The Research On White Privilege Blindness

Seeing the Truth of Inequality: We all want to believe that we’ve earned what we have, but true equality begins when we’re willing to see how the circumstances of our birth have helped us along.

Back when my daily commute was a two-mile power walk through Manhattan, my idea of “fighting traffic” didn’t mean dodging cars or dashing across intersections seconds before a red light. It was more literal. When drivers sped through a yellow light and blocked my crosswalk, I’d pound on their trunk as I edged behind their bumper: “Nice going, idiot!”

And if they looked around for the culprit, they never suspected it was me. Female, white, middle-aged me.

Getting away with pedestrian road rage is the least of the privileges that age, sex, race, accent, or wealth bring. Being born into one racial or economic group or another—what group is privileged depends on the society, but most of the research focuses on the discrepancies between white and Black people in North America—offers you greater or lesser access to influential networks that can give you that all-important leg up. Accidents of birth can improve or worsen the odds of growing up in a safe, clean neighborhood with good schools and cultural opportunities. 

These “accidents” also determine your risk of someone calling the cops on you for driving while Black, barbecuing while Black, shopping while Black, or sitting in a college common room while Black, to mention a few recent news-making incidents. 

Unearned advantages go a long way toward explaining why white people in the US have greater life expectancies than Black people (79 years vs. 75.6), higher lifetime earnings, higher average wealth ($919,000 vs. $140,000), and higher median weekly earnings ($935 vs. $737). And is it really too much to wonder whether the taken-for-granted, rules-are-for-little-people sense of entitlement that white people enjoy might have been a factor in the 2019 college admissions scandal, where it came to light that wealthy, privileged, mostly white parents had bought their kids’ way into Yale, the University of Southern California, and other selective colleges? 

If you insist those real-world advantages have nothing to do with racial privileges starting at birth, but instead reflect your personal merit and hard work, keep reading and see what you think.

Born to Privilege

“Most whites are blind to the existence of racial privilege,” says psychologist Taylor Phillips of New York University. “They deny it exists.” In fact, 55% of white people in the US claim they suffer racial discrimination and that racial minorities enjoy privileges, according to a 2018 analysis by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Of course, racial preference and affirmative action programs, aimed at improving minority access to education and jobs, exist. But countless studies have connected accidents of birth, especially race but also sex, to life’s outcomes. Some factors are measurable—think parental education and income (both of which usually favor white people) and neighborhood quality. Others are less so—for example, the ability to tap into networks of people (mom and dad’s friends, neighbors, parents of schoolmates) who can offer an edge and an in. 

Phillips is one of the leading researchers trying to explain the causes of “privilege blindness.” This is a form of something psychologists call motivated reasoning, in which we perceive the world in ways that mesh with our personal beliefs about what is right and what we want to be true. A series of surveys has found that Americans of all races misperceive the wealth and income gaps between Black and white people: The average white family has twenty times the wealth of the average Black family, but participants guessed it was 80% smaller than reality, according to the work of psychologist Jennifer Richeson of Yale University.  The least accurate guesses came from wealthy white people: They are motivated to believe society is fair, Richeson explains, since acknowledging the opposite would be to cast doubt on the fairness of their wealth.

Privilege blindness seems to spring from two deeply human urges: to maintain a belief in one’s innocence and to feel meritorious.

Privilege blindness seems to spring from two deeply human urges: to maintain a belief in one’s innocence and to feel meritorious.

In Western societies, particularly those that believe hard work brings success, people want to feel that their accomplishments are earned. “Meritocracy is how we justify unequal outcomes,” says Phillips. “We want to explain them as the result of hard work and talent.” That’s a difficult position to maintain if being white gives people a leg up. But class is another source of privilege that its recipients prefer not to acknowledge: The child who gets into Princeton because her father gave $5 million for a building is certain her success reflects merit, and the teens who got prestigious internships thanks to the intercession of their wealthy, powerful parents’ friends are sure they were the best candidates for the position. 

In one experiment by Phillips and Brian Lowery of Stanford University, white participants completed a survey and read essays about racial inequality in America (specifically, white people’s advantages) and about childhood memories. They remembered many more “personal life hardships” compared to white volunteers who did not read the essays, including agreeing with such statements as, “There have been many struggles I have suffered,” and “My life has had many obstacles.”

“Whites respond to evidence of racial privilege by claiming their life was filled with hardships,” Phillips says. “We want to feel like we’re good people, which presents a conundrum when we’re faced with the existence of white privilege: It can make us feel that we didn’t earn what we have. So we say, ‘Privilege? What privilege?’”

 In another study, Phillips and Lowery found that white participants who read about racial privilege and possible unearned advantage claimed to work harder than those who read a completely unrelated essay. “We’re all motivated by a desire to attribute our achievements to personal merit,” Phillips says.

Real-life experiments, not only laboratory ones, bear this out. People who win a job through contacts rather than hard work or merit “nevertheless claim that their personal effort was responsible for their success,” Phillips and Lowery wrote in a 2019 paper analyzing privilege blindness.

White Fragility 

Research on blindness to white privilege coincides with the recognition of what author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” It means that white people “freak out” at the slightest reminders of racism, she argued in her 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

DiAngelo reached that conclusion over the course of two decades running diversity-training workshops for US businesses, finding that white participants almost universally insist they are “color-blind,” talk about their minority friends, and boast of all their anti- discrimination activism. Challenged by unpleasant reminders of racism, they react with “anger, fear and guilt,” DiAngelo writes, as well as “argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”

That, too, might drive privilege blindness, but while DiAngelo is nearly despairing about white fragility, Phillips is more sanguine. People can cast off their blinders and be mindful of the existence of white privilege, but mindfulness extends past merely correctly perceiving reality: It can facilitate introspection, causing us to question why recognizing racial privilege is so threatening to those who benefit from it, Phillips says. 

Especially when a little introspection will likely reveal what some of us can get away with, due to our race and gender—well beyond pounding scofflaw cars.

Try This Practice

Recognizing our own privilege starts with being dispassionately, mindfully open to the possibility that it exists. Some simple steps:

  1. Ask yourself if you belong to a privileged group. Societies differ as to their privileged groups, but in general, Western societies privilege those who are white and wealthy.
  2. In daily life, when you get away with something or get treated to a perk, ask if someone who looks different from you would have gotten the same treatment. For example, if you’re white, you probably won’t be hassled for loitering in an upscale store, complaining loudly in a restaurant, jaywalking, or committing some other social infraction.
  3. Now think about whether privilege has brought you something more valuable than a store clerk’s tolerance. If you have benefitted from networking, academic or professional recommendations from influential people, or even good schools, ask whether you got them, at least in part, because of an accident of birth rather than because you labored hard for them. Not everyone who winds up on third base hit a triple.
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