White Privilege at the voting booth: How pervasive is white privilege?


Image from Quote Addicts

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a famous piece called, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”1 In the essay, she discusses how belonging to advantaged groups, like white people or men, contributes to the ways that we navigate and perceive our worlds. She makes a stirring point about how easy it is to recognize racism, but that we often have a difficult time seeing how we may be advantaged due to the existence of that racism. You don’t not need to be engaging in racist behavior, using racial epithets or endorsing the bigotries of others in order to be advantaged by societal attitudes. The sad thing, McIntosh points out, is that people who are oppressive in their societal roles are often unaware that they are occupying roles at all.

For instance, people don’t readily recognize that they are more likely to hire white people over people of color, but research shows that this is indeed the case.2 When researchers sent out identical resumes, but with black or white sounding names, people with white sounding names received 50% more interview requests.2 White people are often convinced that anti-white sentiment is actually becoming a bigger problem than anti-black bias, and that attempts to decrease racism are a “zero-sum game” that increases bias towards whites.3 And that’s pretty damn troubling, y’all. As Jen pointed out last week, implicit bias against black people, and black men in particular, results in a larger number of escalated police encounters. While white people are becoming increasingly concerned about being blamed for the problems of minorities, black people are literally worried about being killed in the middle of the day during a routine traffic stop.

As per usual, arguments that equate racism and “reverse racism”* present a false equivalence: there is no systematic disadvantage to being white. White people are armed with our invisible knapsack of privilege. We dominate accounts of history, we see images that look like ourselves everywhere and we can be assured that when things don’t go our way, it is likely not because we’re white. Peggy McIntosh so eloquently hits on the subtlety of privilege in her essay, so I will borrow some of her words. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is,” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race,” and  “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”

What McIntosh is tapping into here is how unrecognizable the receipt of privilege is. We are not aware that it is happening unless we attempt to be aware of it. We enjoy these invisible privileges, and resent others for suggesting that we have such privileges at all. Even within the context of our presidential election, we have one candidate who is recognizing the disadvantages that black citizens are experiencing on all levels of the legal system, and we have another suggesting that a racist, unconstitutional policy should be widely implemented in order to restore “law and order” to our cities.

For some, the solution is this simple. Black neighborhoods are more violent, therefore black people are more violent, therefore we need to police them with more vigor. For others, there is recognition that the problems in black neighborhoods have much to do with the lack of white privilege. Lack of access to quality education, lack of exposure to suitable role models, lack of mentorship from non-family members, lack of networking contacts in hiring positions, lack of parental free-time to help with home education…You could go on for days. The fact is that there is a flip side to implicit bias, and it’s this kind of implicit inflation. There’s a famous saying, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Sometimes, we simply can’t take credit for everything that we have. We didn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sometimes, we received some of those things simply because we are white, or we at least had easier access to them because we have racial privilege. And make no mistake, there are plenty of kinds of privilege. Class, male, and heterosexual privilege all exist as well. People who are advantaged in one domain are not necessarily advantaged in all domains.

In election years in particular, it’s important to recognize where our thinking may suggest that we have a narrow perspective on the issue. Barack and Michelle Obama have recently talked about how third-party votes in this election are votes for Donald Trump. People who disagree have taken to online forums declaring that they are simply voting their conscience, and not violating their own sense of integrity. Well, the next president will choose at least 2 Supreme Court justices, will have access to the nuclear codes and has the ability to set women’s, minority and LGBT rights back by several years. But at least you can tuck your integrity into your invisible knapsack.

*In quotes, because it doesn’t exist. Anti-white bias, prejudice or discrimination, sure, but not racism, due to a lack of systematic disadvantage due to being white.

  1. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study4, 165-169.
  2. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review94(4), 991-1013.
  3. Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 215-218.


