Teaching about White Privilege in Psychological Research
Sally L. Grapin, Montclair State University
Psychological research has long been a vehicle for propagating racial oppression and privilege. In research contexts, white privilege refers to unearned advantages afforded to white scholars and communities via interpersonal and structural racism in academic research (Grapin & Fallon, 2022; adapted from Sue’s  seminal definition of white privilege). For example, white scholars can (a) be assured that institutional review boards will uphold ethical standards that protect their racial group; (b) remain unaware of research paradigms that reflect the traditions of other racial groups with virtually no penalty; and (c) expect that journal editorial boards will include strong representation of their racial group. Likewise, white communities more broadly can be assured that: (a) their racial group will be well-represented in participant samples; (b) research addressing problems that impact their racial group will not be systematically underfunded; and (c) their racial group as a whole will not be portrayed in a deficit-oriented manner. Notably, white privilege can be found across all stages of the research process, including study planning and conceptualization, execution, publication and dissemination, and application (Grapin & Fallon, 2022).
Teaching undergraduate and graduate psychology students about white privilege in the research process is imperative for making science and practice more equitable and just. However, this topic is rarely addressed in mainstream psychology coursework. The following describes some considerations for teaching students about white privilege in psychological research.
White privilege manifests in numerous ways in psychological research, some of which are more overt than others. Students can begin by identifying readily observable (often quantifiable) evidence of white privilege, such as the overrepresentation of white authors and participants in studies published in high-impact journals. They can then move toward examining more covert manifestations of privilege, such as those related to the study’s design (e.g., positioning race as a causal variable; Holland, 2008), literature review (e.g., overemphasizing the contributions of white scholars), and general framing (e.g., ignoring structural racism when contextualizing racial differences in outcomes).
It may be easiest to begin by illustrating how white scholars and practitioners benefit from racial privilege, given their proximity to research activities and applications. However, students should be reminded that white privilege in psychological research benefits all white people—not just psychologists. White students in particular should be encouraged to think about how they have benefited personally from racial privilege in research. If they struggle to do so, start by prompting them to reflect on how psychological research has impacted their lives in general. Reflection questions might include: (a) How might psychological research have informed your medical care as a child and adult? (b) How might it have shaped your high school’s approach to addressing issues such as bullying, substance use, and mental health? and (c) How might it have influenced the way you engage in self-care? Once students have acknowledged how psychological research relates to their own lives, they will be better positioned to understand how racial privilege in research impacts them as well.
Students should learn not only about how whiteness is routinely centered in research but also about how the perspectives, voices, and knowledge of People of Color are simultaneously and systematically devalued. This involves teaching students about a range of historically marginalized epistemological, theoretical, and methodological approaches to research rather than focusing predominantly on eurocentric ones. It also involves discussing how consumers of psychological research can engage in effective advocacy. For instance, students might consider how they can challenge institutional policies and practices informed by harmful racial ideology in their school, work, and community settings.
Grapin, S. L., & Fallon, L. M. (2023). Conceptualizing and dismantling white privilege in school psychology research: An ecological model. School Psychology Review, 52(5), 504-517. https://doi.org/10.1080/2372966X.2021.1963998
Holland, P. (2008). Causation and race. In T. Zuberi & E. Bonilla-Silva, (Eds.). White logic, white methods: Racism and methodology (pp. 93–109). Rowman & Littlefield. https://doi.org/10.1080/10474412.2019.1705162
Sue, D. W. (2006). The invisible whiteness of being: Whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege, and racism. In M. G. Constantine & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings (pp. 15–30). John Wiley.