot about what it means to exist as a woman right now. And it helps explain how we can be living in an “era” of women in television, and still be massively underrepresented in almost every way. 

Problem is, I really like Stephen Colbert. Problem is, I think he’s great. I think he’s incredibly smart and funny and he has done immensely good things in his position of power and privilege, and has challenged American viewers to examine their news feeds and biases in incredible, important ways.

And here’s where I turn again to Peggy McIntosh. From an article in The New Yorker: 

And I found myself going back and forth in my mind over the question, Are these nice men, or are they oppressive? I thought I had to choose. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be both.

I’ve noticed this thing that happens when I have these kinds of conversations with some white men in my life, men I admire and respect and love.

They become frustrated during these conversations because they feel attacked. They feel invalidated. They feel like their arguments aren’t considered valid, because they can only speak from their own experiences, and it’s hard to believe that there is a problem when you can’t see that it’s there.

They assume that they must fall into one of two categories, “nice” or “oppressive,” and no one wants to be “oppressive,” but if they argue with anything that I’m saying, they certainly can’t be “nice.” So they shut down. Or become angry. Or stop listening.

And that sucks. Because their voices are necessary, and need to be heard. Join in. We can’t do this without you. It’s just that their voices need to be heard within the framework of unpacking that invisible backpack, and being able to examine its contents while having this discussion.

White dudes of late-night television: you are nice. You are smart, and you are funny. You have worked hard for what you have achieved. You have done great things. We can’t wait to support you, and cheer you on, as you continue to do so.

You are nice.
You are also oppressive. Both of those things are true.

You have the power to not be oppressive. You do. But you’re going to have to work a little harder. You ready? Here we go.

Find some writers of color. Find some female writers. They’re out there.
Hire them.
Listen to them.
Collaborate with them.
Don’t ask them to speak on behalf of their race or gender. Don’t expect a gold star, a pat on the back, or a parade. Just: find some people who don’t look like you, but whose voices and experiences might look like the America that you’re trying to reach on television. Not just the America that you see, but the one that is lived by the people without knapsacks and backpacks, without invisible advantages and hidden assets. Hire the people whose stories might require a bit more conversation or discussion or translation, whose common language you might not speak immediately, but once you can overcome that gap, might yield even greater results. Hire the people who might create the content so that the kids growing up will look at their television sets and not think, looking at a landscape of white maleness, “This is what the normal is,” but rather, “That person looks like me,” and “I relate to that.”

Hire them. They are out there. I promise.

And then listen.

102 thoughts on “The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack.

  1. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | lisseuslockbox

  2. It’s funny – even now I witness white men trying to make excuses as to why the writing team isn’t more diverse. It’s not a coincidence and whether or not it’s conscious or subconscious, that is how hiring practices are conducted, and we need to get out of that. By the way, I had heard of the invisible knapsack theory a while ago, but still love whenever it is mentioned. It sums up white privilege so perfectly well.

  3. Wonderful and thoughtful read. Thanks much for sharing this. Also, for me, it is timely. My friends and I are getting together tonight to talk about diversity in the improv community. (I am in the SF Bay Area, and yes, diversity issues concern some.) I will be sharing your post beforehand, esp. your –

    “Just: find some people who don’t look like you, but whose voices and experiences might look like the America that you’re trying to reach on television. Not just the America that you see, but the one that is lived by the people without knapsacks and backpacks, without invisible advantages and hidden assets. Hire the people whose stories might require a bit more conversation or discussion or translation, whose common language you might not speak immediately, but once you can overcome that gap, might yield even greater results.”

    I have been talking about what I am calling “Colorized Improv” – basically being forthright about acknowledging voices and experiences of the bi-cultural, multi-cultural. Originally inspired by an author – Jeff Change (who wrote “Who We Be: The Colorization of America”), I am still evolving my thoughts. I’ll leave you with a post I wrote (kind of my thinking out loud) – – that includes a quote from a friend –

    “And I don’t think we have to cast for minorities or do minority focused sets, but if you get all these viewpoints in a room or on a stage, that diversity will come out naturally.”

    YOUR POST, this post has very much further inspired me! THANKS!

  4. Great post. Intersectionality is vital and diversity needs to happen now – TV networks can’t continue to only represent one culture.

  5. You milenial waterheads have really latched on to this fallacy called “white privilege”. Your generation is so devoid of the ability to think critically that you fail to see these are nothing but examples of being the most populous race/culture in a country. I wish you morons would learn some shame and realize how stupid you sound with this crap.

  6. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. |

  7. ‘They are nice. They are oppressive.’ These words have touched me more than most have in some time. And I believe it has because it represents what I think; I just didn’t know how to articulate it.

    Often times, I will defend the actions of ones who seem racist, not because
    I don’t think it wasn’t racist, but because he/she seems like he/she is trying. Sometimes people don’t realize the effect of their actions. And in my opinion, it doesn’t deserve us labeling them as racist or chauvanistic. But, at the same time, they need to know that their actions can be labelled in that way. And I can only hope that they are genuine in their ignorance and willing to adapt.

  8. Thank you for writing this! Your comments on how men feel attacked when confronted with questions about their involvement with gender/racial bias was particularly enlightening. I wrote a few weeks ago about how dissatisfied I am with the feminism so readily broadcast by social media because I have a son. I want my son to feel that his voice is valid, that he is not lesser for the actions his ancestors may or may not have taken against other genders/races. It’s a hard conversation and I’m still struggling to figure out where I stand but this helped. I had not heard of the invisible knapsack but you’ll be damned sure I’ll be thinking about it now 🙂 Cheers, KD

  9. Hello. Wow…that’s a big Invisible Knapsack! Which brings me to this thought. People of color are not “invisible”, they’re just “ignored”. We just feel like we’re invisible. This so-called knapsack just proves it.

    Thanks for the moderation.

  10. Here is a perspective for you.

    Spend some time in a forward combat zone. The race, sex, sexual persuasion or religious beliefs of the person covering your back won’t mean a thing to you. The only concern you’ll have is whether they are competent and can make good judgement calls because in the end the fact that we all bleed red, we all hurt and we all die will become very apparent rather quickly. The threat of death and the prospect for life are the great equalizers. You work as a unit or you die, it’s that simple. There is no room for an invisible backpack.

  11. Absolutely love this article!

    I work in insurance and gender inequality is still very present. But I completely understand and agree with your points that maybe some people are just best for the job. The most important thing is finding a diverse talent pool to choose from in the first place.

    I will be posting an article today on the need for successful women in insurance, please feel free to have a read if you have time.

  12. Thanks for this. Love seeing writers and thinkers unpack the Invisible Knapsack in different contexts and different places. Love even more this thoughtful piece.


  13. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog | written by adekola©

  14. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | Simone Samuels

  15. Pingback: Nice and oppressive | Discovering ratchet

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