Arguing online? Mentioning ‘white privilege’ can make things much worse

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The next time you find yourself in a debate online, avoid using the term “white privilege.” Researchers at the University of Michigan say doing so will almost certainly lead to a more hostile conversation. Study authors report mentioning the term can create internet discussions that are less constructive, more polarized, and less supportive of racially progressive policies in general.

According to lead study author Christopher Quarles, a doctoral student at the UM School of Information, it’s more important than ever to ensure cross-cultural online communications are both effective and inclusive. Let’s face it, polarization and arguments online are becoming increasingly more common. Additionally, the subjects of race and racism in the United States remain at the forefront of the news cycle.

In this study, Quarles and co-author Lia Bozarth, also a School of Information doctoral student, investigated how the language and words we choose to use during online conversations ultimately impact who participates in those debates and how they unfold.

More specifically, the team focused on the term “white privilege.” While it’s now a common phrase in recent years, the origins of the white privilege saying trace back to the 1980s. Researchers made no attempt to analyze the validity of white privilege as a concept, nor did they set out to determine if Caucasians really think they have advantages due to their race. The sole goal of this study was to analyze what happens when one side of an online debate decides to use the “white privilege” term.

The right phrasing makes all the difference

Across two lab experiments, close to 1,000 U.S. subjects (82% Caucasian) had an opportunity to respond to an online post requesting opinions about renaming various old college buildings. When the initial post shown to subjects included the term “white privilege” in the question, far fewer white participants were willing to say they supported renaming the buildings.

Moreover, even Caucasian participants who remained in support of renaming the buildings after the mention of white privilege were still less likely to create an online post. Meanwhile, Caucasian and non-Caucasian subjects opposed to renaming the buildings showed no significant difference. Using the term white privilege also fostered more low-quality posts among both Caucasians and non-Caucasians, according to Quarles.

Researchers conclude that the relationship between the question’s language and the content of subsequent responses was mediated by either support or opposition to renaming the old buildings. This indicates, researchers say, that using the term white privilege doesn’t necessarily make people think differently, but it does evoke an emotional reaction that changes responses.

Study authors suggest using more inclusive terms when discussing race online, such as “racial inequality.” These less-polarizing terms help create a sense of shared purpose. Additionally, policymakers looking to promote racial equity should carefully consider how other will perceive their language and words. The right phrase can unite, but the wrong may incite even more polarization.

“There are very real racial inequities in society today. Choosing language that promotes constructive conversation will not solve those problems,” Quarles concludes in a university release. “But it is an important step toward collectively understanding their dimensions and working together towards a solution.”

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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