White Students and White Privilege

Social psychologists Nyla Branscombe, Michael Schmitt, and Kristin Schiffhauer have reported on a very interesting study on how whites’ racist views are heightened when they are pressed to think about their white racial privilege. (“Racial Attitudes in Response to Thoughts of White Privilege,” European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 2007: 203-215).

In their experimental studies, white undergraduates who highly identified with being white and who were pressed to think about white privilege (compared to controls and those who were asked to think about white disadvantages) responded with enhanced racist attitudes as measured by a modern-racism scale. The white students did this, apparently, to further legitimatize in their minds their white privilege and society’s racial inequality. Thus, those who strongly identified as white justified their privileged status by increased denial of the existence of discrimination and related racial views. In addition, this effect was found to be independent of conservative-liberal political orientation, indicating that their denials of discrimination did not reflect a sense of some violation of conservative political principles (photo credit).

These data not only show critical aspect of the contemporary white racial frame we often discuss here but also fit well with social science interpretations stressing that racial ideas and prejudices are not individualistic but connected to a sense of white-group position—an idea accented by sociologist Herbert Blumer. There are interesting societal implications to speculate on here. The researchers suggest from their data that whites may be most likely to assert or display openly their blatantly racist attitudes during times of social change, especially when there is significant likelihood of upward mobility for people of color that threatens their white identity or their white privileges.

Their data also point up the continuing, overtly racist ideas, about a range of racial issues, among many young college-educated white Americans—the ones who, according to numerous media and scholarly pundits, are supposed to be very nonracist and the hope for a nonracist future for this country. Such data are not encouraging, but few public commentators seem willing to confront or discuss the large amount of social science data on continuing white racism in the US.


  1. GDAWG

    While Whites students undertstand the implications of their priviledged status via cultural and familial signals, their problem, however, is with this increasingly globalized world, and is less about Black Americans, but, in fact, more about young people in China and South Asia(India), for example. This is the real dilemma for them and their futures, and by extension, us and our young people. The competiton for finite natural resources will present some interesting challenges to not only white/euro supremacist political economy, but also present a devastating challenge to the standard of living they are so use to. As such, as these data reflect, merely scapegoating Black Americans and other nonwhites will not solve the inherent problems as outlined above. Our charge is to educate of our young people on the importance of the interacting in a positive and productive manner with others of these emerging civilzations/markets, so as to built a kind of socio-political capital so that opportunities that may shrink here can be negotiated in other places. It’s a kind of ‘survival imperative’ that we must clear in their understanding of this increasingly complicated world to them.

  2. Joe Author

    Well said. There is clearly a global setting and reality to racial oppression, and that goes back for at least four centuries. Our young people are, mostly, poorly educated in regard to the past and present of many global issues, including how European colonialism and imperialism created a modern, highly racialized world. As you suggest, human survival is at stake here.

  3. GDAWG

    IMNO, I feel there is ‘much educating’ going on with iur young peole than people give them credit for.
    Case in points;
    * They willingness to not get involved in the military since Iraq.
    * Episodes of misconduct by law enforcement, for example, that are validated as correct by the court system in too many instances. (Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, etc)
    * The hypocritical way Barry Bonds was vilified, publically, compared to Roger Clements and others, too numberous to mention.
    So, these are examples that required a special kind of analysis not taught in schools, but are inculcated via discussions on the radio, TV, in families, internet blog sites, etc. Because many more are so computer savvy, compared to ur generation and before obviously, they, today’s young folk, are getting to the meat of the matters at hand to a bunch of issues where we could not as young people. As such, they are more sophisticated in their analysis and interpretation of events as evidenced above.
    In any event, these arenas are where their real education lies.

  4. People like that often get into positions of power under the radar. When they finally have enough power, they come out of the closet and declare themselves. This man has not yet done that, but it being exposed early. Given his track record, he won’t win this election, but if he does, I would consider this a very serious problem in the local court system. You don’t want to be a person of colour in his courtroom; there’s no reason why you should think that you would get anything but a fair trial.

    The attitude that as white people deserve certain advantages and that other groups do not is most prevalent when the racism is revealed, I think. It explains their extreme reluctance to even acknowledge anything that would upset what they consider the normal course of things (them getting what they want, and having most of the power in the world). In other words, getting a more equitable society is fine as long as they have nothing to give up, which seems impossible. This includes intangible things like privilege, but it also includes the basics such as food. Imagine the outcry if the global food shortage affected white people half as much as it affects everyone else.

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