The problem with seeing black men as bad dudes


One year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

Today is September 21, 2016. Keith Scott is the latest black man to be shot and killed by the police. Scott was killed on September 20, 2016, in Charlotte, NC. Terence Crutcher was killed the day before on September 19, 2016, in Tulsa, OK. These men are just the last two to make the news.

Most of these men are unarmed. All of them are black. In fact, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police. For Scott’s and Crutcher’s deaths, police officers justified their decision to shoot by claiming that the individual posed an “imminent deadly threat” (in the case of Scott) or used factors such as the man’s appearance, “That looks like a bad dude, too,” (in the case of Crutcher) to warrant further investigation.

I shouldn’t say claim. I’m sure the officers really believed they were under imminent threat or that Crutcher really was a bad dude. And that’s exactly the problem. Their minds made a split second survival decision to protect themselves and do what they swore to do as a police officer. They made that decision while operating on high alert, unknowingly under the influence of their implicit biases. Those split-second decisions are not the cause, but rather, the symptom of a larger graver issue. Of institutional racism and prejudice that has been with America since before its founding. Many of you reading this already know and accept this. For those of you who don’t, please keep reading.

These split second decisions are killing black people, especially men. If you can stomach it, watch the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting. The officer doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s shot Castille. He’s still standing there at the window in shock, cursing. The actual decision to shoot and the aftermath all seemed to happen so fast. Situations like that are why implicit racial stereotyping and lack of awareness of how to de-bias are so deadly.

We’ve covered implicit bias on SocialPsyQ before when discussing last year’s triple homicide in Chapel Hill, NC, but never in the context of police shootings. As a refresher, implicit biases are automatic (i.e., below the surface of consciousness; not being aware of it) stereotypes or prejudices that people hold, almost always without being aware of them.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are deeply ingrained and automatic and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2 As one researcher said, “the characteristic in question (skin color, age, sexual orientation) operates so quickly…that people have no time to deliberate. It is for this reason that people are often surprised to find that they show implicit bias” (Jolls & Sunstein, 2006, p. 975).

 In a 2011 study, Kahn and Davies found that the more stereotypically black a person looked (e.g., darker skin, broader nose, fuller lips) compared to a less stereotypically black person or white person, the stronger a participant’s implicit bias was in a split-second “shoot/don’t shoot” situation. In other words, participants were more likely to shoot people the “blacker” they looked. And not only were they more likely to shoot them, they were also quicker to make the decision to do so, because of the stronger implicit bias.

In a similar 2006 study, Correll, Urland, and Ito found that participants (98% of whom were not black) playing a video game “shot armed black targets more quickly than armed white targets and decided not to shoot unarmed white targets more quickly than unarmed black targets.” This biased behavior pattern was especially true for participants who had reported a stronger association between violence and black people. The findings of these studies, conducted in lab settings, are a disturbing and sickening parallel to what is literally happening across America.

The shootings are the worst escalation of this implicit bias, but there are many other seemingly milder situations of black people being stopped by police and treated suspiciously or unfairly compared to non-black people. Consider this: compared to a white person stopped for a seatbelt violation, a black person is 176% more likely to have their vehicle searched. The Open Data Policing table below shows that, except for driving while impaired, black people are more likely than white people to have their vehicle searched for any violation. Did I mention this is real data from 2015 stops within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police’s jurisdiction?


2015 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Search by Stop-Cause: Black vs. white. Open Data Policing NC.

 And for those of you reading this who still want to resist these stats and claim that officers are shooting white people, too, I say, yes, you’re right. Police officers are shooting and killing white people (and other people of color, for that matter), but these situations, though unfortunate and not excusable, are generally proportionate to the number of white people in the U.S. In other words, the stats on those situations don’t point to white people being singled out, whereas they do for situations of black people being killed. Terence Crutcher was having car trouble when he was approached by police. The threshold for perceiving a white man as “posing a deadly and imminent threat” is substantially higher than perceiving a black man as such, as Kahn and Davies and Correll and colleagues found. Consider Dylann Roof, the white terrorist who killed 9 black people attending bible study in Charleston last summer. Not only was he arrested alive, he was given a bulletproof vest for protection. The hypocritical double standard is nearly laughable if the consequences weren’t so grave.

