Study: Teaching liberals about white privilege reveals 'startling' blind spot

Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives react after learning about "white privilege".

  • Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives viewed poor people after learning about "white privilege".
  • Conservatives didn't show much sympathy for poor people regardless of race.
  • Liberals seemed to blame poor white people for their problems.

Is there a blind spot in the sympathies of liberals? A recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, looked at what happened when "social liberals" were educated about "white privilege". While they did become more aware of the benefits being white might afford in society, the liberal-minded also exhibited less sympathy for poor white people.

Polls show that liberals are generally more focused on race and racism as being a bigger social problem than conservatives. To gauge whether other issues like the poverty of whites is perceived as less important, the team of researchers carried out two studies.

The participants included 650 liberals and conservatives from all over the U.S. for an online study. 68.8% of the subjects were white and 16% were black.

The researchers randomly split the participants into two cohorts. One was read about white privilege and was asked to identify some examples of privileges enjoyed by white people in the U.S. For example, "White people are never asked to speak for all people of their racial group". The other group received no such instruction.

Participants were then read passages about a poor white man or a poor Black man. He was identified by name (Kevin), his location (NYC), and the facts that he was raised by a single mom and lived in poverty all his life. Now he was supposedly on welfare. The only difference in the biographical information was whether he was black or white.

What the scientists found was that liberals who learned about white privilege were more sympathetic to Kevin if he was described as being Black (rather than white). Conservatives, on the other hand, were found to express low levels of sympathy for poor people, no matter what race they were. It also didn't matter to them if they read about white privilege prior to that.

In a finding that the study's author and psychology professor Erin Cooley of Colgate University called "startling" in her article for Vice, being educated in white privilege didn't grow the sympathy for poor black people among the liberals. Rather they blamed poor white people for their poverty, as if they could have done better considering all the privileges they supposedly received because of their race.

Professor Cooley, who describes herself as a liberal, thinks the assumptions behind such thinking leaves the poor white people neglected because they are "violating stereotypes of their race (i.e., that white people are wealthy)" and this "may present its own complexities to how white people feel subjectively and how they are treated when they are poor."

Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story

Cooley points out that despite the fact that their studies highlight the complexities among how Americans of all persuasions feel about race and class, teaching about white privilege is extremely important. According to the professor, such information highlights persistent societal racism like police brutality. It is also important, says Cooley, to take a more "intersectional lens" towards talking about privilege. Privilege can come from numerous factors – class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation etc. As such, "most of us have experienced both privilege and marginalization at some point," she points out.

You can read the study, very descriptively titled "Complex Intersections of Race and Class: Among Social Liberals, Learning About White Privilege Reduces Sympathy, Increases Blame, and Decreases External Attributions for White People Struggling With Poverty," here.

The research was carried out by the psychologists Erin Cooley and William Cipolli III of Colgate University, as well as Ryan F. Lei from New York University, and Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi of the University of Kentucky.

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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