By Christopher Quarles
A wide variety of historical, economic and cultural forces combine to allow a larger percentage of whites to climb up the socio-economic ladder than blacks and Hispanics. Some people call the combined effects of these forces “white privilege”.
Although these words are commonly used, research by Lia Bozarth and me has found that use of “white privilege” on social media can actually decrease support for racially progressive policies.
We found that the term can increase online political polarisation and lead to lower quality conversations on social media. In particular, the term drives some whites who would otherwise support efforts toward racial equality away from online conversations.
In the past decade there has been a push on college campuses to retitle buildings named after people involved with slavery or discrimination. We used the issue of renaming these buildings as a way to examine how language affects online conversations.
We recruited 924 US residents from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for our experiment. Half of the research participants were given a social media post containing the following question: “Should colleges rename buildings that were named after people who actively supported racial inequality?” The other half saw an identical question, except the term “racial inequality” was swapped with “white privilege”.
We randomly chose which half received each question. This random assignment allowed us to show causality – and gave us confidence that the choice of language created the effects we saw. We asked the participants to respond to their question, and also measured how likely they were to engage with the post in the first place.
We then focused on the set of people who were likely to engage with that post online. The term “white privilege” had two effects. The first was to decrease the quality of conversation among whites and non-whites. There were more comments that insulted people, attacked the question itself or simply made no sense.
The second effect was to make the set of responses less supportive of renaming the buildings – and more polarised. The people who were asked about racial inequality were, on average, very supportive. Those who thought it was a good idea to rename college buildings outnumbered opponents more than 2-to-1. But the group that was asked about “white privilege” was strongly divided, with just as many opponents as supporters.
This shift was caused completely by a change in some whites. Use of “white privilege” caused 50% of whites who would have been supportive to become ambivalent or hostile. We don’t know which half would have changed their minds.
But, due to the experimental design, we can be confident they were there. In addition, we found that many of the supportive whites just chose to avoid the conversation altogether.
While they might have expressed their support for stopping racial inequality, they wouldn’t join a conversation about white privilege. Because the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” have different meanings, we performed an extra analysis to understand what caused these effects.
What we found was consistent with other research suggesting a process called motivated reasoning. In this experiment, the different meanings of the terms “white privilege” and “racial inequality” didn’t seem to directly affect how people reasoned about renaming buildings. Instead, we found evidence that the difference in language first affected whether they were supportive of renaming buildings.
Only after deciding on an opinion did they find reasons to support it. Our results offer insight into one mechanism underlying the polarisation and vitriol we see on social media. Online users who feel strongly about a topic will post about it using strong language, such as “white privilege”.
This language will get people riled up toward one side or another. And the people who might be good mediators – such as supportive whites in our study – are less likely to engage. The people who remain are then more likely to share extreme views. They create online posts, and the cycle continues.
The result is that social media is dominated by outrage and extremism, rather than respectful discourse. This is notable, because it suggests that some of the conflict we see online is not caused by malice, but by a lack of understanding.
In our study, the term “white privilege” changed the behaviour of some whites. But the psychology behind this change is common to all humans. In fact, the psychological research that first examined this effect focused on the performance of black learners in school.
The term “white privilege” taps into a deep-seated tendency as old as humanity. As social creatures, humans are naturally inclined to split the world into “us” and “them”.
This can lead to thinking of others – and sometimes ourselves – as a stereotypical member of our group. Further, we are members of multiple groups simultaneously, according to our age, profession, race, politics and family roles. At any given moment, social cues affect which group is the most forefront in our minds.
This natural tendency to view ourselves through a social identity allowed Germanic tribes who had been warring with each other to band together to drive back invading Romans. It enabled whites to view blacks as inferior throughout much of American history and led some blacks to agree with that view.
It played a role in anti-Muslim sentiment after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. It’s involved in political partisanship and in protests against authoritarian regimes. And it’s one reason we feel more comfortable in a group of people like ourselves.
Phrases like “white privilege” play on this reasoning by implying that all whites are similar and have the same negative traits. Unsurprisingly, the accusation – even subtly implied – that everyone in your race is “bad” can create strong reactions.
Some people will just disregard the speaker entirely. But many others will feel intense visceral emotions such as anger, which can lead us to be more confrontational, or shame, which can cause people to withdraw.
When faced with the term “white privilege”, it’s not surprising that some whites will look less favourably on the speaker’s ideas. And it makes sense that the whites who are more sympathetic will tend to withdraw.
Of course this reaction, which psychologists call “social identity threat”, is not unique to white people. At some point in their lives, everyone feels unwelcome or devalued because of a group they identify as part of, whether that’s being black, white, Hispanic, young, old, female, male, Christian or atheist. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans think that everyone should get an equal shot at success, and numerous studies have shown that race is involved in economic opportunity and social mobility.
While the data is clear that racial inequality persists in America, its causes are complex and have so far proven intractable. Meanwhile, social media users spend their time attacking each other, giving the impression of an outraged and polarised citizenry.
Effective communication about personal topics like race can be challenging. The careful use of inclusive language is one way to gather public support – or at least promote meaningful discussion. Words matter, and our research demonstrates how phrases like “white privilege” affect the way controversial issues on race are perceived.
* Quarles is a PhD Candidate in Information, University of Michigan. This is an edited version of his article that was first published on theconversation.com.