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Defensive Reactions to White Privilege

It’s not always comfortable to know that your group has a privileged status in society. I mean, it’s comfortable in the sense that jobs are easier to get, you make more money, and all of those perks of being part of a privileged group. But it can be mentally uncomfortable—both enjoying those perks and knowing that they are at the expense of another group.

By the way, I’m talking about White privilege here. Any rational look at society reveals the very real existence of White privilege. Things are just easier for White people…in all sorts of ways.

Beyond the obvious ones, a major problem with this privileged status is that people aren’t thrilled to know that they benefit in such an unfair way. There’s a concept in social psychology called self-serving attributions. In general, people like to think that their successes and good fortunes are their own making. So if we’re playing a friendly game of shuffleboard[1]  And why wouldn’t we? We should really hang out more. and I win, then I’ll be happy to take credit and talk up my intense shuffleboard training. But if I lost, I’d be pretty quick to blame the shuffleboard setup, the weather, my hand injury from earlier that day—anything so I don’t have to own up to the loss.

A similar thing might happen with privilege. I don’t want to look at my good fortune and credit a system that unfairly advantages me. So what do people do when they come face to face with evidence that their social groups (i.e., White people) enjoy many privileges that other racial groups do not? They start to play the victim.

White Privilege Makes White People Focus on Their Hardships

sad-808310_640In a recent series of studies, psychologists wanted to see whether evidence of White privilege would actually make White people play up that hardships that they’ve endured in their own lives. After all, if I’m motivated to prove that this privilege doesn’t actually explain my good fortune, what else can I do but scrape through my memories for evidence that I haven’t had it so easy.

The studies were simple enough: ask a bunch of White people to participate in a study, have half of them read a passage about White privilege[2]  Here’s what they read: “In the last half of this century, Americans have given considerable attention to matters of racial inequality. Despite increased attention to the issue, most social scientists agree that, even today, White Americans enjoy many privileges that Black Americans do not. White Americans are advantaged in the domains of academics, housing, healthcare, jobs, and more compared to Black Americans.” and then ask everyone to reflect on any hardships they’ve felt in their lives. The participants rated how much they agreed with statements like “My life has been full of hardships” and “I have had many difficulties in life that I could not overcome.”

The results were pretty clear: compared to the people who simply answered the hardship questions, the people who first read a passage about White privilege went on to express more personal hardships in their lives. It was as if they were searching for reasons to think that they weren’t affected by racial privilege. Interestingly, they didn’t end up believing in White privilege any less. They just wanted to convince themselves that they hadn’t benefited from it.

When White People Play the Victim

I thought it was worth pointing out some other studies in psychology that have shown how members of higher status social groups can end up twisting things around and convincing themselves that they are the true victims of discrimination.

One analysis looked at White and Black participants’ perceptions of racial bias over history. Specifically, they asked people: how much do you think Black people were/are the victims of discrimination in the U.S. in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90, & 2000s? Reflecting the amazing progress in civil rights over the years, both Black and White respondents said that anti-Black bias has decreased over the years (although White people thinks it’s gone down considerably more than Black people do).

What was interesting was their second question: how much do you think White people were/are the victims of discrimination in the 50s, 60s, etc.? Black respondents that anti-White bias has remained very low over that whole time. White respondents, however, said that anti-White bias has been steadily increasing over the years—to the point that it is not more rampant than anti-Black bias.

The researchers interpreted these findings as suggesting that Whites see discrimination as a zero-sum game: any civil rights gains of a minority group must mean a loss of rights by the majority group. This kind of logic is obviously flawed, but it could explain why dominant groups feel threatened by the civil rights progress of recent years.

Privilege and “Competitive Victimhood”

trophyvictimOverall, the evidence seems to suggest that dominant groups can be sensitive when it comes to acknowledging their privileged status.

That is, they don’t want to admit it, and they’ll look for evidence of their own hardships and disadvantages to feel better about the way the world works. It’s weird, though, to think about how feeling worse about your life can make you feel better about how the world works.

And this isn’t just a race thing. Sure, racial privilege is a persistent force in our society, but it’s not the only case of privilege that makes the privileged group insecure. Similar kinds of patterns occur for gender.

Researchers have studied the phenomenon of competitive victimhood,” which is what can happen when men are accused of discriminating against women, for example.

Like with acknowledging White privilege, when men are faced with a case in which they have served to harm women through discrimination, for example, these men often respond by claiming that their group (i.e., men) has actually suffered a bunch, too. It’s like people think that boasting about their own suffering absolves them of any special privilege that they (actually) benefit from.

How to Talk About Privilege

Where does this leave us? Well it’s tricky, isn’t it? How do we talk about important issues of racism, unconscious biases, and discrimination if the perpetrators of these problems (e.g., White men) get defensive at the mere thought that these special privileges exist?

This is why psychological research is important even before we find a solution. The research gives us deeper insight into the problem and highlights the specific issues that need to be addressed if we’re to find a solid solution. So in this case, the lesson is that privileged group members have an immediate reaction that leads them to look for the negatives in their own life as a protective measure. So to talk about privilege, we need to circumvent this defensive reaction. Now let’s figure out how.[3]  Okay, I know this is weird, but there are some solutions we know about. One of them, which is used in one of the studies I talked about in this post, is something called “self-affirmation.” Check it out. I didn’t go into it here because it’s a little bit of a detour, but I’ll come back to this concept in the future because it’s super powerful.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   And why wouldn’t we? We should really hang out more.
2.   Here’s what they read: “In the last half of this century, Americans have given considerable attention to matters of racial inequality. Despite increased attention to the issue, most social scientists agree that, even today, White Americans enjoy many privileges that Black Americans do not. White Americans are advantaged in the domains of academics, housing, healthcare, jobs, and more compared to Black Americans.”
3.   Okay, I know this is weird, but there are some solutions we know about. One of them, which is used in one of the studies I talked about in this post, is something called “self-affirmation.” Check it out. I didn’t go into it here because it’s a little bit of a detour, but I’ll come back to this concept in the future because it’s super powerful.

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