New Study Indicates Invoking “White Privilege” Often Backfires

A wide variety of historical, economic, and cultural forces combine to allow a greater percentage of whites to move up the socioeconomic ladder than blacks and Hispanics.

Some people call the combined effects of these forces “white privilege.” While these words are commonly used, research by Lia Bozarth and I has found that the use of “white privilege” on social media can actually dampen support for racially progressive policies.

We found that the term can increase political polarization online and lead to substandard conversations on social media. In particular, the term alienates some whites who would otherwise support racial equality efforts from online conversations.

Effects of using ‘white privilege’

Over the past decade, there has been pressure on college campuses to rename buildings after people involved in slavery or discrimination.

We use the question of renaming these buildings as a way of examining how language affects online conversations.

We recruited 924 US residents from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for our experiment. Half of survey respondents received a social media post containing the following question: “Should colleges rename buildings that are named after people who actively supported racial inequality?”

The other half saw an identical question, except that the term “racial inequality” was changed to “white privilege”. We randomly chose which half received each question.

This random assignment allowed us to show causality – and gave us confidence that the language choice created the effects we saw.

We asked respondents to answer their question, and we also measured how likely they were to engage with the post in the first place. Next, we focused on the set of people who were likely to engage with that online post.

The term “white privilege” had two effects.

The first was to diminish the quality of conversation between whites and non-whites. There were more comments that insulted people, attacked the question itself, or just didn’t make sense.

The second effect was to make the set of responses less favorable to the renaming of buildings – and more polarized.

People who were asked about racial inequality were, on average, very supportive. Those who thought it was a good idea to rename college buildings outperformed opponents by more than 2 to 1.

But the group that was asked about “white privilege” was sharply divided, with as many opponents as supporters. This change was caused completely by a change in some whites.

The use of “white privilege” caused 50% of whites who would have supported it to become ambivalent or hostile. We don’t know which half would have changed their minds. But due to the experimental design, we can be sure they were there.

Furthermore, we found that many of the white supporters simply chose to avoid the conversation altogether. While they may have voiced their support for ending racial inequality, they would not participate in a conversation about white privilege.

As the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” have different meanings, we performed an extra analysis to understand what caused these effects.

What we found was consistent with other research suggesting a process called motivated reasoning.

In this experiment, the different meanings of the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” did not seem to directly affect how people reasoned about renaming buildings.

Instead, we found evidence that the difference in language first affected whether they supported the renaming of buildings. Only after deciding on an opinion did they find reasons to support it.

Polarization or misunderstanding?

Our results offer insight into a mechanism underlying the polarization and vitriol we see on social media.

Online users who like a topic will post about it using strong language such as “white privilege”.

That language is going to make people angry one way or the other. And people who can be good mediators — like the white supporters in our study — are less likely to get involved.

People who stay are then more likely to share extreme views. They create online posts and the cycle continues.

The result is social media dominated by outrage and extremism rather than respectful speech.

Some people I spoke to were genuinely surprised by these results. Others thought they were obvious and not even worth researching.

This is remarkable, because it suggests that some of the conflicts we see online are not caused by malice, but by a lack of understanding.

Dynamics of social identity

In our study, the term “white privilege” changed the behavior of some whites. But the psychology behind this shift is common to all humans. Indeed, the psychological research that first examined this effect focused on blacks’ performance in school.

The term “white privilege” explores an ingrained trend as old as humanity.

As social creatures, humans are naturally inclined to divide the world into “us” and “them”. This can lead to thinking of others – and sometimes of ourselves – as a stereotypical member of our group.

Furthermore, we are members of several groups simultaneously, according to our age, profession, race, politics and family roles. At any given time, social cues affect which group is the most advanced in our minds.

This natural tendency to see ourselves through a social identity allowed Germanic tribes who were at war with each other to band together to drive out the invading Romans.

It allowed whites to view blacks as inferior for much of American history and led some blacks to agree with that view.

He played a role in anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11.

It is involved in political partisanship and protests against authoritarian regimes.

And it’s one reason we feel more comfortable in a group of people like us.

Phrases like “white privilege” play on this reasoning by suggesting that all whites are similar and have the same negative traits.

Unsurprisingly, the accusation – even subtly implied – that everyone in your race is “bad” can create strong reactions. Some people will just disregard the speaker altogether.

But many others will feel intense visceral emotions, such as anger, which can lead us to be more confrontational, or shame, which can make people withdraw.

When confronted with the term “white privilege,” it is not surprising that some whites view the speaker’s ideas less favorably. And it makes sense that more sympathetic whites tend to withdraw.

Of course, this reaction, which psychologists call the “social identity threat,” is not unique to whites.

At some point in their lives, everyone feels unwanted or unappreciated because of a group they identify with, whether black, white, Hispanic, young, old, female, male, Christian, or atheist.

a sticky problem

Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans think everyone should have an equal chance of success, and several studies have shown that race is involved in economic opportunity and social mobility. While the data are clear that racial inequality persists in America, its causes are complex and have so far proved intractable.

Meanwhile, social media users spend their time attacking each other, giving the impression of an outraged and polarized citizenry.

Effective communication about personal topics like race can be a challenge. Careful use of inclusive language is a way to garner public support – or at least promote meaningful discussion.

Words matter, and our research demonstrates how phrases like “white privilege” affect how controversial issues of race are perceived.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.