Social Psychologist Brian Lowery on Privilege

Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons (photography); Getty Images (illustrations)

A social psychologist by training, Brian Lowery, professor of organizational behavior and senior associate dean of academic affairs at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, explores the psychology of privilege. His work focuses on unconscious attitudes toward race and perceptions of inequality—in particular, the ways that white people often see advantage and disadvantage as unrelated; that they believe in a just society while inadvertently worsening existing inequality; and that, shown evidence of their privilege, they are likely to describe having experienced a large number of hardships.

On June 12, during the George Floyd protests, Lowery published an article in the Washington Post in response to texts and emails from white friends asking whether he was OK. “I appreciate the concern,” he writes, “and I want everyone to know I’m fine. Well, I’m as fine as I’ve been since 1982. That’s when, after my family moved to a new neighborhood in Chicago, a group of white kids tried to blow up our car by sticking a rag in the gas tank and lighting it on fire.” He describes the racism he has experienced: harassment from white people; an unjustified arrest as a teenager; and someone calling the police to investigate his presence during a PhD recruitment visit to Stanford, which resulted in his decision to pursue graduate studies at UCLA. He then responds to his white friends with a question of his own—whether they are OK witnessing racial violence—and writes, “The forces that created the monsters so many now decry also help to generate white privileges.”

In conversation with Stanford, Lowery discusses his research on privilege and his perceptions of the George Floyd protests.

Profile photo of Brian LoweryBrian Lowery (Photo: Nancy Rothstein) 


STANFORD: When did you first begin thinking about privilege? 

Lowery: As a kid, I moved around a lot and went to a lot of different schools. My mom was a schoolteacher in Chicago, so I went to some schools that were all Black and that were not well resourced, and I went to some schools that were mostly white that had a lot more resources. That disparity was striking to me as a kid. My mom taught in public schools and, at one point, I remember having the experience of seeing some young kids in one of those schools and thinking that their lives were likely not going to be what they could have been because of circumstances outside their control. Ever since, I’ve had a long-standing interest in how that happened.

How have you explored that interest?

At some point, I became interested in what it feels like to be a white man or to be a person of privilege—just trying to understand what that experience would be. I had already been interested in the way society is organized. There are so many angles you can take, and most of them focus on prejudice and discrimination against people who don’t have a lot of opportunity, mostly focused on Black people. But there was much less research—and there’s still much less research—on the experience of people who have advantages and privileges in the context of race as white people. I just found that interesting in the sense that the system we participate in, in this society, is something that affects all of us. We all have to engage with it for it to work and function, and it seemed strange that there was such a paucity of research on people in high-status positions—not as perpetrators of racism or discrimination but as participants in a system in which they benefit—and on the psychology associated with that.

What have you found from your studies on privilege?  

One is that people separate advantage and disadvantage even when the two are logically the mirrors of each other. You can’t have one without the other. But people still psychologically treat them as different things. Imagine two people interview for a job. One is Black, and one is white, and I tell you that the Black person was discriminated against; I might as well have told you that the white person was advantaged. Those are the same thing in that situation. But, psychologically, people treat them as separate. People acknowledge that the person was discriminated against but think it has nothing to do with the white person getting the job. People separate those things even when one clearly can’t occur without the other. They’re different ways of describing the same thing. But people treat them differently. I have a number of studies showing that in different ways. And there are consequences to that. For example, it allows you to see a situation, acknowledge there’s racial inequity, acknowledge that a policy might reduce that inequity, but feel like that policy is fundamentally unjust if it takes away the white person’s advantage, because you think of disadvantage and advantage as separate things. So, you could say, “Yeah, there’s a disadvantage and that’s wrong, but why should I as a white person or man, or whatever the dominant privileged position is, be punished because they’re discriminated against?” The separation of advantage and disadvantage influences how people understand attempts to create equity and justice.

‘It’s psychologically uncomfortable in a society that lionizes merit to feel you’ve gotten something you didn’t deserve.’

How do you change that perception?

Part of what you have to do is try to get people to see that they’re advantaged and then take away opportunities to deny the advantage exists or to distance themselves from that advantage. One thing white people do when you tell them they are privileged is they say, “Oh, I had all these hardships,” which, to be clear, are legitimate hardships. It’s just that hardships don’t negate privilege. So, if I say I had this horrific thing that happened to me, it actually was terrible. But the point would be that if you were Black, it would be even more horrific because you might not have the same advantages. It’s not that your life is easy all the time. That’s not the claim. The claim is that you benefit from your group membership in some way. People try to deny that happens. And then if they accept that as a group, for example, whites benefit from advantage, the other thing people will do is remove themselves from that and say, “Yeah, but I haven’t personally benefited.” And this is because it’s psychologically uncomfortable in a society that lionizes merit to feel you’ve gotten something you didn’t deserve.

If you look at what’s happening now with the protests and the number of white people who are turning out in white neighborhoods in America, is it representative of a deeper understanding of their privilege and their obligation to take action?

There have been videos of Black people getting killed before. Maybe the George Floyd video is a bit more stark, but there have been many instances of this on social media for the past five or 10 years. So, it’s interesting that people are really moved by the most recent round of social media posts about police brutality and that the engagement has been so broad. I don’t know for sure, but I’m assuming it’s tied in some ways to COVID and maybe to people being shut in. There’s no getting up and going to work. There’s no getting the kids ready for school that takes up our energy or distracts us from these things that aren’t part of our daily lives. My guess is that’s part of it, because the reality is nothing new has happened.

