How Do White People React When They Hear the Phrase ‘White Privilege’?

White privilege is a real phenomenon… just don’t expect everyone in America to readily accept that reality. Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business conducted a study to see how Caucasian people respond to hearing about white privilege. It seems that just hearing the term was to make the test subjects, in a word: defensive.

The experiment divided white people into two groups. Each group had to fill out two surveys: one about their feelings on inequality in America and the other about the hardships they’ve faced throughout their lives. The only difference between the two groups is that one had to read a paragraph that discussed white privilege in the United States before filling out their answers.

Evidently, that paragraph was enough to produce significantly different answers between the groups. Repeatedly, members of the group exposed to the paragraph claimed that they had experienced more hardships in their lives than those who did not receive the blurb. Apparently, it’s second nature for white people to start rattling off their own problems when confronted with the fact that people of color may have had it worse than them.

That’s not to say that white people don’t face adversities. However, white privilege includes ignoring the systems that are in place that help white people rebound after facing these challenges. People of color in America don’t often have the same resources or safety nets to climb back out of those holes.

Part of the problem is that America prides itself on having a meritocracy – or at least that’s true of the people who have succeeded. People inherently want to believe their achievements are the result of their hard work and talents rather than a privileged position. It’s easier for some people to dismiss racial inequality than reconcile that they’ve had a leg up in society.

“You like to have nice things,” said Stanford Professor Brian Lowery. “But you don’t want to think you got those things as a result of unearned advantages.”

This instant pushback is not a great sign for ending white privilege. How are we supposed to make any substantial changes when the people in privileged positions aren’t even willing to acknowledge it?

Fortunately, the team at Stanford did a second study to see if they could find a better way to get white people to concede white privilege without acting so defensively. Again, white test subjects were split into two groups and received the same surveys to complete. This time, though, one group had to read “self-affirming statements” before answering the surveys.

In the end, researchers found that the white people who had self-affirmed claimed less life adversity and were more honest about the level of inequality in the United States. Apparently, white people who reflected on their own privileged lives first were more sympathetic to those that weren’t as lucky later on.

While it’s unfortunate that white people get defensive when topics of white privilege arise, understanding this alternative mode of broaching the subject could be important to starting meaningful dialogues on this issue. After all, until white people can accept the role white privilege has played in their own lives, their impulse to deny its existence will prevent progress.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

108 comments

Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Equality

SEND
Ch Bradley
Ch B2 years ago

No great surprise here - one only has to look at the rise of Trump to see this. White privilege is not always easy to see or understand, because it is "the way it has always been" and just seems normal when you look at it from that perspective. https://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White Priviledge Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.pdf

SEND
sandy Gardner
sandy Gardner2 years ago

"The Arc of Humanity is curving toward equality and justice". ...OPRAH

SEND
Deborah S.
Deborab S2 years ago

Thank you

SEND
Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Annamaria P.
Nyiregyhazi l2 years ago

Kevin, you should know! Very clever :). Have you read your own article "What Exactly Is White Privilege?" comments? It is a very instructive and realistic picture of our country's white citizen's views. Please them.................

SEND
Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Alexandra marshall

Not in Britain is the white English person allowed even the same rights as Asians. We are now a country whereby if an Asian makes an allegation against you you are automatically taken to court with no right to explain before one is sent to trial. This is reality in this country. Of all racial attacks in Britain, 75000 are against the indigenous British 45000 against coloured ethnics
We now laws against the white people of this country. The police and the judiciary are completely supporting Asian against any white English, British person. I know. I am one of the victims. and being persecuted. I am a widow of 70 years old, have never been in trouble with the law, Asians committed a crime against me, lied about even though I had evidence they lied and I am to stand trial because the police women would not believe me or even listen to my story. I am being treated like a common criminal. A hard working pensioner who has overcome cancer etc to be treated as second class criminal in her own country.
In Europe we are a little sick of hearing how hard done to coloureds are when we, in our countries are being persecuted, not the coloureds. No one dare make any comment against coloureds in fear of being arrested
No longer, in Europe does a white country belong to the white people, yet India, Pakistan belongs to the Asians?
So please don't keep going on about how bad it is for coloureds. Here in Europe it is very different as we face millions more muslims flooding our countries

SEND
Joanna M.
Joanna M3 years ago

Interestingly enough, many European peoples who are today considered "white" were not until the early 20th century...think Italians, Russians, etc. So there are many people today that POC may consider "privileged" but without thinking of the struggles and stereotyping their parents or grandparents had to overcome.

SEND