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. This is exceptional, thoughtful writing.

    I hadn’t heard of the Invisible Knapsack, and I appreciate you helping me be less ignorant moving forward.

    I hope this gets read as much as it deserves to.

  2. You know, we did not quite have access to the Colbert Repore!! in India in the days of the Bush Empire.. but I used to er.. sneak around the net and watch them… sort of.. download them too.. Used to love it.. and probably still do, but alas, not enough ammo these days for something like that now to be truly hilarious 😀 (Also Jon Stewart, Letterman etc..)

    But I am slightly baffled that you raise these issues and I admit you are right.. And in a very general way as well, not just related to this topic as such.. But a question I ask (and nooo, not any biased thought or knee-jerk reaction)… is… what if the producers looked at the talent without looking at their race in the first place? What if they could not actually find material that suited their requirements or tastes? Would it at all be possible that they were selected blindly (colour or gender blind, I mean)? I am not sure..

    Oh dear, look at me.. a brown man from a third world country asking these questions!!! Ha.. irony… But I was just curious.. what if it was not a question of bias at all.. is what I mean.. sorry about this long, incoherent comment..

    • I think this is a question very often asked about racial/gender based issues in a lot if different fields. In politics, for example, many countries have introduced some regulations for the representation of gender. In some places the party list has to consist out of an equal number of candidates of each sex. A similar argument would be that the main motivation to put anyone on that list should be competence. And I totally agree. It should be only about competence in any area. But we don’t live in a world where we are starting from scratch. In the current situation we tend to appoint humor and political know-how as mostly male competences. Such a view is constructed by the situation we know and see around us and by the stereotypes we have about gender and race. Thus since we are influenced by our world in our career choices, less women will try to build a career around such competences and more around competences, typically associated with women, like caregiving. This way we lose a lot of potentially very funny women/colored people to a stereotype. You can see that we are finding ourselves in some kind of a standstill here.
      The solution? Give minorities/women more chances (yes, as in deliberately going out to look for them) so that their peers can find an example in someone they can identify with. Over time, when the stereotyped characteristics to women and people of color (and men too) slowly change, we won’t need these frameworks anymore. In this bright version of the future we will not need to worry about diversity, because the most competent people will come from everywhere.

      I hope that made sense. It is a really short, simplified version of what has been found in research.

      Have a good one!

  3. Wow, this is my first time hearing of the Invisible Knapsack as well, and I definitely didn’t expect it to be so dated. Nearly all of those FIFTY(!!!!) points I can immediately apply to my current life. Very eye-opening, for issues of race, gender, and other bias. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I am a female who has dabbled in comedy writing and a lot of times I find myself worried about pleasing a white male audience without really realizing it. I think because it is the “norm,” I’ve just had it absent-mindedly engrained in my brain that I have to write like a white male would, which sucks because it completely limits me. I know some damn funny women – and while I do love many of the late night hosts right now, it would be amazing to see more women in the ranks.

    I love and appreciate this post – thanks for sharing!

  5. Are we looking for Colbert to provide a voice that sounds like, well, Colbert – or a voice that sounds (for lack of a better term) universal? Does your answer to that question change the way in which you judge who he hired as writers?

  6. Once again you have made think in a new way. Thank you Katherine, for your strong voice and for taking the time to use it so eloquently.

  7. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | I'm Right Here Beff

  8. Yeah, your mom would be proud – maybe she could read this one. I talk about privilege on the regular, and this explains what a hard time people have with it, and why. I like how you said, You can be a nice guy and I can like you, and you can also be oppressive. Awesome.

  9. Brilliantly thought out piece! I hadn’t heard of the invisible knapsack so thank you for giving what I’ve become much more aware of recently.. A name 🙂

  10. Yes yes yes yes. Thanks so much. I’ve had so many arguments about the existence of white privilege with my white friends. This definitely gives a context that makes it easier to discuss. Especially the oppressive vs nice part.


  11. So appreciate this post and how you’ve unpacked this invisible knapsack so it’s easier to see. As you said, it’s not about blame but about understanding it’s even there and doing something about it.

  12. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | Liz's Blog

  13. This was a really interesting piece to read! It was quite enjoyable. I really liked the intro. It got my attention quite well. I think we have all had those nights were we realize all the beer is gone and were talking a “little” bit louder. Those are the best nights 🙂 Nothing but mindless, fun conversations. My mom would get such a laugh by reading this! And that Glamour article was right… hosts do bring the eye candy. Nothing better than a man and a suit 🙂

  14. Timely. I have been thinking a lot about my knapsack lately, well using different language: privilege . Funny how the universe brings our thoughts to us in so many ways. Thanks for sharing.

