Friday, March 16, 2012

The Invisible Knapsack

Two decades ago, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh coined the term "invisible knapsack" to refer to the subtle and not-so-subtle advantages that come with white privilege and male privilege resulting from inequality.  She describes such privilege as being "like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks".  The idea is that while we are generally taught that racism and sexism put some people (i.e. women and people of color) at a disadvantage, we are often taught to remain blissfully unaware of its corollary advantages that accrue to white males.  Hence, the "invisible knapsack" of privilege.

We at Twenty-One Debunked couldn't help but notice just how much this metaphor also relates to America's 21 drinking age and the "over-21 privilege" that results.  Being well over 21 myself, as the webmaster and founder of Twenty-One Debunked I have put together a list of advantages in the invisible knapsack of over-21 privilege that people like myself carry every day.  As a person over 21, as long as I have an ID to prove it:

  1. I can buy alcoholic beverages at any store that sells them, in any quantity I wish.
  2. I can enter pretty much any bar or nightclub of my choosing without fearing that people of my age group cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  3. If I do not want to associate with people under 21, I may frequent numerous establishments that ban younger people from entering.
  4. I am never asked to speak for all of the people in my age group, nor do I have to worry about my individual behavior reflecting on my entire age group.
  5. I can legally host a drinking party with my friends, as long as all the guests are over 21.
  6. I can join my co-workers for happy hour after work, and even talk about it at work, without any sort of shame.
  7. When I go out with people under 21, it is generally understood that one (or more) of them will be the designated driver instead of me.
  8. Generally speaking, I can drink alcoholic beverages fairly openly without having to worry about getting arrested, fined, jailed, expelled, having my driver's license revoked, or being publicly humiliated.
  9. As long as I am not driving, I can legally get as drunk as I please in many states. 
  10. Even in states where public drunkenness is technically illegal, the cops are unlikely to arrest me unless my behavior is really out of control.
  11. If I get in alcohol-related trouble on campus, I will likely face lesser penalties, and I will not have to worry about my parents being notified without my consent.
  12. If I think one of my peers may have alcohol poisoning, there would be no reason for me to hesitate to call 911 for fear of the law (and vice-versa).
  13. I can have a drink or two (or maybe even three!) before driving without having to worry about being over the legal limit for DUI.
  14. Even if I drive while over the limit, I can be assured that drunk drivers in my age group will NOT be the highest law enforcement priority.
  15. If I choose to drive drunk, I can know that I am statistically more likely to kill someone under 21 than the other way around.
  16. Even if I had several convictions for DUI or drunken violence, I can rest assured that I will still be allowed to buy and consume alcohol.
  17. I enjoy less scrutiny over my own behavior, because I live in a society in which young people are scapegoated for adult problems.
  18. I do not have to worry about being a good role model when it comes to drinking, since people under 21 can be punished (often severely) for emulating me.
  19. Finally, I have a much better chance of being taken seriously on the issue of lowering the drinking age, without being accused of selfishness or immaturity.
And the list goes on.  As we see, the 21 drinking age is not just about disadvantaging people under 21, but giving unearned advantages to people over 21 as well.  And while some of these advantages are positive rights that should be extended to everyone (or at least all adults over 18), others are not "rights" at all, but wrongs that are an unfortunate byproduct of setting arbitrary age limits and of adultism in general.  Still others could be considered either rights or wrongs depending on the context.  And let's not forget the luxury of being able to ignore the issue entirely.

So, are the advantages found in this invisible knapsack really worth it?  Many people over 21 would say yes, but upon closer examination these advantages actually come at a hefty price, even for people over 21.  Just think about social host liability laws, other annoying ancillary laws, millions of tax dollars wasted on enforcement, loss of social cohesion, and precedent that can be used to make our supposedly free country even more of a police state.  In fact, the only people over 21 who, on balance, really benefit from the status quo are the ones who least deserve to benefit--those who drive drunk or otherwise behave irresponsibly when it comes to alcohol, as well as those parents who would rather stick their heads in the sand than teach their kids how to drink responsibly.

Do you hear that?  That's (hopefully) the sound of the pro-21 crowd throwing up all of the proverbial Kool-Aid they drank long ago.

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