New study shows invoking “white privilege” often backfires
A 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.” Although these words are commonly used, research by Lia Bozarth and I has found that using “white privilege” on social media can actually reduce support for racially progressive policies.
We found that the term can increase political polarization online and lead to lower-quality conversations on social media. In particular, the term is driving some white people who would otherwise support racial equality efforts away from online conversations.
Implications of Using “White Privilege”
In the past decade there has been a push on college campuses to rename buildings named after people involved in slavery or discrimination.
We used the problem of renaming these buildings to study how language affects online conversations.
We recruited 924 US citizens from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for our experiment. Half of the research participants received a social media post asking, “Should colleges rename buildings named after people who have been active advocates for racial inequality?”
The other half saw an identical question, except that the term “racial inequality” was replaced with “white privilege.” We randomly selected which half received each question.
This random assignment allowed us to demonstrate causality—and gave us confidence that the choice of language produced the observed effects.
We asked participants to respond to their question and also measured how likely they were to engage with the post at all. We then focused on the group of people who would likely engage with that post online.
The term “white privilege” had two effects.
The first was to lower the quality of conversations between whites and non-whites. There were more comments that offended people, attacked the question itself, or just didn’t make sense.
The second effect was that the group of responses became less supportive—and more polarizing—of renaming the buildings.
On average, people surveyed about racial inequality were very supportive. Those who thought renaming college buildings was a good idea outnumbered opponents by more than 2 to 1.
But the group asked about “white privilege” was deeply divided, with as many opponents as supporters. This shift was entirely caused by a change in some whites.
The use of “white privilege” resulted in 50% of whites who would have been supportive becoming ambivalent or hostile. We don’t know which half would have changed their minds. But because of the experimental design, we can be sure they were there.
Additionally, we found that many of the supportive whites chose to avoid the conversation altogether. While they may have expressed support for ending racial inequality, they would not engage in a conversation about white privilege.
Because the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” have different meanings, we performed additional analysis to understand what caused these effects.
What we found was consistent with other research, which suggested a process called motivated thinking.
In this experiment, the different meanings of the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” did not appear to have a direct impact on how people felt about renaming buildings.
Instead, we found evidence that the difference in language first affected whether they supported renaming buildings. Only after deciding on an opinion did they find reasons to support it.
Polarization or Misunderstanding?
Our findings provide insight into a mechanism underlying the polarization and venom we see on social media.
Online users who care about a topic post it with strong language, such as: B. “White Privilege”.
This language will excite people to one side or the other. And the people who might be good facilitators — such as supportive whites in our study — are less likely to get involved.
The remaining people then share more extreme views. You create online posts and the cycle continues.
The result is social media dominated by outrage and extremism rather than respectful discourse.
Some people I spoke to were really surprised by these results. Others considered them obvious and not even worth exploring.
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 notion of “white privilege” changed the behavior of some white people. But the psychology behind this change is common to all humans. In fact, the psychological research that first examined this effect focused on black performance in school.
The term “white privilege” captures a deep-seated tendency as old as humankind.
As social beings, humans inherently tend to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This can lead to others—and sometimes ourselves—being viewed as a stereotypical member of our group.
Furthermore, according to our age, occupation, race, politics, and family roles, we are members of multiple groups at the same time. At any point in time, social cues influence which group is most prevalent in our minds.
This natural tendency to see ourselves through one social identity enabled Germanic tribes that had been at war with each other to band together to repel invading Romans.
It allowed whites to view blacks as inferior throughout much of American history, and caused some blacks to agree with this view.
It played a role in anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11.
She is involved in political partisanship and in protests against authoritarian regimes.
And that’s one of the reasons we feel more comfortable in a group of people like us.
Expressions such as “white privilege” play with this reasoning by implying that all whites are similar and share the same negative traits.
Not surprisingly, the accusation—even when subtly implied—that everyone in your race is “evil”—can provoke strong reactions. Some people will just completely ignore the speaker.
But many others will experience intense visceral emotions like anger, which can cause us to become more confrontational, or shame, which can cause people to withdraw.
Given the term “white privilege,” it’s not surprising that some white people take a less positive view of the speaker’s ideas. And it makes sense that white people, who are more likable, tend to withdraw.
Of course, this response, which psychologists call “social identity threat,” isn’t unique to whites.
At some point in life everyone feels unwelcome or put down by a group they identify with, whether it is black, white, Hispanic, young, old, female, male, Christian, or atheist.
A sticky problem
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed, and numerous studies have shown that race is involved in economic opportunity and social mobility. While the data is clear that racial inequality persists in America, its causes are complex and have so far proven intractable.
Meanwhile, social media users spend their time attacking one another, giving the impression of an outraged and polarized citizenry.
Communicating effectively about personal issues like race can be challenging. Careful use of inclusive language is one way to garner public support — or at least encourage meaningful discussion.
Words matter, and our research shows how phrases like “white privilege” affect the way controversial issues about race are perceived.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.