A lot of people believe in the idea of a fair society and that America should allow everybody the same opportunities. Do you think there’s a sense of outrage among young people who are increasingly realizing that the United States isn’t living up to those ideals?

I guess it’s possible. I’m often the wrong person to ask about these things even though I study them, because, from my perspective, I don’t know how the fiction of everyone having the same chance ever persisted. For example, most parents believe it’s their job to give their kids all the advantages they can. Once you do that, it’s hard to understand how anybody would believe that everyone has a fair shot because we know that parents have different means and different abilities to provide opportunities for kids. The kids haven’t done anything.

So, is this moment just because people have time on their hands? A lot of young white people appear to genuinely want the elimination of social inequity. What makes a privileged group of people suddenly become sensitive to what’s been a very obvious inequity?

This has been going on for a long time. First, it was the people in the ’60s and “We’re going to change it,” and then it was in the ’90s and “We have to change.” I think young people are more likely to see inequity because they have less motivation not to see it. By that, I mean that as you get older, the benefits of privilege become a bigger part of your life. The more those benefits affect your life, the harder it is to give them up. It’s your turn to give to your kid as you try to pay your rent or your mortgage. If people are talking about redistributing resources, you can have a very different response than if you’re a high school kid who doesn’t really have much awareness of what it means to take care of yourself or put a kid through school. But it’s also the case that when there’s enough pressure, when the system comes under a lot of stress, even people who want to maintain it will see the need for adjustment. If you benefit from the system, instability is terrible. It could be, though, that there’s something particular about this generation. I’m just not particularly optimistic. People have made those kinds of claims many times.

‘I sometimes worry a little bit about the language of allies, because I worry that engagement and social justice become seen as an act of charity as opposed to a moral obligation and responsibility.’

Do you think that the protests will be followed by retrenchment?

I think there will almost certainly be some retrenchment. A lot of people are genuinely unhappy with the system and will continue to push toward change until there’s a big push back. That’s my guess. Other people will try to get back to the status quo, but it will look different. The way it’ll be manifest will be different. It’ll be more complex and much more sophisticated. So, for example, right now, schools are about as segregated as they’ve been since the 1950s. How they’ve done that is not through legal segregation but a different way now. The people who want to maintain the status quo will see they can’t do it [the old way], so it mutates. It becomes more sophisticated. And for the people who don’t like the status quo, their tactics will have to change.

For white people who feel that there’s no harm to them—that society is fair, there’s no moral obligation—how do you talk to them? What argument do you use to make them care?

I don’t know how you say that to people so that they would hear it, but what I generally believe is that to the extent that there’s corruption in the society, the corruption touches everyone in that society. I can understand a person saying, “I can’t solve every problem,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. Not caring about it is not the way most people want to see themselves. The issue is getting people to see that it does touch them. Everyone is involved. Everyone is implicated. You can’t live in an unjust system and not be affected. Sometimes I worry that people think that if you are a white person supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, you’re doing something for someone else and not recognizing that you have skin in the game. I sometimes worry a little bit about the language of allies, because I worry that engagement and social justice become seen as an act of charity as opposed to a moral obligation and responsibility. The communities that feel the brunt of the inequity, like most Black folks or women or LGBTQI, don’t want to be overrun by people who are going to come in and save them. I think that’s a legitimate concern. I would want to make sure that people don’t lose sight of the fact that they should be doing something for themselves. I think it’s great when you see all-white communities and there’s a Black Lives Matter movement there, and the people are trying to engage with other people in their own community. They’d be doing it for the people in that community as much as for a Black person. I of course care deeply about the safety of people that look like me and my family, and I’m appreciative when people are out there fighting for what should be everyone’s basic right for safety and an opportunity. But given what I study, I want people to see that they have something morally at stake as well.

As you mentioned, privileged white people often describe their hardships. The white people I know who get angry about social justice movements say that they’ve earned what they have and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They deny having had privileges. Is there any way in your research that you’ve seen to break down that narrative?

You’re right that a lot of people will try to deny that. I think some of what we try to highlight is that people make the wrong comparisons. What they’re saying is “I had a hard time relative to what my life could have been,” but they don’t see that the question is really, “Do you think, given the same hardships, if you were Black or if you were a woman or an LGBTQI person, you would have been better or worse off?” The reality is that privilege might have its biggest positive effect in the context of hardships. I think that people have a hard time understanding that the claim is not that being part of the dominant group means your life is uniformly easy. Nobody’s saying that you haven’t suffered or haven’t worked hard. I’m happy to acknowledge that all kinds of people have succeeded, and that is a combination of some degree of luck of birth and obviously hard work and skill, so it’s not a denial of people’s personal contribution to the success. It’s just a recognition that that’s not all there is.

I suppose it’s also the idea that privilege matters most in those moments of hardship when the world’s going to break you, and that extra privilege might be the thing that keeps it from breaking you.

Right, when you’re a kid and you do something stupid and get picked up by the police, that’s when race matters a lot. Or if you were involved in drugs, that’s when privilege is going to show up. It’s not going to make things easy, but you can imagine what the difference would be for a young Black kid and a young white kid who made the same mistake. 


Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.