Study Suggests Marginalization Impacts White Men's Perception of Privilege

young man with disability working at home


Key Takeaways

  • White men who report an experience of disadvantage based on a social category, like a disability, perceive greater privilege.
  • Success at work may increase perceptions of privilege for white men who have experienced disadvantage in another part of their lives.
  • These findings hold promise for addressing racial inequities given existing power imbalances in the U.S.

For many, white privilege can be uncomfortable to consider and difficult for individuals to recognize in themselves. Certain circumstances, however, may make this process easier. A recently published study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that white men were more likely to perceive their privilege following experiences of marginalization, as in the case of a physical disability.

Through analysis of ten studies conducted in workplaces, researchers found that white men were more likely to perceive their privilege based on lived experience of marginalization, and at times, this understanding was increased following greater success at work.

Research like this that highlights the factors that increase perception of privilege among white men may provide much-needed insight towards equitable outcomes for communities of color across the country.

Understanding the Research

This research was based on analysis of ten studies, and found evidence that white men who experienced disadvantage due to a social category such as a physical disability increased their perception of privilege and ability to empathize with racial minorities.

Researchers noted that that some of the studies they analyzed did not explicitly address the possibility of white men's perception of disadvantage in terms of race as a social category, so that is a limitation of this work.

Perception of White Privilege Can Yield Empathy

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "The takeaway that readers should have is that it is easy for people who identify as white to deny their privilege [without] a personal experience."

Weaver explains that although American white males have traditionally been the most privileged group in society, experiences of discrimination based on their sexual, religious, socio-economic status, and more have been shown to lead to a better understanding of privilege.

Additionally, Weaver notes, "American white males who experience job success but experience discrimination tied to another part of their identity understand their privilege, and can relate to the feelings of other cultures and are more empathetic towards those who are discriminated against."

In other words, exposure to discrimination could make it more likely for a white man to understand other ways in which they still benefit from white privilege.

Although more research needs to be conducted about how white women who are successful in the workplace are likely to identify with the concept of privilege, Weaver highlights that this information is still helpful.

Weaver notes that this information can be used to inform diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the workplace, as exposure to social-category based discrimination helps white men to feel empathy for racial minorities.

Neuroscience teaches us that we are hardwired for connection, and isolation shows up as emotional pain in the brain, according to Weaver. "The one thing I wish the public would know about this issue is the challenge with navigating the internal dilemma and cognitive dissonance," she says.

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

American white males who experience job success but experience discrimination tied to another part of their identity understand their privilege and can relate to the feelings of other cultures and are more empathetic towards those who are discriminated against.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

Weaver explains that white people may face tensions as they navigate relatives or friends who promote and celebrate white supremacy while being connected with communities of color who are hurt by such oppression.

From this research, Weaver draws connections to the increase in book bans, as she notes that books and curriculum may hold potential for addressing white supremacy, while elevating and humanizing other cultures.  

Weaver says, "People know that there is a small group that is afraid of losing their perceived power. The makeup of the world has changed and cultural empowerment and pride is becoming more dominant."

White privilege causes disruption in families, according to Weaver. "Due to the recent political climate and commentary, many of my white clients have presented to therapy with anger and hurt toward their parents," she says.

Weaver explains that many of her white clients have distanced themselves from family members who continue to hold racist views. "A lot of my white clients feel that they don’t know who their parents are and question if the memories of the relationship with their parents was a lie," she says.

Privilege Does Not Have To Be A Controversial Topic

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “This research provides much-needed data, that, prior to it, has been understood only anecdotally."

Landrum explains that many BIPOC individuals with loved ones who are white understood that other experiences of marginalization made them more likely to understand their white privilege better.

Lived experience can be difficult to describe, according to Landrum. "When BIPOC individuals are sharing their knowledge of how the world works, it differs from those of white people. This difference can cause white people to reject, trivialize, or minimize the oppression that BIPOC face," she says.

Landrum highlights, "This research shows that when white men have lived experience of oppression based on their social identity, such as being gay or disabled, they can connect the unjust treatment they experience to the ones BIPOC experience based on their skin, race, and ethnic makeup."

Furthermore, Landrum notes that they develop deeper empathy which results in stronger bonds. "BIPOC loved ones are less likely to spend emotional-mental labor to prove their experience and understanding of oppression and oppressive systems that disadvantage them," she says.

Landrum explains, "Workplace discrimination, oppression, and disadvantages continue to exist. The default in these settings is for those who are being harmed to come up with a solution to fix the problem."

Even when asking for aid from Human Resources, Landrum notes that often the burden is placed on the marginalized group themselves. "Workplaces and HR must learn how to take ownership and responsibility for coming up with solutions to aid their marginalized employees," she says.

Landrum explains, "If they are unsure where to start, they can reach out to consultants who specialize in diversity and inclusion efforts and diversity and inclusion resolutions. They can also continue to take courses and workshops on oppression, bias, and true allyship."

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Attempting to make it visible is a large unfair feat that BIPOC people have been forced to take on. In fact, it's a privilege to not have to prove a marginalized experience to someone who isn't marginalized.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Since this research focused on cis white men in the workplace, Landrum notes that future studies should expand further to include all genders, as that may help to prompt much-needed social change regarding race.

Landrum explains, "Privilege is the right, benefit, or advantage an individual has that others don't have. Though it shouldn't be, privilege has been turned into a controversial topic."

Since some may avoid the topic of white privilege, Landrum notes this may further feelings of resentment and othering for marginalized groups. "Privilege is often invisible to the individual who has it," she says.

Landrum explains, "Attempting to make it visible is a large unfair feat that BIPOC people have been forced to take on. In fact, it's a privilege to not have to prove a marginalized experience to someone who isn't marginalized."

In this way, Landrum notes that a shared experience can often be a way to create space to understand and accept one's privilege. "We are all privileged in one way or another, so highlighting shared privilege can be a good starting point in explaining what privilege is," she says.

For tangible examples of privilege, Landrum shares not living in a food desert, i.e. having access to affordable nutritious food, as well as having access to clean drinkable water, being able-bodied, having adequate medical insurance, and living in an area with no difficulty to find a place of worship because that is the dominant religion in the area where you reside.

Landrum explains that such examples of shared privilege may allow people to better understand how that removes barriers that those who are marginalized still face and open up discussions for deeper connection.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, white men's experiences of marginalization based on a social category like a physical disability makes them more likely to recognize their privilege regarding race. It may be beneficial for such findings to inform educational practices.

1 Source
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  1. Fath S, Ma A, Shelby Rosette A. Self-views of disadvantage and success impact perceptions of privilege among White menOrgan Behav Hum Decis Process. 2022;169:104114. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2021.104114

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.