Study: White People React to Evidence of White Privilege by Claiming Greater Personal Hardships

Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business have found that white people respond to evidence that they are privileged by their race by insisting that they face greater hardships in life.


In a study published in the November issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery point out that progress on racial equality is limited by the fact that many whites deny the existence of inequities.

“Despite this reality, policy makers and power brokers continue to debate whether racial privilege even exists and whether to address such inequity,” the researchers noted. “One reason for this inaction might be an unwillingness among Whites to acknowledge racial privilege — acknowledgment that may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes.”

“However, claiming personal life hardships may help Whites manage the threatening possibility that they benefit from privilege.”

The researchers argued that understanding the reaction to evidence of racial inequality was important because whites who did not feel that they personally benefited from their ethnicity would be less willing to support policies that were designed to reduce racial inequality.

Subjects in the study were separated into two groups. The group that was shown evidence of white privilege “claimed more hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege,” the study found.

A second experiment suggested “that people claim more life hardships in response to evidence of in-group privilege because such information is threatening to their sense of self.” Researchers observed that whites who read self-affirming statements before completing the survey claimed less hardships, and they found that self-affirmations could actually reverse the denial of white privilege.

“Furthermore, Whites’ claims of life hardships mediated their denials of personal privilege, supporting our hypothesis that hardship claims help people deny they personally benefit from privilege — that White privilege extends to themselves,” Phillips and Lowery wrote. “Importantly, these denials of personal privilege were in turn associated with diminished support for affirmative action policies — policies that could help alleviate racial inequity.”

Researchers recommended that efforts to reduce racial inequalities also include the education of advantaged populations.

“Our work suggests that privilege reduction efforts might need to focus not only on convincing or educating advantaged group members about privilege, but also on reducing the feelings of self-threat this information induces,” Phillips and Lowery explained. “The existence of hardships does not reduce racial privilege, since racial privilege entails comparison to someone of a different race with equivalent hardships. People may erroneously think privilege entails complete ease in life and that the presence of any hardships denotes an absence of privilege.”

In conclusion, the study postulated that whites may claim hardship “to maintain not only a positive sense of self, but also the material benefits associated with racial privilege.”

“Whites’ claims of hardship might also serve to legitimize the racial advantages they enjoy, and thereby justify a system that benefits their group.”

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