Use of ‘white privilege’ makes online discussions more polarized and less constructive

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

(THE CONVERSATION) A wide variety of historical, economic and cultural forces combine to allow a larger percentage of whites to climb up the socioeconomic ladder than Blacks and Hispanics.

Some people call the combined effects of these forces “white privilege.” Though 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 polarization 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.

Effects of using ‘white privilege’

In the past decade there has been a push on college campuses to re-title 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 both 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 polarized.

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.

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