Can Witnessing Discrimination Lead White People to Take Action?
Incidents of racial discrimination are all too common, but only recently have such incidents been highly publicized and shared widely on social media. Here are some examples:
- At Yale University, a White student called the police, stating that a Black woman she did not know was sleeping in the common room of her dormitory. Actually, the Black woman was one of her neighbors.
- A White employee at Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police when she saw two Black men sitting at a table without ordering anything. The men reported that they were simply waiting for their friend, and witnesses said the men did nothing wrong; still, the police escorted these men out in handcuffs.
- In Central Park, a White woman called the police after a Black birdwatcher just asked her to keep her dog on a leash in the park. She made a second call claiming he tried to assault her.
Being largely unaware of the pervasive discrimination faced by Black people and other minoritized groups in the U.S., White people have had often felt little need to do anything about it. Indeed, only a small proportion of White Americans have protested for racial justice, and those who do take action typically report close ties with people from racial and ethnic minority groups.
But as millions witnessed the brutal killing of George Floyd while in police custody, we have seen more White people taking to the streets than ever before to protest for racial justice. Thanks in part to social media, White people are beginning to recognize everyday racial profiling and the severity of racial discrimination, and as a result, they are becoming more aware of the White privilege they enjoy.
We surveyed nearly 600 White Americans to ask how often they have witnessed an incident of racial discrimination targeting Black people in their day-to-day lives—for example, a Black person being treated differently than other people would be treated at restaurants or stores. We also asked about their awareness of racial privilege and their willingness to take action for racial justice and equality, such as protesting on the streets and attending meetings related to Black Lives Matter protests.
Whites’ reported willingness to take action for racial justice was quite low. But the more frequently White people witnessed racial discrimination, the more willing they said they were to take action against racial injustice—and this effect was largely due to their greater awareness of racial privilege.
In our next study, we focused on White people who described themselves as “allies” in the pursuit of racial justice, and who had previously taken at least some action to promote racial justice. Once again, we found the more frequently White people witnessed racial discrimination targeting Black people, the more they became aware of racial privilege, and this, in turn, predicted their greater willingness to take action against racial injustice.
We next tested experimentally whether exposure to incidents of racial discrimination would lead White Americans to become more aware of racial privilege and more willing to protest for racial justice. Half the participants viewed videos depicting well-publicized incidents of racial discrimination such as described earlier, while the other half viewed only neutral images. Results showed that White participants who viewed the discriminatory incidents reported greater awareness of racial privilege and tended to become more motivated to take action for racial justice.
It thus seems that greater awareness of racial privilege can grow from witnessing incidents of racial discrimination indirectly, such as through videos on social media and news reports, without being personally present at such events. These results offer hope that further steps toward racial justice may be taken as White people become more aware of both racial discrimination and their own racial privilege—and, in turn, become more motivated to take action against racial injustice.
For Further Reading
Case, K. A. (2012). Discovering the privilege of whiteness: White women’s reflections on anti-racist identity and ally behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 68(1), 78–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.2011.01737.x
Tropp, L. R., & Uluğ, Ö. M. (2019). Are White women showing up for racial justice? Intergroup contact, closeness to people targeted by prejudice, and collective action. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 43(3), 335-347. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684319840269
Uluğ, Ö. M., & Tropp, L. R. (2020). Witnessing racial discrimination shapes collective action for racial justice: Enhancing awareness of privilege among advantaged groups. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12731
Özden Melis Uluğ is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.
Linda R. Tropp is a professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.