    On Tue, Sep 15, 2015 at 11:43 AM, I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This

  15. A big part of the shows lore is unfortunately a sheep show, how highly can you participate in it without only going to fetch? And in the case of men, white nice men..are equally opressive, many men that are nice are the same way not just white. Also.. The late night tv bracket is kind of the last hooray for free reign of men in wit, humor, attitude, discernment, thats part of the allure.. Maybe our sensitive pants could be riding super high, but implement a big mixed bag of writers and goodbye to the spear of late-night. Atleast on a singularity platform.
    Im born in 1988 and from that invisible knapsack list i’d have to say..though Caucasian culture is more homogenized, its crazier to have to do such things then i’d list it like that..being non white, but in affording culture. Life is largely life and it should be challenged and brought to that point where as many others as possible can live it.
    Great post😊

  16. About time someone said all this! But because we (less privileged groups) like all these white men and know everyone else does, too, we’re scared of being called fanatics or haters for saying, “This crew is awfully white and awfully male. Anybody else see a problem with this?” Thank you for having the courage to say this and for starting a necessary conversation about the more subtle forms of discrimination–which inevitably shape the more obvious and violent ones. Thank you.

  17. I read your story and in my thoughts came this expression in a phrase and i would like to share my thoughts with all of you, this is a very exceptional story spoken in a kind and unique way of emotions, we all do our best in life in every day living and in the work field of our choice, my overall comment to your words in this story is, when we were born the doctor didn’t hand are parents a manual or instructions on how to live a good and prosperous blue collar life and even if we had the best bring up childhood by our parents, when we grew older it’s still up to us to choose the right road and path in life to succeed and excel to our highest level in life, i leave you with this added comment, no-one can mold or shape you into a life of success, we are all our on backbone in life, with thoughts of who we are and what we will become, no matter what choices a person makes in thier life, it’s what they chose for the goodness life and living can give, another point of interest that comes into my mind if you had to weigh individuals careers and lifestyle on a scale to judge the best quality out of a person for a specific role or job to do in life, the scale would be balanced think of a scale with weights, Do you know why you would be looking at a balanced scale? I’ll tell you why – Because every person on this planet has thier own special talents to perform different jobs and tasks in living, so we are all equal when it comes to living our lives.

  18. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | entertainmentinside

  19. Wonderful writing, I never heard that expression before. Even in England today there are so many truths to your words. Even though comedy clubs are open to women and people of colour they’re still in the minority. The message is out there and we need to keep pushing the boundaries until gender and colour no longer matter to anyone.

  20. Pingback: The Invisible Late-Night Knapsack. | Original Rebel

  21. The race/gender debates these days are really emotionally charged. I guess I definitely have to recognize the privileges I was born with – though I think a lot more of them have to do with having parents who worked hard to make money and provide me with a good life and good educational opportunities.

    I think the key is recognizing your privileges without feeling guilty about who you are. Some people do try using tactics of guilt, but I didn’t choose where I was born or the parents I was born to, and I have no responsibility for what any of my ancestors might have done, so I can’t feel guilty about any of that. I’m a competitive person, and I’m certainly not going to step aside for anyone else, no matter their race or gender. But what I can do is recognize what I have and work hard to earn my place in society, and to approach the world in a way that isn’t racially or gender-biased.

  22. While I enjoyed the read and agreed I would propose a further addition to this well thought out piece:

    Within comedy or whatever media we consume, Let’s not just strive for diversity of gender or race. Let’s strive for a diversity of thought.

    Rather than going through a mental checklist of whether or not you have a tribute white guy, African American woman, Asian man, and East Indian transgender woman represented in your media team? Go through the mental checklist of whether or not you have represented a diversity of thought and life experience within your media team. Do you have people who look at the world from a religious point of view or an atheistic point of view? A right wing or left wing point of view? Does the team you are building contain a group of people with diverse life experiences? Financial backgrounds? Family situations? Diversity can be interpreted as the representation of all genders and races within a group, but if all those included in the “diverse” group think exactly the same way? The diversity we are striving to embrace in society has already been lost. Think about it: if every writer that these comedians hire comes from a rich background, graduated from an Ivy League School, is an atheist and leans left wing politically, Is there any true diversity within the group? Or, to phrase the question in a shorter way, is diversity only skin deep, or does it go beyond what’s on the outside?

    On this same line of thought, if a woman goes about her comedy choices and presentation exactly the way every man on this list does, then what has she added to the mix in terms of diversity, other than a different set of reproductive organs?

    It’s just a thought anyways…the recent call for diversity in comedy that this list’s publication inspired has had me thinking about the way our society measures diversity, and whether or not we are pitifully satisfied when it is created superficially.

    • Yes, yes, yes. And to piggy-back you, why would The Tonight Show, for instance, want to have a diversity of thoughts if that could potentially affect their ratings. I think on TV, just as on the Internet, publishers have to choose a niche—one show/site can’t entertain the entire population of a country or world!

  23. I’d love to know the demographics of the various late night shows. Maybe they are hiring staff based on the demographics that tune in the most. If they are and then decided to hire more women and non-whites, would ratings be affected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s