A White person may benefit from fighting White privilege, because if she accepts the existence of White privilege, she will develop a healthier self-esteem.
High self-esteem is not always healthy self-esteem.
High self-esteem is not the same thing as healthy self-esteem, according to psychology research from the University of Georgia. Those with “fragile” high self-esteem are more likely to be verbally defensive compared to those with “secure” high self-esteem.
According to the news release, people with fragile high self-esteem:
- compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth
- are verbally defensive; they lash out at others when their opinions, beliefs, statements or values are threatened
- feel that potential threats are more threatening and work harder to counteract these threats
This behaviour differs from individuals with “secure” high self-esteem:
On the other hand, individuals with secure high self-esteem appear to accept themselves “warts and all,” and, feeling less threatened, they are less likely to be defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when they speak about past transgressions or threatening experiences.
One reason the study’s findings are important, Kernis said, is that it shows that greater verbal defensiveness relates to lower psychological well-being and life satisfaction.
What does this have to do with Whites and White privilege?
Defensive Whites have a fragile high racial self-esteem.
The study is not about race, but the idea of distinguishing between “secure” high self-esteem and “fragile” high self-esteem can be applied to Whites’ view of themselves. Whites with secure high racial self-esteem can accept themselves “warts and all” and can accept that society confers privilege on them due to their skin colour, while Whites with fragile high racial self-esteem will “lash out” at the mere possibility that our society is not a meritocracy.
A person with fragile high self-esteem has a superficial sense of confidence, but when his self-perception is challenged by reality, he suffers from cognitive dissonance and anxiety. Whites with fragile high racial self-esteem have uncritically bought into the (implicit) culture of White supremacy due to our history books and entertainment media that focus on White achievement and White heroes. Because of this, any evidence that challenges this world view becomes a psychological threat.
For example, if a black person is admitted to an Ivy League university, the fragile White will defend his feelings of self-worth by believing that the black person was admitted because of Affirmative Action. If a black person speaks eloquently, the fragile White will manage her cognitive dissonance by not thinking of him as “black”, and may even state outright, “I don’t think of you as black.” If a black person is more perceptive than the average White person in recognizing racism, the fragile White will blame the black person and lash out verbally by calling her “oversensitive”. If the topic of racism is broached, the fragile White will accuse the topic broacher of playing the “race card” or of “overreacting”, mention that his family never owned any slaves, try to explain away a controversy as a desire to adhere to “political correctness”, mention that minorities can be racist against Whites, or mention that his best friend or spouse is black. If a person of colour says that Band-Aids were designed for Whites in terms of colour, the fragile White will concoct exaggerated rationalizations and say, “the lightness in colour allows us to see cleanliness and hence the sterility of the bandage”, or refute a ridiculous straw man by responding, “my little brother has spiderman band-aids, does that mean that the band-aids were created for spiderman?”
Whites who behave in this manner in discussions about racism or White privilege have fragile high racial self-esteem. Their racial self-esteem is “high” because they stick steadfastly to their opinions despite evidence to the contrary, but their racial self-esteem is “fragile” because they exhibit verbal defensiveness and insecure behaviour.
Defensive Whites have fragile high racial self-esteem, but how does fighting White Privilege give a White person secure high racial self-esteem?
A White person who accepts that she is privileged develops a more secure high racial self-esteem.
A White person who accepts the existence of White privilege and recognizes it as a part of his personal existence will no longer feel threatened when confronted with evidence* for it. She will not suffer from anxiety when the topic of “race” is brought up, and she will not try to ignore the issue by claiming that she is “colorblind”. He will not waste his energy denying that systemic racism exists, and instead will use that energy to explore the complex relationship between himself and the world in which he is embedded.
In other words, when a White person accepts and owns White privilege, she builds secure high racial self-esteem through developing a deeper understanding of herself and her place in the world.
Acceptance of the existence of White privilege is not the same as fighting White privilege, but it is the first step.
* There is ample empirical evidence in support of White Privilege, from subconscious employment discrimination against job applicants with black-sounding names; to housing discrimination against Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific-Islanders, and Native Americans; to being pulled over for driving while black. These are just the popularized studies. There is a wealth of psychology and sociology literature on bias, stereotyping, and discrimination that are both too pedantic for the general public and unfairly hidden from the general public behind expensive journal subscription walls.
- Why Should White People Fight Racism? by Carmen Van Kerckhove
- How to Suppress Discussions of Racism by coffeeandink
- Sixteen Maneuvers to Avoid Really Dealing with Racism by Holly at Feministe
- give good audio-visual comments at Stuff White People Do – While grinding away responding to the same old thought processes denying White privilege by a commenter, I was asked by the site’s author about why Whites would want to give up White privilege. This post is an attempt to address that question.
- The other side at resist racism – bell hooks, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem
Update 20/05/2008: Changed to “high racial self-esteem” because of Macon D’s suggestion; added resist racism link.