You might also want to say that the police overall aren’t bad people, they’re trying to do their jobs. Or, there are just a few bad apples. Again, I agree with you. There are probably a few bad apples, and I don’t even necessarily believe those are the ones who have committed these fatal shootings. And I would agree that most police officers aren’t bad people.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just about the actions of an individual police officer (although they do need to be held accountable).

Here’s another thing: making a terrible decision under pressure doesn’t make you a bad person. How you respond to and accept responsibility for that decision is another story.

These shootings represent a heightened state of racial tension in this country. They represent implicit racism that is so deeply deeply ingrained in the American psyche and the justice system that many don’t even recognize it as such. White people continue to try and make justifications and rationalize these killings. Why? Stop. It’s over. You’re wrong. Nothing you say changes the fact that 194 black people (in 2016 ALONE) are dead.

What is there to do? Some police departments are considering implicit bias training, but using these trainings as a one size fits all isn’t necessarily a good idea. Instead, Destiny Peery, a law professor at Northwestern University, urges comprehensive multi-pronged approaches like Campaign Zero, which are likely to be more effective in protecting against bias.

It’s a start.

Black lives matter, y’all. Say it and do something about it. I’m talking to you, fellow white people. Are you going to stand by? Educate yourself, regardless of your profession. We all hold implicit biases. We’re still accountable for them. We don’t have to be beholden to them.


If you’re a white person interested in offering your support and solidarity in the wake of the recent shootings, consider looking up your local Standing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter. Or take an anti-racist training, like this one or this one.

1 – Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

2 – Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.

3 – Kahn & Davies. (2011). Differentially dangerous? Phenotypic racial stereotypicality increases implicit bias among ingroup and outgroup members. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 569-580.

4 – Correll, Urland, & Ito. (2006). Event-related potentials and the decision to shoot: The role of threat perception and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 120-128.

5 – Jolls & Sunstein. (2006). The law of implicit bias. Faculty Scholarship Series, Yale Law School. Paper 1824. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1824/


Beyond the hate crime binary: Implicit bias in the Chapel Hill shooting

This post was co-written by Jen and guest blogger Cara, a city and regional planning student and social justice activist.

The recent triple murder of three Muslim Americans Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, and Razan Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night has rocked the Triangle, and its effects have reverberated across the globe. In addition to the devastating sadness and feelings of staggering unfairness precipitated by this horrific crime, the motive of the killer and whether the act was a hate crime is also being debated.

Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year old neighbor of Yusor, Deah, and Razan, has been charged with three counts of first degree murder after turning himself in to authorities. He and his lawyer claim that he killed them because of a parking dispute that escalated into violence, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. And neither are we.

Deah’s sister has asked that their murders be treated as a hate crime. Yusor and Razan’s brother believes the same. We also believe that this tragedy was motivated by anti-Muslim feelings and hate. This crime may not fit the legal definition of a hate crime, but that doesn’t preclude it from being one.

The debate over whether this fits the definition of a hate crime has to do with whether or not Hicks explicitly voiced his prejudice against Muslim people. His Facebook page has numerous posts where he mocks religion as an idea – Hicks is an adamant atheist – and a few where he calls out specific groups, such as a post calling Christians opposed to the building of a mosque near ground zero hypocritical, and another re-post that says if financial aid, mediation, and arms cannot bring peace to the Middle East, atheism can. But though he is a proud gun owner – he brags in one post about the weight of one of his loaded guns – he doesn’t seem to have expressed violent intentions toward Muslims specifically. The FBI is looking into it, but regardless of whether they find anything, the motivation seems to be clear.

