The face of social justice campaigns is changing, or at least it is hoped to change, for some activists at the University of Michigan.
In a recent study published in the PLOS One journal, it was discovered that the phrase “white privilege” just isn’t performing as well as other ones, such as “racial inequality.” According to the study, specifically targeting whites in the phrasing led to a drop of 26 points in those who said they support the statement.
The research found that using that phrase made discussions about race “less constructive, more polarized, and less supporting over racially progressive policies,” by creating a defensive mindset of us-versus-them. The term “racial inequality” was found to be far more likely to “create a sense of shared purpose,” according to the study’s authors at the University of Michigan.
The study was conducted among 1,000 people, and approximately 82 percent of those interviewed were white. Speaking about the results, the lead author of the study, Christopher Quarles was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying “mentioning white privilege was enough to flip white support for renaming college buildings from primarily supportive to primarily opposing.”
Quarles still supported the idea of “social justice,” but felt that changing the language was important in order to create a broader consensus that could implement meaningful change:
“There are very real racial inequities in society today. Choosing language that promotes constructive conversation will not solve those problems. But it is an important step toward collectively understanding their dimensions and working together towards a solution,” he said.
The phrase “white privilege” has existed in liberal circles since the 1980s, but most of the American mainstream only became familiar with the phrase in the last decade, as “woke” activism heightened racial tensions. It is associated with the idea that white people allegedly have unearned benefits and privileges in society over non-whites and generally serves to undermine the role of personal agency and effort in individual success.
The loaded term has been increasingly questioned in the United Kingdom as well when a report conducted by a committee in Parliament stated that teaching the phrase in schools was “divisive” and created antagonism between students. The term is now possibly in violation of the Equality Act in the UK, a parliamentary education committee noted.
The Education Secretary of the United Kingdom, Nadhim Zahawi also reported in 2021 to the British cabinet that schools should not be teaching students that “white privilege” is a fact, but rather he considered it a “contested view,” that creates “partisan” politics in schoolchildren.
Zahawi also mentioned that white working-class students have been neglected for “decades” by the education system, and partially blamed the phrase and its mindset for that state of affairs.
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