White men who face obstacles in life are better able to see white privilege — and that recognition could translate to support for policies to tackle racial inequities, new research says.
White men who say they’ve experienced social disadvantages in the workplace based on their socioeconomic status, disability, age, sexual orientation or religion are more likely than their white male counterparts who had not experienced such disadvantages to recognize white privilege, according to a new paper published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Researchers from Cornell, Duke and Tulane Universities conducted 10 studies with more than 5,100 people in the U.S. and U.K., examining white men’s perceptions of white privilege in the workplace and their experiences of disadvantages based on a social category.
Ultimately, they found that “the experience of disadvantage can provide enlightenment on white privilege,” study co-author Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor of management and organizations at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, told MarketWatch.
In other words, she said, white men’s experience of disadvantage on one social hierarchy can help them see their advantage on another.
“Although white men sit atop of two of the most predominant hierarchies — race and gender — they are not a monolithic group,” Rosette said. “We wanted to explore how other subordinate identities, and the corresponding experience of disadvantage because of those identities, would influence how they viewed their status atop the racial hierarchy.”
The study defined white privilege as economic and social advantages that white people experience and racial minorities do not — advantages that come about “through no merit of your own, purely because of race,” as Rosette put it. These can crop up in myriad places, she added, including housing, schools, healthcare and corporate America.
As MarketWatch has previously reported, many people in the U.S. tend to deny or rationalize facts about systemic inequality and privilege. Though inequality has increased in recent decades, concerns about it have declined, and many people continue to believe that the country is a meritocracy where success comes to individuals who work for it.
Rosette, for her part, noted that the idea of privilege can feel “quite threatening” to some of the core values central to American society, including individual achievement and merit. But white privilege doesn’t exist in lieu of personal achievement, she added; it works in tandem.
“In society and in organizations, you can have at least two systems that are working in tandem: a system based on individual merit and a system based on privilege,” she said. “Oftentimes, we want to only acknowledge one … but just because we don’t acknowledge that other system doesn’t mean that it does not exist.”
Rosette and her co-authors invoked a 2019 quote by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a white gay man who was mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a 2020 presidential candidate, from when he was challenged during a Democratic presidential debate about his outreach to Black voters.
In his response — which inspired some controversy at the time — Buttigieg said, “while I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country.”
“Wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience,” he added.
Broadly speaking, the study’s findings suggest that “at least among White men, an enhanced perspective of the social hierarchy coupled with positive self-evaluation may spur a desire to generate social change,” the authors wrote.
This is important because white men continue to hold a disproportionate share of influential positions in society, they added. A 2020 New York Times analysis of the 922 most powerful people in government, top-valued public companies, academia, media, entertainment and sports, for example, found that 80% were white. Studies also show men are overrepresented in top leadership roles across industries.
“Therefore, to the extent that perceiving privilege leads White men and other members of dominant groups to support progressive social policies and the reduction of existing inequities, that support may generate tangible, positive outcomes for racial minorities and others that suffer from social inequity in America (and abroad),” the researchers said.