White men who have experienced disadvantages in the workplace – particularly when associated with a social identity, such as being gay or having a disability – are more likely to recognize disadvantages faced by others and to understand the privilege they enjoy as white, according to new Cornell research.
“It’s important to understand the factors that lead to privilege recognition on the part of members of advantaged social groups,” said Sean Fath, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School and co-author of “Self-Views of Disadvantage and Success Impact Perceptions of Privilege Among White Men,” which was published Jan. 22 in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“Looking specifically at white men – a uniquely advantaged group in the U.S. and in the West more broadly – we find that those white men who have experienced disadvantage in life, and especially social category-based disadvantage such as being a person with a disability, become more empathetic toward the disadvantages that other social groups face and consequently more aware of their own racial privileges,” Fath said.
Co-authors of the paper are Anyi Ma of Tulane University's Freeman School of Business, and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
“Recent polling suggests that a majority of white Americans believe whites are discriminated against, rather than privileged, and similar trends can be observed in Europe,” the researchers wrote. “Clearly, there remains an urgent need to study the conditions that facilitate the perception of white privilege among advantaged groups like white men.”
Research findings were gathered from 10 studies, each conducted in a workplace context, involving a total of 5,124 white men from the United States and the United Kingdom who were recruited for the experiments either through online survey platforms or in-person on a university campus.
In some of the experiments, participants were randomly assigned to reflect on either experiences of disadvantage they had or a neutral topic like a trip to the grocery store. Those who were assigned to reflect on experiences of disadvantage rather than a neutral topic were more likely to subsequently agree that whites are inherently privileged by their race in work settings.
In other studies, participants revealed whether they had experienced disadvantage at work along lines of up to five different social categories: sexual orientation, religion, age, socioeconomic status and disability. Those who indicated they had experienced disadvantage along at least one social category agreed that white people experience racial privilege in work settings to a greater degree than those who indicated they had not experienced disadvantage along any of the categories listed.
“This is exciting to us, because we also find that sizable proportions of white men report experience of social category-based disadvantage,” Fath said. “We hope this research will help to inform the ways that these types of experiences can be leveraged to increase privilege recognition by members of advantaged groups.”
Mary Catt is communications director at the ILR School.