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Dismissing Whitey: The Voice of the Non-Marginalized in a World Full of Marginalized Groups

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Monday May 23, 2016 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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Social justice is important to me, however, I often get dismissive and sometimes hostile responses to any views I hold that are in contrast to those of marginalized groups. Most of the time I support the goals of these marginalized groups, but they're not all right 100% of the time. Any voiced dissent results in me being called a "bigot," "misogynist," or some other derogatory term. Is it my "privilege" that is blinding me?

In short, I can't give you a direct answer to your question without knowing specific examples of your arguments. But dismissing ideas based on one's race or sex rather than the ideas themselves is both fallacious and a prime example of prejudice. My own views on social issues that I hold as a social psychologist are data-driven, science-based, and sometimes in contrast with many of the statements and claims of groups advocating "social justice". We can take a look at some general guidelines as to when we should speak up or shut up, some of the common biases that all those involved are likely to encounter, and effective ways to contribute to a conversation about a marginalized group when we are not part of that group.

Does Your Opinion Count?

When it comes to social issues, I have seen numerous people discount or even ignore the views of others based solely on race, gender, and other characteristics related to the social issue being discussed—but often this is only after it has been established that the views of the others are not in line with the views of the people doing the discounting, a result of the common cognitive bias known as the confirmation bias, or the tendency to favor information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs (Krieger, 1995). At times, this discounting can be justified. For example, if the discussion is centered on the lived experience of members of a certain group, clearly, those who are not members of that group cannot contribute to the discussion. I can't talk about what it's like to be a Black woman in the year 2016 (or any year for that matter). Most of the time, however, a discussion about a social issue that pertains to a certain group can benefit most when all perspectives are represented and considered.

There should be no question that certain biological and environmental factors give some people advantages in life while making life more difficult for others. This is what is generally referred to as privilege (McIntosh, 2010). Note that privilege in this context refers to the advantage of the general group, not any single individual in the group. So the existence of a White male somewhere who has it really bad is not evidence against White males having a general advantage anymore than a short man is evidence against the fact that men are generally taller than women. This fact should be acknowledged and considered when making judgements about another person or group's situation. As a man, telling women that they shouldn't feel marginalized in the workplace shows both arrogance and ignorance. But suggesting that the reason nobody is hiring your woman friend might be due more to the fact that she never went to college than her being a woman, has nothing to do with any privileged position you might hold in society. Privilege is a factor in some arguments when it comes to social issues, but certainly not all. Making privilege a factor when it is not, is simply an excuse to dismiss an argument without having to consider it.

Self-Interest and Being Objective

Assuming a person's view is not outright rejected based on skin color, the presence or absence of a penis, or if they think Brad Pitt is hot or not, the discounting of their view is usually a result of expected biases that the person might hold given their self-interests. Take me for example. I am a White, heterosexual, cisgender, male who is fairly high up on the socioeconomic scale based on both wealth and education. I am considered among the privileged here in the United States, that is, someone who has not had to face the challenges faced by people of color, gays, transgender individuals, women, the poor, or the uneducated. If you don't know anything else about me besides these superficial characteristics that serve as the foundation of most prejudice, then you expect my views to be influenced by my self-interests. So for example, if a proposed government social service means taxing me more, you might expect for me to be against the program. This is not an unreasonable heuristic, but like all heuristics, it should not be used in place of making a more informed judgement when possible. If you knew me, you would know that social issues are very important to me and by supporting such a program, I feel better about myself knowing that I am helping others. In other words, I believe that self-interest and altruism often go hand in hand.

Facts, Biases, and Perception

A fact is a (virtually) undisputed piece of information that remains a fact regardless of opinion. The sun is roughly 93,000,000 miles away from the earth whether you think it is or not. The fact that I might want it to be closer, or that it looks closer from my perspective, does not change the fact that it's not. The more facts that are known regarding a social issue, the less damage biases can do. Of course, biases can result in which facts are shared, and which are conveniently ignored. This is another reason why all views must be considered. If one side is biased one way and ignore the facts that are detrimental to their position, then we need the other side to present those facts that are being ignored. Only when we have all the available data can we make the most informed decision.

As discussed, outsiders' contributions to discussions affecting a marginalized group are often discounted or ignored due their perceived inability to make a fair and just judgement (i.e., being objective). But this goes both ways. For the same reasons, one cannot expect group members to be objective about social issues facing their own group. In fact, the study of group psychology has revealed that there are many cognitive biases that appear when people band together to form groups. Here are just a few:

Groupthink. Groupthink occurs when individuals who normally would come to reasonable conclusions end up coming to poor conclusions based on flawed group processes and conformity pressures (Janis, 1972). If it is part of a group's culture to consciously or unconsciously denigrate those who offer dissenting opinions, then opinions that might conform better to reality can be held back by those wishing to avoid condemnation by other group members or by those wanting to experience the security that comes with agreement. When it comes to groups formed to address the concerns of a specific marginalized group, there are additional pressures on the non-marginalized members to adopt the positions held by the marginalized members. These pressures result from both fear of being seen as the enemy of the group and guilt of being part of the non-marginalized or privileged group (George, 1997).

Group Polarization. It is commonly found that groups make even more extreme decisions toward the general norm then predicted by the views of each of the members separately (Myers & Lamm, 1976). This is due to both cognitive and affective factors, that is, factors that result from thoughts and feelings. On the cognitive side, the more members hear arguments and data that support one side, the more strongly they are likely to support that side. In addition, one way members can effectively differentiate themselves from non-members is by adopting more extreme positions. On the affective side, group members build what they feel is a positive social identity by being "good group members" who exemplify the group's ideals. Almost always, these extreme views are deviations from reality rather than moves closer to it.

Memory Biases. When groups believe they are marginalized, these beliefs are maintained and exacerbated because information that confirms our beliefs is better remembered than information that disconfirms them (Fyock & Stangor, 1994). In extreme cases, this could explain why White supremacy groups really do believe they are the victims. In less extreme and more common cases, this results in people of marginalized groups vividly remembering the acts of discrimination against them, and forgetting the times when no such discrimination occurred. This leads to a highly-skewed perception of reality that, within a like-minded group who are all likely to experience the same memory biases, are not reminded of the behaviors that didn't demonstrate such discrimination.

There are many advantages to forming groups of like-minded individuals, but actions such as limiting interaction with non-members, discouraging debate or discussion, and responding to dissenting views with hostility and personal insults are more characteristic of a cult than a social justice movement. Your voice is important, no matter what color your skin, what's inside you pants, or who's naked body turns you on. Speak up or shut up, the choice is yours. Do your best to see the argument from the other's point of view. But no matter how diplomatic you might be, be prepared to accept some wrath if offering a non-conforming view.

Fyock, J., & Stangor, C. (1994). The role of memory biases in stereotype maintenance. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(3), 331–343.
George, A. L. (1997). From groupthink to contextual analysis of policy-making groups. Beyond Groupthink: Political Group Dynamics and Foreign Policy-Making, 35.
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.
Krieger, L. H. (1995). The content of our categories: A cognitive bias approach to discrimination and equal employment opportunity. Stanford Law Review, 1161–1248.
McIntosh, P. (2010). White privilege and male privilege. The Teacher in American Society: A Critical Anthology, 121.
Myers, D. G., & Lamm, H. (1976). The group polarization phenomenon. Psychological Bulletin, 83(4), 602.

Podcast Episode: Dismissing Whitey: The Voice of the Non-Marginalized in a World Full of Marginalized Groups

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