Study: White people deny their privilege even when confronted with proof

Blind spot.
Blind spot.
Image: Brian Spurlock-USA Today Sports
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In the past year, the killings of unarmed black men by police officers, as well as a mass shooting in a black church in South Carolina, have garnered enormous media attention. The shootings have become touch points in a larger discussion about race relations and racial bias in the United States. Amid the dialogue are references to the privileges that white Americans enjoy solely because of their race.

But in a new study, Stanford researchers found that on an individual level, whites do not think that the privileges extend to them.

The research by L. Taylor Phillips, a PhD student at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Brian Lowery, the Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford GSB, found that whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege responded by claiming their own personal hardships. Those surveyed didn’t deny the existence of racial privileges held by whites as a group, they just came up with other reasons—namely, personal obstacles—why they should be considered differently from that overall group.

How does Lowery explain this? He says, “You like to have nice things. But you don’t want to think you got those things as a result of unearned advantages.” People feel better about what they have if they believe they have earned those things as a result of hard work, not via birthright. So denying built-in advantages is essentially a form of self-protection.

Plenty of studies have documented that white Americans have numerous advantages: greater lifetime earnings, longer life expectancies and better access to healthcare and quality education than blacks do. Phillips and Lowery say that despite the persistence of racial privilege in America, “policymakers and power brokers continue to debate whether racial privilege even exists and whether to address such inequity.”

The study attempts to answer a hypothesis about why this is so: Perhaps those in power aren’t moved to change the status quo because they are unwilling to acknowledge racial privilege even exists. “This acknowledgement … may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes,” the authors write.

In their research, published in July in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Phillips and Lowery conducted two principal experiments. In the first experiment, they surveyed 185 white people online, using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The first group read a paragraph about white advantages in American society and then took two surveys, one on beliefs about inequality in America and the second about childhood memories, which contained questions about life hardships. The second group did not read about racial privilege before answering the same two surveys. “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 authors wrote in the study.

There is another possible explanation for these results, says Lowery: “If you go to a poor country, you wouldn’t wear expensive jewelry. In certain situations, it’s not smart to flaunt.” Put in the context of racial privilege: Whites might not want to display their advantages to others.

Still, a second experiment showed that whites can become more comfortable with their privileged status. The researchers found that when whites in the study were asked to complete a self-affirming exercise before taking a survey on American inequality, they would not claim to have undergone personal hardships to the degree that the first group had.

The 106 whites were asked to rank 12 values provided to them and explain what was important about their highest-ranked value. A second group of 128 people were not given this “affirmation” exercise. Participants from both groups were randomly assigned to take similar surveys given in the first experiment—about belief in inequality and about childhood memories; the latter group had mixed in questions about their experiences of hardship, their belief that they personally benefit from privilege, and their support for affirmative action.

Those who went through the affirmation exercise “expressed a significantly higher belief in personal privilege than did those who were not affirmed,” the authors wrote. This same group also tended to be more supportive of affirmative action policies.

“We show you can turn off the ‘denial’ effect,” Phillips says. “The self-affirmation task helps people reduce their feelings of defensiveness,” which makes them more open to acknowledging their own privilege.