Skip to main content

Sure, Whites Are Privileged—but Not Me Personally!

A new psychology study shows how white people deny the reality of their inherent advantages.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Light Brigading/Flickr)

(Photo: Light Brigading/Flickr)

Following the riots in Missouri and Maryland, and the recent church massacre in South Carolina, Americans are—however reluctantly—talking again about racial inequality. This important dialogue is hampered, however, by the unwillingness of many whites to embrace the obvious: The fact they enjoy certain advantages based on the color of their skin.

As a white man, I'm not thrilled to get pulled over by a cop, but I'm not terrified, either. Nor am I nagged by the stress-inducing feeling others see me as a threat or an imposter. I've never been denied my choice of neighborhood, and the mostly white network of friends and colleagues that smoothed my career path was a given.

Set out in such stark terms, it's difficult to deny that white Americans begin their lives with something of a head start. But newly published research finds many respond to reminders of this reality by concocting a counter-narrative centered around the personal hardships they have supposedly suffered.

Our national mythology insists we live in a meritocracy, and we're reluctant to believe otherwise—especially when the playing field is tilted to our advantage.

In their minds, white privilege may exist, but its impact on them is effectively negated by other, unrelated factors. "Importantly, this discounting of personal privilege is ultimately associated with diminished support for affirmative action policies," write Stanford University scholars L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery.

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe three experiments that provide evidence backing up this assertion. The first two featured 94 and 91 white Americans, respectively, who were recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

"Participants completed two ostensibly unrelated surveys, the first regarding beliefs about inequality in America, and the second about childhood memories," the researchers write. In the first, they were asked the degree to which they believe white people have "certain advantages minorities do not have in this society."

Half addressed this touchy question cold, while the others did so after reading a paragraph describing the reality of white privilege in such realms as academics, housing, and health care.

The "personal memory" questionnaire included five items addressing hardships, including the assertion "I have had many difficulties in life that I could not overcome." Participants expressed their level of agreement with each on a one-to-seven scale.

"In both experiments, we found that whites exposed to evidence of white privilege claimed more hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege," the researchers report. In other words, evidence that their race was an advantage prompted white people to move toward a victimhood mindset.

The final experiment, featuring 234 white Americans from a national online pool, found "people claim more life hardships in response to evidence of in-group privilege because such information is threatening to their sense of self." What's more, "these denials of personal privilege were in turn associated with diminished support for affirmative action policies—policies that could help alleviate racial inequity."

Altogether, the results suggest "people may accept that in-group privilege exists, but change their perceptions of their own lives in order to deny the role of systemic advantages in their success," Phillips and Lowery conclude.

There's little actual logic to this thinking—minorities are just as likely to suffer personal hardships as whites—but it clearly serves a defensive psychological need. And that needs to somehow be addressed if we are to talk about race and privilege in a realistic way.

That will be a tricky task, for reasons that have little to do with race. Our national mythology insists we live in a meritocracy, and we're reluctant to believe otherwise—especially when the playing field is tilted to our advantage.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.