The {In}visibility of White Privilege

Managing White Identity

Take home: Your White friends and family do know they are White, and they probably know about privilege; the issue is that it’s a problematic identity and so denial and distancing strategies are often used.

At Secular Woman, we are concerned with intersectionality. For people concerned with issues of social justice, the idea that we all may have various kinds of privilege has become common and influential.

Issues of racial injustice are particularly salient of late.  Conversations typically turn to issues of White privilege, but many of us experience defensiveness and backlash when we try to get others (e.g., our Fox-News-watching relative) to view issues through the lens of privilege.

Why is accepting the concept of privilege so difficult for some?  I admit that my first reaction was defensive: “I don’t have privilege” and “I worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished”.  After reflection and analysis the concept now makes sense. For status quo warriors, the reactions to the idea of privilege are often dismissive, defensive, and in extremes cases, even hostile.

A newly published analysis by Knowles, Lowery, Chow, and Unzueta (2014) sheds some light on these reactions. In an overview of their research programs, they first tackle the issue of our assumptions about the “invisibility” of White privilege.

Privilege is often discussed in a way that suggests that “whiteness” is invisible.  Knowles and colleagues offer a different perspective, and provide research to support the idea that Whites are, in fact, aware of their racial identity:

“Instead, we believe that whiteness is consequential because it is visible to many dominant-group members—forming, in fact, the basis of a problematic social identity with which Whites must often grapple.” (p. 595)

Knowles and colleagues propose the “deny, distance, or dismantle” model (or “3D” for short) to describe the ways that White Americans may choose a strategy for dealing with being a member of the dominant racial group.

White Privilege is Threatening

How much we notice our racial identity depends on how homogenous our surroundings are. For example, I feel more Canadian when I am in the US and I notice my gender more when I am the only woman in the room. It’s a classic contrast effect.

So, if we grant that Whites are aware of the fact that they are White, they will sooner or later become aware of other factors associated with whiteness. Despite the advantages that privilege confers, Knowles et al. identify two “psychological costs” or threats to White identity that are associated with being a member of the dominant group.

First, that typical defensive reaction when you remind someone to “check your privilege” occurs because it implies that they don’t deserve full credit for their accomplishments.  Their success can be explained away by virtue of their status as a member of the majority group, and therefore is not earned or deserved.  This is the “meritocratic threat” to identity: my success may be the result of more than just my talents, ability, and work ethic.

Second, as a majority group member, Whites becomes aware that they are part of a “morally suspect group.” My childhood history lessons were devastating; I was continually reminded that I was a member of a racial group whose members were responsible for genocide, slavery, lynching, and internment camps, just to name a few atrocities. This is the “group-image threat” to identity: my ingroup has a history of race-based oppression and injustice.

Dealing with Identity Threat

There are three main strategies that Whites use to protect against these identity threats according to the 3D model proposed by Knowles and colleagues.

(1) The Denial Strategy

Denial is classic psychological defense mechanism.  Moreover, we are prone to what is called the self-serving bias: we like to attribute our successes to stable, internal, and controllable causes (such as effort and ability), but for our failures, we are more likely to blame external or situational factors.  A consequence of admitting that privilege is real is admitting that all of our successes may not be the result of 100% internal and controllable factors.  Moreover, if privilege is real, our-self serving bias does not allow us to explain away our failures by appealing to situational factors.

White American culture affords the use of the denial strategy for a few key reasons. First, this is an individualistic culture, and the focus on individual merit and individual attributions for behavior take priority over situational attributions. We see this play out in what is called the fundamental attribution error – our tendency to downplay situational causes of behavior. Second, the pervasiveness of the Protestant Work Ethic is in direct conflict with the idea that group membership may contribute to individual success. Finally, current research indicates that a majority of White Americans believe that — starting in the 2000s — bias against Whites (or “reverse” discrimination) has become more prevalent than bias against Blacks (Norton & Sommers, 2011).

These three factors provide an easy context for the use of the denial strategy to protect against threats to White identity.  The implications for perpetuating racial injustice are clear. Denial of a problem (or that structural inequality is part of the problem, if there actually is a problem) rarely leads to solutions.

(2) The Distancing Strategy

One form of the distancing strategy is to “disidentify” with being White and/or downplaying the importance of race in general, and of being White in particular.

A more insidious instantiation, however, is expressed in the “colorblind” ideology. On the surface, the proclamation that “I don’t see color” can be viewed as an attempt to focus on commonalities rather than differences. White American culture has embraced colorblindness, believing that the simple act of noticing race is a manifestation of racism. One way to avoid being called racist is to avoid any discussion of race, even when it matters (e.g., Norton et al., 2006). Ironically, Black observers rate Whites who avoid mentioning race as more biased than Whites who acknowledge and discuss race (Apfelbaum et al., 2008).

