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

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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.

 

Racism and the Charleston Church Shooting: Strategies to Confront Prejudice

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Image from CNN

As details have surfaced about the Charleston church shooting, we now know that 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire during a prayer circle and killed 9 people in what can almost certainly be called a hate crime. Roof’s racist beliefs are well-established based on reports from his roommate and acquaintances, as well as the patches on his jacket and reports of what he said at the time of the shooting. Even though Roof told multiple people that he planned some sort of massacre, no one appears to have alerted the authorities, or his family.

I have seen a lot of debate today about whether or not these people had a legal obligation to report this hate speech, and I can’t speak to that. But as a human being, I believe we all have an ethical obligation to speak up if we hear someone planning violence toward another person or group of people. In addition, I believe we have a social obligation to attempt to address any kind of expressed prejudice with that person directly. Social influence is powerful, and we can harness findings from the psychology literature to help us confront prejudice in our everyday lives. Here are some strategies:

1. Express that you don’t share the person’s views– Consensus is a persuasive thing. It’s been demonstrated time and again that people are swayed by the opinions of others. Solomon Asch’s famous experiments on conformity showed that people will agree with an incorrect answer to a simple judgment if the group is unanimous, and Stanley Milgram’s experiments about obedience were conducted in part to address how German soldiers were convinced to commit unspeakable atrocities during World War II.1,2

Part of the reason Asch’s participants purposefully chose the wrong answer, and German soldiers went along with    Hitler’s evil plans, is because of established social norms and social pressures. Muzafer Sherif contended that social norms become internalized through life experience, and this can work to either challenge or enforce prejudice depending on one’s social environment.3 But, it’s important to voice your disagreement, whether or not cultural norms in your area allow for this prejudice. There’s something called the false consensus effect, which shows that people tend to believe that others agree with them.4,5 Don’t let this person think their words are acceptable by staying silent.

2. Make that prejudice more immediate for them– Milgram found that participants were more likely to defy the experimenter when told to continue to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to another person when the immediacy of the victim increased.6 Only 34% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in another room, while 60% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in the same room.6 Find a way to make that prejudice more salient for the person as a way of confronting it, whether it be pointing out that one of their favorite musicians is a member of the group they’re marginalizing, or challenging them to think about how they would feel if someone expressed similar views about a group they identify with.

3. Confront the prejudice-Many effective ways of decreasing prejudice have to do with exposure to members of the marginalized group. Findings on mere exposure suggest that just being exposed to something can increase liking of it.7 Indeed, researchers have found that merely being exposed to people of other races can increase liking of that racial group.8 The large body of research on the contact hypothesis supports this as well, with people having increasingly less bias toward marginalized groups as contact with group members increased.9 An added benefit of this approach is that familiarly can help to interrupt automatic attitudes toward a marginalized group, like stereotyping.10

Confronting prejudice should be done with care to the marginalized group, especially if you believe the person may pose a threat to that group. If you believe that may be the case, you will want to start by confronting their prejudice from afar. For instance, you could do something as small as highlight people from the marginalized group that defy stereotypes the person has, or share some information about the history of the person’s bias and its deleterious effects. Someone who has already expressed violent desires toward the group is automatically someone who poses a threat to the group.

Join us at SocialPsyQ by confronting prejudice in your community by educating yourselves and others. We can only succeed in bringing about real change if we establish new social norms, and challenge one another to grow. We have the power to show others that their beliefs are not universal or objectively superior by confronting them one-on-one. We also have the power to help potential victims of hate crimes. When you see something, say something. Helping to change a mind could help to save a life.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1.
  2. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.
  3. Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms.
  4. Mullen, B., Atkins, J. L., Champion, D. S., Edwards, C., Hardy, D., Story, J. E., & Vanderklok, M. (1985). The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis tests. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(3), 262-283.
  5. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology, 13(3), 279-301.
  6. Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
  7. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
  8. Zebrowitz, L. A., White, B., & Wieneke, K. (2008). Mere exposure and racial prejudice: Exposure to other-race faces increases liking for strangers of that race. Social cognition, 26(3), 259.
  9. Sigelman, L., & Welch, S. (1993). The contact hypothesis revisited: Black-white interaction and positive racial attitudes. Social forces, 781-795.
  10. Quinn, K. A., Mason, M. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2009). Familiarity and person construal: Individuating knowledge moderates the automaticity of category activation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(5), 852-861

Working against justice in our “Just World”

“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”- Voltaire, Candide

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Image from dayandadream.com

Back in 1759, Voltaire wrote a rich satire of 18th century society, unleashing his sharp wit on issues from religion to philosophy. One of the many lasting criticisms brought to light in this classic work is that of the just world phenomenon: the belief in some cosmic fairness, and thus, that people tend to get “what they deserve.” The just world phenomenon manifests itself all the time.

People often equate the need for public assistance to laziness. When talking to coworkers about their skills, we often reassure them that if they work hard, they will get the recognition they deserve. And when unarmed black teens are killed on the street, people often assert that they probably “had it coming.” Voltaire had great insight into our violent and optimistic nature: we are unlikely to see undesirable events as random because it’s scary, and it’s a slippery slope from optimism to ignorance

Case-in-point, system justification theory predicts that people are motivated to hang on to the status quo, and will often defend the current system regardless of its disadvantages. Some researchers have attributed this effect to a desire to defend one’s self-concept or group identity against threat (2,3). But there’s also evidence that people do this when they are the very ones at a disadvantage (1).

For instance, in the days following Mike Brown’s August 9th shooting, I saw my first “Pull Your Pants Up Challenge.” This video by Malik S. King is a great example of system justification at work. I doubt the men participating in this challenge actually believe that shooting someone because of the location of his pants is justifiable, but the assertion that black people can dress differently to avoid negative consequences smacks of the old revealing clothing rape justification argument. These videos demonstrate how powerful and how pervasive system justification is.

So, why are people defending the system? Perhaps it is because it is too threatening to think that we have law enforcement officers on the streets who do not make lethal force decisions objectively. Perhaps the young black men doing the pants challenge want to believe that they have some control over whether or not the police will shoot them. But sometimes we must face the reality that not all actions make sense. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

One of the main aims of experimental social psychology is to study phenomena that apply to real life. That application is sometimes applied, but often it is simply educating individuals about their own behavior and motivation. I believe the just world phenomenon and system justification theory speak to the latter mission. By knowing that we are cognitively motivated to believe that the world is just, and that we often advocate for existing systems despite fatal flaws, we can be critics of our own cognition, and work toward bringing more justice into our just world.

(1) Toorn, J., Feinberg, M., Jost, J. T., Kay, A. C., Tyler, T. R., Willer, R., & Wilmuth, C. (2014). A sense of powerlessness fosters system justification: Implications for the legitimation of authority, hierarchy, and government. Political Psychology, doi:10.1111/pops.12183

(2) Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 183-242.

(3) Spears, R., Jetten, J., & Doosje, B. (2001). The (il)legitimacy of ingroup bias: From social reality to social resistance. In J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.), The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations (pp. 332-362). New York: Cambridge University Press.