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Study Challenges Assumption That Whites Are Unaware of Their Privileges

The long-held assumption in academia that Whites overlook their own race and its privileges may have to be thrown out, a new study suggests.

Surprisingly, in a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households nationwide, a clear majority of Whites (74 percent) stated that their own racial identity was important to them. A similar majority of its White respondents recognized that prejudice and discrimination are important in explaining White advantage, according to the study, conducted by the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

“It’s sort of like having an accent,” says the study’s co-author, Dr. Doug Hartmann. “For some White Americans, racial identity is so fixed, so taken for granted, that ‘race’ becomes something other people have.”

Of the 74 percent of Whites who said that their racial identity was important to them, close to half (37 percent overall) classified it as “very important,” a finding that stunned the researchers. By comparison, about 72 percent of Black, Hispanic and Asian respondents considered their racial identity “very important.”

“Even though there is a big gap between Whites and those who are not White, 37 percent of Whites saying that their racial identity is important to them is a lot more than you might expect,” says study co-author Dr. Joe Gerteis. “If you read Whiteness literature, then you will see a lot of titles on the invisibility of Whiteness.”

This study, titled “Putting Whiteness Theory to the Test: An Empirical Assessment of Core Theoretical Propositions,” will begin to fill the gap in the literature on Whiteness and White identity. Most scholars are either producing works on White theory or are doing empirical studies on discrimination and their effects, Gerteis says. 

Still though, White theory, which suggests that Whites are less likely than other groups to see the institutional barriers that give them advantages, did pass the empirical test. Respondents in a group of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians were almost twice as likely as Whites (81 percent to 46 percent, respectively) to say that institutions favor Whites. 

The research also found that a White person’s awareness of their race and their awareness of the privileges that come along with belonging to that race are not the same.

“The fact of the matter is that people claim White identity for defensive as well as progressive reasons,” says graduate student Paul Croll, a co-author of the study.

Additionally, the survey found that Republican and male respondents most strongly resist claims that discrimination in legal and financial systems can explain White advantage. Southerners and social conservatives place the most emphasis on their racial identity, while those with more education place less. And age and income have little impact on Whites’ awareness of their racial identity.

The study was part of the American Mosaic Project, a three-year project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation, which looks at race, among other phenomena, in the United States.

— By Ibram Rogers

Reader comments on this story:

There is currently 1 reader comment on this story:

“more detailed discussion of the answers”
This article points to some interesting and important issues for those of us who study race and its impact on U.S. history and culture.  A more detailed discussion of the answers provided and the contemporary, racialized sociopolitical context would help unmask the feelings and motivations that shape the answers participants shared in this study. As an anthropologist, I am an advocate of ethnographic methodologies because of their ability to nuance statistical reports and actually teach us something about race, identity and ideology in the U.S. today.

     Finally, I could not help but notice that the title of the article contradicts the findings of the study.  Participants did not show a keen awareness of white privilege or the advantages they reap as a result – a key finding of critical whiteness studies.  What the study indicates is that, contrary to what some previously thought, their racial categorization is not unimportant to white respondents.  As the article states, this is not the same as being oblivious to white privilege.  White privilege and white blindness to its existence have been well documented in both quantitative and qualitative studies.
-Sabiyha Prince,

American University

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