Most people are more familiar with types of explicit prejudice or explicit bias. People who are explicitly prejudiced against Muslims, for example, know they are biased and may make statements to that effect or pointedly treat Muslim people differently than they would other people. This type of prejudice is also much less likely to be condoned in society. However, a deeper hidden kind of prejudice called implicit bias can guide people’s actions and thoughts even if they don’t consciously believe that they are biased.

Implicit bias is more likely what’s at play here. Implicit bias is an automatic stereotype or prejudice that someone maintains without necessarily being aware of it.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are so deeply ingrained and automatic that they often don’t reach the surface of consciousness, and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2

Hicks’s wife claims that in her husband’s eyes “everyone is equal.” The fact that our implicit biases run so deep that we often aren’t even aware of them makes them particularly insidious, because here’s the thing: Hicks can genuinely believe that he didn’t target Deah, Yusor, and Razan because of their religion, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if he wasn’t thinking about the fact that his victims were Muslims in the front of his mind, somewhere in his brain, the automatic part was looping a tape full of subtle but powerful beliefs and stereotypes that more likely than not allowed this disagreement to escalate dramatically.

Some evidence does exist to suggest that Hicks wasn’t simply a grumpy disgruntled neighbor but was actually targeting this family because of their religion. Namely, one of Razan’s best friends stated that Hicks didn’t bother Deah at all until his new wife and her sister came to live with him, two women who looked more traditionally Muslim with their hijabs than did Deah. Deah and Yusor’s relatives also offered previous incidents where Hicks threatened Deah and Yusor over their alleged noisiness while carrying his shotgun. Would he have approached these situations in the same way had Deah, Yusor, and Razan not been Muslim? Our guess is no.

There is no way to prove that implicit biases motivated or fed this crime, which feels incredibly frustrating. It also forebodes an increased misunderstanding if the families of the victims and the community at large see a hate crime here, but authorities cannot prove it. We believe that it is essential to get a discussion of not just explicit hate speech and discrimination but an understanding of implicit biases as well into the societal dialogue—implicit bias can also likely help to explain the Mike Brown shooting and other crimes across racial and cultural lines committed by people who swear they “see everyone equally.”

So, how does this directly affect you, and what can you do in your own life? Most implicit biases are on a smaller minor scale. They don’t result in a triple homicide, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Every implicit bias affects people’s daily interactions. If you’ve ever taken a social psychology class, you’ve likely learned about the Implicit Association Test (or the IAT). The IAT is a free online test that allows anyone to measure their own implicit biases for all different groups ranging from race to age to sexual orientation. I encourage all of you to take it here. Note that the IAT has its own flaws—it is not to be used as a diagnostic tool. If the test finds that you have a preference for white people over black people, you are not destined to be a racist. Rather, such a result indicates several possible outcomes: 1) you are implicitly biased against black people, 2) you are aware of the bias against black people in the society where you’ve grown up, which is reflected in your result, or 3) some combination of the two.

Despite the imperfection of the IAT, its results can offer some insight into your psyche. This awareness is just the beginning. Start by taking the IAT, see what comes up. Then get comfortable with the idea that your very own brain may harbor implicit biases toward one or more groups. Especially if you are a person who says you “see everyone equally” or some such platitude, question the meanings behind your snap reactions or judgments of others. Try to notice patterns or be more deliberate in your interactions with others. Research exists to support the idea that people can change their automatic beliefs3, so your efforts will likely not be in vain.

In no way whatsoever is this discussion intended to relieve Hicks of any guilt or to place blame on any of his victims. Rather, it’s to suggest that the current definition of a hate crime requiring explicit prejudicial statements is outdated and too simplistic given what we know about implicit biases. Furthermore, understanding implicit biases can help us get past the racist vs. not-racist narrative and understand that people do what they do for much more complicated reasons than they themselves might even realize.


1 Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

2 Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.

3 Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp (2002). Putting the brakes on prejudice: On the development and operation of cues for control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1029-1050.