There is evidence from correlational and experimental studies to show that the colorblind ideology does not work as a technique for reducing bias or discrimination (e.g., Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004).  My favorite example is a study by Apfelbaum and colleagues (2010). Children aged 8-11 were asked to help review a storybook designed for younger kids, in which a teacher is working to promote racial equality.  The children were randomly assigned to either the colorblind version (which focused on similarity and minimizing racial differences) or to the value-diversity version (which focused on recognizing and celebrating racial differences). After ensuring that the students understood the main message of the text, a new researcher (unaware of which version each child had read) then asked the children to consider scenarios that contained (a) no racial bias, (b) ambiguous evidence for racial bias, and (c) explicit racial discrimination.

The children in the colorblind condition were much less likely to “see” explicit racial discrimination. When asked to recall the scenarios, recordings of the colorblind children’s descriptions of the scenario involving racially motivated bullying were less likely to be judged by teachers as warranting adult intervention.  This is not because the teachers did not see such bullying as a problem, but because the children’s narratives excluded the racial identity of the characters in the scenarios as well as the clearly stated racial motive for the bullying.

Knowles et al. (2014) provide additional evidence for the links between distancing and holding a colorblind ideology, and the association between colorblindness and the tendency to deny White privilege.

The obvious implication here is that the distancing strategy, and its accompanying colorblindness, serves to protect against identity threat, but it does little to increase the likelihood that Whites will “see” injustice and inequality. If you don’t see a problem, you can’t address it.

(3) The Dismantling Strategy

When Whites use the dismantling strategy, they actively work to reduce the advantages privilege bestows.  On the surface, this strategy involves working against one’s own self-interests and those of one’s ingroup. In seeking to reduce privilege and current systemic inequality, this strategy addresses the group-level threat by openly recognizing past injustice and oppression.

This strategy may be familiar to those who take “social justice warrior” as compliment rather than an insult.  Dismantling requires one to accept the existence of White privilege:

“Dismantling suggests that Whites will most strongly embrace progressive policies when they regard inequality and privilege as self-relevant and simultaneously see policy endorsement as a means of relieving the resulting threat . . . [and] repairing the reputation of the racial ingroup . . . by taking action against inequality” (p. 603).

What are the prospects for encouraging Whites to relinquish the advantages of privilege and work to address racial inequality?  There are many potential strikes against the dismantling strategy. The American ideals of individual merit and individual work ethic, and our human tendency to downplay situational causes are potential barriers. Across the political spectrum, contrasting ideas about the meaning of “fairness” (e.g., Haidt, 2013) divide opinion when it comes to policies that involve redistribution of social and economic resources.

Knowles and colleagues discuss some of the ways that the dismantling strategy could be encouraged:

“…we believe that White privilege—construed in the right way—need not threaten Whites’ sense of self-competence and deservingness” (p. 604)

Although the standard version of the fundamental attribution error pits a personal cause vs. a situational cause (and the tendency to prefer personal/internal causes), in reality, people typically consider more than one cause. Some causes may be necessary, others sufficient. If one believes that multiple causes play a role (e.g., both individual hard work and a system that advantages Whites), then efforts to dismantle systemic injustice or support policies that promote racial equality will be far less identity-threatening.  The social justice goal could be reframed as reducing others’ possible barriers to success, rather than focusing on any individual’s “unearned” and “undeserved” advantages (which typically produces the expected defensive and threat-reducing reactions).

“Future research should investigate ways of encouraging Whites to construe privilege in a manner that does not impugn their personal self-worth . . . being White is not enough, by itself, to guarantee good socioeconomic outcomes and that aptitude and hard work are equally critical ingredients of success. At the same time, dominant-group members must understand that, without whiteness, it matters less how much merit individuals possess: socioeconomic success is inevitably less likely. We expect that Whites would no longer feel personally threatened by whiteness but nevertheless still, for group-image reasons, want to dismantle a system that makes one’s race an important key to self-actualization.” (Knowles et al., 2014, p. 604)


Target Article

Knowles, E. D., Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M., & Unzueta, M. M. (2014). Deny, distance, or dismantle? How White Americans manage a privileged identity. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(6), 594-609.

References and Recommended Reading

Apfelbaum, E. P., Pauker, K., Sommers, S. R., & Ambady, N. (2010). In blind pursuit of racial equality? Psychological Science, 21, 1587-1592.

Apfelbaum, E. P., Sommers, S. R., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Seeing race and seeming racist? Evaluating strategic colorblindness in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 918–932.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 215–218.

Norton, M. I., Sommers, S. R., Apfelbaum, E. P., Pura, N., & Ariely, D. (2006). Color blindness and interracial interaction: Playing the “Political Correctness Game.” Psychological Science, 17, 949–953.

Richeson, J. A., & Nussbaum, R. J. (2004). The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 417-423.