White privilege is a widely recognized yet often misunderstood concept, referring to the unearned advantages and benefits that individuals identified as White receive in societies characterized by racial and ethnic hierarchies. While many scholars have sought to examine the origins, implications, and manifestations of White privilege, I used the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory to analyze the role of communication in shaping and perpetuating this social phenomenon.
CMM, a communication theory developed by W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon E. Cronen, posits that meaning is co-constructed in human interaction, with individuals coordinating their actions based on the meanings they create. By examining White privilege through the lens of CMM, this paper aims to provide insights into the ways in which communication processes contribute to the maintenance and perpetuation of racial inequalities and suggest potential avenues for disrupting the cycle of White privilege.
Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) Theory
CMM theory posits that human interaction involves the continuous coordination of meaning through the exchange of communicative acts. Pearce and Cronen (1980) identify four levels of hierarchy in CMM, each of which influences the others:
- Content: the information exchanged in a conversation
- Speech acts: the actions performed through language (e.g., request, assertion)
- Episodes: sequences of speech acts that form a larger interaction
- Relationships: the context in which communication takes place, including power dynamics and social roles
Communication and White Privilege
Scholars have identified various ways in which communication contributes to the perpetuation of White privilege. DiAngelo (2011) coined the term “White fragility” to describe the defensiveness and resistance that many White individuals exhibit when confronted with discussions of race and privilege. This resistance, in turn, can silence conversations and perpetuate racial inequalities.
Additionally, research has shown that dominant cultural narratives often center Whiteness, rendering racial inequalities invisible and naturalizing White privilege (McIntosh, 1988; Bonilla-Silva, 2014). For example, the media often portrays White individuals as the “norm,” reinforcing the notion that Whiteness is the default racial category.
Using the CMM framework, this paper will analyze the communication processes involved in the maintenance and perpetuation of White privilege at each of the four hierarchical levels.
- Content Level: The information exchanged in conversations about race often focuses on individual acts of discrimination, rather than systemic privilege. This focus can obscure the structural nature of White privilege and hinder meaningful discussions about racial inequality.
- Speech Acts Level: Language can both reflect and perpetuate White privilege through microaggressions, coded language, and other forms of racially biased communication.
- Episode Level: The sequence of speech acts within conversations about race can reinforce White privilege. For example, defensiveness or denial can derail discussions about privilege, while tokenism and performative allyship can create superficial support without addressing the underlying issues.
- Relationship Level: The power dynamics and social roles within interactions can perpetuate White privilege by privileging White voices and marginalizing people of color. This dynamic can reinforce the notion that White experiences and perspectives are more valid or important than those of people of color.
This paper has analyzed the role of communication in maintaining and perpetuating White privilege through the lens of Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory. By examining the communication processes at play at each level of the CMM hierarchy, this analysis provides insights into the ways in which racial inequalities are reproduced in everyday interactions and broader social narratives. To disrupt the cycle of White privilege and foster more inclusive, equitable dialogues, it is crucial to critically examine the communication processes that contribute to its perpetuation. This includes recognizing and challenging the ways in which language and interaction patterns privilege Whiteness, as well as actively seeking to create space for marginalized voices and perspectives. By employing the insights gained from CMM analysis, individuals and communities can work together to dismantle the structures that uphold White privilege and create a more just and equitable society.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 10-12.
Pearce, W. B., & Cronen, V. E. (1980). Communication, action, and meaning: The creation of social realities. New York, NY: Praeger.