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Does White identity predict positive or negative attitudes towards diversity?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | March 6, 2012

In recent years, research on White identity has gained traction in the psychological literature, as researchers and clinicians have grown to realize that this group also struggles with questions such as, “what does it mean to be White in my culture,” and “what does being White mean to me?”

One of the most interesting– and important- questions relevant to White identity has to do with its relationship to intergroup atttitudes. Research looking into this question is all over the map, with some findings suggesting a positive link (that is, greater identification leading to more positive intergroup attitudes), other findings suggesting a negative link, and still others finding suggesting no link at all.

When science stumbles on these kinds of inconsistent, “all over the map” relationships, it usually means that there is another factor playing a role that researchers have not yet accounted for. For example, ethnic identity among minority students has sometimes been linked to better academic outcomes, and sometimes linked to worse academic outcomes. My own research (Mendoza-Denton, Pietrzak, and Downey, 2008) has found that whether students worry that they may be discriminated against in their schooling context determines whether their ethnic identity serves as a strength or a risk factor.

My colleagues Matt Goren and Victoria Plaut at UC Berkeley have tackled the confusing relationship between White identity and intergroup attitudes in a 2011 paper published in the journal Self and Identity. Goren and Plaut recognized that White identity is not a unitary phenomenon; rather, that it can take different forms. The researchers discovered that although some Whites were indeed weakly identified, those who identified strongly fell into two primary groups. One group very much identified with being White, but in a way that allowed them to recognize White privilege (see this interesting post by fellow PT blogger Mikhail Lyubansky on the matter). The researchers called this group the the power cognizant group. The other group also identified with being White, but described their experience much more in terms of how proud they were to be a part of the group. This group the researchers termed the prideful group.

Once the researchers divided the highly identified Whites into these two groups, the picture rapidly came into focus. Even though these two groups had similar levels of White identification, the power-cognizant group held significantly more positive attitudes towards diversity, as measured with items such as “universities should foster environments where differences are valued,” and “a university education should expose students to the important differences in ideas and vaues that exist in the world.” The prideful group, by contrast, did not endorse these items as strongly, and showed a greater tendency towards prejudice than the power-cognizant group. The key here is that if one were not to distinguish between these two groups, the research would have found no relationship at all between White identification and attitudes towards diversity!

There are two take home points here: the first is that our scientific conclusions are limited by the types of questions we ask, so that few, if any, scientific findings are really the last word on a given topic. The second is more subtle, and extremely important for positive intergroup relations. Just because someone has a strong ethnic identity, we cannot make direct conclusions about their attitudes on other topics. This applies not just to Whites, but to members of other groups as well.

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Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Does White identity predict positive or negative attitudes towards diversity?

  1. In the humanities the white male is used as the out-group in order to create a stronger in-group for whoever identifies as other than being a white male (white males are less than ten percent of the global population). I think this is a dangerous method, because while in-groups improve self-esteem and happiness, excluding white males from positive narratives only creates space for extreme in-groups to form around people who identify as white men.

    The best solution would be to allow white men to also form positive in-groups, and enforce an ideology of everyone being allowed to have their own positive narrative. Otherwise I think white men will be drawn into extreme groups. White males should not be exclusively pushed into a negative role in academia, it has trouble written all over it.

  2. The increasingly evolving tragic fact of life in America was reported in the NYTimes today:

    “Hate Groups on Rise”

    The number of hate groups operating in the United States continues to rise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked such groups for 30 years. Fed by dislike of President Obama, changing racial demographics, and the growing gap between rich and poor, the number of hate groups and antigovernment organizations grew to 1,018 last year. Antigay groups grew especially quickly, to 27 from 17 in 2010. Antigovernment and militia groups also grew quickly. The center found 1,274 of such groups, up from 824 last year. “They represent both a kind of right-wing populist rage and a left-wing populist rage that has gotten all mixed up in anger toward the government,” said the director of the center.

    The New York Times
    March 8, 2012

    What is accelerating social instability and making it out of control is the fact that our politicians have completely failed morally, as proven daily by the 2012 presidential debates and campaigns.

    Worst of all, the attacks against quality of life for children and families, and women’s rights are accelerating due to greed more than ever before.

    History proves that we are in the decline if not the fall phase. But no leaders in our political, intellectual, religious and economic establishments are making the right things happen to prevent failure of our civilization any better than in the past.

    That’s why it is imperative for women to make the right things happen more than ever before, starting with taking over political leadership in 2012.

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