White identity is a potent force in American politics with wide-ranging consequences that are increasingly difficult to ignore. Former President Trump came to power, after all, by using subtle — and not so subtle — language to appeal to millions of white Americans worried that their power and influence in American society are on the decline.
His strategy of white identity politics has continued to work. Not only did Trump campaign on this message in 2016 and win, but after he lost the 2020 election, some of his supporters were so taken by his message that they stormed the U.S. Capitol in defense of white power and white supremacy. While white identity politics have a long, sordid history in the U.S. that predates Trump, we can see how his strategy has taken root in states across the country. Today, Republican lawmakers across the country are working to implement antidemocratic and illiberal policies that threaten to undermine a multiracial democracy all while protecting the power and status of white people.
Understanding the grievances and fear fueling white identity politics on the political right is paramount to our politics. But “whiteness” isn’t something that only animates the politics of white conservatives. Whiteness is central to white liberals’ political identity, too, especially as white Americans must navigate a social and political world in which whiteness is often and explicitly tied to racial injustice — an uncomfortable association for both white conservatives and white liberals.
For years, we have sought to understand how whiteness and perceived threats to it (in social science lingo, “social identity threats”) affect white Americans’ perceptions of their standing in society. Specifically, we have been interested in capturing white Americans’ sense of how their racial identity is viewed by others, especially in light of increased discussions where white Americans are seen as both the perpetrators of racial inequality and the beneficiaries of white privilege.
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To do this, we asked white Americans in our research to list the characteristics, traits or behaviors that they think other people associate with white people. Participants came up with a variety of responses, including positive stereotypes like “hard working” and negative ones like “arrogant.”1 They then rated those characteristics, describing most of them as either extremely positive or extremely negative. But whether white Americans believed others thought of whiteness positively or negatively varied a lot by ideology — white liberals were more likely than white conservatives to list negative stereotypes.
There were also important themes in the kinds of stereotypes listed. The most consistent included stereotypes that linked whiteness to racism and bigotry like “biased” and “the KKK,” and stereotypes that linked whiteness to privilege, like “wealthy” and “entitled.” Not all of the traits respondents listed mapped neatly as “racist” or “privileged,” but almost two-thirds of participants listed at least one trait that could be categorized as such. In sum, white people, both liberals and conservatives, think of their racial identity as having both positive and negative connotations. The difference then is in how they think other people perceive whiteness, and how they, in turn, handle situations in which their racial identity is called into question, especially when it is uncomfortable, e.g. suggesting whiteness may confer privilege or harbor racism.
A wealth of research on this topic has shown that the discomfort of being associated with either racism or privilege can lead white people to adopt a variety of defensive beliefs and attitudes. In fact, studies found that concerns about being seen as racist lead many white people to avoid situations where they may say or do anything that could be construed as racist, including having conversations with Black people. Psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio call this “aversive racism,” or a form of racial discrimination rooted in avoidance. They find this practice more common among white liberals, who tend to be more motivated to protect their self-image as egalitarian.
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And when white Americans feel that their whiteness is negatively associated with privilege, research demonstrates that how they react is particularly complex. As psychologist Eric Knowles and colleagues write, there are at least three possible ways that white Americans react to associations between whiteness and privilege: 1) They can deny inequality exists; 2) they can distance themselves from their whiteness; or 3) they can work to dismantle the systems that sustain white privilege in the first place (although this strategy, the authors note, is likely the least preferred strategy for most white Americans).
In one of many studies illustrating how people may deny being the beneficiaries of privilege, scholars L. Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery find that after being reminded of their racial advantages, white Americans are more likely to try and distance themselves from any racial privilege they may have benefitted from and instead describe their life story in terms of personal and economic disadvantage. Phillips and Lowery find that these narratives help white people protect their self-image and avoid discomfort without having to deny inequalities in ways that may betray their values or relinquish privileges they may prefer to obliviously enjoy.
Understanding how white Americans react to perceptions of their whiteness can help us make sense of behavior across the ideological spectrum. For instance, one reason why white people on the political right may be so opposed to The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which emphasizes the role that slavery played in structuring many aspects of American society, is because the project inherently implicates whiteness. This, in turn, reminds white Americans of negative associations that are attached to white identity, namely the relationship between whiteness and racism. And because white conservatives may be more likely to believe that critiques of whiteness are baseless, relative to their white liberal counterparts, they may show greater feelings of anger and backlash to associations they see as unfair.
On the other hand, white liberals often feel motivated to act in racially egalitarian ways to distance themselves from these same negative stereotypes of whiteness. The thinking may go something along the lines of, “Those white people are ‘bad,’ but I want to see myself as a good person.” However, committing to antiracist action is not a straightforward solution, as it is not always effective at staving off the negative emotions that come with acknowledging a legacy of racism. Moreover, this strategy can fall short in actually addressing racial inequality, as it does not alway prioritize the practical needs of people of color over the emotional and psychological needs of white antiracists.
So, what’s the bottom line? White identity is an important part of our politics, particularly in shaping both white conservatives’ and white liberals’ beliefs. And as conversations around white identity center more on the privilege and inequality that whiteness can engender, it’s likely we’ll see more concerns among white Americans that their identity may be threatened and socially devalued. But a key insight from decades of social science research is that people have a variety of strategies they can use to cope with threats to their identity, and some of those strategies serve to maintain the status quo while others challenge them. Which path white Americans take then may not simply boil down to whether they are conservative or liberal, but may depend on how they think others perceive their whiteness in a particular moment.
This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation; the views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.