Managing Privileged Identity Defensiveness.

Whilst we can acknowledge how systemic discrimination is oppressive, it is important to remember that individual privilege is not benign. It is not something that it doesn’t matter that I have – my privilege denies other people access to resources, opportunities and to their own well-being. This denial of access is an act of oppression. It may not be something I actively do with intent, but it remains oppressive.

In the context of systemic or institutionalised privilege, people with privilege are more likely to be in positions of power. People with power tend to use it to benefit other people like them, in part due to affinity bias and, in part, due to prejudicial bias. The exercise of privilege power further reinforces and maintains privilege and oppression.

Privilege is an aspect of exclusion, disadvantage, and oppression that often generates discussions in which those with privilege seek to deny or reject its existence. Indeed, we see this narrative being articulated by politicians, media commentators, and others across the political divide. It seems that, no matter where we look, there are those with privilege who rail against accepting its existence and their role in perpetuating inequity simply be being privileged. Consequently, one of the hurdles we face in disrupting and undoing privilege is the responses of privileged people to discussions about it. So, how do we manage these responses?

White fragility, as one of these responses, has received widespread attention in both the world of EDI and in the public sphere, particularly through Robin DiAngelo’s 2019 book on the subject. Other, less well known, academic research into how the privileged react when their privilege is highlighted to them has identified a range of responses. In 2005, Powell, Branscombe, and Schmitt found that White people responded with both guilt and a reduction in expressions of racist attitudes when discussing their White Privilege. This notion of guilt also appeared in a 2008 study that explored masculine privilege. Schmitt, Miller, Branscombe, and Brehm found that the men in their study articulated feelings of guilt when the benefits of their masculine privilege were highlighted to them.

These expressions of guilt across different domains of privilege have led some to theorise that there are comparable psychological processes and responses to awareness of privilege across privileged identities.  However, and problematically, the research referenced here does not explore how expressions of guilt are, to use the current understanding of the term, ‘performative’, as they are not accompanied by any significant change in behaviour and simply act as a resistance technique by those who are, apparently, feeling guilty. As acts of resistance to equity, expressions of guilt serve only to re-centre the privileged in the discussions and further marginalise the voices of those who are oppressed by the possession of privilege by the privileged.

In 2007, though, in a different study, Branscombe, Schmitt, and Schiffhauer reported a change in findings from the 2005 study referenced above. They found that when White Privilege was discussed, White people exhibited an increased racism in their responses. Also in 2007, Lowery, Knowles, and Unzueta found that White people resisted locating racism in institutions because, for them, admitting to the existence of institutional racism was an acknowledgment that they, as White people, must be directly privileged as a result. Instead, the respondents in their study located racism in individuals, albeit individuals other than themselves. In doing so, they were able to deny the existence of White Privilege, and present a non-racist identity for themselves, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the existence of racism as a social phenomenon.

The research shows that the responses and reactions of privileged people change depending on the context and situation of the exposure of their privilege. The reasons behind these different findings are not clear from the studies, but they do indicate that a ‘one size fits all’ understanding is inadequate. However, despite these fluctuating and varied responses, we do need to have some form of framework with which to both understand and respond to these reactions. These frameworks, albeit not perfect, do exist. In 2007, Sherry Watt developed the Privilege Identity Exploration Model. Watt describes this model as a framework of resistances that arise in difficult discussions about social justice issues with people who hold privilege.

In this model, which has a particular application in organisational contexts, Watt describes three types of intentional discussions about privilege that, in many ways, reflect the stages those privileged by society need to go through to begin to disrupt and undo the effects of their privileged status. Watt describes these discussions as Recognizing Privilege Identity discussions, Contemplating Privileged Identity discussions, and Addressing Privileged Identity discussions. These are discussions that can be used as part of ED&I work that seeks to focus on privilege as a mechanism to create more equitable and inclusive organisations. The objectives of these three types of discussion are outlined below.

  • Recognizing Privilege Identity discussions are designed to present privileged individuals with challenging information about social injustice to begin to raise awareness, highlight the role of privilege in social injustice, and move them into positions of discomfort.
  • Contemplating Privileged Identity discussions are designed to work with the participants to think more deeply about the connections between the privilege they hold and inequality and oppression and begin to develop a sense of responsibility for their role in creating and maintaining inequality.
  • Addressing Privileged Identity discussions are designed to work with privileged people’s sense of discomfort and responsibility and involve them in some form of action to disrupt and undo privilege.

In undertaking and analysing these discussions, Watt identified eight positions of resistance that people adopt across these three different types of discussion. These eight positions are –

  • In Recognizing Privileged Identity Discussions people adopt positions of ‘Denial’, ‘Deflection’, and ‘Rationalisation’
  • In Contemplating Privileged Identity Discussions people adopt positions of ‘Intellectualisation’, ‘Principium’, and ‘False Envy’.
  • In Addressing Privileged Identity Discussionspeople adopt positions of ‘Benevolence’ and ‘Minimalisation’.

The ultimate goal of engaging people in Privilege Identity Exploration discussions is to move them to a place where they accept and acknowledge the reality of their privilege, understand the impact their holding of it has on others, and effect some form of individual and or collaborative action to disrupt and undo the consequences of their privilege. Understanding the most typical reactions of people in these discussions helps us to frame strategic and purposeful responses to combat the resistances that arise and move people further along this journey.

Branscombe, N.R., Schmitt, M.T., Schiffhauer, K. (2007). Racial attitudes in response to thoughts of white privilege. European Journal of Social Psychology 37(2), pp.203-215

DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility. Allen Lane: Penguin Books.

Lowery, B.S., Knowles, E.D., Unzueta, M.M. (2007). Framing Inequity Safely: Whites’ Motivated Perceptions of Racial Privilege. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33(9) pp.1237-1250

Powell, A.A., Branscombe, N.R., Schmitt, M.T. (2005). Inequality as Ingroup Privilege or Outgroup Disadvantage: The Impact of Group Focus on Collective Guilt and Interracial Attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 31(4), pp.508-521.

Schmitt, M.T., Miller, D.A., Branscombe, N.R., Brehm, J.W. (2008). The Difficulty of Making Reparations Affects the Intensity of Collective Guilt. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. 11(3), pp.267-279.

Watt, S.K. (2007). Difficult Dialogues, Privilege and Social Justice: Uses of the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) Model in Student Affairs Practice. The College Student Affairs Journal. 26(2).

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